Jan. 14, 2022

Listener Favorites: Ozan Varol | Think Like a Rocket Scientist

Listener Favorites: Ozan Varol | Think Like a Rocket Scientist

When Ozan Varol was just 17, he moved from his home in Istanbul to the United States to study Astrophysics at Cornell University. When he got there, he sent his resume to a professor and was invited to work on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Expl...

When Ozan Varol was just 17, he moved from his home in Istanbul to the United States to study Astrophysics at Cornell University. When he got there, he sent his resume to a professor and was invited to work on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project that sent 2 rovers to Mars. Ozan is now a law professor and teaches others how to make giant leaps on Earth. Listen in to gain actionable insight on how to think like a rocket scientist.

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Srini: Welcome to the unmistakable creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join

Ozan Varol: .I'm delighted to be here. Thank you for having me on. Yeah,

Srini: it is my pleasure to have you here. So I actually found out about your work through way of both the fact that you and I have had a conversation where I've been a guest on your podcast, but you recently wrote a book called think like a rocket scientist.

Srini: I had no idea that this was your background. So on that note I want to start by asking you what was the advice that your parents gave you about careers or making your way in the world when you were growing up?

Ozan Varol: So the one piece of advice that comes to mind, which I took to heart and which I still applied to this day, it was something that my dad would tell me, which is you can't win the lottery without buying a ticket.

Ozan Varol: And so I grew up in Istanbul and lived there until I was. 17, and then came to the United States to study astrophysics and grew up in a family of knowing the speakers. But my parents, even though didn't speak any English, they never been to America. They had a firm belief that anything you can dream is within reach.

Ozan Varol: If you have the will the determination to try it. And so my dad would always sort of reinforce that point, growing up, can't win the lottery without buying a ticket. And the one example which eventually led to me writing the book, you mentioned things like a rocket scientist is where I took my dad's advice.

Ozan Varol: I was a senior in high school. And I had just gotten accepted to Cornell to study astrophysics. And shortly before I arrived there, I researched what the astronomy department was up to. And I learned that an astronomy professor, his name is Steve Squires was in charge of a NASA funded project to send the Rover to Mars.

Ozan Varol: He had also worked on there, Carl Sagan as a graduate students and Carl Sagan was a hero of mine growing up. I seen the original cosmos series, so this was too good to be true. And there was no job posting, but so I was intimidated, but I emailed him just keeping my dad's advice in mind and said, Hey, here's my resume.

Ozan Varol: I'd love to, to work for you. I had the lowest of expectations, but keeping that advice in mind, I just reached out to him and much to my surprise. He invited me for an interview and it eventually offered me the job on the operations team for what would become the 2003 Mars exploration rovers.

Srini: So one of the quotes that immediately caught my attention when you opened the book was that you said to conformity in the educational system, saved us from our worst tendencies, those pesky individualistic ambitions to dream big and devise interesting solutions to complex problems. The students who got ahead warns the contrary as the creative trailblazers, rather, you got ahead by pleasing authority figures, fostering the type of subservience that would serve you well in the industrial workforce.

Srini: Now I wondered about that quote, particularly in the context of being educated in a country like Turkey and having Turkish parents, because, you said your dad said, you can't win the lottery without buying a ticket. Now let's say that you didn't want to be a rocket scientist. And you told him, you know what, dad, I'm going to go be an artist.

Srini: What we think you would have had the same. Message because I think in immigrant cultures, there's this tendency to seek out security. Partially because of the fact that, I understood my parents' logic when I finally figured out that context plays a big role in all of that.

Ozan Varol: Totally. And I do think my parents and this is much to their credit.

Ozan Varol: They were unlike many parents in the culture that I grew up in, in that I think they would have supported me, even if I decided to become an artist or a soccer player or a musician. But that is so rare. And I, and it's in part for the reason you mentioned, which is, we're and to a lesser extent in the United States, but it's certainly true here as well.

Ozan Varol: We're living in very conformance cultures and the career path sent to be predetermined. And so in Turkey it was like, you either became a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and that was the three options you had. And but my parents were very adamant about just saying, look, you have to follow your own path.

Ozan Varol: Even. So there was a big disconnect between the education system that I was operating in. And then I come home and be in this environment where my parents were basically telling me to be a non-conformist to embrace my autonomy and to sketch out my life path for myself, regardless of what I was being income called data within in school.

Srini: The other thing that I wonder is, you went to a place like Cornell. I went to Berkeley. These are schools that in a lot of ways embody what you have just said here. Because basically at least when I went to college, it was very clear, there were certain set of criteria that you had to meet and, if you didn't, you wouldn't get in my sister.

