Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol — Here are my seven lessons and takeaways

Think Like a Rocket Scientist 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.


My synopses are available for purchase at the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation.  This synopsis will be added soon.  Click here for our newest additions.


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