1-Page PDF Summary of Think Like a Rocket Scientist. In Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol describes nine strategies to help you dream bigger, make smarter decisions, take informed risks, and cultivate personal and professional success. Varol is a former rocket scientist who worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers before becoming a lawyer. Download this free poster to commemorate 230 years of American diplomacy around the world! Created in 1789 as the U.S. Department of Foreign Affairs and later renamed the U.S. Department of State,.
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1-Page PDF Summary of Think Like a Rocket Scientist
In Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol describes nine strategies to help you dream bigger, make smarter decisions, take informed risks, and cultivate personal and professional success. Varol is a former rocket scientist who worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers before becoming a lawyer, professor, and public speaker. This guide explores Varol’s nine principles, compares them to those of behavioral experts like Daniel Kahneman and Philip Tetlock, and includes strategies for putting them into practice. Along the way, you’ll learn:
- How to solve problems like billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk
- Why you should treat your ideas like scientific hypotheses
- How to bounce back from failure and avoid complacency after success
2) Beware of “functional fixedness,” which happens when we fixate on how something (a tool, an object, or a tactic) is “supposed” to be used. For example, if you’re experiencing functional fixedness, you may look at a shoe and see only a protective covering for a foot. On the other hand, if you break out of functional fixedness, you might see that a shoe can also be a tool for hammering a nail or even opening a bottle of wine.
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To combat this, Varol advises focusing on form, not function. By refocusing on what something is rather than what it does, you can train your brain to see its full potential.
Practice Creative Reframing
Varol doesn’t mention a critical way to boost your ability to reframe problems: Practice coming up with creative ideas. For example, you might try the “In What Way” exercise, in which you choose two dissimilar objects and try to list as many similarities between them as possible. This encourages you to examine each object’s form and function separately. For example, you might ask, “In what way is a stapler like a director’s chair?” Answers include: Both contain hinges; both have parts that are made of metal; both could be found on a film set.
Principle 5: Play With Thought Experiments
According to Varol, achieving seemingly impossible goals requires unrestrained creative thinking. To spark that creativity, Varol recommends using thought experiments. A thought experiment is an imaginary scenario you create in your mind in order to think through an idea, often in the form of a hypothetical question. For example, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman proposes the thought experiment: What if Hitler had been born female? (Shortform note: Varol classifies thought experiments as tools for creativity, but that’s not their only application: They can also be used purely for fun or as an educational tool to get students thinking in new ways.)
Varol doesn’t recommend any specific thought experiments because the questions you ask should be unique to you and your areas of interest (for example, if you’re in healthcare, you might ask, “What would happen if we replaced human doctors with AI?”) Instead of following a specific formula, Varol recommends thinking of thought experiments as a form of unstructured play. Play is a valuable enterprise: It’s purposeless by definition, but that doesn’t make it useless. If you spend more time mentally playing by asking asking “Why?” and “What would happen if…?”, you may just stumble on a solution that puts your seemingly impossible dream within practical reach. (Shortform note: In The Gifts of Imperfection, author and researcher Brené Brown argues that play is more than just a helpful tool for creativity: It is literally essential to human happiness.)
However, according to Varol, the modern world discourages curiosity. Why?
- It’s fundamentally disruptive to the status quo.
- It requires admitting that we don’t have all the answers.
- It doesn’t promote efficiency (which is all about answers, not questions).
As a result, many of us gradually lose that childlike curiosity as we age. Varol argues that schools play a part in this because the American school system is designed to produce workers, not thinkers. (Shortform note: Many historians agree that the traditional American education system was created in response to the industrial revolution. Factories needed literate workers who could follow directions from authority figures, but pre-industrial workers were used to working on their own farms or in their own shops with little need to obey orders. Thus, schools as we know them sprang up as training centers to produce “punctual, docile, and sober” factory workers rather than independent thinkers.)
How Rocket Scientists Play With Thought Experiments
Varol notes that many famous scientists (like Einstein and Galileo) used thought experiments to drive their biggest discoveries. You may have heard of the famous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment, proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger, in which a hypothetical cat is locked inside a box with a bottle of poison that will open at an unknown time. It’s impossible to know when the poison will be released, which means it’s impossible to know whether the cat is alive or dead without opening the box to check. Thus, the cat can be considered simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened.
