Think Like a Rocket Scientist looks at the different mental models tried and tested by top the top minds in science and explains how we can use them in our everyday lives to make better decisions.
Get the book here: Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol
Key Idea #1 – Embrace uncertainty
There is a classic quote from Donald Rumsfeld – formerly the Secretary of Defense for the United States – which goes along the lines of “There are known knowns, there are things we know we know; there are also known unknowns, that is to say there are things we don’t know and then there are unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know”.
These “unknown unknowns” are a great source of uncertainty for many of us, they are the things we may have been conditioned to avoid, instead of pursing the career we really want to have we instead stay within our comfort zone and get that secure 9-5 office job or instead of acknowledging we do not know the answer to something, we conjure up something which sounds plausible and fight its case.
This is something we need to move away from, there is sometimes a false impression that every great invention took a straight path to discovery. We might think great discoveries from the likes of Newton and Einstein came as divine visitations, however, they instead came from toiling away in unchartered waters, experimenting, tweaking and falling forwards instead of flying forwards.
As Isaac Asimov puts it “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “that’s funny”. When you’re looking to stand on the shoulders of giants and discover something new, recognize you will be surrounded by uncertainty, the right answer wont present itself to you on a plate, nobody knows how it will present itself, but when it does embrace it, don’t shy away from outliers, anomalies or things that look strange, instead seek them out and learn as much as you can about them.
Key Idea #2 – Think from First Principles
There is an argument suggested around the internet that the width of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle were determined over two thousand years ago by a Roman road engineer. Whilst that sounds crazy and to be honest hasn’t been proven or disproven, it’s a great place to show the importance of First Principles thinking.
The engines on the space shuttle measure at about 4ft 8.5 inches wide, this width was determined by the fact that it was the maximum width they could produce because of the size of the rail line that would carry the rockets from Utah to Florida; the width of that rail was based off the tramlines in England which were subsequently based off the roads built by the Romans at 4ft 8.5 inches wide.
Whilst that is a drastic example, this type of thinking permutates throughout different areas in society. Many problems or issues are usually solved by analogy, we tend to look at what others have done and use that as a basis for how we should do it. Many industries operate on this principle, they will rely on copying what was done in previous years and then continue to follow that plan without questioning or even considering whey they are doing it, or the intentions of why it was put in place.
Consider being a horse breeder in the early 1900’s. If you were reasoning by analogy you would probably assume your biggest threat would be better horses; however, you would soon find out there’s something else which puts your business model under immense strain: the motor vehicle.
When you are looking to do something different, take the road less travelled or spot new emerging threats, going back to first principles and understanding somethings origin and original intentions are paramount.
First principles as Aristotle put it are “the first basis from which a thing is known” or a more practical definition from Rene Descartes is “systematically doubting everything until you are left with unquestionable truths”.
In short, it is about breaking a problem down into its smallest parts, understanding them and then building from there.
Take the horse breeder example. If you were reasoning by First Principles you would ask yourself questions like “why am I even breeding horses in the first place?” Most cases during that time would be to provide transportation; the breeders business model wasn’t to breed horses for the sake of it, it was instead to provide a method of transportation better and faster than walking. Once you understand that, you can see why the motor vehicle soon took over…
As John Maynard Keynes puts it “the difficulty isn’t in the new ideas, it’s escaping the old ones”. Reasoning by first principles allows you to look at problems differently. Next time you’re looking to solve a problem, instead of looking at how it has been done before, instead break it down into its simplest form, understand it entirely and then build from there.
Key Idea #3 – Allow yourself to be bored and let your mind wander
Nikola Tesla – the famous Serbian American inventor – is probably best known for his major contributions to science and technology. Part of his success lies in the way he approached problems with a sense of curiosity.
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally, I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements, and operate the device in my mind. It is immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop” – Nikola Tesla
For many of us, instead of making curiosity the norm, we will wait until a crisis to become curious. Only when we lose our job, we will consider alternative career paths or when our business is disrupted by a hungry competitor we decide to think outside the box.
Instead of dedicating a little bit of our downtime to being curious each day we instead spend it on small tasks to trick ourselves into thinking we are still working and doing something valuable. We might clear through our inbox reading things we have already read; scroll endlessly on social media or watch movies or tv-series which only make us feel worse about ourselves.
This is where being bored occasionally can help. Boredom is something which has negative connotations, so much to the extent that in a 2014 study 67% of the male participants and 25% of the female participants decided to give themselves electric shocks instead of sitting in solitude for 15 minutes.
However, being bored – or even better daydreaming – can provide value in our lives. Whilst epiphanies appear effortless, they are usually the product of a long, slow burn beginning with asking a good question and then laboring over the question intensely, sometimes being stuck idle for days, weeks, months or even years.
Spend your day working hard and trying to learn as much as you can, however, when you find yourself with a spare minute, instead of reaching for your phone to escape into the virtual world, take some time to daydream and let your mind wander, although on the outside it doesn’t look like you’re working much, you can be rest assured your brain certainty is.
Key Idea #4 – Aim to prove yourself wrong instead of right
Our dislike of uncertainty makes us more susceptible to wanting to find more answers regardless of whether they are right or wrong instead of more questions. A strong leader who offers bold conclusions is more likely to be followed rather than somebody who offers cautious suggestions and asks more questions than provides answers.
A few problems arise when we only seek answers, however. The first is that we tend to stop looking at alternatives – something also known as the Einstellung effect. When we think we have found the right answer we quickly switch off and stop looking, whilst we think we have discovered the truth, what we have instead found is the easiest solution rather than the most accurate.
A second and more troublesome issue is that when we find ourselves personally invested into a problem, we actively seek things which confirm our bias – something more commonly known as Confirmation Bias. When we have a preconceived idea of what the answer is, we will seek out sources which support that. Although the evidence we found is on the 12th page of Google and is clearly someone’s personal blog making extraordinary conclusions without extraordinary evidence, if it supports our belief, it trumps everything – even robust research!
However, when we want to produce good work; do something new; or just get things right, we need to be impartial and be willing to hear things we do not want to hear. Although our thoughts and ideas are important, remember they are only thoughts, we wont lose our identity and become something awful if we only change them to align with current evidence.
A great way to start when looking to obtain the most accurate answer lies in not looking to prove yourself right, but instead prove yourself wrong. It is to try your hardest to falsify whatever you have discovered.
Consider this experiment:
Look at this sequence of numbers and estimate what the next ones will be: 2, 4, 6.
The most common response is: 8, 10, 12 which is entirely correct, but will you stop there?
It turns out that 7, 8, 11 and 15 are also correct too.
If you aimed to prove yourself right you would probably stop right away, whilst you had the right answer, you went the wrong way about it.
The final correct answer is any sequence of increasing numbers. The incorrect answer is any decreasing set of numbers.
A more appropriate approach to this problem would be to not stop when you have got it right but to only stop when you have got it wrong. You may suggest many increasing numbers before deciding to suggest a list of decreasing numbers. Only by this method can you get the right answer.
Instead of going out to prove yourself right, try to prove yourself wrong. When you think you’ve found the correct answer, find the best way to show you haven’t gotten the right answer, seek sources which disagree with you and speak to others with differing opinions.
Thanks for checking out this summary, make sure to look at all the other summaries and stay tuned for more!
Get the book here: Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol