Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Insights and interesting reads delivered straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.

Book Notes: “Think Like a Rocket Scientist” by Ozan Varol

Summary

Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol (2020) is a business and personal success book with a fresh twist. In the early 2000’s, Varol was a student of astronomy at Cornell University and later joined the NASA operations team for the Mars Exploration Rover. Despite subsequent change of career (to academic law), the formative lessons from Varol’s NASA experience provide the ideological basis for the book. The result is a surprisingly fresh take in an otherwise crowded book category. The author uses the lens of “rocket science” to offer practical problem-solving strategies relevant to anyone seeking better outcomes in work and life.

The book is structured into three parts: “Launch”, “Accelerate”, and “Achieve.” In part one, Varol explores the topics of embracing uncertainty, reasoning from first principles, and different ways to think creatively (including combinatorial-, divergent- and moonshot-thinking). The goal is to remove the self-imposed and environmental constraints on our thinking and creativity. In part two, Varol considers how we can improve our approach to problem solving. Concepts such as reframing the question (to yield better answers) and learning to develop a flexible working hypothesis are presented. The final part of the book describes how to respond to the flip-side outcomes of failure and success. In the former, the reader is taught to embrace and learn from the lessons and data in our failures. In the latter, the reader learns about the dangers of complacency that can emerge in the aftermath of successful outcomes.

The strength of the book comes from the stories Varol uses to illustrate his key concepts. Although Varol draws on a wide-range of anecdotes from various disciplines (business, history, art, etc.), the stories about NASA and space exploration play the starring role. For instance, you’ll learn about how the Mars Exploration Rover team developed a landing system for their vehicle and how the team had to upend unconscious assumptions and reframe the problem to the arrive at the optimal solution. You’ll learn how the O-Rings on the Challenger shuttle and “routine” foam insulation shedding on the Columbia shuttle that caused the catastrophic accidents were merely first-order symptoms of deeper systemic and cultural problems at the agency. As you get deeper into the book, you’ll find that not only do these stories effectively illustrate Varol’s ideas, they’ll also reignite your fascination with space exploration.

The subtitle to Think Like a Rocket Scientist is “Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.” It’s a generic subtitle with an oversized promise—par for the course for most self-improvement and business books. But make no mistake, this is no generic business success playbook. By effectively weaving the problem-solving paradigms rocket science into his narrative, Varol has penned a book that’s original, informative, and surprisingly fun.

Pros: Wonderful stories of space exploration that illustrate and captivate. Very practical toolkit of problem-solving strategies for everyday use.

Cons: The constant end-of-chapter reminders to visit Varol’s personal website are annoying. A single callout at the end of the book would have been sufficient.

Verdict: 8/10


Notes & Highlights

Introduction

To think like a rocket scientist is to look at the world through a different lens. Rocket scientists imagine the unimaginable and solve the unsolvable. They transform failures into triumphs and constraints into advantages. They view mishaps as solvable puzzles rather than insurmountable roadblocks. They’re moved not by blind conviction but by self-doubt; their goal is not short-term results but long-term breakthroughs. They know that the rules aren’t set in stone, the default can be altered, and a new path can be forged.

Stage One: Launch

Chapter 1: Flying in the Face of Uncertainty

  • Error in thinking: Making something appear definite when it is not.
  • Humans are programmed to fear uncertainty.
  • Yuval Noah Harari: “We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it.”
  • “Our yearning for certainty leads us to pursue seemingly safe solutions—by looking for our keys under street lamps [where the light is]. Instead of taking the risky walk into the dark, we stay within our current state, however inferior it may be.”
  • Breakthroughs happen when we embrace uncertainty and wander away from the safety of the street lamps and the “known” solutions to a problem.
  • “If you stick to the familiar, you won’t find the unexpected.”
  • The process of discovery seen as slow progress as resulting from “stumbling in the dark”:

    • Andrew Wiles (mathematician who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem): “Breakthroughs are the culmination of—and couldn’t exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark…”
    • Albert Einstein: “Our final results appear almost self-evident…years of searching in the dark for a truth…until one breaks through to clarity and understanding…”
  • “In school, we’re given a false impression that scientists took a straight path to the light switch.”
  • School is setup to reinforce this straight-line to progress type of thinking: authoritative textbooks, tests with one right solution, authority figures that feed us the truth.
  • David Gross (physicist): “Textbooks often ignore the many alternative paths that people wandered down, the many false clues they followed, the many misconceptions they had.”
  • We believe (or pretend to believe) there is one right answer to each question. We believe that this right answer has already been discovered by someone far smarter than us.”
  • In the Information Age, answers are abundant and knowledge has never been cheaper (witness tools like Google, Wikipedia, etc.).
  • “You must know some answers before you can begin asking the right questions. But the answers simply serve as a launch pad to discovery. They’re the beginning, not the end.”
  • Unknown knowns: things we don’t know we don’t know. “We think we know what we know, but we don’t.”
  • “In our certainty-obsessed public discourse, we avoid reckoning with nuances. The resulting public discussion operates without a rigorous system for discerning proven facts from best guesses.”
  • Daniel J. Boorstin (historian): “The great obstacle to discovering was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”
  • Certainty blinds and conceals the truth from us.

    • Ego and hubris are contributing factors.
    • Human distaste for uncertainty is another factor.
  • “When there’s a vacuum of understanding—when we’re operating in the land of unknowns and uncertainty—myths and stories whoosh in to fill the gap.”

    • “Your child exhibits signs of autism? Blame it on that vaccine the kid got two weeks ago.”
    • “You spotted a human face on Mars? Must be the elaborate work of an ancient civilization that, coincidentally, also helped the Egyptians build the pyramids of Giza.”
  • The narrative fallacy: an over-reliance on stories and surface reading of causation that results in erroneous stories or half-truths as credible explanations.
  • This phenomenon has been amplified in the current socio-political climate. “What they lack in knowledge, the demagogues make up for by cranking up their assertiveness.”
  • Bertrand Russell: “The stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
  • Being able to say “I don’t know” is an important step in intellectual discovery. Admit ignorance and then work to learn and grow.
  • “All progress—in rocket science, in movies, in your fill-in-the-blank enterprise—takes place in dark rooms. Yet most of us are afraid of the dark.”
  • “Life offers more of itself when we treat uncertainty as a friend, not a foe.”
  • Richard Feynman (scientist): “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”
  • “Scientific answers appear in the form of approximations and models…what’s reported as fact…Is often just a probability.”
  • Anomalies are an important driver of progress.

    • Story: William Herschel and the discovery of the planet Uranus. The planet’s orbit seemed erratic until it was discovered that another planet, Neptune, was affecting Uranus.
    • Story: Mercury’s orbit also appeared to deviate from Newtonian physics until Einstein expanded on the Newton’s model (gravity wells, e.g. example of a bowling ball and billiard balls on a trampoline).
  • “Anomalies distort this clean picture of good and bad and right and wrong. Life is taxing enough without uncertainty, so we eliminate the uncertainty by ignoring the anomaly. We convince ourselves the anomaly must be an extreme outlier or a measurement error, so we pretend it doesn’t exist.”
  • “The discovery of quantum mechanics, X-rays, DNA, oxygen, penicillin, and others, all occurred when the scientists embraced, rather than disregarded, anomalies.”
  • Acknowledging uncertainties is the first step to resolving them.
  • Recommended exercise: write down your concerns and uncertainties (what you know and what you don’t know). This action creates boundaries around the uncertainties. It also allows you to explore: “What’s the worst case scenario?” and “What’s the best possible outcome?”
  • Risk mitigation strategies used in rocket-science:

    • Redundancies

      • “Redundancy in aerospace refers to a backup created to avoid a single point of failure that can compromise the entire mission.”
      • Redundancies must function independently (e.g. the space shuttle had four computers running the same software as well as a fifth running different software from a different subcontractor).
    • Margins of safety

      • “For example, they build spacecraft stronger than what appears necessary or make thermal insulation thicker than required.”
      • Margins of safety provide added protection from uncertainty. You build for more extreme cases and scenarios than you think necessary.
  • Lastly: You cannot make progress until you start walking. Only once you start taking action will a clear path eventually emerge.

Chapter 2: Reasoning from First Principles

  • “Unwittingly, knowledge can make us a slave to convention. And conventional thoughts lead to conventional results.”

    • Example: Market prices for rockets is high. Most of us assume that only government entities with deep pockets can build them.
  • Things that adhere to “we’ve always done it this way” thinking are begging for new thinking and innovation.

