Technical triumphs, such as the first manned moon landing, were possible only because scientists approached the facts with new ideas. According to former aerospace engineer Ozan Varol, the mindset of rocket scientists can be applied to many situations in everyday life.
September 1962: It’s a hot late summer day as US President John F. Kennedy delivers an emotional speech in front of a packed Rice University stadium. In this decade, he says, the first man will land on the moon. An extremely ambitious promise, because by the time Kennedy makes this speech, most of the technical conditions for a manned moon landing will not be met at all. Yet seven years later, millions of people see Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon.
The moon landing was celebrated by many as a great triumph of technology. However, that step was only possible because bright minds dared to go off the beaten track and think about facts in a completely new way. “Basically, launching a rocket is like a controlled explosion of a nuclear bomb,” said former aerospace engineer and author Ozan Varol in an interview with Business Insider Deutschland. He himself was a member of the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover and the Cassini-Huygens mission that sent a probe to Saturn. Send a space shuttle into space and a thousand things could happen. And few of them are good. When something goes wrong in human spaceflight, rocket engineers must find the cause as quickly as possible.
In everyday life we are constantly confronted with complex and unforeseen problems. “Today it is essential to think like a rocket scientist,” Varol says. The world is evolving at lightning speed and we have to evolve with it if we don’t want to lose contact. Of course, not everyone has the ambition or pretension to calculate combustion coefficients or orbits, but those who can solve complex problems under time pressure and without the help of others – and a rocket scientist can do that – has a clear advantage, Varol thinks. This is how he explains the success of masterminds such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple.
But how do you apply this approach in everyday life? What can we learn from people like Varol? In his book ‘Boost – Thinking like Elon Musk’ he describes various steps that allow you to question old ways of thinking and forge new mental paths. Four of them can help you come up with a good idea at all.
1. Don’t fight insecurities, use them to your advantage
Progress usually takes place under uncertain circumstances.Instead, you should use uncertainty to your advantage. An important step is to clarify what you are actually afraid of. “To deal with uncertainties, you must first acknowledge them,” Varol says. By establishing what we do and don’t know, he says, we limit our own insecurities and allay the fear that comes with them. Ask yourself what the worst scenario could be and how likely that scenario is. It is best to write down your thoughts. “Often the feeling of insecurity is much worse than what you fear,” Varol says. You can face your fears better.
Once you figure out what you’re afraid of, you can take steps to reduce the risks. Varol cites two examples from rocket research: redundancies and safety margins. In aerospace, redundancy is a built-in security mechanism that prevents one vulnerability from jeopardizing an entire mission. So spacecraft continue to function even when something goes wrong.
Aside from that redundancy, rocket scientists minimize risk with safety margins. For example, they build a space shuttle more robust than it should be. In this way, they cover what should unexpectedly be worse than initially assumed. You can also apply this in everyday life. Think about where the spare tire is hidden in the company you work for or what happens if an important job is lost. “The system has to keep working if one part fails,” says Varol.
However, a residual risk always remains. “Absolute security is an illusion,” he says. But even if you don’t have a clear path in mind yet, it’s worth starting to run. Newton’s law says that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. So once you start running, you’ll probably keep moving.
2. Question the status quo
“Conventional thinking leads to conventional decisions,” Varol says. So it pays to question assumptions and rethink the status quo. A useful method is that of “first principles thinking”. This means that something is first broken down into its basic components and then a better solution is devised by combining the individual building blocks in a new way. “Elon Musk also used this principle to build his space program SpaceX,” Varol says.
Because Musk found missiles from the US and Russia too expensive, he just built a few himself. Not satisfied with the status quo of insufficient cash for his project, he decided to return to basics. For Musk, that meant: the laws of physics.He broke it down to its smallest parts and base materials and found that the cost of materials for a rocket was only about two percent of the normal price.
Going back to basics, Varol says, is often easier than many think. All it takes is a wrecking ball. And if there isn’t one for a while, a hypothetical one will suffice. One way to break old thinking patterns is through what is called a “kill the company” exercise. In this you take on the role of the competitor who opposes your company. Apply this exercise to everyday life by asking yourself why your boss might not consider you for a promotion or why a customer might decide to go to a competitor. Did you find a good answer? Then you can think about how to defend yourself against this potential threat.
3. Thought experiments help you with breakthroughs
“As shocking as it may sound, we usually achieve breakthroughs through thinking,” Varol says. Not by consulting Google, self-help groups, or an expensive consultant. Nor by copying the secret recipes of others. For these external quests tend to hinder our fundamental thinking.
According to Varol, good ideas arise when we draw on our own imagination and experiment with our thoughts. Time plays a crucial role here. Because we often don’t have time to think about a problem and then formulate a good answer, we often go for the fastest solution, writes Varol – and that is rarely the best.
We often find answers to questions when we least expect them. This phenomenon is also known as a eureka moment. An idea often comes up exactly when you are “in free”. For example, Einstein is said to have had the epiphany that led to the theory of relativity when he was daydreaming about a man who, in free fall, could no longer feel his own weight.
Without the time to think, we don’t come up with new ideas, says Varol. Smart thoughts come when you let yourself drift. In 1990, for example, a woman, Joanne, had an idea while waiting for a delayed train: a story about a sorcerer’s apprentice. Today, J.K. Rowling is one of the world’s most successful authors. So next time you’re bored, resist the urge to check your phone or do something else “productive.” Just hang out with your thoughts. Or if you’re stuck on a difficult question: focus on something else for a while. In all likelihood, that’s when the saving thought occurs to you, as your brain continues to work as you look for holes in the sky.
4.However, many do not dare to reach for the stars because they fear being unfit for them or because they think others are better. “We kid ourselves about our capabilities,” Varol writes. Like any other decision, we can change that. “It’s only when we go beyond our cognitive abilities that we recognize the invisible reins that hold us back,” he says.
The first requirement is what is known as “divergent” thinking. This is a method of generating different ideas in a free flow. Those who think divergently do not dwell on limitations, budgets or possibilities, but become an unbridled optimist who believes that everything is achievable. The purpose of all of this is to keep as many avenues open as possible without hasty judgment. To do this, we need to disable the internal rational thinker as best we can. Everything is possible. At least, at the beginning of the brainstorming process. Because especially in the beginning, thoughts are difficult to judge. We don’t know yet what is useful and what is not. For example, in 1783, during the launch of the first hot air balloon, Benjamin Franklin was asked what that balloon was for. He is said to have replied: “It’s like a newborn baby, no one can tell what comes of it.”
You don’t necessarily have to have a PhD in astrophysics to think like a rocket scientist. It suffices to look at some tasks as an astronaut sees the Earth from space: as a blue-white sphere without terrestrial boundaries.