We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon — We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.
John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, Rice University
The problem with the modern world, as Bertrand Russell put it, is that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Each month, I present two book synopses at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas. One of the ripple effects of this schedule is that I have to start reading the next month’s books pretty quickly after each month’s event. Thus, I don’t have the luxury of pausing, pondering, reflecting, thinking about the books that I just presented. And this is a shame.
In June, I presented two books worth pondering over. This post is about the excellent book Think Like a Rocket Scientist: : Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life by Ozan Varol. It is written by a former rocket scientist – he worked on one of the probes to Mars — who then went to law school, and is now a writer and professor.
This is a book that says big problems can be solved. But, to solve them, you have to dream big, and get to work.
In my synopses, I ask: What is the point?
The point of this book is: We have to make major, massive breakthroughs to actually go forward. To do this, we have to learn how to think like a rocket scientist.
And I ask: Why is this book worth our time? My three reasons for this book are:
#1 – This book provides a short, but quite valuable history of key moments in our exploration of space. This is worth knowing.
#2 – This book reveals with vivid detail how we close our minds to genuinely new ideas. We need to combat this tendency.
#3 – This book gives us tangible ways to put thinking-like-a-rocket-scientist into practice. These are valuable exercises, and worthwhile steps to follow.
In my reading, I highlight many, many passages. I include a whole bunch of my highlights in my synopsis handouts; a few pages worth. Here are the best of my highlights from this book; direct excerpts from the book, the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages:
• You won’t be a rocket scientist by the end of this book. But you’ll know how to think like one.
• You’ll learn how our obsession with certainty leads us astray and why all progress takes place in uncertain conditions.
• If you stick to the familiar, you won’t find the unexpected.
• As adults, we fail to outgrow this conditioning. We believe (or pretend to believe) there is one right answer to each question.
• “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
• “Discovery comes not when something goes right,” physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn explains, “but when something is awry, a novelty that runs counter to what was expected.”
• Upheaval precedes progress, and progress generates more upheaval.
• “We didn’t know what we were doing when we landed” on Mars, Squyres admits. “How can you know what you’re doing when no one has done it before?”
• “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something,” Upton Sinclair said, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
• You switch from being a cover band that plays someone else’s songs to an artist that does the painstaking work of creating something new.
• “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.”
• “The story of the human race,” psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote in 1933, “is the story of men and women selling themselves short.”
• “Most highly successful people have been really right about the future at least once at a time when people thought they were wrong,” Sam Altman writes. “If not, they would have faced much more competition.”
• When we seclude ourselves from opposing arguments, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt our established patterns of thinking.
• “One mark of a great mind,” Walter Isaacson said, “is the willingness to change it.”
• “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination,” Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling once observed, “is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”
• Economist Tyler Cowen wrote a detailed analysis of how, in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis, he “badly underestimated the chance that something systemic had gone wrong in the American economy.” Cowen admitted his remorse: “I regret that I was wrong, and I regret that I was overconfident in my belief that I was right.”
And then, in my synopses, I share a few of the notable points and principles from the book. Here are quite a few from what I shared:
So, what does in means to think like a rocket scientist? Here is the author’s answer:
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.
- We need a factor of ten, not a factor of one
- incremental improvement is fine; until it isn’t
- we are wired to settle for incremental improvement
- It all starts with reasoning from first principles
- Aristotle, who defined it as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” — René Descartes described it as systematically doubting everything you can possibly doubt, until you’re left with unquestionable truths.
- There really is an absolute tendency to stick with, and protect, the status quo…
- We really do need to learn some new things…
- When necessary, we must unlearn what we know and start over.
- Richard Branson –
- you can walk into a room; and walk back out again — Richard Branson writes, “You can walk through, see how it feels, and walk back through to the other side if it isn’t working.”
- Steve Martin; and Alinea (Restaurant)
- WHAT’S REMARKABLE ABOUT both Steve Martin and Alinea is that they took a sledgehammer to themselves when they were at the top of their game.
