When i started working with NASA in 1989 as part of a mission to send spacecraft to Pluto, I knew it would take at least 10-15 years to see results of my efforts. But I didn’t realize that, 26 years later, I would still be focused on this project. So if you feel like you’ve been moving toward an end that isn’t coming as quickly as you’d like, I can relate.
Before I devoted myself to New Horizons, I weighed the benefits against the commitment of time and energy this would require. Ultimately, I decided that the project was well worth it since it would be the biggest scientific contribution I could make in my lifetime—much more than individual research projects—and that it could inspire people across the world to go out and achieve great things of their own. Once you’ve done that gut check to determine if your goal means enough to you personally to be worth the effort of a long game, here are my tips to get there.
Break Your Mission Down Into Smaller, Easier-to-Tackle Steps
It’s very hard to motivate yourself and others with only one goal—particularly if its complex and you might not get there until years down the road. That’s why intermediate goals are so important. My team and I first focused on getting approval for the project, and then on building the spacecraft, and then on launching it, and then on successfully reaching the halfway point of our journey. Then, in turn, we broke down those big goals into still smaller, intermediate goals, and we broke those down into even smaller goals—and we really counted and celebrated every victory on the way to our ultimate biggest goal of exploring the planet Pluto. That helped keep us motivated along the way.
…But Never Lose Sight of the End Goal
In life, we all see setbacks at every level. Our team had a very long series of big setbacks over and over and over again—of different natures. Some were political, some were budgetary, some were engineering, some were just out of the blue—so we just stayed focused on our end goal the whole time. We just knew in our hearts and our minds that this project was important and that if we didn’t do it, no one else was going to. Always knowing the direction of our compass always helped guide us.
Be Open to New Ideas
Don’t be afraid also to abandon old ideas that aren’t working, no matter how good they may have seemed when they were hatched. New ideas can get you out of a jam or move you forward faster. And don’t worry about whether a useful suggestion comes from you or a member of your team or even a person outside the team. Be more focused on achieving the goal than on who gets credit so that you can adapt your strategy as necessary.
Remember That Motivation Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
To keep everyone invested in your vision, you have to back up a little bit and really analyze who the different stakeholders are and what they individually respond to. In our case, some people really responded to the technical aspect of sending a spacecraft farther than anyone ever had—while others were motivated more by doing something larger than life that would be inspirational in our own time. Still others were motivated by the science itself. In order to get all the stakeholders on board, you have to realize that different players have different motivations and then work to see all those motivations are respected and fulfilled!
And then within your team, it’s important to help people out of their individual setbacks because otherwise people sometimes get stranded. If people on the middle and lower levels of the project get stranded, it threatens the entire project.
Alan Stern is an American planetary scientist and a former NASA executive. He has participated in 27 space flight missions and has led the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto since its inception.