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Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol

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10,000 Foot Overview

This is an exceptional book on thinking outside the box, innovating when others think to go with the safe route, and the necessity to think from first principles. Plus, there are some interesting behind the scenes stories of successful and failed NASA missions.


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. (Location 85)

Science, as Carl Sagan put it, is “a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”12 (Location 111)

Our yearning for certainty leads us to pursue seemingly safe solutions—by looking for our keys under street lamps. (Location 355)

Only when we pay attention to the subtle clues—there’s something off with the data, the explanation seems cursory or superficial, the observation doesn’t quite fit the theory—can the old paradigm give way to the new. (Location 612)

“In order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge.… Being forced to confront the prospect of failure head-on—to study it, dissect it, tease apart all its components and consequences—really works.”67 (Location 687)

Knowledge turns an uncertain situation into a high-stakes game of peekaboo. Yes, spaceflight is no laughing matter—there are lives at stake—but astronauts contain uncertainty the same way that infants do: by figuring out who’s going to appear on the other end when the hands open up. (Location 704)

Ask yourself, What’s the worst-case scenario? And how likely is that scenario, given what I know? (Location 716)

After you determine what’s truly worth being alarmed about, you can take measures to mitigate risks by calling two plays from the rocket-science playbook: redundancies and margins of safety. (Location 725)

Think about it: Where are the redundancies in your own life? Where’s the emergency brake or the spare tire in your company? How will you deal with the loss of a valuable team member, a critical distributor, or an important client? What will you do if your household loses a source of income? The system must be designed to continue operating even if a component fails. (Location 755)

Process, by definition, is backward looking. It was developed in response to yesterday’s troubles. If we treat it like a sacred pact—if we don’t question it—process can impede forward movement. Over time, our organizational arteries get clogged with outdated procedures. (Location 895)

Process was developed in response to yesterday's problems. What worked in the past might not work in the future, so be wary of process. #TI

“To create the company of tomorrow, you must break down the bad habits, silos, and inhibitors that exist today.” (Location 1160) #quote

As Einstein said, everything should be made “as simple and as few as possible.”36 This principle is known as [[Occam’s razor]]. The name, I admit, is unfortunate. It sounds like a cheap late-night horror flick, but it’s actually a mental model named after [[William of Ockham]], a fourteenth-century philosopher. The model is often stated as a rule: The simplest solution to a problem is the correct one. (Location 1204)

A breakthrough begins with asking a good question, laboring over the answer intensely, and being stuck in idleness for days, weeks, and sometimes years. Research shows that incubation periods—the time you spend feeling stuck—boosts the ability to solve problems. (Location 1538)

You must be patient enough to pursue the whisper and perceptive enough to receive it when it arrives. (Location 1577) #quote

“To create,” biologist [[François Jacob]] said, “is to recombine.” (Location 1605)

Decades later, [[Steve Jobs]] echoed the same sentiment: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.… [T]hey’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”60 (Location 1606)

[[Combinatory play]] has also produced many breakthrough technologies. Larry Page and Sergey Brin adopted an idea from academia—the frequency of citations to an academic paper indicates its popularity—and applied it to the search engine to create Google. Steve Jobs famously borrowed from calligraphy to create multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts on the Macintosh. Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings was inspired by the subscription model used at his gym: “You could pay $30 or $40 a month and work out as little or as much as you wanted.”71 (Location 1644)

“If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success,” (Location 1894) #quote

One way to shock your brain and generate wacky ideas is to ask, What would a science-fiction solution look like? (Location 2029)

Breakthroughs, after all, are reasonable only in hindsight. “The day before a major breakthrough, it is just a crazy idea,” says aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, who designed the first privately funded spacecraft to reach space. (Location 2278)

Drury knows a secret missed by many business leaders: The low-hanging fruit has already been picked. You can’t beat a stronger competitor by copying them. But you can beat them by doing the opposite of what they’re doing. (Location 2701)

To make sure you don’t fall in love with a single hypothesis, generate several. When you’ve got multiple hypotheses, you reduce your attachment to any one of them and make it more difficult to quickly settle on one. With (Location 2928)

When the world around you changes—when the tech bubble bursts or self-driving cars become the norm—the ability to change with the world confers an extraordinary advantage. “The successful executive is faster to recognize the bad decisions and adjust,” explains Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, “whereas failing executives often dig in and try to convince people that they were right.” (Location 3080)

“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is—if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.” (Location 3210)

“You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and.’” (Location 3277)

Boone’s secret is the same as any self-respecting astronaut: test as you fly. Train in the same environment you’ll experience on race day—while your competition trains from the comfort of a gym because it happens to be raining outside. (Location 3422)

There are two responses to negative feedback from a credible source: Deny it or accept it. Every great scientist chooses the latter, and Squyres did the same. (Location 3739)