How to become an Astronaut or a Rhodes Scholar

I’m a fan of Cal Newport’s blog. He reverse-engineers student success and also more recently looks at what constitutes professional success. His recent article on Rhodes Scholars is very interesting. When reading some of these bios, one can be overwhelmed. Yet Cal once again reminds us that these aren’t parallel achievements.
A friend of mine recently got nominated as an Astronaut, for a new ‘Scientists in Space’ initiative. When looking at his bio we hear ‘Astronaut, Diplomat and Physicist’ and we are overwhelmed. Chris Altman. Yet when speaking to him I got a sense of how long these things took. He worked on research in A.I. and Robotics for a few years at Starlab. Starlab unfortunately ran out of money, so he pursued other avenues. He did his MSc in Physics, and has produced a few papers for his PhD. His PhD has probably extended longer than normal due to his astronaut training which takes a long time to do. He leveraged his expertise in Quantum Computation to improve his chances of getting accepted to such a scheme, not to mention the amazing networking capabilities afforded to him by some of the people he has worked with. Not many of these things has Chris done parallel to each other. His diplomatic work was done on Scientific issues (once again leveraging his excellent Science knowledge and communication skills) a few years ago. And while he’s done numerous internships at prestigious labs, this has all come from his deep understanding of Computer Science and Physics. When you list some of these accomplishments, they sound out of this world. The same with Rhodes Scholars. But if you win ‘Best student of 2009’ it is highly likely you’ll get accepted to a prestigious Summer Scheme and so on.
We are all human certainly, and we shouldn’t forget that the pursuit of excellence needs to be a focused endeavor.
I end with a quote from Chris, which I’ll analyze for my readers.
“The nascent field of commercial spaceflight and the unique conditions afforded by space and microgravity environments offer exciting new opportunities to conduct novel experiments in quantum entanglement, fundamental tests of spacetime, and large-scale quantum coherence,” said Altman.
The fact is that to those outside of Physics, this sounds impressive. I must admit it is impressive that we could do experiments in space, especially quantum entanglement! Yet he’s got a lot of expertise in Quantum Physics, he regularly blogs about these topics and is a very engaging promoter of Quantum Computation research, this coupled with the rather unusual other hobby of having undergone Astronaut training means he is probably one of the few people in the world capable of doing such things.
It does prove however that some little boys do get to become Rhodes Scholars or Astronauts when they grow up.
Bottom line: Time, Focus and leveraging your skills are the keys to success.