- The Kill the Company Exercise – (“Red Teaming,” in the Military exercises)
- It’s one thing to say “let’s think outside the box.” It’s another to actually step outside the box and examine your company or product from the viewpoint of a competitor seeking to destroy it.
- X kills entire projects; and rewards those (financially, and otherwise) who call for killing the project…
- Keep things simple
- Every time you introduce complexity to a system, you’re giving it one more aspect that can fail.
- “Every decision we’ve made,” Musk says, “has been with consideration to simplicity.…
- the (inexpensive) blanket vs the incubator for newborn babies — The device to provide warmth had to be inexpensive and intuitive so it could be used by an often-illiterate parent in a rural environment without reliable electricity.
- Beginner’s mind
- In Zen Buddhism, this principle is known as shoshin, or beginner’s mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” …encourages its employees to “walk in stupid” every day and approach problems from a beginner’s viewpoint.
- Use the right words…
- not what “would” you do; but what “could” you do? — the “could” group stayed open-minded and generated a broader range of possible approaches.
- Test as you fly…
- When she started competing, Amelia Boone was a lawyer at a major Chicago law firm. On a typical training day, Boone would go for a run in a wetsuit, dunking herself in and out of the icy waters of Lake Michigan, with the frigid winter wind whipping against her face.
- If we applied the test-as-you-fly rule, we would practice our speech in an unfamiliar setting, after downing a few espressos to give us the jitters. We would do mock interviews while wearing an uncomfortable suit, with a stranger ready to throw curveballs at us.
- Aim for progress – bold progress…
- But the world doesn’t work this way. Our default mode is regress—not progress. When left to their own devices, space agencies decline. Writers wither. Actors flare out. Internet millionaires collapse under the weight of their egos.
And I always conclude with this: Here are my seven lessons and takeaways:
#1 – You don’t have to do things the way they have been done. And, maybe…probably…you should not.
#2 – You don’t have to do the things that have been done. You can do something new; aomething that has not been done. This might be a very good thing to do.
#3 – You will have blind spots. Identify them. Be very wary of them.
#4 – You really do need to change your mind about something(s) – work on that.
#5 – You will make mistakes. Learn to learn from them. And when you do, realize that this mistake will not be the last mistake that you make, that you need to learn from.
#6 – Broaden your circle. You need to embrace more divergent thinking.
#7 – You probably need to read more books, and study more issues. Get better at that; get more active at that.
- And a footnote:
- Randy’s message to Tyler Cowen would be; you could be wrong again!
I have read so many books dealing with the challenge of innovation; of leaving the status quo behind, and how very difficult that is to do. This is one of the better books to help you think differently; to help you think like a rocket scientist.
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I don’t know about you, but it is hard to focus on much of anything these days.
I have read, and presented synopses of, over 500 books over the last 22 years. The majority of these books have been business books. But a large “second” focus have been books on social justice.
Last week, a person who has attended our First Friday Book Synopsis asked me: “have you read any books that helped you get ready for this moment?” My answer is…not enough.
I mentioned Factfulness by Hans Rosling, who wrote that of the six great threats to our planet, one of them was a global pandemic. And I mentioned Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote that everyone and every organization must make themselves “antifragile,” in case such a day of danger and testing comes.
But…no….no book quite got me prepared for this.
I have read plenty of books in the social justice arena that spoke to the human needs in times of difficulty. The need for genuine universal health care; the need for some kind of universal basic income.
But, ultimately, I think we are going to have to get through this with grit, determination, and inventive creativity.
I will be presenting two books, remotely (Zoom), for the May 1 First Friday Book Synopsis. One is on persuasion. The other is on innovation. Genuine innovation. The author, co-founder of Square Jim McKelvey, says that very occasionally, a person/leader creates something truly new. He describes the development of innovation stacks, put into practice to solve a “perfect problem.” Well, if any moment has ever called for an innovation stack to do something new, to solve a perfect problem, this is it!
