During the ICE Mortgage Technology Experience 21 online conference last week, First American, parent company of First American Docutech, sponsored Cocktails & Conversations with Astronaut & Space Thought Leader Leland Melvin. With the conference theme of “Together We Experience,” First American Docutech President Amy Brandt and Bob Hart, Vice President of Business Development for ICE, interviewed Melvin to help inspire attendees by offering a fresh perspective.
By the time the session was over, the audience was left with an incredible tale of perseverance, success despite obstacles, and the pursuit of second chances.
A man of many talents
To hear Leland Melvin tell it, he is a very lucky man. But after hearing of his many accomplishments, it’s quite clear that luck had much less to do with it than his dogged determination to set and achieve really big goals. He wrote about it in his memoir, Chasing Space: Grit, Grace and Second Chances.
In his book he talks about overcoming adversity and poverty as a young black man living in Virginia, about the chemistry set that changed the course of his life, of being recruited into the NFL and ultimately becoming an astronaut and going to work on the International Space Station.
In fact, Melvin is the only person drafted into the National Football League to have flown in space. The Pro Football Hall of Fame honored his athletic and academic accomplishments by placing his Detroit Lions jersey under glass in Canton, Ohio. Prior to that, he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in materials science engineering.
Through it all, he gained a new perspective on family, career and what it means to live on planet earth.
An orbital perspective
Melvin tells the story of finding himself living and working on the International Space Station (ISS) in close partnership with people who just a few short years ago we considered our enemies. Watching the world slide by beneath him, he gained a new perspective on what it means to be a human being from Earth.
“It’s called the Overview Effect and Frank White wrote about it,” Melvin explained. “It causes a cognitive shift that changes how you see yourself connected to the planet. When you’re looking down and you see Africa come into view and then five minutes later it has passed by, you begin to see yourself as one with all of humanity. It’s a new perspective.”
Melvin walked in space and helped install the multi-billion-dollar Columbus Laboratory module, which he says was incredible but not his greatest experience in space. He tells the story of a dinner party thrown by the Russian crew. He and his crew, led by Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the ISS, attended. The Americans brought the vegetables and the Russians provided the meat.
“We were sitting around the table together and Sade was singing Smooth Operator and I realized that we were working with people we used to fight against. Now, we were one family,” he recalled. “I realized that it’s not about the hardware, it’s about the people.”
Surviving and succeeding in a challenging world
Recounting his accomplishments, Melvin says his journey to success in space started before he was born, crediting John F. Kennedy and his space program, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights leadership and even Nichelle Nichols for playing the role of Chief Communications Officer Uhura aboard the Star Trek Enterprise.
He was five years old when Neil Armstrong put that boot print on the moon but was more impressed with Arthur Ashe, who was showing young people who looked like him that they could be what they wanted. His parents, both schoolteachers, reinforced that message and when he blew up his mother’s living room with his first chemistry set, his course was set!
Some other lessons he shared with attendees included:
Always take the second chance. When he dropped a pass in the end zone during his high school homecoming football game, he was incredibly discouraged and ready to head into the locker room. Instead, his coach sent him back out onto the field with instructions for the quarterback to run the same play again. This time, he caught it and a college scout who attended the game was so impressed that he had come back from that previous mistake that he ultimately got him a $180,000 football scholarship.
“It’s second chances that give us the opportunity to flourish and prosper,” he said. “So fail early and often. We blew up a lot of rockets in the early days of NASA. And now we’ve had people living in space since 1999.”
Look for the person in the yellow hat. Brandt pointed out that careers like his didn’t ever seem to go as planned and asked how he was able to bounce back. Melvin said that his parents had always told him he could do or be anything he put his mind to.
They reminded him of the man in the yellow hat who always watched out for Curious George, one of his favorite storybook characters. Throughout his life, he said he seemed to always have people like that around him, guiding him and protecting him. He told attendees to find that person in their own lives. “The people you bring into your circle become the inner strength that allows you to overcome failure,” he said.
Celebrate the micro-victories. When asked how people could stay positive and on course during tough times, like the pandemic we’ve been living through for a year now, Melvin told the audience to stay the course, don’t give up and celebrate every little win.
He recalled his time on the football field. “When you are training in the NFL, there are moments when you encounter that imposter syndrome,” he said. “You are in pain, suffering and just trying to get through your practices. That’s when you have to process your micro-victories. If you can just get through the next three hours, then you can celebrate. Don’t look at the whole journey.”
Don’t fear reinvention. When he was young, his father came home in a bread truck and parked it in the driveway. He told young Melvin that it was the family’s new Recreational Vehicle, but Melvin was old enough to read the name of the bread company painted on the side of the van.
Over the next few weeks, his family renovated a $5,000 used van into an RV that would have cost them $50,000 to buy off a lot. “We painted it and suddenly it was reinvented. It taught me to look for that next bit of reinvention.”
There is power in diversity. The best solutions come from the most diverse teams, Melvin told the audience. He believes we will make it to MARS in the 2030 and establish a base there, primarily because he has been inspired by the new generation. “They still have that childlike enthusiasm. Those are the people who don’t get jaded. They don’t see problems, just things that need to be solved to get to the ultimate solution.”
Leadership sets the tone as to how the institution will be run, so he advised leaders to give everyone a voice and to gain the benefit of their unique perspectives. We are all biased, he said, but we must not let that keep us from working together as one humanity.
“That’s what you learn in space,” Melvin said. “It’s about the collective. If anyone flips the wrong switch, we all die. We have to think about the bigger picture that connects us all together. If we all work from our local to global mentality, we’ll get through this.”
With over 5,000 mortgage industry professionals registered to attend the ICE Mortgage Technology Experience conference, those that heard Mr. Melvin speak were able to ponder the power of purpose, perspective, resilience and reinvention in their own lives. At First American Docutech, we’re here to help you remain resilient, achieve those micro-victories, and reinvent the mortgage experience.