I just finished the audiobook of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’d been looking for a book I could listen to while doing home stuff in preparation for the move, and this fit the bill perfectly. It’s an exciting and fascinating story of an astronaut who accidentally gets stranded on Mars after a tragic accident. His crew evacuates the planet after presuming him dead. We see Mark Watney’s struggle to survive, but also the incredible effort put forth by NASA scientists and his fellow crew members to save him—once they realize he’s alive, which takes a while. In addition to being very suspenseful, it’s quite poignant.
It’s also full of lessons about the power of improvisation as an orientation, and a set of tools for surviving when The Plan gets shot to hell. Watney’s situation is an extreme one, to be sure. But sooner or later, every last one of us is going to get hit with the confusion and desolation that comes when the life we thought we’d live, the existence we’d planned for, goes up in smoke. What then?
We often think about improv as being about performance or entertainment, but improv is applicable to a number of disciplines, including engineering. I explored some of this after watching a NOVA episode about the Hubble Space Telescope. You can read my thoughts in the post, Solving the “Trouble with Hubble”.
The improvisational elements in The Martian center around the practicalities of survival—how to grow food on a desolate planet, how to communicate with Earth. But they also deal with the psychological work of moving forward without losing hope. Here are a few thoughts that came to me while listening to the book. [Very light on the spoilers here.]
Improvising isn’t the same as winging it. Watney’s tale of survival is a feat of ingenuity and imagination—rationing, repurposing, and recalculating. We think sometimes that improv is this free-form practice that emerges out of nothing. But Watney had trained. He had prepared for scenarios 1 through 1000, so when scenario 2,253 happened, he had some tools at his disposal.
When I was preparing to have a baby, my childbirth educator encouraged us to “worry” about the various scary scenarios. Instead of trying to pacify us with “it’ll be OK” platitudes, she said, “OK, what if you do need an emergency C-section? What happens then? What if your child has to go to the NICU? How will you handle that? What resources do you need, what questions do you have?” And then she got us the information we needed.
There was no way to think through every worst-case scenario in my head—yes, I’m pretty creative, but life is even stranger than the catastrophes I can dream up. But by thinking through lots of possible outcomes, I had the confidence to be able to handle whatever might happen.
The truth is, we are not in control of our lives. Things happen. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. Loved ones die. Our call is to use the resources we have to put together a life in the wake of these things—maybe not the life we had hoped for, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whatever’s on hand.
Let yourself freak out. Then move on. There are numerous instances in the book of Watney confronting some bleak new situation and falling into despair. He makes a mistake that could be potentially fatal to him. He makes two steps forward one day and three steps back the next. In each instance, he lets himself feel those things. Then he takes a deep breath, gets up, and does what’s in his power to do.
Many of us get stuck in the freakout and never move to action. Others of us move straight to action without letting the full weight of what’s going on hit us. Watney models a good balance. As Admiral James Stockdale has said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Focus on the next thing. Watney comes to consciousness after the accident and realizes he’s completely alone and 140 million miles from home. He has no clue how to contact Earth or his crew, how to even think about rescue. But none of that matters at that moment, because task #1 is figuring out what he’s going to eat. So he focuses on growing food. This struck me as very wise. The novelist EL Doctorow died recently, and I’m forever grateful for his wisdom: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Whether you’re building a novel or an improv scene or a life, you don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out. Which is good, because you can’t know. But by taking the next step, you will get there.
Use it all up. [minor spoilers here] Watney spends much of his time in a temporary habitat, the HAB, and at the end, he must leave it to make a long journey in a rover. He’s jury-rigged the rover in all kinds of crazy ways using stuff from the HAB, and when he turns around to take one last look at it, he sees it as the decimated shell that it is. He’s picked it clean, left nothing behind that could be potentially useful. Which means there’s no turning back.
This is a perfect embodiment of Annie Dillard’s wisdom about writing and life: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place… give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.”
In my limited experience with improv, I’ve found it to be a very now-focused practice. If you have an idea, use it, don’t save it. If you have an impulse to act, do it. I guess there are some of you out there who come by this naturally and maybe need to learn to restrain yourselves more. But I bet many readers of this blog are like me, wanting to keep a little bit of life in reserve because it makes us feel safe. That hoarding comes at a cost.
Life is relentless. I mean this in multiple senses of the word. Watney’s situation was unrelenting, requiring constant activity—planning, executing, testing, retrying. He had to be a botanist, a mechanic, a scientist a carpenter. He had to be vigilant against an alien planet that seemed determined to kill him. He could not stop.
But I also mean that the impulse toward life is very strong. The basic rule of improv is yes-and—to accept what the world offers and build on it. Even when he has no idea how he could possibly be rescued, Watney is determined to LIVE for as long as he can.
One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Watney talks about taking samples of Mars rocks and soil, labeling them, and storing them where he hopes they’ll be found someday.
Here’s a man who knows his chances of personal survival are slim. But he’s part of something beyond him. And he trusts and hopes that someday, people will return to Mars. It’s his duty and his honor to be a a part of that relentless lurch into the future, to the extent that he can.
Did you read The Martian? What lessons did you learn from it?
Subscribe to my email newsletter. Twice-monthly dispatches about what’s inspiring me and/or kicking my butt. Usually both.