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

Author Ozan Varol shares why you should aim higher in life.

Nir Eyal

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

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 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 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Those who are able to apply the strategies in my book, unlearn outdated modes of thinking, and rebuild themselves with agility will enjoy an extraordinary advantage to define the future.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.

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This post originally appeared on Nir Eyal and was published April 13, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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