  • Path dependence: What we’ve done before shapes what we do next. Defaults and convention influence many of the things we do.

  • Examples of path dependence:

    • Space shuttle engine width was determined by the width of the rail lines that could transport the engines (which were, in turn, based Roman road dimensions: 4 feet, 8.5 inches).
    • QWERTY keyboards as legacy from the era mechanical typewriters which would jam. QWERTY is, unfortunately, a suboptimal layout for typing speed and ergonomics.
  • Upton Sinclair: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.”

    • Many companies shun innovation because they are fixated on short-term results.
    • Many processes and routines have a tremendous amount of legacy and ancillary layers built on top of them.
  • Jeff Bezos asks: “If you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing…do we own the process or does the process own us?”

  • “Knowledge is good. But knowledge should inform, not constrain. Knowledge should enlighten, not obscure.”

  • “We’re constrained not only by what we’ve done in the past, but also by what others have done as well.”

  • People like to think they are original or unconventional, but the reality is that, in general, people tend to follow the herd.

  • Chinese proverb: One dog barks at something, and a hundred others bark at that sound.

  • “In conditions of uncertainty, we tend to copy and paste from our peers and competitors, assuming they know something we don’t.”

  • Warrant Buffett: “The five most dangerous words in business are ‘Everybody else is doing it.’”

  • First principles thinking: “Descartes described it as systematically doubting everything you can possibly doubt, until you’re left with unquestionable truths.”

    • This approach allows you to eliminate visible and invisible assumptions.
    • You start fresh from fundamental components of truth.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer (philosopher): “Talent hits a target no one else can hit…genius hits a target no one else can see.”

  • Case study: Elon Musk and RocketX

    • Musk started with the first principles of physics to determine what is needed to put a rocket in space.
    • Fundamental elements like what are the raw materials needed to fabricate a rocket were explored.
    • Musk realized that cost of materials for existing rocket programs was 2% of total cost. Musk discovered that labor, research and development costs were astronomical because of multi-level outsourcing.
    • Musk decided to manufacture components in-house and reduce cost overruns so typical in other rocket building projects.
    • Musk also decided to use components from other industries rather than redesign new, specialized components.
    • Musk also decided to build reusable rockets. A big cost in prior programs were that the initial stages of the rockets were single-use.
  • “Escaping our own assumptions is tricky business.”

  • “Invisible rules are even more stubborn. They’re the silent killers that constrain our thinking without our being aware of it.”

    • We assume that restaurants must have tables.
    • We assume that overnight accommodations must be hotels.
    • We assume that late fees are part of the movie rental business.
    • We assume that venture-capital is necessary to create a new company.
  • Questioning all of our assumptions would be exhausting and counterproductive. Routines and shortcuts are essential to navigating daily decisions.

  • Prioritize the areas where you apply first-principles thinking. Save this approach for the most important problems you are solving.

  • Questions to ask to overcome assumptions:

    • What if this weren’t true?
    • Why am I doing it this way?
    • Can I get rid of this?
    • Can I replace this with something better?
  • Don’t let the existing narrative that you or society carry define or limit your possibilities. “The story of your significance is just that: a story…if you don’t like the story, you can change the story.”

  • Nick Kokonas (restauranteur): “It’s hard to make incremental changes…every now and then you just need to destroy it and rebuild it better.”

  • Creative reinvention and destruction must be accompanied by a commitment to start or explore something new.

  • “Unless you change the underlying patterns of thought, you can expect more of the same—regardless of how many times you hold a sledgehammer party.”

  • Kill the company exercise: A thought experiment in which you assume the role of antagonist. Come up with ways to destroy a company or idea or thing that you care about. Doing this will help you brainstorm new ideas and uncover weaknesses and dangerous assumptions about your current situation.

  • Occam’s razor: Per Carl Sagan: “When face with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.”

  • Subtraction as a powerful force for creativity and innovation:

    • Get things right by cutting the junk.
    • Reduce a system to its primary components.
    • Make something as simple as possible without sacrificing utility.
  • “To cut is to make whole. To subtract is to add. To constrain is to liberate.”

  • Only by cutting the processes and assumptions clouding your thinking can you unleash the true creativity of your mind.

