Why You Don’t Have to Be a Rocket Scientist to Think Like One

Why You Don’t Have to Be a Rocket Scientist to Think Like One

If you looked up the word “polymath” in the dictionary, you may see a picture of Ozan Varol. He teaches at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon and has written a widely cited book on comparative politics. Most surprisingly, however, he was part of the NASA operations team that sent two rovers–Spirit and Opportunity–to Mars.
What I love most about Varol is that he is a contrarian. He relishes challenging conventional wisdom and exposing the common thinking errors most people make every day. In this interview, we discuss Varol’s latest book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, which argues that “we should switch our default from convincing others that we’re right to convincing ourselves that we’re wrong.”

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

Ozan Varol: We often assume that thinking like a rocket scientist is beyond the ability of mere mortals without a special kind of genius (hence the common saying “It’s not rocket science”). But that assumption turns out to be wrong.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one.
In my new book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, I share nine simple strategies from rocket science that you can use to make giant leaps in work and life—whether it’s landing your dream job, accelerating your business, or creating the next breakthrough product.
The book has become particularly relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For most of us, the challenges we’re facing are unprecedented.
But rocket scientists routinely tackle seemingly insurmountable problems while the clock is ticking. In this time of unnerving uncertainty, we can all benefit from thinking like a rocket scientist.
Those who are able to apply the strategies in my book, unlearn outdated modes of thinking, and rebuild themselves with agility will enjoy an extraordinary advantage to define the future.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

OV: The “fail fast, fail often” mantra is often a recipe for failure.
In Silicon Valley, failure is viewed as a rite of passage, a secret handshake shared by the insiders. Countless business books instruct entrepreneurs to celebrate failure and wear it as a badge of honor.
But research that I discuss in the book shows that failing fast doesn’t magically produce success. When we fail, we’re often none the wiser. In one study, researchers examined 6,500 cardiac procedures by seventy-one surgeons over a ten-year period. They found that the surgeons who botched a procedure performed worse on later procedures. The results suggest that the surgeons not only failed to learn from their mistakes but also ended up reinforcing bad habits.
When we fail, we attribute our failures to external factors—the regulators, the customers, the competitors. Personal culpability doesn’t make the list. As a result, we don’t change course. We throw good money after bad, double down on the same strategy, and hope the wind blows in a better direction.
Our goal shouldn’t be to fail fast. It should be to learn fast. Failure can be the best teacher if you approach it properly. In the book, I share science-backed ways to fail gracefully and create the right conditions for learning from failure.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

OV: One important lesson in tackling problems in our lives is to resist jumping into answer mode. In solving problems, we instinctively want to identify solutions. In boardrooms across America, executives, eager to appear decisive, fall over each other to be the first to deliver the correct answer to a perceived problem. Doctors assume they have the right diagnosis, which they base on symptoms they have seen in the past.

But breakthroughs, contrary to popular wisdom, don’t begin with a smart answer. They begin with a smart question.

Here’s an example from the book.

It was 1999. I had just started working on the operations team for what would become the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. At the time, our mission was to send a single rover to Mars in 2003. In 1999, as we were busy designing our rover, another spacecraft, called the Mars Polar Lander, crashed on the Martian surface.

The Polar Lander wasn’t our baby, but it was using the same landing mechanism that we were planning to use. Our mission got scrapped since our landing mechanism had just failed spectacularly. We scrambled to figure out a way to fix the landing mechanism and come up with a new way of landing on Mars.

I remember distinctly when my boss, the principal investigator of the mission, walked into my office and said, “I just got off the phone with a NASA official, who relayed a question from Dan Goldin, the NASA Administrator.”

Goldin asked: “Can we send two of these rovers instead of one?”

It was a simple question no one had thought of asking before. After the Mars Polar Lander crash, we had narrowly focused on the problem with our lander. But the risk wasn’t isolated to the landing system. Any number of random things could break our spacecraft while traveling nearly forty million miles through outer space and landing on a Martian surface littered with scary-looking rocks.

Instead of putting all of our eggs in one spacecraft’s basket and crossing our fingers that nothing bad happens along the way, we decided to send two rovers instead of one. Even if one failed, the other might make it. What’s more, with economies of scale, the cost of the second rover would be pennies on the dollar.

The rovers were named Spirit and Opportunity. We built them to last for 90 days. Spirit lasted for 6 years until it got stuck on soft soil. Opportunity kept roving the red planet until 2018—over 14 years into its 90-day expected lifetime.

In the book, I share little-known methods you can use to ask better questions and spot insights that other people miss.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

OV: I use what Nir Eyal calls “effort pacts” in Indistractable. If I’m writing my book on a computer with internet access, and with my smartphone within arm’s reach, I’m bound to get distracted by 100-decibel notifications screaming for attention.

Instead of training myself to avoid distractions, I change my environment through effort pacts. In writing the book, I used a functionally limited Chromebook that I bought for the sole purpose of writing—that computer is off limits for emailing, researching, and other similarly distracting extracurricular activities. When I was writing, my smartphone was sitting downstairs in our living room—on airplane mode, for good measure.

NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

OV: I spend twenty minutes, four days a week, in the sauna, with nothing but a pen and paper in hand. Odd place for writing? Yes. But some of the best ideas in recent memory occurred to me in that solitary, stifling environment.

Research shows that boredom—which I define as large chunks of unstructured time free of distractions—is key to coming up with new ideas. As the mind begins to wander and daydream, the default mode network in our brain—which, according to some studies, plays a key role in creativity—lights up.

NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?

OV: Readwise.io. If you’re anything like me, you highlight relevant sections of the books and articles you read, but once you finish them, you promptly forget about them. Enter Readwise. The software syncs the highlights from my books and articles, and sends me a daily digest of 15 random highlights. It’s a great way to retain more of what I read and make connections between my highlights that I otherwise would miss.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?

OV: I open Think Like a Rocket Scientist by traveling back in time to September 1962, when President John F. Kennedy stepped up to a podium at Rice University stadium. He pledged to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade is out.

At the time, a mission to the Moon was literally a moonshot. Several key requirements for a manned mission hadn’t been developed. Even some of the metals required to build the rockets hadn’t been invented.

We jumped into the cosmic void and hoped we would grow wings on the way up.

Miraculously, the wings sprouted. In 1969, less than seven years after Kennedy’s pledge, Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. A child who was six years old when the Wright brothers took their first powered flight—lasting all of twelve seconds and moving 120 feet—would have been seventy-two when flight became powerful enough to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

This was the original moonshot.

But humans had been taking metaphorical moonshots long before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon. When our ancestors blazed a trail to some unknown corner of the earth, they took a moonshot. The discoverers of fire, the inventors of the wheel, the builders of the pyramids, the makers of automobiles—they all took moonshots. It was a moonshot for slaves to reach for freedom, for women to take the ballot, and for refugees to push toward distant shores in search of a better life.

We’re a species of moonshots—even though we’ve largely forgotten it.

We’ve been seduced into believing that flying lower is safer than flying higher, that coasting is better than soaring, and that small dreams are wiser than moonshots.

The next time you’re tempted to aim low, aim a little higher. Even if you don’t reach the Moon, you’ll soar higher than you would have before.

P.S. We have a special offer for Nir Eyal’s readers. If you order Think Like a Rocket Scientist before April 21, 2020, we’ll send you two bonuses:
  • #1. A video training with a behind-the-scenes look at my productivity system. You’ll find tips on: How to defeat procrastination, minimize distractions, and get more done in less time.
  • #2 A pack of 10, three-minute, bite-sized videos with actionable insights from the book that you can implement right away to start making giant leaps in work and life.
Forward your receipt to [email protected] and mention Nir Eyal. To learn more about the two bonuses, head over to this link.
What Do You Do When Someone “Steals” Your Amazing Idea?

What Do You Do When Someone “Steals” Your Amazing Idea?

The subject line read: “did you see this?” The message was from my editor Jen. “Nir, I saw the headline on this story and thought it might be written by you—but no!” she wrote. “Very weird.” I instantly clicked on the link she’d sent. It was uncanny! An article written by Christopher Mele at the New York Times, freakishly similar to a post I’d written but hadn’t yet published.

My first thought was that I’d accidentally tweeted a link to my draft or published my post by mistake. It was as if someone had hacked into my computer or read my mind. Mele’s article used the same examples, cited the same research, and even linked to the same sources. I was so surprised, I sent Mele an email (though I’d never been in contact with him before), asking if he’d somehow read my draft.

