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What a migrant farmer turned NASA astronaut can teach us about The Three C’s…

Last Updated:

January 26, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Today’s Preview

How The Three C’s…

(1) …Helped a migrant farmer become a NASA astronaut

(2) …Might benefit leaders (esp. from underrepresented backgrounds)

(3) …Can give you a fighting chance despite the odds, whoever you are!

(1) A story from the past

In 2020, 12,000 people applied to become an astronaut with NASA—and 10 people were selected, making for an acceptance rate of 0.083%. How did José M. Hernández, the son of a migrant farming family, become one of the few back in 2004?

If we looked at Hernández’s visible career moves on LinkedIn, this is what we see:

  • 1985: Hernández graduates from the University of the Pacific with a B.S. in Electrical and Electronics Engineering.
  • 1987: Hernández graduates from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a M.S. in Electrical Engineering.
  • 1987-2001: Hernández joins the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as an electronics engineer and gets promoted multiple times until he becomes a Program Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • 2001: Hernández begins working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a Materials Research Engineer.
  • 2004: Hernández is selected to become an astronaut candidate at the age of 47.

Found the secret yet? I didn’t. In fact, Hernández's LinkedIn profile only raises more questions. Over 6,000 students attend the University of the Pacific. Over 26,000 students attend UC Santa Barbara. Over 8,000 people work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Clearly, graduating from college and working at a lab is not enough.

What do we not see from Hernández’s LinkedIn profile? His quiet but relentless pursuit of The Three C’s of Competence, Commitment, and Compatibility:

(1) Competence: After getting rejected 11 times, Hernández realized that simply clicking “apply” would not be enough. He had to show the qualifications NASA wanted to see. So, he “reverse engineered” the characteristics of current astronauts—and quietly emulated them: “I saw that all astronauts were pilots, [so I] learned how to fly. I found that all were divers, so I learned how to dive.”

(2) Commitment: After mailing in his application 11 times, Hernández no longer believed in being a faceless applicant. So, Hernández dropped by NASA’s Houston office, stumbled into astronaut and Commander Frederick Sturckow, and hand-delivered his final application to him (something that was admittedly much easier to do 20 years ago).

(3) Compatibility: Given NASA’s close collaboration with the Russian Space Agency, Hernández realized that knowing how to speak Russian would set him apart as a candidate who could communicate with his crewmates in space. So, he even learned to speak Russian!

So, the next time you find yourself staring at a distant dream, remember Hernández, who looked beyond the visible criteria—and pursued the invisible criteria.

Hernández (center, bottom) on the International Space Station. Image belongs to NASA.

(2) A study of the present

Hernández’s story is more than just about The Three C’s. Hernández’s story is also about how folks from humble backgrounds not only can, but should reach for their dreams.

In fact, according to research recently published in INSEAD Knowledge, “Individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds have proven to make better leaders.”

Why? “Because they value interdependence and community over independence and self-sufficiency.”

So what? It’s hard to quantify the impact of having someone from a humble background in a position of power and influence—but it’s not hard to imagine how starting from the bottom might make for greater empathy. In fact, even after returning from space, Hernández continued to return to his community to encourage kids to pursue their dreams.

(3) A strategy for your future

Whether you’re dreaming about a brighter future for yourself or for the community you represent, it’s important to remember that playing the game requires first knowing the rules of the game.

Eyeing a promotion? Seeing investors? Or, simply daydreaming?

Ask yourself: “Which of The Three C’s am I missing in the eyes of the gatekeepers?”:

(1) “In what ways are others demonstrating greater Competence compared to me?”

(2) “In what ways are others demonstrating greater Commitment compared to me?”

(3) “In what ways are others demonstrating greater Compatibility compared to me?”

Keep chasing!


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