Chapter 3: A Mind at Play

  • Albert Einstein: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
  • Einstein made use of thought experiments and mental visualizations to explore interesting questions he had about the world (e.g. moving trains, accelerating elevators, falling painters, etc.).
  • “For many scientists, the laboratory of the mind is far more important than the laboratory of the physical world.”
  • “As shocking as it sounds, we can generate breakthroughs simply by thinking. No Google. No self-help books. No focus groups or surveys…”
  • Thought experiments allows us to consider first-principles thinking and to focus on how things could be (normative) rather than how they are.
  • Schrodinger’s Cat and Galileo’s debunking of Aristotelian physics were based on thought experiments.
  • “We discourage curiosity also because it requires an admission of ignorance.”
  • Asking questions or undertaking thought experiments signals that we don’t know the answer to a question. Our egos frequently get in the way of truth and progress.
  • “We assume most questions are too basic to ask, so we don’t ask them.”
  • Too often we rely on conventional methodologies that 99% of the population also uses. The result is stale and conventional thinking.
  • George Bernard Shaw (playwright): “Few people think more than two ro three times a year. I’ve made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
  • Edwin Land (polaroid founder) explored the question his child asked when he took a photo: “Why can’t I see the picture now?” He asked what it would take to turn a camera into a miniaturized dark room.
  • Play as a form of curiosity and exploration: “Play and intelligence should be complements, not competitors. Play, put differently, can be a portal to intelligence.”
  • Thought experiments should be used as pathways to further exploration. The goal isn’t to find the right answer initially, but to free the act of inquiry.
  • “Remember, the though experiment is the starting point, not the end. The process is messy and nonlinear.”
  • Author defines boredom as large chunks of unstructured time free of distractions.
  • Most people either avoid or fail to consciously spend time relaxed in thought.
  • “If we don’t take the time to think—if we don’t pause, understand, and deliberate—we can’t find the wisdom or form new ideas. We end up sticking with the first solution or thought that pops into our mind, instead of staying with the problem.”
  • William Deresiewicz (writer): “My first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.”
  • Breakthroughs occur when we ask good questions.
  • Time and incubation periods boost the ability to solve problems.
  • Being stuck and hitting roadblocks is part of the process.
  • Cross-pollination of ideas from different disciplines is essential.

    • The idiom about comparing apples with oranges is wrong: we should be comparing apples and oranges.
    • Specialization is overrated. Diversity of interest and ideas fosters creativity.
    • Steve Jobs (businessman): “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something…”
  • Combinatory play: Idea that Einstein advocated in which you expose yourself to “a motley coalition of ideas, seeing the similar in the dissimilar, and combining and recombining apples and oranges into a brand-new fruit.”

  • “To facilitate cross-pollination, renowned scientists often develop diverse interests.”

  • Outsiders and beginners minds have powerful insights on well-trod subjects because they lack the preexisting baggage and assumptions of long-time disciples:

    • Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist, introduced the geological theory of plate tectonics.
    • Jeff Bezos came to retail via the finance world.
    • Elon Musk came to the world of space rockets as an outsider.
    • Albert Einstein was a patent clerk when he published his seminal paper on special relativity (a paper almost entirely lacking citations of prior works).
  • Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist of “beginner’s mind.”

  • Shunryu Suzuki (Zen teacher): “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Chapter 4: Moonshot Thinking

  • Moonshot: “A breakthrough technology that brings a radical solution to an enormous problem.

    • Example: Google X’s “Project Loon” which delivers internet access via balloons carrying arrays of internet servers, powered by solar energy and beaming internet signals down tot he ground.
    • Humanity’s first actual moonshot was the Apollo space program in the 1960s.
  • Incremental (1%) improvements work within the confines of the status quo.

  • Radical change and tenfold or hundredfold growth events occur via moonshots.

  • “Pursuing a moonshot puts you in a different league—and often an entirely different game—from that of your competitors, making the established plays and routines largely irrelevant.”

  • “If your goal is to improve car safety, you can make gradual improvements to the design of a car…but if your goal is a moonshot of eliminating all accidents, you must start with a blank slate and question all assumptions—including the human operator behind the wheel. This first principles approach paves the way for the possibility of autonomous vehicles.”

  • SpaceX, not content just to launch satellites into Earth orbit, is aiming for a higher goal of a mission to Mars. This objective forces it think differently about its approach to space flight and space innovation (and break from the status quo).

