I remember the first moment I committed myself to applying to be an astronaut. The first day of my junior year of college, a professor asked us to perform a thought experiment.
Engineering is difficult, he told us, and there will be times over the next two years that you will think about quitting your degree. You will wonder if the struggle is worth it. You will feel discouraged, angry and nearly defeated by the amount of work, the difficulty of exams, and the lack of sleep that you are sure to face. Graduate school will prolong and intensify this struggle, and every career will at times be without reward.
He asked us to close our eyes and visually imagine our motivation for sitting in his class that day. What brought us to this program and this university at this time in our lives? It should not be for our parents or our friends, he reminded us. We needed to envision our personal motivation and the future goal that we are working toward. It needed to be something we wanted more than a good GPA, more than parties and more than relaxation. Once we had selected, he asked us to remember that vision and to return to it regularly. It was our job to keep that vision vibrant for the rest of our lives. It will be our beacon for the times we felt lost. He promised us that if we committed to this vision and the effort to keep our goals in front of us, we would find the strength to overcome our struggles. He too had done this exercise when he was our age and was still committed to his vision.
I remember looking at the clock on the classroom wall the moment before I closed my eyes in an effort to remember the exact time I made my choice. I have since forgotten it. But what I do remember is the fire I felt in my stomach as I visualized my goal: to be floating with nothing in my field of vision except the vastness of the universe and to hear the perfect silence of open space.
When days were rough in college, I would imagine this scene as I was falling asleep. I continue to do this years later because I believe in what my professor promised. I believe that we must regularly commit to the direction in which we want our lives to go. It’s okay to alter your vision or select a more appropriate one. But it must be sufficiently meaningful to be your beacon. We will all lose our path in life, but we can forge a new one if we know without doubt the direction we are trying to go.
I encourage everyone to take a full 5 minutes to do this exercise. Take note of the day and time and close your eyes before you begin. Imagine yourself as you want to be. Think more than 10 years ahead and find what will really truly matter to you. It should be a selfish goal — this vision is only for you and will not guide anyone else. Breathe the air in this vision and smell the scents of it. Keep yourself in this moment for longer than you are comfortable. Commit yourself to it regularly and keep the vision vibrant.