Varol describes how Schrödinger created this thought experiment to illustrate logical flaws in the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics, which held that “superpositions” (being in two states at once) were possible for quantum particles. The famous thought experiment poked holes in this theory by making it more concrete—intuitively, we know a cat cannot be both alive and dead, so the idea of “superpositions” must be similarly false.
Can We Actually Learn Anything From Thought Experiments?
Philosophers are torn on whether the sort of “intuitive” solution that the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment produces actually counts as “knowledge.” Some philosophers are Platonists (named for Plato): They believe that thought experiments can generate real knowledge the same way scientific experiments can. Thus, in their view, we can consider the conclusion of Schrödinger’s thought experiment—that, intuitively, we know that just as a cat can’t both be alive and dead, superpositions cannot be true—knowledge, because the experiment doesn’t have to take place in the observable, “real” world to be valid.
Other philosophers are empiricists: They believe that empirical experiments (using the scientific method) are the only way to generate new knowledge. In this view, all thought experiments can do is help us remember things we’ve previously learned by observing the physical world. Thus, in their view, we can’t consider Schrödinger’s conclusion accepted knowledge, since he hasn’t definitively observed that a cat cannot be alive and dead (or that superpositions don’t exist)—the experiment took place in his head, rather than the (observable) real world.
Varol doesn’t take an explicit stand on this debate, but we can infer that he believes in taking the best of both worlds: Use thought experiments to come up with new ideas, then test them in the real world to see how they hold up. We’ll learn more about how to test ideas in Principle 7.
How You Can Play With Thought Experiments
Here are Varol’s top tips for using thought experiments to spark your imagination:
1) Imagine yourself as a six- or seven-year-old child. You have no responsibilities, no bills to pay—your only job is to play and imagine. In those circumstances, where would your mind naturally wander? Remember, it’s all just play—you don’t have to commit to or implement anything you come up with during a thought experiment. There are no stakes. (Shortform note: Letting your mind wander like this may seem a bit pointless, especially if you’re not going to implement the ideas you devise. However, Essentialism author Greg McKeown argues that unfocused play is an essential precursor to creativity. Put differently, you simply cannot come up with new ideas unless you take the time to play.)
2)Let yourself feel bored. Varol argues that boredom is important and endangered. It gives the mind enough rest and space to expand and make new connections that it can’t make while distracted or laser-focused on a problem. To give yourself space for boredom (and, subsequently, creative inspiration) to kick in, try taking a shower, going for a walk, or spending time daydreaming. (Shortform note: Allowing yourself to feel boredom can be difficult because we’ve conditioned ourselves to expect constant entertainment through technology. As Cal Newport argues in Deep Work, ubiquitous technology has literally rewired our brains to be addicted to distraction.)
3) Try combinatory play—the act of combining dissimilar things. Combinatory play is important for creativity. For this reason, many successful people dabble in diverse fields in order to help them develop ideas in their primary field. For example, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull set up a program called “Pixar University,” in which employees can take classes in subjects like sculpting and juggling.
To take advantage of combinatory play, collect insight and experiences from as many different fields as possible. Read books and watch films about subjects well outside your area of expertise. Try taking a class in or attending a conference on a new subject.
Combinatory Play Lowers the Stakes
Varol doesn’t touch on another reason combinatory play is so powerful: It lowers the stakes. When you work within your own area of expertise, you may feel extra pressure to succeed—however, when you work on something outside your area of expertise, no one expects you to perform well. That way, you can take the pressure off yourself to come up with an earth-shattering idea, which frees your mind to pursue innovative solutions for their own sake.
In Creativity, Inc., Catmull describes how Pixar University classes take advantage of these lowered stakes to promote team bonding. Employees in these classes are trying something outside their usual field, so they’re all automatically beginners. This allows employees to transcend the usual hierarchy and create social bonds with people they may not otherwise interact with in the company.
Principle 6: Get Past Your Biases
According to Varol, one thing that holds us back from pursuing moonshots is cognitive bias. One powerful form of bias is confirmation bias: We’re more likely to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore information that contradicts those beliefs.
Another powerful bias is the narrative fallacy: We tell ourselves a story about the world around us and then cling (or “anchor”) to that story even when it’s being proven false in front of our eyes. Varol argues that this is especially dangerous when our opinions become part of our identities—in that case, changing our opinions on a subject threatens the very core of how we see ourselves.
The Origins of Bias and How to Avoid It
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offers insight into how these biases develop. According to Kahneman, human thinking happens in two distinct systems: System 1 involves immediate, unconscious thinking and System 2 involves higher-level, deliberate, conscious thinking. We often call on System 2 to double-check our intuitive System 1 thoughts. However, Kahneman argues that in the case of confirmation bias, we often don’t think to call in System 2 because being proven right feels good emotionally, so System 1 doesn’t send up any red flags. A similar process happens with the narrative fallacy: The story we tell ourselves feels right, so we don’t think to question it.
So, how can we avoid falling into these cognitive traps? According to Kahneman, we’re more prone to biased thinking when our higher-level cognitive resources are taxed by exhaustion or stress. Therefore, to avoid bias, make your most important decisions when you’re relaxed and well-rested.
How Rocket Scientists Overcome Biases
Varol says that scientists, on the other hand, see their initial opinions as working hypotheses, not as fact. Their goal is to test those hypotheses—which, in the best case, means trying to disprove them, not prove them. When scientists fail to disprove a theory, their faith in the theory grows; when they succeed, they advance knowledge for everyone (like how historical scientists advanced our understanding of the world by proving that the Earth is not flat). Scientists have no use for hypotheses that aren’t falsifiable because if there is no possible way of proving a theory wrong, you can never know if it’s right. (Shortform note: Hypotheses that can be disproven are called “falsifiable.” Falsifiable hypotheses can be disproven with a single piece of evidence to the contrary. For example, the hypothesis, “Our sun is the smallest star in the galaxy” can be disproven by finding a single star smaller than the sun.)
How You Can Overcome Biases
Varol offers two suggestions for overcoming bias:
1) Come up with more than one hypothesis. Varol argues that when you have one hypothesis, no matter how tentative, you’re guaranteed to anchor to it. To avoid that, come up with multiple hypotheses that conflict with one another. This will help prevent you from anchoring too much to any of them. (Shortform note: This advice is easier said than done, especially if you’re working on a project that you’re passionate about. According to Ryan Holiday in Ego Is the Enemy, passion can actually derail success when we get so caught up in one idea that we become unable to see any flaws in our ideas.)
2) Look at your beliefs as though they were someone else’s. This gives you some distance that can help you maintain objectivity.
However, you can only do this up to a point, as it’s impossible to identify all your own blind spots. To do that, you’ll need to run your opinions by other people and let them poke holes in your ideas. (Shortform note: In Principles: Life and Work, Ray Dalio recommends weighing other people’s opinions of your ideas based on how qualified they are to comment on the subject. Take the judgments of inexperienced people with a grain of salt.)
Principle 7: Test Your Ideas Rigorously
Before pursuing a new idea for achieving the seemingly impossible, successful people and companies conduct tests to ensure the idea will work as planned. According to Varol, successful tests must:
- Have real stakes. If the idea fails your test, you need to be prepared to kill the idea rather than coming up with excuses to carry on anyway.
- Take place under the same circumstances in which the full version of the idea will occur (not a laboratory) whenever possible.
- Test the whole system, not just individual parts. Remember that each individual part might work well, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll work well together.
- (Shortform note: It might not always be possible to conduct tests that meet all of these criteria. For example, new medical products can’t be tested on humans until they’re proven to meet minimum safety criteria. Until that point, they must be tested in other ways, with lower stakes and less realistic context.)
How Rocket Scientists Test Ideas
Rocket scientists test equipment in space-like conditions before launching it into space. According to Varol, their goal is to expose the equipment to as much stress as possible in order to find the breaking points. That way, they can fix those problems from the safety of Earth rather than waiting for them to develop during a space mission. (Shortform note: This happened in January 2021, nine months after Think Like a Rocket Scientist was published. NASA tested their new deep-space rocket’s engines, which were supposed to run for eight minutes but shut down after just one minute on the launchpad. While some politicians interpreted this as a sign of NASA’s decline, those inside the organization said the test gave them helpful information.)