  • Story of the mouse vs. antelope:

    • A lion must expend tremendous energy to capture a mouse which yields little in return.
    • A lion must expend more energy to take down an antelope, but the antelope yields greater rewards.
    • Analogy: people tend to hunt mice when they should be hunting antelope. Added benefit: There is far less competition for the antelopes.
  • Abraham Maslow (psychologist): “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.”

  • Astro Teller (businessman): “Somehow society has developed this notion that you have to have a huge amount of money audacious…taking good, smart risks is something that anyone can do…”

  • “The hurdle to taking moonshots isn’t a financial or practical one. It’s a mental one.”

  • “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.”

  • Our expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. At best, aiming for mediocrity will result in mediocrity.

  • Divergent thinking: An approach to generating different ideas.

    • Ignores constraints, feasibility and financial limitations.
    • Experimental, open to ideas and highly optimistic.
    • “The goal is to create a flurry of options…not prematurely judging them.”
    • “Investigate the absurd.”
  • Could vs. should: As yourself “What could I do? Rather than “What should I do?”

    • Could-thinking is more expansive and considers all options.
    • Should-thinking often zeroes in on obvious or conventional solutions.
  • “We have to generate ideas first before we can begin evaluating and eliminating them.”

  • Be wary of people and phrases that constrain brainstorming:

    • “We’ve tried that before.”
    • “We don’t have the budget.”
    • “Management will never approve.”
    • “It can’t be done.”
  • “Because of the differences between idea generation and idea evaluation, many authors separate the act of drafting from the act of editing.”

    • Drafting is for divergent thinking.
    • Editing is for convergent thinking.
  • Example of divergent thinking produces three ways to land on Mars:

    • 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers were cocooned in airbags.
    • 2008 Phoenix Mission used a legged lander.
    • 2011 Curiosity Rover used an 8-engine jetpack.
  • Safe answers and solutions do not change the world.

  • Brains are exercised and pushed better under irregular stimulus.

    • “Left to its own device, your mind strives for the path of least resistance.”
    • Comfort, order and predictability can affect creativity.
    • “Your neurons, just like your muscles, can rewire and grow through discomfort.”
  • Learn to see things marked as “impossible” as huge, exciting opportunities for learning and understanding.

  • Science-fiction solutions are one way to generate creative and off-the-wall ideas. Consider: How might this work in a fictitious future?

  • “Shocking the brain through moonshot thinking doesn’t mean we stop considering practicalities. Once we have our wacky ideas, we can collide them with reality by switching from divergent to convergent thinking—from idealism to pragmatism.”

  • Bad idea brainstorming: The act of identifying terrible ideas as a path to finding good ideas. “A terrible idea is often the cousin of a good idea.”

  • Backcasting vs. forecasting:

    • Forecasting works from the present (i.e. the status quo) in order to look into the future. Downside is that it assumes many of the existing assumptions, biases and conditions of today and carries them into the feature.
    • Backcasting works from the future and attempts to determine who to get there. Backcasting allows the future vision to drive decision-making and solutions.
  • Amazon uses a similar approach to “backcasting” by having product teams develop internal press releases for products that don’t exist.

    • Jeff Bezos: “We only fund things that we can articulate crisply.”
    • Iterating on a press release is less expensive than iterating on an actual product.
    • Part of the exercise involves determining what aspects of the offering will be most disappointing to customers and what the FAQs will be.
  • “Backcasting can also provide a sobering reality check. We often fall in love with a destination, but not the path.”

  • “Condition yourself to derive intrinsic value form the process rather than chasing elusive outcomes.”

  • Monkeyfirst Strategy:

    • Scenario: The boss wants you to get a monkey to stand on a pedestal and train it to recite passages from Shakespeare.
    • Most people start by building the pedestal first to show progress (the pedestal is the easiest part of the project).
    • Train the monkey first: If you cannot train the monkey there is no project.
    • Monkeyfirst helps avoid the sunk cost fallacy. You will know if the project is viable or not sooner by dealing with the project’s Achilles heel first.
    • Kill metrics are a set of go/no-go criteria for determining when to continue or when to quit. Develop these criteria at the start of the project.
  • Case study: Google X’s “Foghorn Project”

    • Foghorn looked at turning CO2 from seawater into liquid fuel as a potential replacement for gasoline.
    • Team aimed to get production costs to equal one gallon of fuel for $5.
    • The technology turned out to be the pedestal. It was easy to convert seawater into fuel.
    • The monkey was the cost. The overall process was too expensive especially when gasoline prices were declining.
  • “We don’t know how to train a monkey, but we know how to build pedestals, so we build them…writing emails, attending endless meetings…instead of tackling the hardest part of a project.”

