When someone is struggling with a seemingly easy problem, someone else might say, “Come on, it’s not rocket science!” The inference being that rocket science represents the pinnacle of complexity.
But my guest today argues that the study of rocket science contains some simple, overarching principles that cannot only be universally understood, but universally applied to all kinds of problems and decisions. His name is Ozan Varol, he served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, and he’s the author of the book Think Like a Rocket Scientist. We begin our conversation discussing why Ozan went from studying astrophysics to going to law school, and how his scientific background has influenced his legal career. We then dig into ways that the same thought processes that enable spacecraft to travel millions of miles can also be applied to moving forward in work and life. Ozan explains how scientists deal with uncertainty and why you have to constantly question the way things are done to get better results. We end our discussion by talking about how to use thought experiments to solve problems, how to test ideas, and how to actually learn from your failures.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Ozan’s career with NASA
- How Ozan’s rocket scientist experience helped his law career
- Why are humans so afraid of uncertainty
- How a scientist approaches uncertainty, and what you can learn from that
- Two-way doors vs. one-way doors
- How does path dependence get in the way?
- The power of thought experiments
- Why focusing on answers can lead you astray
- Test as you fly, fly as you test
- The value in trying to prove yourself wrong
- How success breeds complacency
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Best Books to Read in Uncertain Times
- Taking Action In an Uncertain World
- 5 Tools for Thriving in Uncertainty
- Using Mental Models to Make Better Decisions
- Mars Exploration Rovers
- Einstein Chasing a Beam of Light
- Action Over Feelings
- Why Action Is the Answer
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
- Past Failure Is No Excuse for Present Inaction
- Columbia disaster / Challenger disaster
Connect With Ozan
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When someone is struggling with a seemingly easy problem, someone else might say, “Come on, it’s not rocket science,” the difference being that rocket science represents the pinnacle of complexity, but my guest today argues that the study of rocket science contains some simple overarching principles that can’t only be universally understood, but universally applied to all kinds of problems and decisions. His name is Ozan Varol, he served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, and he’s the author of the book, Think Like A Rocket Scientist. We begin our conversation, discussing why Ozan went from studying astrophysics to going to law school and how his scientific background has influenced his legal career. We then dig into ways that the same thought processes that enable spacecraft to travel millions of miles can also be applied to moving forward in work and life. Ozan explains how scientists deal with uncertainty and why you have to constantly question the way things are done to get better results. We end our discussion by talking about how to use thought experiments to solve problems, how to test ideas, and how to actually learn from your failures. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/rocketscientist.
All right, Ozan Varol, welcome to the show.
Ozan Varol: Thank you so much for having me on, Brett. Pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: So, you just published a book, Think Like A Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. So you at one time… You’re a law professor right now, but in a former life, you were actually a rocket scientist. Tell us about your career or your experience with NASA.
Ozan Varol: Yeah, I’ve managed to live multiple lifetimes in this one life. So, I majored in astrophysics at college, I went to Cornell, and one of the professors at Cornell, his name was Steve Squyres, he was, when I started there, in charge of a project to send what would become the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project to send two rovers to Mars. Their names were called Spirit and Opportunity, and I was working for him as part of the operations team of the mission. And we really did a hodge-podge of things, everything from designing operation scenarios as to what the rovers would do after they landed on Mars. I helped pick landing sites for the rovers. My senior thesis was actually programming some of the algorithms that the rovers would use to snap photos of the Martian surface. So yeah, so it was a combination of different things, and I did that for about four years until I decided that I didn’t wanna do astrophysics long-term and did this major 180 pivot, which bewilders a lot of people and ended up going to law school.
Brett McKay: What caused that pivot? Why pivot to law?
Ozan Varol: So, I’ve always been much more interested in practical applications rather than theory, and one of the… And this is why I loved working on the Mars mission. It was as practical as it gets, when you’re actually designing the rover and designing scenarios as to what’s gonna happen when the rovers land on Mars, but the classes I took in college were all extremely theoretical, and I didn’t love them. And for me to do anything with astrophysics, I would have had to go get a PhD and that just wasn’t for me. There was a voice that said like, “Oh, you need grit, you need to double down on this.” But there was another part of me that said, “No, this isn’t the right fit for you.” I was like a winemaker who enjoyed the process of making wine, like I enjoyed the process of thinking like a rocket scientist, but I didn’t care about the theoretical substance, basically. So, I ended up taking a law class that was taught by a Cornell law professor, and he taught it only for undergrads and he used the Socratic method, we read actual cases so this was me dipping my toes in the water and I absolutely loved that class, and yeah, over time I just grew more interested in the physics of society and ended up going to law school.
