The Lesson of Apollo 13

by Stephen Mills on April 30, 2009


I love the movie Apollo 13.  If you haven’t seen it you should watch it.  There is one aspect of the movie I want to focus on in this article.  Two days into this third mission to the moon, the oxygen tanks carried by the spacecraft exploded.  The ability to power the ship for the remainder of the mission and to support the survival of the crew disappeared with the oxygen . When the oxygen tanks exploded, the situation must have seemed hopeless.

Fortunately the mission had not yet reached the moon and the lunar landing module was still attached to the command module with with its full complement of independent supplies.   Had the explosion happened on the return trip, the crew would have not been able to survive.  As it turned out this life boat was available for use.  When they entered the lunar module, there were only about 15 minutes of power left in the main command module.

Over the next four days, the crew, the contractors who made the components of the spacecraft, and Mission Control in Houston, pulled off a human miracle.  But they didn’t achieve this miracle by focusing the enormity of the overall problem.

This crew was triumphantly returned to earth because the support team solved one problem at a time.  They brought intense focus and creativity to each problem until they solved it.  These were not magnificent technological achievements.  Their resources were limited by what they had on board the craft and their solutions were what is often called “jury rigging”.  That simply means temporary solutions with what you have available at the moment.

By breaking this big “impossible” problem down into a series of smaller problems, Mission Control turned it into a series of smaller issues that could be dealt with.  The lesson of this magnificent moment in history, is that if you keep thinking, if you keep focusing on something that you can wrap your mind around (both consciously and non-consciously), you can achieve what may seem impossible.  I cannot run 1,000 miles.  But I can run one mile 1,000 times.  If I could not run one mile, then maybe I could run 1/2 mile 2,000 times.  Anyone who can run by definition can run for at least one stride.

I believe that there is no gap between where you are and where you want to be, that cannot be subdivided into a number of relatively small and easy-to-bridge gaps.  No matter how big the overall gap, you can always imagine a series of steps that can bridge that gap when strung together.  However, do not focus on the big gap.  That is psychological suicide.  Focus on the end result of each small step.  It is OK, and in fact critical, to see the new you in the final dream, but don’t visualize the gap itself.  Visualize it as if it has already happened.  Your non-conscious mind will deliver to you the small solutions.

Take the very first small step towards your dream.  Make the step so easy you could just fall forward and achieve it.  Do it now.  It  will motivate you to take the next small step.  Soon, this series of small steps becomes a self-reinforcing habit pattern of progress and success.  You are then in an upward spiral.  If you can’t imagine a series of steps going from where you are to where you want to be, try going backwards.  Start with your dream and imagine a series of steps in reverse.  You can always do that.  It is a very powerful technique.

I first saw my daughter as a tiny, helpless, eight-pound baby girl.  During her physical growth to maturity, I never once saw her actually grow.  And yet right before my eyes, she transformed from that tiny baby into a wonderfully mature adult human being.  Imperceptibly small step by imperceptibly small step, invisible cell by invisible cell, her growth bridged a seemingly impossible gap from newborn to adult.

Why are parents not surprised at this everyday miracle?  Aside from the fact we witness it repeatedly, I believe it is because no parent tries to imagine their newborn baby snapping instantly into a fully grown adult.  They know it doesn’t happen that way.  They don’t imagine the gap.  They are too focused on getting to the next day.  They have no energy to wonder about next year, or eighteen years into the future.   We are not surprised because we know that miracles can happen one tiny step at a time.

So don’t imagine your dream that way either.  You know it won’t happen that way any more than your baby girl will instantly transform herself into an adult woman.  Think about the common everyday things you experience all the time.  If you tried to think about how they happen as an indivisible whole, you would be impossibly overwhelmed.

Biologists don’t go to college one day and then understand human biology.  They can begin to understand what is happening only by starting with the most basic and tiny concepts.  Then they string them together and build them up into something bigger.  They might go the other direction by starting with the whole and breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces, but for our purposes that really doesn’t matter.  In either case, they go step by step.  You must do the same.

What do you think?  Leave a comment below. Get Free Updates to The Rat Race Trap by Email here or via a reader in the top left sidebar.  I would love to have you on board.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

CathD May 1, 2009 at 4:26 am

Great post, Stephen. We’ve been taught to set goals and plan everything before we take action, and this might have worked for previous generations, but these days the world is changing too fast for that. Your detailed plans are outdated by the time they’ve been written. You’ll do better if you can stay agile, just feeling the way you want to feel RIGHT NOW, then asking yourself, “What’s the next small step I’d love to take” and doing that.



Jay Schryer May 1, 2009 at 6:31 am

This reminds me of the old saying: “You can eat an elephant if you break it down into bite-sized pieces.” Thanks for writing this, it serves as a powerful reminder of the best way to “get things done.” One step at a time, deliberately moving forward, one foot in front of the other. Keep moving, and eventually you will go the distance.


Roger | A Content Life May 1, 2009 at 7:16 am

Excellent advice!

I’ve been a software engineer most of my adult life and we use the idea of “divide and conquer” to create difficult algorithms, high-level designs, and resolve bugs. Your ideas have served me well.


Lisis | Quest For Balance May 1, 2009 at 8:43 am

Beautiful post, Stephen. I was just commenting on my own blog about noticing the little things with our kids. I like what Cath has added here too, that the strategy of trying to plan every little thing may no longer work because of the pace of modern life. I hadn’t ever thought of it that way but it’s true. Now, more than ever, baby steps are the way to go because of the infinite variables that change at the speed of light. “What is my NEXT small step?” is what really matters.

@Jay: Is that your Viking genes speaking again? An elephant!!!?? 😉


Dragos Roua May 1, 2009 at 8:55 am

That’s great!

I’ve been in pressuring situations more than once and I can tell you that if you take the time to focus on what’s happening to you , you don’t physically have the necessary time to get out of the mess. That’s a great lesson and you outlined it brilliantly.

Thanks for sharing 🙂


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills May 1, 2009 at 9:32 am

Every big task is made up of many small steps. We should never get hypnotized by the complexity of a situation. Focus on the smaller steps to maintain your perspective, keep the big picture in mind to maintain your direction. Excellent post Stephen.


Jeff@MySuperChargedLife May 1, 2009 at 11:36 am

It seems in today’s world that we all want instant gratification, but life just doesn’t work that way. Even when people seem to reach instant success it is usually because years of hard work proceeded a big break. Cause and effect is still in action. It takes a lot of little successes to reach a dream and as you have pointed out, the only way to get there is to take the first scary little step!


Y8 October 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm

great post

This is a very informative article.I was looking for these things and here I found it. I am doing a project and this information is very useful me.


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