Srini: And I were very clear on the fact that we probably wouldn't have gotten into Berkeley with the grades we have now. And I, I think that what happened to me was that the options in front of me blinded me to the possibilities surrounded me. And so I wonder, particularly, cause you chose to go to a school like Cornell, like what, how do you want to do that?

Srini: Particularly in a system where it's so indoctrinated and the funny thing is the society. In many ways rewards you for this conformity with a education at an Ivy league school a prestigious job at Goldman Sachs. So how do you navigate those two countries?

Ozan Varol: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think so for me, going to Cornell, getting to really any college in the United States was a way of escaping the conformance culture that I was operating in Turkey.

Ozan Varol: Like I said, that my home environment was very safe or non-conformity, but the education system was not I give an example in the book, like our teachers. In elementary school, each student got assigned a number and our teachers would call us by that number as opposed to our name. Talk about robbing the individuality of each students.

Ozan Varol: So my name wasn't those on it was like 1 54. And to this day, by the way, my number is my ATM pink code alerts frequently be damned. It's still, I still kept it. So for me, coming to the United States was very much I had to reach escape velocity and get out of that conformance culture because I just wasn't suited for it.

Ozan Varol: I wasn't happy in the immigration system in Turkey. And so coming here was a big win for me in so many different ways and getting into Cornell and getting to work on this.

Srini: So why do you think more people are not as, daring as your, to say, okay, I don't even know if there's a job here, but here's what I want to do.

Srini: I'll come and do you know, whatever it is. I, cause I looked, like I said, I looked back at college and. Th the biggest mistake I made, I, this is fresh on my mind, partially because I'm about to talk to a group of students at Babson Horrell seniors right after we get done. And like the thought is that, wow, you've been so conditioned to choose from the very things that have been put in front of you that you think that this system works exactly the way that it's defined by other people.

Srini: So you think, okay, my way to find a job is to go to LinkedIn or whatever it is. I can only apply to the jobs that are on job boards. Why is like, why are more people not like you? And how do we begin to create more people

Ozan Varol: like you? I think taught to not question assumptions. So we're handing things, especially in the education system, right?

Ozan Varol: There is one right curriculum, one right way to interpret history one right way to get an a, there are multiple interpretations, multiple ways of looking at things in math and science classes, for example, the problems are just handling. You can't question the problems. You can't reframe the problems.

Ozan Varol: You can redefine them, which is wildly disconnected from reality, by the way, as like in real life, you have to find problems yourself and re redefine them and reframe them. And so I think our education system and in some respects also, well-intentioned. Get in the way of questioning assumptions, as you said, shaking sort of settled expectations in terms of what a typical career path should be like.

Ozan Varol: And so I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where I was indoctrinated with this belief that I could basically. Do anything I wanted and I wasn't necessarily stuck with the assumptions and the routines and the processes and the habits that were handed to me. And I carried with that. Even when I got to Cornell, I I, the idea of picking a major and sticking with that rubbed me the wrong way.

Ozan Varol: So there was this program at Cornell where you could apply it's called college scholar to free yourself from all degree requirements, except you needed 120 degrees, 120 credits, I'm sorry to graduate, but you could take any classes you wanted. So you got to make up your own major. And I was like, yeah, I want in, that was, and yet, like that was the path for me, which, and I ended up getting into this program where I designed my own major.

Ozan Varol: And so I think it, it starts very young. And once that conditioning kicks in and is reinforced by parents, by teachers, by the education system, it becomes really hard to do the sort of thing that you're talking about. To begin questioning assumptions to adopt first principles thinking. And yeah, and the remedy is an easy, you have to switch your entire mode of conditioning in an, in a, to a place where like you're questioning everything and questioning everything is really inefficient, right?

Ozan Varol: You can't go through life, questioning everything you do take to work. And I routinely copy other people's choices in areas where I don't like, I just don't care like fashion and music and interior design, like things I don't care about, but in areas of my life where change matters and creativity matters, I've just made a habit since I was very young of just very deliberately asking, why am I doing what I'm doing?

Ozan Varol: Like, why am I going to LinkedIn to find a job? Why am I in it? Usually the answer by the way is because everybody else is doing it. And if that's the answer. That's a sign there that you are not adopting first principles thinking you're simply doing things because other people are doing it. So you need to be very deliberate about deconditioning yourself from that mode of operation, that's just been so heavily reinforced.