Brett McKay: But how did your science background, your rocket science background influence your law career?
Ozan Varol: Quite a bit, actually. I think science equips you with a set of critical thinking skills, analytical skills. There was a quote from Carl Sagan that I love. He says, “Science is much more a way of thinking than it is a body of knowledge.” I think science intimidates a lot of people because when they think about science, they think about all the horrific substance that they have to learn in high school and they didn’t like it, but really science is more about critical thinking and decision making under uncertainty and so I brought the critical thinking skills with me to law and then beyond, of course. And also, one of the skills that really served me well in law school, and this came directly as a result of my scientific training, was the ability to shift perspectives and see arguments on different sides of the issue.
‘Cause one of the things that you do as a scientist is you come up with a hypothesis and then you try to falsify it, you try to prove yourself wrong. Nothing in science has ever proven right, setting aside mathematics, it’s proven not wrong. And the way you do that is by beating the crap out of your own ideas and that requires you to then look at your own ideas, your own hypotheses from a very different perspective, and ideally from multiple perspectives, and that skill is invaluable in law. The best lawyers know the opposition’s argument better than the opposition does. So if you can take your beliefs, if you can take the way that you look at an issue and see it in a different light, see it in the light that your opponent is seeing it, that will take you really, really far in law school and also as a practicing attorney and so I was able to utilize that in law school, and that came as a direct result of my education.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into your book here, Think Like A Rocket Scientist, ’cause basically you take this idea of this scientific worldview that you learned in astrophysics and helping people, just regular people, apply that idea or that framework, or that way of thinking to their own life or their own work, and you break the book into three sections. You’ve got Launch, Accelerate, Achieve. And in the Launch section, one of the very first principles you highlight and how to think scientifically is how to deal with uncertainty. So, I think most people, most humans, they don’t like uncertainty. It’s something we’re afraid of. What’s going on there? Why are we so afraid of embracing uncertainty? And then let’s talk about what we can do to counter that.
Ozan Varol: Sure. I think there is a large evolutionary component to our fear of the unknown, ’cause if you think back, thousands of years ago, tens of thousands of years ago, if you didn’t fear the unknown, you may not have survived because the unknown presented potential threats. The unknown could be something that could kill you and so our ancestors who survived long enough to pass their genes to us were afraid of the unknown, and for good reason. We don’t live in that same environment now, but we still are, I think, embodied with the same fear of the uncertain. That’s part of it, so an evolutionary component. I think the other part of it has to do with social and educational conditioning. ‘Cause in the education system, especially in primary school and high school, there’s really no room for uncertainty, at least the way that I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived there for 17 years and the way that the education system was structured there like, you just learned a series of right answers in class and then you spit them out on an exam, and that’s how you get an A. There is one right way to interpret history, there is one right way to structure the curriculum, there is one right path to an A+, it’s all about certainty.
If you open up a typical science textbook, you’ll see Newton’s laws, as if those laws just arrived by a grand divine inspiration of some sort or a stroke of genius. You don’t see the uncertainty, the messy reality that Newton had to deal with to whittle down the laws to the ones that appear in the textbook. So, I think the evolutionary component of our fear of the unknown is then reinforced by our education system, by our society, so then we end up basically being really afraid of the unknown. I think that’s the two primary reasons why it appears in our system. Although, I have to say, and this is somewhat of a paradox, I think, even though humans are really afraid of the unknown, we’re also really adaptable. We wanna know for certain what tomorrow is gonna look like, we’re never gonna know that, but when tomorrow comes, if you’re able to apply some of the strategies I explained in the book, you can quickly adapt to what’s going on in the world around you and I think that’s one of our advantage as a species over some of the others. Our brains are… Neuroplasticity is a real thing. Our brains are very adaptable to what’s going on around us so when a crisis hits, like the COVID pandemic, we’re recording this in mid-June of 2020. When something like that happens, we see humans and businesses were certainly struggling, but also a lot of adaptation going on as well.
Brett McKay: So okay, scientists know there’s uncertainty, they’re comfortable with it. What sort of framework do they or sort of mental models they use to be able to manage or handle that uncertainty more effectively than most people do?
Ozan Varol: Sure. I think the step number one is just knowing that uncertainty is not an enemy. I think, honestly, that’s the biggest hurdle that scientists cover that most people don’t. Scientists approach uncertainty with wonder, with curiosity. When they see a blank canvas, that excites scientists, and I think it terrifies a lot of people. A lot of scientists go into science because they are looking for their very own blank canvas to fill. They’re navigating this huge dark mansion and going into these dark rooms and trying to find some answers to what they’re looking for, and that excites them because they know that the unknown isn’t going to eat you, at least most types of unknowns. It’s just a process of discovery. I think that’s the biggest mental barrier, is looking at the unknown with curiosity instead of a fear, and that’s more of a mental barrier. In terms of practical strategies, I think scientists have a way of focusing on what they can control and ignoring the rest. I think one of the reasons why uncertainty is so alarming to a lot of people and is so frustrating to a lot of people, because when we face uncertainty, we try to control things that we cannot control.