  • “What’s easy often isn’t important, and what’s important often isn’t easy.”

  • Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, but the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Stage Two: Accelerate

Chapter 5: What If We Sent Two Rovers Instead of One?

  • Search for a better question in order to get a better answer.
  • “In solving problems, we instinctively want to identify answers.”
  • “When we immediately launch into answer mode, we end up chasing the wrong problem.”
  • When we have tunnel-vision or fall in love with our answers too soon, it closes our minds and creativity on seeing better alternatives.
  • Einstellung effect: Having a fixed mental state or attitude.
  • Conventional education teaches students to answers problems with fixed “correct” answers rather than reframe the question.
  • “When you see a good move, don’t make it immediately. Look for a better one.”
  • Answers are embedded within the question. Framing of the question is a critical but often overlooked piece of the solution.
  • “When we reframe a question—when we change our method of questioning—we have the power to change the answers.”
  • “The most creative art students spend more time in the preparation and discovery stage than do their less creative counterparts.”
  • Avoid mistaking tactics for strategy:

    • Strategies are plans for achieving an objective.
    • Tactics are the actions you take to implement a strategy.
  • Too often people pursue a set of tactics (actions) without properly understanding the strategy (or true objective).

    • The Mars Rover lander problem: Team was fixated on how to improve a 3-legged landing apparatus when the true problem (strategy) was “How to safely land a rover on Mars.”

    • The Embrace infant warmer: Team of students set out to build a better incubator. They discovered that the true strategy was no a better incubator but how to keep a baby warm.

    • The Stanford Technology Ventures Program $5 challenge: Students were given $5 and instructed to make as much money as possible within 2 hours and then give a three-minute presentation. Successful teams don’t sue the $5 at all and reframe the problem to figure out how to make money with nothing at all. An even more successful team sold the 3-minute presentation time to a recruiting company.

    • [me: Reminds me of Clayton Christensen’s “Jobs to be done” framework]

  • “Only when you zoom out and determine the broader strategy can you walk away from a flawed tactic.”

  • “To find the strategy, ask yourself: What problem is this tactic here to solve?”

  • By identifying the true strategy, it becomes easier to explore different tactics that weren’t previously considered.

  • Reframe to look at all aspects of a situation differently: Reframe not only the question but also objects, products, skills and other resources to come up with creative solutions.

  • Functional fixedness: A type of mental block in which we are unable to perceive of more creative uses for an object or tool. Example: A barometer is used to measure air pressure. What about using a barometer as a weight?

  • “Functional fixedness arises from a set of assumptions we have about what a box or barometer is supposed to do…if you didn’t know what you know, what else could you do with it?”

  • Carl Jacobi (mathematician): “Invert, always invert.”

  • Many different ways to see things differently:

    • Use function-free descriptions of objects.
    • Switch from function to form.
    • Do the contrary: If people are looking for similarities, look for differences (and vice-versa).
    • Consider: “What is the exact opposite that a competitor would expect us to do?”

Chapter 6: The Power of Flip-Flopping

  • Sherlock Holmes: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

  • Confirmation bias: Overweighting evidence that supports our preexisting beliefs and underweighting evidence that contradicts them.

  • Confirming our theories and ideas feels good so we have a strong incentive to avoid testing, questioning or knocking down our ideas.

  • Confirmation bias is a significant obstacle to personal improvement and the adoption of new ways of thinking.

  • Richard Feynman (scientist): “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  • Opinions present several problems:

    • We often latch onto the first idea that feels good to us (rather than exhaustively and objectively expose alternatives).
    • We become irrationally attached to our ideas.
    • We associate our ideas with our identity.
  • “When our beliefs and your identity are one and the same, changing your mind means changing your identity—which is why disagreements often turn into existential death matches.”

  • Working hypothesis: A provisional explanation that forms the basis for further research.