Srini: Yeah. It's funny people, have asked me what is the sort of purpose of the people that you choose and, the way that you have these conversations. And I think I told somebody once I feel that my mission in life to some degree is to undo the social programming of people in society and to unplug them from the matrix so to speak.

Srini: But not through my own work, through the, exposure to mental models and different ways of thinking. So let's get into the book. Let's, you've alluded to some of the principles here, but I think that the thing that, like I said is, as most people probably hear this and think, oh, things like a rocket scientist, my roommate was joking with me this morning when he saw the book, he was like, yeah, only a smart person would want to read.

Srini: We have really, we have this ongoing joke that he's that I'm smarter because I went to Berkeley and I was like, you're an idiot because you didn't like it. And of course, the funny thing is that literally is some of the cognitive bias that you speak of. So I think I want to start with this whole idea of flying in the face of uncertainty.

Srini: And we say two things about uncertainty. And that is that our obsession with certainty leads as a stray and all progress takes place in uncertain conditions. And that our yearning for certainty leads us to pursue seemingly safe solutions by looking for dark keys under street lamps, instead of taking the risky walk into the dark, we stay in our current state, however inferior it might be.

Srini: And. I see this over and over, I think that one of the things I'd always said particularly about online courses and why I think unmistakable stood out was because when I took an online course, the number one thing I did in that blog mastermind course was I didn't follow the instructions to the letter that made all the difference.

Srini: And so with that in mind talk to us about how we navigate this dynamic of, seeking certainty while also knowing that progress takes place only in uncertain conditions.

Ozan Varol: Sure. And the story you alluded to there with with respect to looking for our street keys under under street lamps, instead of in the dark, it's the story, the classic story of the drunk.

Ozan Varol: Who's looking for his keys under the streetlamp because that's where the light is, even though he lost his keys and some dark corner of the street, but the dark is super risky and that's a metaphor for her. Live our lives. This is true for the individuals and for businesses as well. Market is use the same bag of tricks over and over again because changing means introducing uncertainty pharma companies offer drugs that are only a marginal improvement over what's on the market, as opposed to the one that's going to cure Alzheimer's disease.

Ozan Varol: Movie studios launched the 17 CQL to fast and furious because betting on a new idea is too risky. So we keep looking at the rear view mirror and doing what we did yesterday. And that's in large part due to a fear of uncertainty because anytime you're exploring unknown territory, the same questions, keep popping up.

Ozan Varol: What if this doesn't work. What if this fails, what if people point and laugh and instead of finding out the answers, for sure, we stay within our current states, however inferior it might be to other possibilities. And so as you said, serine, all progress takes place on their own certain conditions.

Ozan Varol: So if you look at scientific history, almost any discovery, any major breakthrough you can think of, there was first chaos and immense uncertainty. And then the breakthrough comes when the scientists embrace the uncertainty as opposed to rejecting it. So I offer a couple of strategies that people can use to navigate this dynamic.

Ozan Varol: But one is the difference between one way doors and two way doors. So we tend to assume part of our fear of uncertainty comes from this assumption that the decisions we're making are one way doors. In other words, you, the door opens one way. You enter into this new room that you haven't been in before and you close it and there is no getting out, right?

Ozan Varol: So if you take a new job, if you move to a new city, if give it a shot at being an entrepreneur and things don't work out, as you hoped, you assume that you're still. But that assumption in many cases is incorrect because a lot of the doors we're navigating in our lives come with you with come with two-way doors.

Ozan Varol: So you can go in, you can have a look, and if you don't like what you can walk back out. And the example I give in the book is from Richard Branson and his launch of Virgin Atlantic, launching an airline is an extremely risky and very expensive, bad. And it looks like a one-way door at first glance, but Branson took what looked like a one-way door and change it to a two-way door by negotiating this deal with Boeing that allowed him to return the first airplane he bots, if his airline didn't take off.

Ozan Varol: So I think, as people are one way to get a little bit more comfortable with uncertainty is when you are facing one of these sort of major life decisions, just ask yourself, is this a one-way door or two-way door? And if it looks like a one-way door. Ask if your interpretation is correct, because often we're so conditioned into believing that these rooms only come with one way doors that sometimes a one way door is just masquerading.

Ozan Varol: It's not real. It's actually a two-way door in reality.

Srini: So we know a lot of you have been listening to us for years, and it means the world to us. What we do here at the unmistakable creative wouldn't be possible without the support of our listeners. If the podcast has been valuable to you, one of the best ways you can support us is to subscribe to unmistakable creative prime, which gives you access to transcripts.