I’ll give an example from my own life. When my book was published on April 14th and I had this big book tour planned. I was gonna travel around the country and give talks, and when the pandemic happened, of course the book tour was cancelled since travel stopped, and I spent two very miserable days not thinking like a rocket scientist. I was wishing for a reality to be different than it was and that’s not a very productive use of anyone’s time. And then I went back to my training and thought to myself, “All right. I had this thing planned, the pandemic happened, now there’s a lot of uncertainty about how book promotion is going to work, but I can approach this with curiosity and focus on actually the variables that are within my control. I can’t make travel come back, I can’t restore my physical book tour, but there are things that I can do that are within my control.” So I ended up, basically, doing a number of virtual events with authors who were in a similar position as me, who also had their book tours cancelled. And I was probably actually able to reach a lot more people than I would have been able to through a physical book tour.
So what ended up as or what seemed at first as a curse ended up as a blessing because it made me question the assumptions that I was operating under, the assumption being that, the best way to get the word out about a book is to go on a book tour, but if you think about it, it takes a lot of time for me to get on a plane from Portland, Oregon where I am and travel to New York City, and walk into a Barnes & Noble and sign books for, I don’t know, 50 people and then fly back home. If my strategy is to get the word out about the ideas in the book, there are far more efficient ways of doing it. And I’ll share one more strategy about dealing with uncertainty and I use this on on a weekly basis, and it’s a distinction between two-way doors and one-way doors. One of the reasons why we’re so afraid of the uncertain is because we assume that if we take a leap into the unknown, like if you move to a new city, if you try a new marketing strategy, if you launch a new product or a business and things don’t work out as you hoped, the assumption is that the world as you know it is gonna come to an end. But that assumption turns out not to be true in many cases. Most of the decisions in our lives come with two-way doors, not one-way doors, meaning that you can walk into a room, have a look around, and if you don’t like what you see, you can move back out.
For me, for example, I practiced law after law school for a little bit and for reasons that we can talk about, if you like, Brett, I wasn’t satisfied with it. And I thought about going into academia and initially, it took me months and months of agonizing over that uncertainty of whether or not I should make the leap. And it occurred to me that that decision to go into academia was a two-way door decision, it wasn’t a one-way door decision. I could jump into academia, try for a few years, and if I didn’t like it, I could always go back to the practice of law. So, I find that framework to be really useful to ask myself if I’m afraid of making a decision because there’s so much uncertainty. I just ask myself, “Is this a one-way door or a two-way door?” If it’s a two-way door, then it makes sense to decide quickly and run an experiment and see how things work out. And if you like what you see, you can double down on it, and if you don’t like what you see, you can just walk back out.
Brett McKay: What did you not like about the practice of law? Was it having to build 50 minutes of your life everyday?
Ozan Varol: Yeah, exactly. [chuckle] That was a huge part of it. I didn’t like thinking of my life in six-minute increments, that was a huge part of it. And then the other part was, honestly, I didn’t think it was intellectually challenging enough, at least the type of law that I was doing. It felt like on most days, that I didn’t need a license to do what I was doing. It was like getting the clients to do certain things or interviewing people, and I just kept thinking to myself, “I’m not really putting my legal training to use here,” and so it got boring quite quickly for me.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned earlier, one of the things that people do to manage uncertainty is sort of rely on these systems or unwritten rules that we have in our culture, in our society and then that leads people to like, yeah, it takes away uncertainty, make people feel, okay, I know what I’m doing, but it can also lead to this thing that’s in science is called path dependence, where it’s basically like, “Well, that’s the way we always done it. There’s nowhere else… There’s nothing else to do.” So, how does path dependence get in the way of good science and then also, how does it get in the way of making progress in life?
Ozan Varol: Yeah. And I think path dependence exists everywhere. If you just look around you in your own life, in business, what we’ve done before shapes what we do next. And that mentality of, we’ve always done it this way, exists in so many places and it gets in the way of change. I remember my very first year of teaching at a law school, there’s a class called Criminal Procedure that, I think, every other law school in the country offers it as an upper level class, but we teach it in the first year and I was curious about why that is, and I asked one of my senior colleagues why we teach Criminal Procedure, which is a complicated class that requires a strong foundation in other subjects. And he looked at me and he said, “We’ve always done it that way.” And then went back to what he was doing. I was gonna say something in response, but I didn’t have tenure yet so I kept my mouth shut. But there won’t be a perfectly valid reason, by the way, for teaching Criminal Procedure in the first year, but saying, “We’ve always done it this way,” struck me as a really lousy reason to stay in the course. So path dependence is a real thing and the status quo is really, really sticky regardless of what industry you might be in.
