35-year-old NASA astronaut, M.D., and Navy SEAL reveals his greatest mistake and secrets of success

  • Jonny Kim recently graduated as a NASA astronaut and may one day rocket to the moon or even Mars.
  • At age 35, Kim wields an awe-inspiring resume: He’s a Navy SEAL who completed more than 100 combat missions, earned scores of military service awards, has a mathematics degree, and is also a medical doctor and Navy Lieutenant.
  • Kim told Business Insider that his secrets to success include “serving a higher calling than yourself,” appreciating those who made it possible to be where you are, and breaking big goals into bite-size pieces.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Jonny Kim, age 35, a second-generation Korean-American who recently graduated as a NASA astronaut, may one day set foot on the moon or even planet Mars.

Like any of his dozens of colleagues, Kim speaks carefully, with deference, and a tone of earnestness. But behind his modesty is a highly successful professional who’s fought one hardship after another and continues to build on an awe-inspiring resume — one that makes even seasoned US senators question what they’re doing with their lives.

Kim enlisted in the Navy out of high school in 2002, later joining SEAL Team 3. He served more than 100 combat missions over two tours of duty in Iraq as a medic, navigator, point man, or sniper, and earned prestigious Bronze Star and Silver Star medals, among other service awards. As if that weren’t enough, Kim picked up a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, graduated from Harvard Medical School with a doctorate, and later completed his residency in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Then in 2017, during a visit to the grocery store, Kim got a call from NASA notifying he’d been selected as one of only 12 new astronaut candidates from a pool of roughly 18,300 applicants

“My first emotion was, of course, being elated. It was a surreal moment. But then I felt guilty,” Kim told Business Insider.

He said the feeling followed him throughout a series of interviews, during which he met countless other applicants.

“When you realize that you’re the one who’s been selected, it’s almost like a survivorship guilt type of thing. Because you know that those folks can be just as qualified and deserving to do the same job,” Kim said, but noted that — today — he no longer feels that guilt. “We have a saying in the [SEAL] teams. It’s ‘earn your Trident every day.'” (The Trident refers to a special gold pin or insignia that Navy SEALs wear after earning their special warfare certification.)

“What that means is that you have to earn your right to be where you are every single day,” he added. “I take that to heart when I think of this job.”

It’s obvious to outsiders why Kim is perfect NASA-astronaut material, but Business Insider wanted to know if he had any secrets to his success and advice to those looking to achieve a modicum of his accomplishments.

‘Serve a higher calling’

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Jonny Kim, now an astronaut, prepares for underwater spacewalk training at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston on November 7, 2018.
Robert Markowitz/NASA

To some, success looks like a big promotion, a million dollars in a retirement account, or buying a second home. Kim’s definition, though, is the antithesis of stature.

“Success to me means serving a calling higher than yourself that improves the lives of everyone and is done completely in the name of service,” he said.

One path Kim sees to that manner of success is maintaining an ample supply of humility. But he added that’s now extra challenging because being an astronaut is “a very public position,” he said, and one that contrasts heavily with his previous life and career choices.

“I was pretty much nonexistent on the internet before NASA, and that was really because I’ve been inspired by amazing sacrifices of people who did amazing things — jumping on grenades or sacrificing their lives or doing the most crazy, brave things without hesitation and never, ever seeking recognition for it,” Kim said. “That was always very powerful for me.”

Kim says others’ selfless heroism inspired him to become a SEAL, where he said he learned to “be appreciative of those who have gone before me and to recognize their sacrifices, and [see] how we stand on the shoulders of giants for so many things that we do.”

He added: “I think living with humility, and serving with humility, is one of the most important things humans can do.”

‘Nothing replaces grinding’

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NASA astronaut candidates Bob Hines, Jonny Kim, and Jessica Watkins care for their fire while Canadian Space Agency astronaut candidate Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons preps more wood during wilderness survival training at the U.S. Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School in Brunswick, Maine, on May 30, 2018.
Josh Valcarcel/NASA

But Kim said those are his bigger-picture guidelines, and he feels the actual execution of success isn’t “anything that you haven’t heard before.”

Kim says he’s a fan of making big goals, dividing those goals into concrete steps to bridge toward them, and understanding that you won’t always succeed.

“You’re going to learn a lot every time you fail. So embrace that,” Kim said. “If I could talk to my younger self, I would just say that the path to great things is filled with a lot of stumbles, suffering, and challenges along the way. But if you have the right attitude and know that hard times will pass — and you get up each time — you will reach your destination.”

And, referring to his “earn your Trident” mentality, Kim says it’s important to maintain humility throughout both failures and successes and “never ride on the coattails of a previous day.”

“I think that’s really important if you maintain that kind of attitude. Attitude is so important,” he said.

So is working hard — but not too hard.

“Nothing replaces grinding,” he said. “It’s just you need to make sure you’re doing it sustainably and keeping the big picture in mind. It’s so easy to lose focus in the day-to-day grind of life.”

‘You need to do the right thing, regardless of who you’re standing up against’

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Jonny Kim during a deployment to Iraq as a Navy SEAL.
NASA

Kim also offers a word of warning against “toxic” egotism and “standing up for what’s right,” which he recounted in a war story in Iraq that he said was among the hardest lessons he ever learned.

Kim was a combat medic who was “seriously outranked” by a physician’s assistant (PA) following a mortar attack. After Kim struggled to insert an intravenous needle to stabilize a wounded soldier, he said, the PA was “giving him a hard time.”

“I was professionally embarrassed. It affected me and I wanted to do better, but I was also intimidated by this guy because he was older than me, he outranked me, and had a lot more experience,” Kim said. “He kind of was making me feel small.”

That pressure followed Kim to a seminal moment in his life not long after that: The shooting of his friend Ryan Job in the line of duty in 2006. (Job died several years later during facial reconstruction surgery.) Kim said he managed to stabilize Job, but disagreed with the PA about what to do next; Kim wanted to get him to an operating room right away, while the PA wanted to insert a breathing tube up his nose (a very painful procedure) during a stopover to the hospital.

“That’s something you would never do for someone with suspected maxillary fractures — facial fractures — which Ryan definitely did have from being shot in the face,” Kim said. “I remember getting in a really heated argument, trying to do my best to stand up for my friend, because I know that this procedure that this physician’s assistant wanted to do would severely hurt if not kill my friend.”

At that point he said the PA asked Kim to “safe and clear” his Navy SEAL weapons outside, a military regulation, and when Kim returned, the PA had inserted the device into Job.

“I feel that that is one of the biggest failures I’ve ever had: It was protecting my friend. I knew what the right thing was. I don’t think I fought hard enough to protect him,” Kim said. “I knew what the right thing was to do and I was intimidated by this senior figure, but it wasn’t a good excuse for me.”

Kim says in hindsight that “ego is probably one of the biggest poisons” in society, adding that “it’s toxic to any environment.”

“You need to do the right thing, regardless of who you’re standing up against,” Kim said. “I promised myself after that, that — no matter what — I would always stand up to do the right thing. No matter how intimidating or hard it was.”

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