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Srini: We've packed it with a ton of value and actionable content, and we hope you'll check it out. Just go to unmistakable creative.com/prime to learn more again, that's unmistakable creative.com/prime.

Srini: I might have shared this story before on the show. So forgive me if I have, for those of you listening. But I had a friend at Berkeley when we were in college and he didn't get into the business school at Haas. And so what he did was he took all of the classes literally up until the day, weeks before graduation.

Srini: And then he walked into the Dean's office and said, I've taken every class for the degree. And she's wait a minute, you didn't get into Haas. And she said, he's had no, and she was livid. And he said, my parents are going to be here Saturday. So can I walk? They had no choice, but to grant him the degree.

Srini: And it was one of those moments where I thought, wow, this is a system that has rules that appear to be set in stone, but it's all an

Ozan Varol: illusion. Exactly. And the rules around this are created by people who know smarter than us. They just happen to be the rules and they often exists in response to, they were created in response to problems that no longer exists, but we're so conditioned into believing that the rules can't be bent.

Ozan Varol: They can't be questioned that those people like your friend who have figured out a way around it, get ahead in life. Because of that, Yeah.

Srini: Speaking of which let's talk about this whole idea of reasoning for first preference, first principles. Cause I really loved the Elon Musk story. I think that may be a perfect place for you to give us an example of what it means to think by reasoning from first principles.

Ozan Varol: So Elon Musk, when he was thinking about starting space X two, with the audacious goal of sending people to Mars first, he needed a rocket. So he started shopping for rockets on the American market. Now sticker shock isn't in the vocabulary of most Silicon valley entrepreneurs. That's what he experienced when he looked for rockets to buy, I think one rocket would have set him back like a 65 or $70 million and he would've needed to, and then, of course you'd have to pay for the payload and the people and everything else.

Ozan Varol: So that was too expensive. He then went to Russia to shop for decommissioned, Intercontinental, ballistic missiles. I could do that without the nuclear war has on top, of course. And that also was too expensive. And so on one of his trips back from Russia he had. And he arrived at the epiphany using using this principle from physics called first principles thinking.

Ozan Varol: And so at bottom first principles is a way of questioning all assumptions in a system until you're left with the fundamental non-negotiable components. So you hack through assumptions as if you're hacking through a jungle with a machete until you're left with those raw materials. And so you go from, and the metaphor I use in the book is you go from being a cover band that seeing somebody else's songs to being, and should I say, unmistakable artists and original artists that does the painstaking work of actually creating something new.

Ozan Varol: And so Isla must realize that as he was trying to buy rockets that other people had built, he was playing the role of a. And so he went back to first principles and ask themselves, what's actually, what are the raw materials of a rocket what's needed from a physics perspective to put a rocket into space.

Ozan Varol: And when you looked at the raw materials, if you bought those raw materials on the market, it was like 2% of the typical price of a rocket that that he would have bought from somebody else, which is a crazy ratio. So instead of buying rockets that other people had built, he decided to. Bill this rockets from scratch.

Ozan Varol: If you walk through a space X as factories today, you will find people welding titanium, building and flight computers. And another way he used first principles thinking, and this is true for Jeff Bezos as well with blue origin. One of the fundamental, deeply held assumptions in rocket science was that rocket stats went into outer space.

Ozan Varol: Couldn't be reused. So they would plunge back into the ocean or burn up in the atmosphere. And and imagine doing that for a moment for commercial flights, like you fly from, I don't know, Portland to San Diego, you step off the plane and then someone walks up to the plane and just. Which is what we were doing for rockets for decades.

Ozan Varol: And, Boeing 7 37 is actually not that not that much less expensive than a rocket. But commercial flights are so much cheaper because airplanes can be reused over and over again. And so one of the things that both space X and blue origin have done is to question that assumption and build these rocket stages that can be reused, refurbished, and sent back into space like certified pre-owned vehicles.

Srini: So there's one thing that you said, and I want to ask you this, I want to go through this in terms of a practical example that I, I was trying to think of this for myself, but, you said the same qualities that make knowledge of virtue can also turn it into a vice knowledge, shapes, knowledge and forms.

Srini: It creates frameworks, labels, categories, and lenses through which we view the world. One of the things that came to my mind as I was reading this is that I've been off of Facebook for probably 25, 26 days now. And I've realized that my thinking and my thought process is more original and unique sounding than it's ever been.

Srini: And what I realized is that, the amount of cognitive bias that gets him, infused in you when you use social media, which we'll talk about. Cause I know you go into all of that really strips you of your originality because you're basically drowning in the sounds of other people's voices.

