“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
Typically, on Wolf & Iron, I write about men of history or some story from my own life from which some manliness can be gleaned. However, The Martian is such a powerful book, and it’s hero, Mark Watney, such a relatable and genuine figure of manhood that I would be remissed not to mention them in this space. I don’t intend to spoil the book through this article, though if you haven’t read it there are a lot of things you won’t get. Also, if you haven’t read it, stop what you are doing, call in sick, get the book and read it. Yes, the movie is coming out in October, and while I am excited for it, I can’t imagine it being as good as the book. It really is one of, if not the, greatest sci-fi novels in a very long time and there are a lot of lessons in manliness we can get from Mark Watney and those at NASA.
A Quick Synopsis
Mark Watney is an astronaut stranded on Mars in the not to distant future. Part of the Ares 3 mission, high winds force his team to cut their planned operations short, and in the process of evacuation Watney is impaled and believed to be dead. His crew leaves him behind and, due to the amount of time (years) it takes to prepare and return to Mars, he is left to survive on his own, completely isolated, on a world without so much as bacteria and certainly no water or food. Basically he is screwed beyond belief.
Also, if you haven’t read the book, be forewarned there is a good deal of cursing. I think it adds to the realism and Watney, being the sarcastic character he is, generally uses it in a humorous way.
Lessons in Manliness from Mark Watney
The book is filled with all sorts of people who displayed manly qualities, men and women alike, but as Watney is the main character I’ll focus on him.
Have a Sense of Humor – It May Save Your Life
“Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but I’m not dead, so it’s a win.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
One of the first characteristics of Watney we are introduced to is his sense of humor. He is optimistic with a humorous undertone of fatalism. I have met people in life who try to be “positive” and by doing so they never acknowledge the very real negative things in their life. Their optimism has crossed over to a state of willful delusion. Not so with Mark Watney. He acknowledges the seriousness of the situation, but he doesn’t let it win out.
Take it One Day at a Time
“And that’s where I am now. Wondering what the hell happened. After all that work and getting blown up, I’m exhausted. Tomorrow I’ll have to do a million equipment checks and figure out what exploded, but for now I just want to sleep.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
Watney soon realizes he is going to be on Mars a very long time; either dead or alive. At each turn he sees problems within the next weeks, months, and potentially years, yet he is very purposeful in making the decision to focus on what he can do right now rather than the hopeless obstacles of the coming weeks and years. This is really important, whether in a survival situation or just getting through life. Our brains are pretty awesome, but they can only handle and process so much information. There are just too many variables for us to think weeks down the road with great certainty. Navy SEALs going through BUDs will tell you that they often had to think, “ Just 30 more seconds” or “ Just 5 more push ups“. The guys that thought, “ Today was terrible. How am I going to do this for X more weeks?” would inevitably quit.
Know Your Stuff
“I am going to have to science the shit out of this.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
One of the most fascinating things about The Martian is how technical it is. Andy Weir, the author, spent a good deal of time studying the science that went into his book. In the past, shows like Star Trek could get away with tossing out generic scientific ideas and principles to keep the plot moving forward. This was possible because, one, people were not up on science like they are now, and, two, they were so far in the future we didn’t really expect to relate to their science as well as we can to Watney’s. In order to survive, Watney has to utilize a tremendous amount of knowledge, and I mean real knowledge. He doesn’t have Google or even reference books in most cases. All of that boring stuff you had to learn in chemistry is used to save his life. We have become so used to quick information that we are less likely to really retain information, especially that which is not used on a consistent basis. When you are fighting for your life, every bit of knowledge is to your advantage.
Always Have Duct Tape on Hand
“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
The Martian may be the greatest advocate for duct tape ever. There are a number of principles here. One, don’t over think a fix. If good ol’ duct tape will work, use it. Two, if it can’t be fixed with duct tape, it either can’t be fixed or you simply don’t have enough.
Trust in Yourself
“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” – Mark Watney, The Martian
If you were to ever find yourself in a situation where the only person you could count on is yourself, does that scare you? Are you able to be alone with yourself and still be happy, or do you need others? I don’t think any man should be an island to himself, but I do think that we should be able to entertain ourselves and enjoy being alone with our thoughts. On Mars, Watney has no one else he can count on. If NASA tells him the wrong thing, he will die. Every decision he makes has to be cleared through him. Sometimes he does it his way, and other times he does it theirs, but one thing is for sure, Watney both trusts in himself and his decisions, and is also comfortable in his own skin.
Trust in Others
“But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
On the flip side, when your life is at stake (or maybe your career or marriage), can you trust in the wisdom of others? Do you have a hard time believing that there are people who care about you and your life? On several occasions, Watney has to rely on NASA to tell him what to do because it is outside of his wheelhouse. These are usually things that, if they are wrong, he will die. I have a hard time relying on others. I don’t know why; other people are generally better at things than I am. Actually, I do know why. I am prideful and don’t trust others. How stupid is that? Very stupid. I am getting better in this regard, though. Thanks for the inspiration, Watney!
Understand the Importance of Milestones
“I saved five meal packs for special occasions. I wrote their names on each one.” – Mark Watney, The Martian
While it is important to focus on here and now, it is also important to plan some way to mark milestones in the future. It both sets the expectation that there is a future, but also, as men are prone to compartmentalize, gives us set points and signposts which mark successes in life. For example, if paying down debt, have milestones along the way: 75% – celebrate with a special meal, 50% – go on a trip, etc. Obviously this can be applied to everything from dieting to marriage and it’s not hard to do. However, we often just set to work without thinking about how to keep our morale up when things get tough.
“I guess you could call it a “failure”, but I prefer the term “learning experience”” – Mark Watney, The Martian
Time and again, Watney would try something and it would fail, often times horrifically. He didn’t have anyone around to cheer him up or calm him down. When everything looked bleak, he only had himself to boost his spirits and he used all of himself to make it happen: humor, intellect, hopeful thoughts on the future, and dogged determinism. When life knocks you on your ass, how do you handle it? Do you sit and sulk in the gloom, or do you stand and face the rising sun?
There is a lot more that could be said here, but that is what the book is for. I doubt Mr. Weir thought about Watney being “manly” when writing The Martian, because in many ways, he is a geek rather than a rugged, shootem-up space cowboy. However, that is what makes Watney so relatable. He’s tough, no doubt, but he’s smart and resilient. I think a lot of guys can run onto a field of battle, glory-bound and guns a-blazin’, but what kind of man can face himself, every day, with nothing to kill or shoot to solve his problems? Well, I think that is most of us.
Listen to the book from Audible <– I did this and can tell you the reading is just excellent! There are a number of different characters in the story and the narrator delivers a great performance for each one.