But, here is my personal comment. I am finding it hard even to do my usual reading. But I have inhaled The innovation Stack by McKelvey because it has given me a tiny glimmer of hope – hope that someone somewhere is going to come up with something new; something inventive, creative, to help get us through this time.
One can hope.
This company is dead. I didn’t kill it. Don’t blame me. It was dead when I got here. It’s too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We’re dead alright. We’re just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.
You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies makin’ buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best g**da** buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let’s have the intelligence, let’s have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future.
“Other People’s Money” (1991) — Larry “the Liquidator” Garfield (Danny Devito) Addresses the Stockholders of New England Wire & Cable Co.
For the tech giants, valuation is about the future. It also helps that each enjoys a near monopoly in at least one industry: music sales, web search, and book sales, for example. Similarly, for the energy giants, valuation is about the future—a future that too many speculators and investors see as dim.
Ellen R. Wald, Forbes (Feb, 5, 2018), Why Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are more Valuable that Exxon and Chevron
I know…I know…there is no “one secret” to anything. So, when I say there is “one” secret, I automatically set myself up to be rejected out of hand.
But, I am ready to make a statement that is close to absolute: the one secret to failing at a business is to be offering an obsolete product or service. The completely obsolete product will certainly fail to gain customers. The almost obsolete product, or the on-the-path-to-becoming-obsolete product, will also fail; it just may take a bit of time.
I remember sitting is a church board meeting in about 1982, in Long Beach, California. There was a heated discussion; very heated. The issue: where to spend our advertising budget dollars. The two options were: a weekly newspaper ad on the Religion Page of the Saturday newspaper, vs. paying for a larger ad in the yellow pages. I was on the yellow pages side of the argument, by the way.
(Note to younger readers – every house in America used to have, delivered for free to their house, a big thick book called the Yellow Pages, filled with nothing but listings/ads from businesses. I also used to look up telephone numbers for people in the white pages phone book, by the way.
Note to younger readers: there was a time when most homes in America received, delivered to their houses, a physical newspaper, with the news from the previous day).
There must have been a vast army of people selling yellow pages ads in those days. Today, you would be throwing your money away to advertise in the yellow pages. — Is there still a yellow pages? I have not looked at the yellow pages in…years. Many, many years.
And, though I do take a daily newspaper – a physical newspaper delivered to our home daily — I have not looked at the Religion Page on Saturday for years. Do they still have such a page? I need to check.
Have you seen the latest short article and video circulating from Business Insider about the fall of Blockbuster? Same story – obsolete. Obsolete product; obsolete processes.
As I write this at this moment, here is the value of the three most valuable companies:
Apple — $1.385 trillion ($1,385 billion)
Microsoft — $1.290 trillion ($1,287 billion)
Alphabet (Google) – $1.010 trillion ($1,101 billion).
And, for a while a short time ago, Amazon crossed the $1 trillion mark. (At this moment, it is $925 billion).
It seems like only yesterday that people wondered if any company would ever be valued at over $1 trillion. Three now are, and four haver crossed the mark.
I remember a few years ago (a little over a decade ago), Exxon was the most valuable company. Exxon, at this moment, is valued at $289 billion. Apple is $1 trillion, plus nearly another $100 billion, more valuable. Just breathtaking.
So, what’s the deal? Yes, a number of technology-based companies have failed; many of them spectacularly. So, being in the right business is no guarantee of success. But being in the wrong business – one that is obsolete (think yellow pages; buggy whips; video cassette tapes) – is very bad for business indeed; a guaranteed path for failure.
And, though oil is still plenty valuable, it is no longer the most valuable. Today’s cutting edge, done well, becomes more valuable than yesterday’s dominant product or service.
So, whatever else you consider about business success, remember to consider this: is my product of service in danger or becoming obsolete? If so, you’ve got some serious thinking, and shifting to do.
Here’s an article by Ryan McCarthy that describes how Nokia could have been ahead of the game on the iPhone type phone, and then dropped the ball: Counterparties: Why big companies are bad at innovating.