One of my favorite examples is the laptop, the keyboard that we use on a daily basis. I’m looking at it right now, it’s known by the first six letters Q-W-E-R-T-Y. And this layout was designed initially to be inefficient. Old typewriters would block, would get blocked, they would get mechanical key blockage if you type too quickly, so they designed the layout that would be intentionally inefficient so that it would slow down typing speed and therefore, prevents mechanical key blockage. And then the letters that make up the word, typewriter were also placed on the first line of the keyboard. So if you wanna try it out on your laptop right now, you can type typewriter by just using the words on that or letters on that first line. Of course, mechanical key blockage is no longer a problem and we don’t have a typewriter salesman going around, demonstrating how the machine works by typing typewriter anymore, but that arrangement has stuck. So, there are just so many assumptions and processes, and habits and routines that were all operating under… That are not efficient, but they’re there simply because that’s what we did yesterday, so we do it again today.
Brett McKay: And how do you become aware of those sort of unwritten rules that might not be efficient? How do you develop a spidey sense for that?
Ozan Varol: Yeah, that’s a great question, and it’s not easy. I think you have to be really intentional about what you’re doing, and you have to be really intentional about questioning assumptions on a regular basis. So, asking yourself every now and then like, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why is this process here? Why do I have this habit? Why am I using this browser?” There’s a study that shows that people who don’t use the default browser that comes with their computer, if they use Chrome, for example, on a Mac that comes installed with… Pre-installed with Safari, they tend to perform better at work. And it’s not because using Chrome over Safari magically makes you into a better performer, but it’s because someone who takes that mentality of questioning assumptions does it beyond the world of just browser choice and applies that same mindset to other places as well. So getting into the habit of just asking that question is a huge first step. And then the second thing that’s really helpful is bringing in outsiders into the conversation. Outsiders have a way of asking those, what people call “dumb questions” that are actually not dumb at all. They’re really smart questions because they tend to be really basic, but they go to some fundamental assumption that you’re operating on there, but you’re not seeing that assumption because you’re too close to the problem to think differently.
And that’s why a lot of the gate crashers in different industries tend to be outsider, outsiders to that industry. So like, Elon Musk comes to mind. He was an outsider to the rocket science world. He was in Silicon Valley, he co-founded PayPal and then sold it to eBay, and he picked up rocket science by reading textbooks on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. Another example is Reed Hastings. Before he founded… Co-founded Netflix, he was a software developer. Jeff Bezos came to the retail world from the finance world. Sara Blakely, who is the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, was selling fax machines door to door before she started Spanx, which is an underwear company. And a lot of these outsiders were then able to look at an edited industry and see the flawed ways of operating, the assumptions that that industry was operating on there, and then disrupt those assumptions and paved the way for something much better. In our personal lives too, it’s not hard to do this. My wife Kathy is a sounding board for anything I do, she reads everything I write, and she gives me amazing advice because she has a perspective, an outsider perspective, that I don’t have. And she’s able to pinpoint assumptions, outdated assumptions, that I am operating under.
Brett McKay: So, another mental tool that scientists use to figure things out are mental experiments… Mental thought experiments, ’cause I think people think, “Oh, most science is done with beakers and they’re testing things physically.” Well, that does happen, but before that happens, long before that happens, scientists are often testing this stuff out or doing simulations in their head. So, any examples of thought experiments, and then also I’d like to see what are some thought experiments that just regular people can use on a daily basis to gain more insights about themselves with their life?
Ozan Varol: Sure. I think of the most famous thought experiments is Einstein’s thought experiment when he was just 16 years old. He thought to himself, what would it be like to ride next to a beam of light? And it sounds like a crazy question, and it is, and I can imagine a well-meaning parents saying, “Go back and do your homework and stop the crazy talk,” but I’m so glad no one did that because that question, that thought experiment of riding next to a light beam and thinking through what he would observe, stayed with Einstein for 10 years, and its answer eventually culminated in the special theory of relativity and it all happened in his mind. Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor, would imagine all of his inventions and how they would work in his mind before he actually built them in practice. There is no magic formula for running thought experiments, because by definition each thought experiment, each question that we come up with is unique. It’s more about creating the right conditions so that you can generate breakthrough answers just by thinking.
