Preparation is Everything

I was not even aware of the spacewalk until my children mentioned it during a break between Christmas Eve services. “Did you see the pictures of Rick Masstracchio and Michael Hopkins repairing an external cooling line outside the International Space Station? It was awesome.”


“Going into space is on my list of life goals,” said my son.

“Me, too,” chimed in a daughter.

“Commercial space travel may be in your future, but you’d better start saving your money.”

“How about you, Mom? You like doing crazy and adventurous things.”

“Claustrophobia will prevent me from ever going into space. I’ll wave to you from the ground.”

Like many of you, I have been fascinated by space travel since I watched Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. I was even more interested to read astronaut Chris Hadfield’s new book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth; What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. “Finally,” I thought, “a book that affirms the fact that there are others in this world who are as fanatical about preparation and detail as I am.”

Okay. I confess. One of my resolutions every year is to always be prepared for anything. Preparation is at the core of my existence. Ever since I was a child, I have been aware of the importance of always being ready. Whether I was studying for a test, practicing for an organ recital, writing a paper, training for an ironman triathlon, or getting ready to preach, I have usually been over-prepared.

Checking and double-checking; pushing beyond my comfort level; being preoccupied with details; critically analyzing; making sure I am following proper procedures. It seems like overkill at times. In fact, my cutting edge in the past few years has been to deliberately practice not being prepared. I am learning the skills to wing things when it is warranted: to speak extemporaneously, improvise, move smoothly to Plan B or C, think more clearly on my feet, and be able to react non-anxiously in times of crisis.

When people comment that the achievements of others look easy, it’s not usually because of natural talent. It’s because of intense preparation and focused, smart work habits. After reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, I realize that there are those who are more obsessed than I am. They are called astronauts. But they are also musicians, athletes, artists, and other remarkably capable people.

At the same time as I made my way through Hadfield’s book, I saw an interview with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I also read the cover story about Sports Illustrated’s 2013 Sportsman of the Year, Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Denver Broncos. What do Hadfield, Yannick, and Manning, among our world’s most celebrated astronauts, musicians, and athletes, have to say about the art of preparation?

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The Importance of Discipline and Sweating the Small Stuff
Most of an astronaut, musician, or athlete’s work life is not performance. An astronaut may take one spacewalk (EVA) every five years. A conductor may only lead an orchestra concert a few times a week. A NFL quarterback plays a few dozen games a year. What do they do with the rest of their time? They methodically train, practice, and prepare.

Hadfield writes, “Each spacewalk, therefore, is a highly choreographed multi-year effort involving hundreds of people and a lot of unrecognized, dogged work to ensure that all the details – and all the contingencies – have been thought through. Hyper-planning is necessary because any EVA is dangerous.” For astronauts any wrong move or lapse in preparation is a matter of life and death. Hadfield says that astronauts have to learn how to make good decisions with incomplete information, anticipate problems in order to prevent them, and ask questions rather than just try to get the right answers.

Hadfield disciplines himself to be a continuous learner and uses his travel time to read and study. He says, “Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff. We’re trained to look on the dark side and to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen.” Astronauts are not daredevils. They are highly methodical and detail-oriented because, Hadfield writes, “When the risks are real, you can’t wing it,” and “When the stakes are high, preparation is everything.”

Like Hadfield, Yannick never wastes time. Asked this interview question, “With all this jet-setting, how do you find time to study the score?” he answers, “Obviously, it takes a certain discipline. I’m a good student. Every time I find myself studying on the plane. There’s not one single day when I’m not studying a score, even on holiday. A conductor must love being alone with a score. And that’s okay. So far, even on vacation it’s not about taking a holiday from music.”

Peyton Manning, who not only led the Broncos to the Super Bowl last night but also set the single-season record for passing yards this year, is fanatical about preparation. He watches film of every practice and meticulously prepares for every game. He selects twelve game balls by washing his hands, throwing one ball after another to an equipment manager, shouting “game ball” if he’s going to use it or “pregame’ if it doesn’t make the cut. He asks, “Why can’t the seams be perfect?”

The Importance of Teamwork
Preparation is not about “me;” it’s about “we” and how we can achieve goals together. Hadfield, Yannick and Manning have all led successful teams because they lay the groundwork for others’ success by working seamlessly together. Hadfield writes, “Leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter.”

Outstanding leaders invest in the accomplishments of others by encouraging team members to believe in the importance of their particular contribution and become their own best selves. Yannick says, “I have a personal trainer, and sometimes she travels with me. I try to keep fit, running and some weight lifting to balance my body. My first responsibility is to maintain my own energy level, otherwise how can I expect the orchestra to do the same.”

Peyton Manning is well known for his ability to connect with teammates and fans alike.
He gets three hundred pieces of mail a week and responds to those he can. Manning writes handwritten notes to coaches, teammates, players who retire, victims of tragedy, staffers, and players who have been traded or let go. Manning relates well to ordinary people because he is a person of faith and understands that no one becomes successful in a vacuum. Everyone is important.

The Importance of Evaluation
Establishing a feedback loop is at the heart of preparation. Most major events have a dress rehearsal or run-through in order to identify weak spots and fix them. Taking the time to think through every possible problem and create procedures to address them creates confidence. Col. Hadfield and all astronauts spend endless hours simulating the exact conditions of a spacewalk or other maneuvers so that when the time comes responses will be automatic. In the same way detailed evaluation immediately after an event identifies areas that can be improved upon. After a space flight, Hadfield and all astronauts debrief every day for a month or more, taking one subject at a time.

Manning’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable because he had four neck operations in two years and sat out a year. Determined to keep on playing, Manning had to evaluate and completely rebuild his mechanics, relearning everything. Cut by the Indianapolis Colts on March 7, 2012, Manning’s determination to regain his excellence inspired his new Denver teammates. Tight end Jacob Tamme said, “That’s the secret of football with Peyton Manning. How much he demands of himself seeps into everybody else.”

How can churches and clergy learn from astronauts, athletes, and musicians?

  • Make preparation a priority. I was at a conference a few months ago where several speakers were clearly not prepared, and it negatively affected their presentation.
  • Sweat the small stuff. Loose ends and details that are not tended to are not only noticed, but they adversely affect the first impressions of guests who walk into our churches.
  • The body of Christ by definition includes more than “me.” No part of the body is more important than any other. Lift up others rather than yourself.
  • God wants us to offer the very best that we have and are so that we can bring in the kingdom of God. Seeking and offering continuous, honest, and gentle feedback solidifies our foundation, strengthens our mission, and affirms the worth of all of God’s children.

Preparation? It’s everything.


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