    • Scientists use working hypotheses instead of forming opinions.
    • Working hypotheses are tested while opinions are defended.
    • The working hypothesis is malleable and can be changed or substituted for a new one based on research efforts.
  • Author learned to separate his argument from his identify by opening talks with “This paper hypothesizes…” instead of saying “I argue…”

  • Examine your preconceptions before establishing your working hypothesis.

  • “To make sure you don’t fall in love with a single hypothesis, generate several.”

  • “Ideally, the hypotheses you spin should conflict with each other.”

  • How to generate conflicting ideas:

    • Consider what information or facts are missing. Ask: “What am I not seeing?”
    • Actively work to prove yourself wrong. Try to generate negative outcomes or failures. Example: the 2, 4, 6 numbers game.
    • Collaborate with others: Other people will see what you don’t.
    • Play devils advocate with yourself. Steel man arguments are more effective than straw man arguments. Steel manning involves finding the best and strongest opposing argument.
  • “Our goal should be to find what’s right—not to be right.”

Chapter 7: Test as You Fly, Fly as You Test

  • Experimentation and testing are powerful tools that we don’t make sufficient use of in many aspects of life.

  • When we do perform tests, we must ensure that we do not misread the results and allow them to reinforce confirmation bias.

  • “In a well-designed test, outcomes can’t be predetermined. You must be willing to fail.”

  • “In a proper test, the goal isn’t to discover everything that can go right. Rather, the goal is to discover everything that can go wrong and find the breaking point.”

  • “The best way to determine an object’s breaking point is to break it.” It is preferable to find flaws in advance than during operation (i.e. uncover the problems with a spacecraft before it flies into space).

  • Don’t so quick to dismiss “edge cases” or “outliers” as low probability scenarios.

    • Example: The Mars Rover landing tests in which a variety of rocks were places on the test-surface. An unusual rock called “Black Rock” caused single-bladder landing cushions to rupture. Instead of dismissing this rock as unlikely, the Mars team planned for the worst-case and built a double-bladder cushion to address this rock.
  • Component testing and systems testing:

    • Individual components should be tested in isolation AND in with the systems and subsystems with which they interact.
    • Complex systems and interactions between components will often yield unexpected or detrimental results.
  • “They [astronauts] don’t fly in space for living. They train and prepare for spaceflight for a living. ‘I’ve been an astronaut for six years,’ explained Chris Hadfield, ‘I’ve been in space for eight days.’”

  • “The goal of the kill-the-astronaut exercise is…to push the astronauts to make the wrong moves in the simulator so they learn to make the right ones in space.”

  • “Repeated exposure to problems inoculates astronauts and boosts their confidence in their ability to defuse just about any issue.”

  • “Train in the same environment you’ll experience on race day—while your competition trains from the comfort of a gym because it happens to be raining outside.”

  • Most people don’t prepare in conditions that mimic reality.

  • Example of a shoe company testing a product by selling a limited-run prototype vs. running a survey.

  • Observing customer behavior in real life is ideal. But remember the observer effect: the act of observing people can affect their behavior.

  • **Double-blind ** methods are a way to mitigate the observer effect.

  • Case: Tim Ferris approach to book publishing:

    • Ferris ran Google AdWords campaigns to test attractiveness of various book titles.
    • Ferris placed alternate book covers in stores and secretly observed which versions were most enticing to browsing customers.
  • The testing mechanism, process and device(s) must be vetted and tested themselves to ensure accuracy and error free results.

  • “Treat your testing instruments like your investments and diversify them.”

Stage Three: Achieve

Chapter 8: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

  • People are wired and conditioned to fear failure.
  • Doing groundbreaking or novel things requires risk.
  • Elon Musk: “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
  • Jeff Bezos: “A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”
  • Adam Grant (psychologist): “When it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.”
  • “When we fail, we often conceal it, distort it, or deny it. We make the facts fit our self-serving theory rather than adjust the theory to fit the facts.”
  • Assigning blame for failures:

