Book Summary: Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol

A book summary of the key ideas from Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol, along with quotations and informal book notes.

The Book in a Nutshell

As a former rocket scientist, Ozan Varol believes we can all apply the thinking tools from his field. The book explores a range of models and strategies for generating, testing, and refining new ideas across all walks of life. A must-read for anyone that wants to enhance their problem solving and creativity.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: First-principles thinking. Expertise and innovation are often inversely related. The greatest innovations have resulted from undressing what we know in order to start from first principles.

#2: Moonshot thinking. Moonshots are radical solutions to enormous problems. To find them, we need to think differently from the herd, shocking our brains, backcasting, and embracing divergent thinking.

#3: The key to refining problems and testing solutions. Question and refine the question, beware blindspots in drawing your hypothesis, and then check your solution by replicating real-world conditions in testing.

#4: The dangers of celebrating failure and banking success. Don’t celebrate failure; learn meticulously from it. Conversely, beware the status quo response to success.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

The following are more detailed book notes from Think Like a Rocket Scientist. These notes do not by any means cover the full breadth of the book. They are instead intended to serve as an introduction to some of the key ideas, from which to decide whether the book is worth further attention.

Key Idea #1: First-principles thinking

Over time, we’re losing our ability to interact with the unknown. We seek certainty and conviction where it can’t be found. We stick to the comfort of certainty instead of the risks of known unknowns. The result is a failure to identify the greatest opportunities available to us.

“If you stick to the familiar, you won’t find the unexpected. Those who get ahead in this century will dance with the great unknown and find danger, rather than comfort, in the status quo.”

This fixation on certainty creates blind spots. It leads us to believe we know what there is to know, oblivious to contradictions that stare us in the face.

“The pretense of knowledge closes our ears and shuts off incoming educational signals from outside sources. Certainty blinds us to our own paralysis.”

Part of the psychological challenge has its roots in the inverse relationship between expertise and innovation. As we become more knowledgeable, we become slaves to how things are rather than how they could be. The default position takes a mental hold.

“The deeper the snow tracks, the harder it is to escape them. An established method of doing things can conceal the exit gate.”

Innovators, on the other hand, embrace anomalies and first-principles thinking.

Varol believes we can follow suit with some simple steps. For example, we can undress uncertainty by writing down our concerns, turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns. Meanwhile, we can turn to thinking from first principles.

This approach flips the script. Instead of starting from where we are, it asks us to think from the beginning. To paraphrase Varol, first-principles thinking forces us to doubt everything we can doubt until we’re left with only unquestionable truths.

Key Idea #2: Moonshot thinking

From Einstein to da Vinci, some of our best thinkers embraced the creative power of thought experiments. To yield optimal creative output, we must make time for curious experimentation:

“Hustle and creativity are antithetical to each other. You can’t generate breakthroughs while clearing out your inbox. You must dig the well before you’re thirsty and become curious now – not when a crisis inevitably presents itself.”

Varol highlights a few principles to stimulate creativity:

  1. Embrace boredom. The default mode network, a brain region associated with creativity, lights up as the mind begins to wander. Take time to simply think and do nothing else. Boredom is food for a creative mind.
  2. Combinatory play embraces the idea that two seemingly disparate fields can combine to create new ideas. The upshot: Surround yourself with people from different backgrounds and fields. Take up new hobbies and interests.
  3. Embrace the Medici effect. Breakthroughs almost always have a collaborative component. Optimal creativity is not often the fruit of complete isolation.
  4. Find a beginner’s mind. Take knowledge back to its root. Approach work as a beginner with ample room for improvement.

These creativity-boosting principles can lay the groundwork for “moonshots”: “breakthrough technologies that brings a radical solution to an enormous problem.

Moonshots force us to think from first principles, but we must first overcome our societal conditioning to find them.

Some recommended strategies to encourage moonshot thinking:

  1. Divergent thinking can help generate different ideas in an open-minded manner, creating a flurry of options without judging or limiting.
  2. Shock your brain. Research supports a link between cognitive contradictions and creativity. For example, a “bad-idea brainstorm” can shock the brain into more creative ideas.
  3. Backcasting: A mental model whereby we imagine a desired future and work backwards to determine how it is achieved.

Key Idea #3: The key to refining problems and testing solutions

When trying to solve problems, we look for concrete answers. And when we’re familiar with the problem, we become even more blinded to the alternatives (known as the Einstellung effect).

The key to overcoming this bias is to question the question. Reframing a question can help us to think more creatively and drive improved solutions.

“Think of questions as different camera lenses. Put on a wide-angle lens, and you’ll capture the entire scene. Put on a zoom lens, and you’ll get a close-up shot of a butterfly.”

One way of questioning the question is to invert it. Sometimes if we flip the question on its head, we can generate different insights.

When then generating solutions, we need to expose our beliefs to objective scrutiny. We must beware the pitfalls of confirmation bias, and separate our opinions from our identity:

“When your 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.”

Subtle techniques, like tweaking our vocabulary around beliefs, can help separate opinion from identity. Varol also suggests generating several hypotheses to avoid falling in love with a single solution.

To combat confirmation bias, we need to focus on our blindspots, ask ourselves what’s missing, and self-falsify. Stepping out of an echo chamber of self-confirming beliefs can help expose our opinions to challenge.

“Our goal should be to find what’s right – not to be right.”

Finally, as we bring our solutions closer to reality, we should follow the test-as-you-fly principle.

In other words, we should design our tests to replicate real-life conditions as much as possible. And we must test for failure. A test that is designed with pre-determined outcomes doesn’t help us to discover what can go wrong.

Key Idea #4: The dangers of celebrating failure and banking success

Celebrating failure is as dangerous as demonizing it. Rocket scientists take a more balanced approach.

Some principles that Varol outlines on the theme of failure:

  1. Treat failure as an option. “Quantity is the most predictable path to quality.”
  2. Don’t fail fast. Don’t celebrate failure; celebrate the lessons from failure. Avoid the tendency to conceal and bias evaluations of failures.
  3. Focus on inputs over outputs. Focus on the inputs you can control. Then ask yourself which inputs need fixing when a project fails. An input focus keeps the mind curious and avoids chasing outcomes.
  4. Foster psychological safety. Create an environment of openness to report failures. Research shows that psychological safety increases innovation and improves learning.

On the other hand, successes can reinforce our belief in the status quo and conceal mistakes:

“Success is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It drives a wedge between appearance and reality. When we succeed, we believe everything went according to plan. We ignore the warning signs and the necessity for change. With each success, we grow more confident and up the ante.”

Some insights on managing success:

  1. Be a work in progress. We must drop “routine” from our vocabularies and treat our projects as permanent works in progress.
  2. Pay attention to near misses. Studies show that even when risk remains unchanged, our perception of risk reduces after a near miss. We must ask ourselves, what went wrong with each success?
  3. Carry out a premortem. A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. The idea is to imagine a failure and then work backwards to diagnose why.
  4. Pretend there isn’t a safety net. Human beings tend to compensate for reduced risk in one area by increasing risk in another.

You can buy Think Like a Rocket Scientist here, or for similar reading try The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

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