…as early as 2000, the Finnish phone maker had designed a proto-iPhone – complete with a color touch screen and geo-location, gaming, and e-commerce capabilities.
This McCarthy article, quoting Peter Thiel, (actually, this “criticism” is kind of swirling around on the internet right now) describes how big companies might just get too big to innovate. The bigger they get, the more “set” they become, and the more blind they become to a great new idea – even if the idea comes from someone within their own company.
This has been written about by many, with years of recommendations about “skunk works,” secret teams… But it is just further proof that we get so very , very set in our ways.
It reminds me of the story of the invention of the battery powered watch. I listen to it from the “Paradigm Shift” guy, Joel Barker, every semester, on his video The Business of Paradigms. He tells how a man in a Swiss watch company invented this new fangled watch, and then showed it to the folks in his company. “That can’t be a watch – it doesn’t have a mainspring,” went the refrain. Well, the rest of the world saw it at some international watch convention, Seiko ran with it, and the Swiss lost their dominance in the blink of an eye.
Yes, there are a lot of bad new ideas out there. And, I assume that someone at Nokia said “this is a bad idea” with that new fangled phone. What we know is that they did not develop the idea. But others did.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
So, Apple had their newest big roll out yesterday. (Watch the WWDC keynote here). I am an Apple fan, but really only barely use my Apple devices (I have three; iMac, iPad, iPhone) to their capabilities. But I loaded the Macrumors live blog of the event, glanced at it frequently, and followed along. (And I kept looking for the announcement of the latest iMac, but, alas, it did not arrive. My son assures me it is coming soon).
From the moment that Siri started it off, to the multiple announcements, the faithful seemed more than satisfied with the latest good news. Here are two obvious lessons from yesterday’s event. And, yes, they are obvious. But the fact that they are obvious does not mean that other companies and organizations have figured out how to match Apple.
Lesson #1 – keep improving, keep tweaking, and keep innovating. Make your really great products and services even greater. Again and again. From the devices to the software to the operating systems, what is insanely great about Apple now is better than what was insanely great about Apple a year ago, and we all know that by this time next year it will be even greater and better and cooler and “must have” all over again. They give us great stuff now, and will keep on giving us greater stuff tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
I don’t even understand all of the ways they make it better. But I know it revolves around the entire package, the full constellation of offerings and capabilities – design, speed, (“faster, faster, faster, faster” – this was one of the mantras from yesterday) power, look, resolution, “retina display.” Apple just keeps making every part of Apple, everything that is Apple, and everything that works with Apple, better.
But most of us do not learn this lesson in our work. It took me way too many years to realize that while I talked about and spoke about constant improvement, I practiced very little of it. Here’s an example: for the first 13+ years of the First Friday Book Synopsis, my handouts for my synopses looked exactly the same: a plain, boring-looking, Word document, with no design appeal at all. Not too smart of me! I finally realized it was time (way past time) to make some changes on my handouts. We found a great designer to raise the look of our handouts to a new level. And I think they look terrific. And now, I have to figure out “so what’s next?” to keep getting better. And, all along, I have to ask “how can I do my work better?” It really is never ending.
Lesson #2 – Communicate very well to all of your intended audiences. Call it what you want: learn to market; learn to sell; learn to call attention to; learn to create anticipation. Though the current crop of Apple messengers cannot match the brilliance of Steve Jobs, (who could?!), they have clearly learned some major lessons from the master. And yesterday was a sold-out, live-blogged, extravaganza of a show. With videos and slides and demonstrations and team-presentations and multiple awe-inspiring moments for the faithful, Apple still seems to be at the top of their game.
You can read all you want about the need for better hard skills. And many who write about those hard skills tend to almost look down on the place of those soft skills.
That is a really big mistake!
Apple’s success revolves around these two realities; they make great products, and they sell them even better. Yes, this was part of the brilliance of Steve Jobs. But isn’t it interesting that no other company has come close to matching this aspect of Apple’s approach? Apple gets this – why don’t the rest of us?