And by the way, even that revelation that you can generate breakthroughs just by thinking is shocking to a lot of people because we’re so conditioned when we’re struggling with something, when we’re struggling with a question, to look externally for answers, to pick up a self-help book, to jump on Google, to listen to an expert, as opposed to looking within. But it’s amazing how original ideas you can generate simply by thinking. And so one of the best things you can do for yourself to be more creative, to be more original, is to actually create more slack in your life. It’s hard to, really hard to come up with creative thought experiments, really hard to innovate when you’re clearing out your email inbox. So that requires being purposeful about creating moments of boredom in your day. And I define boredom as spending chunks of uninterrupted time free of distractions, and we have so little boredom in our lives. And boredom in many ways is an endangered state ’cause we’re moving from one notification to the next, from one email to the next, from one meeting to the next, without pausing, reflecting, deliberating, and thinking for ourselves and that has a number of consequences.
One is that misinformation thrives when people aren’t questioning what they hear, but also they stop generating insights on their own. One of the best things that I’ve ever done for my own creative output was to build in, this like airplane mode into my day. That could be just like me sitting on a recliner I have in my office for say, 20 minutes or 30 minutes with a notepad and a pen, doing nothing but thinking and then jotting down ideas that come up. I use the same thing… I use a sauna couple times a week and I do the same thing in there. I’d bring a notepad with me, which gets wet, but that’s okay, and I just sit there and jot down ideas that come up. And this is why, by the way, the old cliche’ about the epiphany coming in the shower is so valid because in these moments of slack, you’re basically letting your subconscious make the connections that it needs to make. And if you’re constantly working on something, if you don’t have slack in your life, then your subconscious is not going to have the capability, certainly not to the same extent to be able to make those connections in your brain between disparate ideas that will generate breakthrough insights so you have to be purposeful about it, especially in this modern times when we’re just constantly glued to our smartphones. As the saying goes, it’s the silence between the notes that makes the music.
Brett McKay: So, a lot of times when people do have a problem and they start grappling with it, and they go off by themselves and they try to do that, what they tend to do, I’ve noticed I do this, it’s they tend to focus on finding the right answer. And scientists do that, but you talk about how rocket scientists or even scientists in general, instead of spending more time on trying to figure out what the answer is, they oftentimes spend reframing the question, thinking about, am I even asking the right question? Because focusing on the answer can oftentimes lead you astray.
Ozan Varol: Yeah, exactly. For a number of reasons. One is, there’s usually more than one right answer, unlike, again, this goes back to our discussion from earlier about the education system where you’re taught that there’s a single right answer to each question, and that is so untrue. There is usually more than one right way of doing something. There is more than one right way of launching your next product, there is more than one right way of landing on Mars. And that, by the way, is another key if you’re grappling with the unknown and you’re looking for what is the best possible choice, just keep in mind that there’s gonna be more than one right answer, more than one way to do whatever it is that you’re trying to do, and scientists are very much aware of that. And I think the second component of the danger with the right answers is that right answers are really cheap. Knowledge is no longer a scarce commodity. By the time that Google, or Siri, or Alexa can spit out the right answer, the world has moved on. Now, obviously, answers aren’t irrelevant, you have to know some of the answers before you can begin asking the right questions, but the answers simply serve as a launchpad to discovery. So they’re the beginning, not the end, and breakthroughs, contrary to popular wisdom, don’t begin with a smart answer. They almost always begin with a smart question.
One of the examples from the Mars mission that I worked on that illustrates that principle is… This was in 1999, and at the time, our mission was to send a single rover to Mars, and we were busy designing operation scenarios and building our rovers, and that year, which was a particularly bad year for NASA, another spacecraft, which wasn’t our baby, but it was being sent to Mars to land on the Martian surface, called the Mars Polar Lander, crashed. And we are… Our Mars rover was going to use the exact same landing mechanism that the Mars Polar Lander was going to use and that landing mechanism had just failed spectacularly. Understandably, our mission was put on hold and we went back to the drawing board to try to come up with a better, safer way of landing on Mars. And I remember just thinking one day, my boss came into the Mars room where the operations team used to work and he told us that he had just gotten off the phone with the administrator of NASA, and the administrator of NASA asked a very simple question. He said, “What if we sent two rovers instead of one?”
