Reaching for the Stars: Buzz Aldrin Learned the Hard Way That Achieving Your Loftiest Goals Isn't as Important as What Happens Next

By Zimmerman, Mike | Success, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Reaching for the Stars: Buzz Aldrin Learned the Hard Way That Achieving Your Loftiest Goals Isn't as Important as What Happens Next


Zimmerman, Mike, Success


"HOW CAN YOU DO ANYTHING BETTER THAN BE AMONG THE FIRST TO LAND AND WALK ON THE MOON? HOW CAN YOU REACH A MORE MAGNIFICENT APEX IN YOUR CAREER THAN THAT?"

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Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin jr., now 80, is voicing the questions that tortured him for years. For the second man to walk on the moon, the period that followed Apollo 11's lunar landing in 1969 was anything but magnificent. "I titled my first memoir Return to Earth, because that's exactly what I had to do," he says.

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Aldrin's ambition came early. As a young man, he had the drive every parent dreams about. As he puts it, he was "a youth conscious of where he might be going in the future and what it could depend on." (Wow, hear that, kids?) He grew up in a service family, his father a career military man, and became enamored with flight in the ninth grade. He zeroed in on West Point, which would put him in a cockpit faster than his father's recommended path, the Naval Academy. He graduated in 1951 and began pilot training, where most of young Buzz's choices continued to draw fire from the old man.

"By that time, I had the clear joy and adrenaline of air-to-air maneuvering in my training that moved me contrary to what my father suggested, which was I should've gone to the Naval Academy, I should get in to bombers or air defense, and later on, 'Oh no, you really don't want to get into the astronaut program.'"

Yet Aldrin pushed forward on an incredible upward path of achievement. He shot down two Russian MIGs in the Korean War. He received his doctoral degree in aeronautics from MIT. He pioneered theories on how spacecraft could rendezvous in orbit. And then NASA called. Each step was bigger and bolder.

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Rapid Ascent

He compares his drive to that of a hungry young actor in Hollywood: "People in show business want to take the biggest part that comes along, whether it has adverse consequences or not. I think anyone in the astronaut corps, given a smidgen of a chance, would want to make the most out of any mission that was assigned to them--and be justified in doing it--even though they might end up in an even more distasteful aftermath."

Words like aftermath don't register with us while we're in pursuit of our dream. We're too busy achieving. But as we formulate our grand plans--be they business plans, educational goals, or anything that requires dedication and plenty of sweat--we must also develop a second plan: What will I do when I achieve my goal? What comes next? Lay this out as specifically as you do your initial goal, Aldrin says.

He was simply unprepared for life post-Apollo 11. He had assimilated the military academy's credo of duty, honor and country; he'd learned to appreciate leadership and service; he risked his life in Korea and again in America's race to the moon. And then, at. the lunar crew's first public appearance in November 1969--to receive an award at Marquette University in Wisconsin--"the anti-establishment students threw eggs at us," he says.

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Aldrin would spend the next decade churning through jobs he didn't want, two failed marriages, alcoholism and clinical depression. He also admits to some debilitating hero issues. "Growing up in a service family and seeing the meager wages of service and the rewards that come on the inside by doing that, you accept that as being a rock in life. But then if someone says, 'You've been on the moon!' well ... that may change what you think you're entitled to."

These failures forced him to recognize that a man can't walk on the moon forever. And shouldn't try. At some point, you have to dream beyond what you dreamed before. So he set out to fix things.

Reclaiming Focus

The tool he used most was the same one that any soldier, pilot and astronaut must apply to succeed: trust.

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Reaching for the Stars: Buzz Aldrin Learned the Hard Way That Achieving Your Loftiest Goals Isn't as Important as What Happens Next
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