How You Can Test Your Ideas Thoroughly
Here are Varol’s suggestions for testing your ideas rigorously:
1)Conduct tests under real-life conditions. Don’t assume that you know how the tests will turn out, or that something like a survey (in which you ask people to imagine a certain outcome and predict how they’ll react) is actually representative of real life. Such tests can fall victim to the observer effect, or the fact that merely observing a situation tends to impact the outcome—in the case of an in-person survey, the results may be skewed because people modify their behavior when they know they’re being watched.
2)Don’t rely on one single tester. When you test something, Varol believes you either need multiple testers or you need a way to test the tester to ensure you can trust the results. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight but the numbers aren’t budging, it could be that your exercise plan isn’t working—or it could be that your scale is broken. Only by weighing yourself on a different scale will you be able to tell where the problem is.
(Shortform note: In The Design of Everyday Things, author Don Norman argues that testing should be an iterative process, not a one-time thing. In other words, test an idea with a small group of people (Norman recommends five to start), make any necessary adjustments, then test again with another small group. That way, you can run your idea by lots of people without having to gather a huge group all at once.)
How to Test Like Pixar
While testing under real-world conditions is ideal, there are tradeoffs to this type of testing—namely, it doesn’t allow you to control as many variables as laboratory testing. To strike a balance between real-world and controlled laboratory testing, you can create a miniature version of your ideal real-world conditions. You still get the benefits of real-world testing, but since the situation is only on a small scale, you have a better chance of controlling variables.
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull describes how Pixar uses its iconic short films as testing opportunities for new directors or animation techniques they’re considering using in feature films. The process of making a short film is similar enough to the process of making a feature film to be realistic but is more condensed and requires fewer resources. This gives the benefits of both real-world and laboratory-controlled testing.
Principle 8: Learn How to Learn From Failure
When you shoot for the moon, you’re likely to experience at least a few failures on your way to success. Varol argues that failing and learning from failure are two very different things, and the former does not guarantee the latter. Failure stings, so it’s more common for people to brush painful failures off and quickly move to salvage their ego than to sit down and closely examine exactly what went wrong. (Shortform note: Examining failures in order to learn from them is important, but it should be done in moderation. According to Awaken the Giant Withinauthor Tony Robbins, dwelling too much on failure can create limiting beliefs about your potential and sabotage your future attempts at success.)
How Rocket Scientists Learn From Failure
According to Varol, rocket scientists have a complicated relationship with failure. Some missions (particularly those with human lives at stake) have very little room for failure. However, in every other scenario, failure is a normal part of life as a rocket scientist taking scientific risks. Therefore, scientists value “intelligent failure”: the kind of failure that can be learned from. Varol argues that good scientists approach their failures with genuine, disinterested curiosity. (Shortform note: According to Nassim Taleb in Antifragile, nuclear engineers adopted this mindset after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Now, engineers assume that some form of failure is inevitable, so modern nuclear reactors are designed with built-in protections in the case of catastrophic failures.)
How You Can Learn From Failure
Here’s how Varol believes you can best learn from failure:
1) Cultivate psychological safety (an environment in which employees feel free to take smart risks and fail). To do this, Varol says, companies can reward “intelligent failures” either with compensation or praise and set a good example by having leaders share their failures publically. (Shortform note: According to The Culture Codeauthor Daniel Coyle, another way to cultivate psychological safety is to encourage your team to have fun and genuinely enjoy themselves. This promotes a strong group bond and helps people feel safe to share their failures.)
2) Shift your thinking from short-term gains to long-term success to ensure you learn from each failure. This can help take the sting out of failure, which hurts in the short term but can be a valuable learning experience in the long run. (Shortform note: David Goggins, author of Can’t Hurt Me, recommends using a journal to process your feelings after a failure and help you learn from it. Try answering questions like, “How did the failure affect your relationships with others?”)
3)Consider the underlying causes. According to Varol, when something goes wrong, it’s tempting to identify the most obvious cause, fix that, and consider the whole issue resolved. However, the most obvious cause is often just a symptom, not the root of the problem. Dig deeper and find the root cause to truly solve the problem.