So again, our mission at the time was just to send one rover to Mars, and that was our mission because that’s what NASA had been doing every two years, was to send a single Rover, single spacecraft to Mars and status quo, as we discussed, is really sticky. And the question that that NASA administrator asked reframed the problem, because the problem wasn’t just a faulty landing system. Of course, we were gonna fix that, but the problem was way beyond that, it was just the inherent risk of sending this delicate robot 40 million miles through outer space and crossing your fingers that nothing bad happens along the way. But if you send two rovers instead of one, you end up putting your eggs not just in one basket, but two baskets so you’re minimizing risk, you’re decreasing risk, and you’re increasing potential reward because two rovers means double the science. Two rovers means you can send two rovers to very different places on Mars and have the rovers explore vary different areas. And by the way, with economies of scale, when you’re building two of the same thing, the second thing ends up costing much less than the first one, so we ended up going with that.
That simple question changed everything. We ended up sending two rovers to Mars in 2003, and I’m so glad we did that. So, the two rovers were called Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit ended up roving the Martian surface I think for about six years. And by the way, we built these things to last for 90 days, that was their warranty. Spirit lasted for six years, and Opportunity… And I still get goosebumps every time I say this, roved the Red Planet for over 14 years into its 90-day mission, all because someone was willing to step back and dare to see the problem in a different light.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and ask a different question.
Ozan Varol: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: So one of the things that rocket scientists do is they test things. They’re always doing test flights. We saw this with Elon Musk when he was trying to get the Falcon going. Way going back a couple of years, you’d see these just things exploding in the process, and that can be frustrating, but how do you… How do rockets… What’s the rocket scientist’s approach to testing things, but also still making progress so they’re not… I’m trying to think of… So they’re not being held back by the testing, but they’re still actually trying to move forward while testing.
Ozan Varol: Sure. So there’s a principle in rocket science called test as you fly, fly as you test. And I’ll talk about the principle in a minute, but I first wanna underscore what you said, Brett. Experimentation is really, really valuable. You don’t know if something is going to work until you actually try it. And this, by the way, is a way of reducing uncertainty as well, because experiments give you information that you otherwise don’t have. I’m a left-brain person, and I tend to sometimes find myself stuck in this mode of doing pro and con lists and thinking through things rationally, trying to figure out the best approach, but you don’t know what the best approach is until you actually see the consequences play out and so running limited experiments is really, really important, and this is important in our personal lives. It’s important for businesses, as well. Before investing so much money in developing a product, you can see if the market is actually interested in buying that product through a limited small-scale experiment and so that happens all the time in science. That’s how scientists gather information is through testing their hypothesis. So, in rocket science, that testing, that experimentation takes the mold of test as you fly, fly as you test, which means that to the extent possible, the testing has to very closely resemble and ideally be identical to the conditions of flight.
So in whatever environment that the flight is going to take place, you try to simulate to the closest extent possible in a testing environment. So, you try to subject it, everything down to the screws, to the same types of vibrations that they’re going to experience during fight. You do the same thing with computers. You do the same thing with the humans. Astronauts train in this giant pool that simulates microgravity, the type of microgravity that they’re going to experience when they’re, say, doing repairs or conducting work on the International Space Station. And most of the time, I think this is true for both people and businesses, we violate that test as you fly principle. We violate it because we test, we experiment in conditions that are wildly disconnected from reality so even businesses who are experimenting, they’re not doing it properly, which means that they’re getting some answers, but those answers tend to be incorrect. So, one question that businesses ask in many service, for example, is how much would you pay for this pair of shoes? Now, think about it. Do you ever get that question in real life?
No, never. No, right? Never. And so when you ask that question on a test, on a survey, you’re not going to get a good answer because whoever you’re asking that to has never thought about the answer to that question. The best way to test for that is to bring the test as close as possible to the flight, so actually manufacture a prototype of the shoe, put it on a shelf somewhere in a store, and put a price on it and see if people are willing to take out their credit card and buy the shoe. That’s gonna give you the most reliable information because then the test is as close as possible to flight. The same thing applies in our personal lives, as well. We say do you practice job interviews in conditions that are wildly disconnected from reality. We practice a speech that we’re gonna give in public, for example, or if you’re doing a presentation, when you’re at home in a comfortable environment, you’re sitting in your sweatpants and you’re giving a presentation to your significant other, but that is not how the actual flight is gonna go.
The flight is gonna go when you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you’re gonna be nervous, you’re gonna be wearing an uncomfortable suit, probably and so you’re better off practicing your speech or presentation in the same conditions. And I’ve done this before where I’m practicing a speech. I will drink a couple espressos to give me the types of jitters that I might experience in that particular environment. And so the more that you can bring whatever experiments you’re running closer to reality, the better the answers will be from those experiments.
Brett McKay: Another mental model or way of looking at the world that scientist embraced, at least, really good scientists do, but I think regular people have a hard time is accepting or embracing the idea of failure. With scientists, like you said, the whole point of science is to falsify, like you prove something not wrong. The goal isn’t to prove something right, your goal is to prove it’s not wrong, right?
Ozan Varol: Right.
Brett McKay: And so that requires you to sometimes sort of, I guess, slaughter your mental children, I guess, in a way.
Ozan Varol: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But I think a lot of people, they don’t like doing that. They don’t like embracing the idea that they’re gonna fail or their idea is gonna be proven wrong because their ego’s tied up in it. How do scientists detach their ego from their ideas?
Ozan Varol: The very first step is… So scientists don’t have opinions. I mean, they might have opinions about subjects other than science, but they create what’s called working hypotheses, and they’re usually multiple, ’cause when you create only a single hypothesis, you might become unduly attached to it, so you create multiple hypotheses so you’re basically giving birth to multiple children, so you are not unduly favoring one over the other, and then you try to falsify them, and I think the biggest mental shift is not equating your beliefs with yourself, your hypothesis with yourself, your opinions with yourself. I think the moment we do that, we are in really dangerous territory. There’s a quote from Richard Feynman, who’s a Nobel-winning physicist that I love, he says, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” You are the easiest person to fool because the moment you believe in something, the moment you declare an opinion, and the moment you begin to blend that belief or that opinion into your identity, you have a very good chance of making a fool out of yourself. Once our opinions become blended with our identity, it’s really hard to change them. There’s a quote I love from, I think it’s from Upton Sinclair, he says, “It’s really hard to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on their not understanding it.”
The same thing applies to identity as well. If someone’s identity depends on their not understanding something, then they’re not going to understand it. And in the modern world, our beliefs have become synonymous with our identity. Like if you believe in plant-based eating, you’re vegan. If you do CrossFit, you’re a CrossFitter. If you believe in primal eating, you’re paleo. All of those beliefs become a part of your identity. Like, I say, or we say, I’m paleo, I’m vegan, I’m a Democrat, I’m a Republican. And when you do that, then changing your mind means changing your identity, which is a really, really hard sell, which is why, by the way, many disagreements in the modern world turn into these existential death matches, because people’s… It’s not just their beliefs, but their identities are at stake.
So there is a lot to be said about fore-making hypotheses instead of creating opinions. Done that, moving on to the second phase of actually trying to prove your opinions wrong, trying to prove yourself wrong, which doesn’t feel good, but if your goal is… And I think this should be our goal, not to be right, but to find what’s right, then you adopt a different approach to the world where you’re actually actively seeking disconfirming evidence, trying to gather data so you can chart the best path forward. This is why failure can be the best teacher if you know how to approach it properly. Failure gives you incredible data, incredibly valuable data that you can’t find elsewhere. But the problem is, we don’t learn from failure. We don’t learn from failure either because we were too afraid to even try something, so we don’t even create the room for failure, we just look at that blank canvas and let it sit blank because we’re too afraid to make a mistake, or… And then that can be paralyzing.
Or at the other side of the extreme, which is this mantra that’s so popular in Silicon Valley, “Fail fast, fail often, fail forward” where now entrepreneurs are actually in the mode of celebrating failure. Silicon Valley companies are holding funerals for failed startups, complete with bagpipes and DJs spinning records and alcohol flowing freely. And the problem is… I get why they’re trying to do that, to try to take the stigma out of failure, but in trying to do that, I think the pendulum has swung in the other direction. When you celebrate something, you don’t learn from it. The clinking of the champagne glasses masks the feedback you would otherwise receive, and research bears this out as well, I cite a study in the book of 65 cardiac surgeons, and the study shows that the surgeons who botched a procedure ended up performing worse on later procedures. Not only did they not learn from their mistakes, but they actually end up reinforcing them. And we don’t learn from our mistakes when we celebrate them.
We also don’t learn from them if we don’t do the type of internal soul searching that learning requires. When we fail, what happens is we’ll say, well, it wasn’t really our fault, we just got unlucky. Or we blame it on third parties, the regulators or the competitors. And then we do the same thing that we did yesterday, and just hope that the wind blows in a better direction. And so you fail and fail and fail, but if you’re not learning, then nothing is changing, which is why I think the fail fast mantra is the wrong one. The goal should really be to learn fast, and that’s exactly the approach that a scientist, all scientists, not just rocket scientists, apply in their lives. They know that all breakthroughs are evolutionary, not revolutionary. If you’re trying to achieve something transformative, you’re not gonna succeed on the first try. Einstein’s first several proofs for E equals MC squared failed. SpaceX’s first three launches were spectacular failures. We have an obsession with grand openings, but the opening doesn’t have to be grand, as long as the finale is, and the best way to make the finale grand is to learn from each failure and get better with each iteration.