    • For personal failures we assign blame to external factors (the environment, the system, other people, etc.).
    • For other people’s failures we assign blame to the individual (they made bad decisions, they lacked the will, etc.).
  • “The goal isn’t to fail fast. It’s to learn fast. We should be celebrating the lessons from failure—not failure itself.”
  • Bake failure into your business model and idea generation process: There are more ideas than you are capable of realizing (due to time and resources). Only the strongest and most viable ideas will survive. But the vetting process will often involve testing and early prototyping before an idea is deemed a failure.
  • “There are two responses to negative feedback from a credible source: deny it or accept it.”
  • Failure provides valuable data, insights and lessons.
  • Shane Parrish (writer): “Most things in life are first-order positive, second-order negative.” Good in the moment and bad in the long-run.
  • Annie Dukes: The quality of an input in the decision-making process isn’t the same as the quality of the output (the result). Focus on the inputs (which you can control) and view the results as as a probabilistic side-effect that isn’t always in your control.
  • “You should retain the good-quality decisions, even if they produced a failure.”
  • “When we switch to an input-focused mindset, we condition ourselves to derive intrinsic value out of the activity. T/he input becomes its own reward.”
  • From “The Art of Possibility” (Zander): Every time you fail at something, analyze the outcome with curiosity by saying “How fascinating!”
  • “When we reward success and punish failure, employees will underreport failures, overreport successes, and reframe anything that falls in between in the best possible light.”
  • NASA’s “Flight Rules” document is an institutional record of failures that provides insights and learnings to future generations of NASA scientists and engineers.
  • Counterintuitive research finding: A paper on hospital teams found that the best teams had the most reported mistakes. Upon investigating, the researchers discovered that the best teams were better at reporting their mistakes. The worst teams were covering up their mistakes.

Chapter 9: Nothing Fails Like Success

  • Challenger disaster and O-ring failure as a cautionary tale of how institutional tunnel vision forms. Over time, the O-ring deterioration came to be seen as an acceptable risk which was reinforced by the previous successful space shuttle missions.
  • “Each success reinforced a belief in the status quo…what would otherwise be considered unacceptable levels of risk blame the new norm.”
  • When we succeed we don’t consider the attendant problems or mistakes. We believe everything went according to plan. We are unlikely to change anything and our confidence is boosted.
  • Bill Gates: “Success is a lousy teacher because it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
  • “The remedy is to drop the word routine from our vocabulary and treat all our projects—particularly the successful ones—as permanent works in progress.”
  • “Leading up to the Columbia and Challenger accidents, there wasn’t one gross misjudgment, one major miscalculation, or one egregious breach of duty. Rather, ‘a series of seemingly harmless decisions were made that incrementally moved the space agency’ to catastrophe…”
  • “Near misses are a rich source of data…they happen more frequently than accidents.”
  • Premortem is a technique of exploring failure and mistakes before an outcome is known. You assume the project failed and engage in a thought experiment in which you identify potential problems and try to resolve them in the present.
  • Charlan Nemeth (psychologist): “Minority viewpoints are important not because they tend to prevail, but because they stimulate divergent attention and thought…they contribute to the detection of novel solutions and decisions…”
  • There are usually multiple causes of failure in complex systems: technical, human and environmental that combine to generate failure.
  • NASA’s Challenger and Columbia accidents exhibited different technical flaws but common cultural flaws. “It’s easier t slap on a third O-ring…[than] to cure the deeper cultural pathology prevalent in a massive bureaucracy.”
  • “When we pretend that curing the first-order cause will also eliminate the second- and third- order causes, we end up masking them and exposing ourselves to future catastrophe.”
  • “We confuse a symptom with a cause and leave the deeper causes intact.”
  • Risk compensation (author refers to this as “risk homeostasis” but he’s really talking about risk compensation): Phenomenon whereby people adjust behavior based on risk perception. People are more careful in situations with perceived risk and more reckless when they feel greater safety/security.

    • Example: American football players wear helmets to protect themselves but suffer greater head/neck injuries.
    • Example: Antilock breaking systems didn’t decrease the number of accidents (drivers drive faster b/c they believe they are safe).

Epilogue: The New World

  • “When success bring complacency—when we tell ourselves that now that we’ve discovered the New World, there’s no reason to return—we become a shadow of our form selves.”
  • Jeff Bezos: “It remains Day 1…Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline…that is why it is always Day 1.”
  • “We must keep devising thought experiments, taking moonshots, proving ourselves wrong, dancing with uncertainty, reframing problems, testing as we fly, and returning to first principles.”
  • Walt Whitman: “However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters, we must not anchor here.”


Get weekly email updates and additional content: Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.