Address the Real Issue, Not the Symptom
Looking beyond the obvious symptoms to the hidden cause of an issue is difficult but important. Journalist Johann Hari opens his book, Lost Connections, with a story that illustrates this point. While on a trip to Vietnam, Hari became seriously ill with severe nausea. When he begged the doctors for anti-nausea medication, they refused: The nausea was only a symptom, but it could give them important information about the nature of his illness.
Later, Hari learned that the nausea was a clue that his kidneys were shutting down, and listening to his symptoms had literally helped save his life. Similarly, when we wallpaper over the most obvious symptoms of a problem, it can obscure the real issue and prevent us from truly learning from the experience.
Principle 9: Don’t Let Success Make You Complacent
When you’ve finally achieved what once seemed impossible, avoid the trap of complacency. According to Varol, success can be as dangerous as failure because we underestimate the role that luck plays in success. That’s because when we succeed, we don’t analyze our strategy as much. We think, “It worked, so it must have been a good strategy,” even though that’s not necessarily true. (Shortform note: In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that ignoring the role of luck in success is a common human fallacy. However, according to Taleb, the bigger the success, the more likely it is that luck was the key determining factor.)
Varol believes that success isn’t final, and as humans, we’re never done growing. Therefore, even when you succeed, don’t think of yourself as having “won.” That mindset is dangerous—you think you’ve already succeeded, so you no longer need to work hard or monitor your progress. Some of the most successful people in history thought of themselves as works in progress, not established champions. This prevented them from becoming complacent. (Shortform note: According to Superforecastingauthors Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, this constant drive for self-improvement is a common trait in “superforecasters”—people who can predict the future with better-than-average accuracy. In fact, Tetlock’s research shows that this mindset is three times more important than any other factor in determining superforecasters’ success.)
How Rocket Scientists (Failed to) Learn From Success
The other principles in this book are structured around examples of things rocket scientists do well. However, Varol centers this principle on two famous failures in the field of rocket science: the fatal explosions of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. Varol argues that the underlying cause of both disasters was complacency caused by a string of previous successes. This complacency prevented NASA’s leadership from critically examining small problems with the Challenger and Columbia launches—similar issues had worked themselves out in the past, so NASA leaders mistakenly assumed the same would automatically happen this time.
(Shortform note: In The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters argues that complacency isn’t the only common reaction to success. Sometimes, success can also generate a paralyzing fear that we won’t be able to repeat the performance. In the case of the Challenge and Columbia disasters, it’s possible that this fear of failure and the accompanying pressure to succeed pushed NASA leaders to take unnecessary risks rather than publicly admitting to a problem.)
How You Can (Actually) Learn From Success
Here are Varol’s tips for learning from success and avoiding complacency:
1) Pay attention to “near misses”—successful experiences where things almost went terribly wrong but didn’t—instead of waiting to learn from spectacular successes or failures. (Shortform note: Varol argues that it’s easy to overlook “near misses” and lump them with other successes, but other authors disagree. For example, in David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell describes how people who survive a traumatic experience often view it as a “near miss”; however, the traumatic experience often becomes a sticking point in their lives and is neither easy to forget nor classed as a success.)
2) Always analyze your decisions, and do so objectively. Before making a decision, Varol recommends using a premortem analysis—a thought experiment in which you assume that you’ve already made a particular decision and it went horribly wrong. Try to explain what went wrong, then come up with ways to avoid those pitfalls. As you go, list a rough probability for each possible issue. This will give you a clearer picture of the situation before you begin a new venture. It’ll also prevent you from slipping into complacency and assuming things will go right. (Shortform note: According to The Obstacle Is the Wayauthor Ryan Holiday, this technique dates all the way back to Stoic philosophers. The philosopher Seneca advised his students to plan their reactions to potential negative outcomes in advance so they’d never be caught off guard.)
After making a decision, Varol recommends using a postmortem analysis to figure out what went wrong (and what went right) in something that already happened. When you conduct a post-mortem analysis, ask yourself which parts of the outcome were due to luck and which were due to good decisions or skill. (Shortform note: If you lead postmortems for a team, be sure to vary your questions after each project, as Catmull advises in Creativity, Inc. Otherwise, your team may begin to predict your questions, leading to less critical thinking on the spot.)
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