Brett McKay: All right, so embrace failure, but don’t glorify it, ’cause that’ll cause you to overlook what you can learn from the failure…
Ozan Varol: Exactly.
Brett McKay: But another point you make in the book that’s related, that success can actually get in the way of progress and can eventually lead to failure. So what is it about success in science that can cause scientists to go astray?
Ozan Varol: Success has a way of breeding complacency, and that’s true not just in science but in business as well, and in our personal lives. When we have a string of successes, when we think we’re in the lead, we stop listening. When we declare ourselves to be an expert on something, we begin making confident conclusions without backing it up with the facts. When we think we’re in the first place, we start blaming others when things can go wrong. It can be harder for someone, for a business, to survive their own success than to survive their failure. Because when we succeed, we assume that everything went according to plan. We don’t do a post-mortem after success, we just say… We celebrate, right? Just like Silicon Valley celebrates failure, we celebrate success.
But it’s possible to do some things wrong and still succeed, and by the way, on the flip side of that, it’s possible to do some things right and still fail, which is why scientists focus on the process. The goal is to isolate the good decisions and fix the bad decisions, regardless of whether the outcome is success or failure, so that ideally you would follow the exact same investigation after each success and after each failure. You ask yourself what were the good decisions here, and we should retain those good decisions for the future regardless of whether they produced success or failure, and then you isolate the wrong decisions, the bad decisions, the mistakes, and then you try to fix them regardless of whether they produced failure or success. And if you don’t do that, you’re courting catastrophe.
One of the examples I give in the book, there’s a chapter called nothing fails like success, are the space shuttle disasters that NASA experienced with Challenger and Columbia. And let me preface this by saying those launch decisions were extraordinarily difficult decisions. And we may have made the same decision to launch if we were in the shoes of the NASA managers who were in charge of each launch. So there is a hindsight bias here, we’re looking at it through the 2020 lens of hindsight, but we can still get valuable lessons from these disasters. In both cases, NASA got complacent with its own success, the technical flaw in Challenger and Columbia was different. In Challenger, it was this O-ring that failed, this flexible, supposed to be flexible rubber band that seals the boosters and prevents hot gases from escaping from them, and the O-rings had been badly damaged on a number of missions before Challenger, and several engineers raised their hands and said, “Look, this is a serious problem. If we don’t do something about this, the result is going to be a catastrophe of the highest order.” But the managers at NASA ignored those requests because they assumed that, “Look, if we just do what we did yesterday if we launched the space shuttle the same way that we did yesterday if we follow the same process, then we’re gonna have success because even with badly damaged O-rings in the past, the space shuttle missions had succeeded.”
But of course, then we get the Challenger and the O-rings failed and the entire space shuttle exploded. Fast forward 17 years later to the Columbia disaster in 2003, the underlying technical flaw was different, but the deeper cultural flaw was the same. In that case, again, this technical flaw of a piece of foam that’s separated from the shuttle and struck the thermal insulation that’s responsible for protecting the shuttle from the heat of reentry after it gets back into the atmosphere and during liftoff, several engineers notice this foam strike and they raised their hands while the shuttle was in orbit and said, “Look, this looks really bad. Let’s call up the Pentagon and reroute some… Ask them to reroute some spy satellites, so they can survey the damage in orbit and see if we can fix it before we send the shuttle back or bring the shuttle back to Earth.” And the NASA managers ignored those requests because they said look, the foam shedding as it was called at NASA internally, had happened in numerous missions in the past, without a catastrophe. And the assumption is as those missions succeeded if we just do what we did that led to those successes, then we can expect the same outcome today. So success has a way of concealing mistakes and if we’re not careful, if we’re not performing a post-mortem after an in-depth investigation of what went right and what went wrong after each success as well, then we are courting catastrophe.
Brett McKay: Alright, so if things are going well for you, you should probably be paranoid like something’s probably going wrong with you.
Ozan Varol: Yeah, exactly. So, uninterrupted success can actually be a warning sign.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, there’s a lot more we could talk about. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ozan Varol: Sure. So the best way to stay in touch with me, I’m not active on social media, is through my email list. You can sign up for that at weeklycontrarian.com, the email goes out to over 22,000 subscribers and just shares one big idea that you can read in less than three minutes. And then my book, Think Like A Rocket Scientist, it’s available wherever books are sold, you can head over also to rocketsciencebook.com to find all of the purchase links.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Ozan Varol, thanks much time. It’s been a pleasure.
Ozan Varol: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest who is Ozan Varol, he is the author of the book Think Like A Rocket Scientist, available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere you’ll find out more information about his work at his website, ozanvarol.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/rocketscientist where you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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