Let me put it simply and bluntly – if you do not know how to communicate what you do, what you have to offer, clearly and compellingly, with excitement and great passion, then your great product just may go undiscovered by a whole lot of folks.
Lesson #1 – keep improving, keep tweaking, and keep innovating.
Lesson #2 – Communicate very well to all of your intended audiences.
How are you doing?
The jury came in long ago. No change, no innovation = real trouble for any and every organization.
From Gary Hamel, What Matters Now (notice the subtitle: How to win in a world of relentless change, ferocious competition, and unstoppable innovation):
Innovation isn’t a fad—it’s the real deal, the only deal. Right now, not everyone believes that, but they will…
“Change has changed” – truly, faster change; more change… Leaders must ask, “are we changing as fast as the world around us?”
Yet, the next jury is also coming in – we are slipping in the innovation department.
I have written so many times on this issue. And I think we do wrap a lot of different items under the overall umbrella of innovation. Creativity; constant improvement; updates; upgrades; version 2.0, 3.0. 10.0… the list is endless.
But it all boils down to this. If you have a perfect product, then leave it alone. (Are there any?). But if not, keep improving, keep tinkering, keep tweaking, keep innovating.
If you have a perfect process, then leave it alone. (There are even fewer of these!). If not, keep improving, keep tinkering, keep tweaking, keep innovating.
So, I write about this, I think about this, I present on this – and yet I (yes, me – Randy Mayeux) either forget to do it, or simply don’t want to do it. I don’t change, innovate, upgrade, update. I have my routines, my practices, my habits… and so I keep doing things in yesterday’s ways, and I could clearly do so much better. Laziness rears its ugly head again. As Scott Peck wrote years ago, laziness is our biggest enemy. It’s not that we don’t work. It’s that we work in the same old ways – we are too lazy to pursue the new, the different, the next better thing, the next better way. There is new software out there, new web-based tools to embrace, that would be really useful for me to use. I don’t want to take the time to learn how to use these. There are new skills to learn. I don’t want to take the time and effort to develop them. And so much more… the list is large, and growing, and goes on and on.
In other words, we (including me) really do like to do our work, and live our life, the way we have done our work and lived our life. And so, we fail to innovate. And, so many people in so many companies are just like us…
I read this on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: Is The Era Of Big Innovation Over?. It links to a couple of articles discussing whether or not the big innovations are over. (We don’t have colonies on Mars. We don’t fly around with Jetsons-like jetpacks). He links to Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows), and his article The hierarchy of innovation. Carr thinks we are now innovating more internally. He writes this:
As we move to the top level of the innovation hierarchy, the inventions have less visible, less transformative effects. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society, as it manifests itself in the physical world. We’re altering internal states, transforming the invisible self. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it looks like stagnation – it looks like nothing is changing very much.
And Carr proposes an “innovation-adapted Maslow’s hierarchy.” It’s pretty interesting Click on the image to take a look..
Think about the two worlds of innovation. There is the big, big world. The folks who will be coming up with mass-produced, inexpensive, driverless cars that will be fueled by garbage and fingernail clippings and thus keep the air cleaner and the planet more beautiful. Or the electricity that will be provided without the use of coal but with massively powerful solar panels built into our sunglasses. You know, the big, big innovations that will really change the world.
But there is also the small, more accessible world. My life, my job, the processes I follow… what am I doing to take the next big, big step in my small, small world?
It will be in the thousands of little innovations that we develop a true culture of innovation. And that is a culture we need to feed, applaud, and immerse ourselves in.
So – what about you? Is there a new software or web based-tool to learn, that would be really useful and make you more effective, more productive? (The answer is yes, by the way. This week, I’m working on learning how to use Trello effectively). Start today. Is there a process in your job to streamline? Start today. Is there a better way to respond to your own customers? So, learn it, do it…start today.
If you don’t join the innovation party, and keep at it, the world may simply pass you by.