Meanwhile, I rushed to post what I’d been working on, figuring this would at least prove I’d been writing well before Mele’s story appeared. Just then, Mele responded to my email saying he’d never heard of my work.

Of course he hadn’t. And upon further reflection, I felt pretty foolish. Whom was I proving anything to? Who really cared?

I’d gotten so worked up, fearing someone had copied my ideas, that I let paranoia get the best of me. I’d fallen into a cognitive trap.

The Sign of a Novice

People tend to believe ideas are rare things, gems to be collected and hoarded. But in fact the nature of creative work, be it corporate innovation, academic research, or artistic endeavor, tells us quite the opposite—that if a useful insight pops into your head, it’s most likely in other people’s minds as well.

Where I live, in Silicon Valley, there’s one sure clue when people are newbies to the tech community: they ask me to keep their ideas secret. Some entrepreneurs ask me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, an easy tell they haven’t been here long. With rare exceptions, few industry veterans sign NDAs for the simple fact that good ideas tend to come to different people around the same time.

It’s called the “multiple discovery theory,” which, contrary to the “heroic theory of invention,” posits that discoveries are most often made by multiple people, not by lone “geniuses.” History is littered with examples: the formulation of calculus, the discovery of vitamin A, the development of the telephone, the light bulb, the jet engine, the atom bomb.,

“When the time is ripe for certain things,” the mathematician Farkas Bolyai said, “these things appear in different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.”

In many ways, discoveries are inevitable, since innovation occurs as a result of the prevailing environment as much as it does via the inspiration of a prepared mind. As Kevin Kelly explains in his book What Technology Wants, “Each technological progression around the world follows a remarkably similar approximate order. Stone flakes yield to control of fire, then to cleavers and ball weapons. … The sequence is fairly uniform. Knifepoints always follow fire, human burials always follow knifepoints, and the arch precedes welding.” Each previous generation lays the latticework for the next discovery, unearthing insights we are bound to discover.

In a world of inevitable simultaneous discoveries, there is no point to keeping most things secret. In fact, holding ideas close to one’s vest comes with unforeseen costs. For example, not sharing your insights frequently and widely means missing out on feedback. Most of the bad startup ideas I hear are bad not because they’re under threat of someone’s stealing the idea, but because the founder doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know.

Sharing ideas means other people can show you your blind spots. Furthermore, overvaluing ideas makes us more likely to hold on to them, which in turn makes us more rigid to new and potentially contradictory evidence that might tell us to go in a different direction. Finally, idea fetishization blinds us to what’s really important—actually doing something useful with the idea! Ideas are easy, execution is hard.

The Law of Triviality

The British author C. Northcote Parkinson is famed for his “law of triviality,” first elucidated in a satirical article published in 1957. Parkinson writes of a committee assembled to approve plans for a nuclear power plant that instead spends most of its time arguing about a bike shed. The fictional committee wastes so much time on the bike shed because people are more likely to have an opinion on things they understand. While few feel qualified to speak about nuclear power, everyone can put in their two cents about a bike shed.

Triviality exerts its power in other ways. We have all, at one point or another, felt wronged by someone who has taken something from us. Like a child who breaks down crying after another kid swipes his crayon, we reflexively react, sometimes with strong emotion, before recognizing the triviality of the situation.

Perhaps the most vicious childlike reactions come from thought leaders. Whereas business results can be measured with money, credit for ideas as property is harder to quantify, and the fight for that credit can bring out the worst in people. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone disparage an academic or an industry colleague as a hack, a charlatan, or an idea thief. As the political scientist Wallace Sayre has been credited as saying, “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Hence, we argue most about the things that matter least.

When it came to my essay, I realized I’d gotten worked up over nothing. My response looked even more ridiculous if you consider that both Mele (the New York Times author) and I cited other people’s ideas to make our points.

I should have been pleased that I’d written something a publication like the New York Times also thought was important. When I checked Twitter after publishing my post, I noticed a kind tweet from Mele: “@nireyal Very cool blog and post today. Sorry you got “scooped” but does not diminish the information you conveyed.”

In life, there are plenty of crayons to color with. The wise child happily finds new ways to create something original.

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