Srini: So with that in mind, let's say that we were to take something like a podcast or something like a blog, and we approach it from the whole idea of first principles. What questions, what assumptions should I be questioning?

Ozan Varol: That's a great question. So with respect to say a blog, I think if you. If the initial approach is to go online and say, okay, I'm thinking about starting a blog, let me see what other people have done.

Ozan Varol: Yeah. And so that's, I think what most people do. And and so I think the example here of questioning assumptions in the blog world will come from Tim urban, who I interviewed on my podcast. But so when he was thinking about starting weight by why he went online and looked, and the standard advice was, you send something to your email list every week.

Ozan Varol: It should be short because people have limited attention spans and it shouldn't be too detailed. It shouldn't have any stick figures should just be taxed. So that was the standard advice. So someone looking for or going on a quest for external answers, that would have been the advice they found online and Tim.

Ozan Varol: Basically the opposite on all of that. And so he looked at that advice and now his blog way pop wise, wildly popular, and his blog posts are book-length. They are tens of thousands of words and he sends them infrequently. He basically violated every rule in the blog publishing playbook. And because of that, he stood out from the crowd because the center is too crowded.

Ozan Varol: So if you're simply doing what other people are doing, you're all reaching for the low hanging fruit, but the low hanging fruit has already been picked. And so his approach was to basically do the opposite of what other people are doing. And so to go back to your question about, how do you approach that?

Ozan Varol: I think it's, perhaps it doesn't hurt to know what other people are doing but being very cognizant about not copying them. And in some cases actually affirmatively asking what if I did. What if I check what other people are doing and did the exact opposite and you don't have to execute, but the simple process of thinking through the reverse is actually one way of getting yourself to question assumptions and to exercise those first principles, muscles that probably atrophied because of this use and decades of conditioning by society.

Srini: It's funny because people we've made very clear on our homepage that by the way, your, fame or lack thereof has nothing to do with how we pick our guests. We've said people know to people that literally anybody listening to this has heard of, and probably a thousand people would say yes to.

Srini: And I think that has served as really. It, that's why I jokingly say that my first book I'm going to stable could have also been just called everybody is full of shit. But I don't think anyone would want to publish that because even with the mastermind group that I'm working with, I've told them, I said, look, one thing I need you to consider is that my advice is based on my cognitive biases.

Srini: Especially because many of them have children. And I say, look, I'm giving you advice based on my life. And you need to learn how to adapt it to yours. This is why I always joke that I think the next Tim Ferriss experiment should be somebody should drop their kids off at his house for a week and see how his productivity goes.

Ozan Varol: That's a great idea. And then I, then we would see

Srini: how effective Tim fares really is as a human. Is he as super human as he appears to be.

Ozan Varol: But I love the example you gave from your podcasts or any. And and one of the things that also struck me is With the book coming out now I'm doing a lot of these podcasts interviews and many of them, I get questions in advance from the host and you very deliberately don't script.

Ozan Varol: Your assistant asked me, I

Srini: emailed her back and said, yeah, I'm sorry. I'm not going to do that. And every now and then somebody will ask and I'll say, I've had people try to send me questions. When I said, haven't read your book. I'd really oh, I have a list of questions you could ask. And I was like, yeah, I'm not going to ask those questions.

Srini: So why don't you just let me reschedule and read the book because what is the point to me asking you a bunch of questions that I could get the answers to from reading the damn book?

Ozan Varol: Yep, absolutely. And so that's one way of okay, taking someone, taking something that everybody else is doing and then questioning it.

Ozan Varol: And this is one of the reasons why your podcast is so successful.

Srini: The other thing is when I was thinking about this is what assumptions are we making about the format? And I was like, oh we've done animated shorts who says that we can't repurpose everything that we're doing into multiple formats, which we're already looking at, different, show ideas and all sorts of.

Srini: Based on that.

Ozan Varol: Yup. And let's just one more example before we move on, since you mentioned questioning the format. I think one of the great recent examples of this is Malcolm Gladwell's audio book for talking to strangers. It really questions the format in so many different ways. The standard audio book is the author gets up and reads the whole thing from cover to cover, but he actually included audio clips from interviews that he had recorded as part of this as part of the book writing process.

Ozan Varol: So the audio book has this like podcast feel to it and respect in some respects. And that's one great example that I would encourage people to check out. Take me away on a P and O cruise, but just a $1 deposit purpose and take me away to beautiful destinations and epic, exciting, shorter adventures.

Ozan Varol: Take me away to sparkling crystal, clear water and white Sandy beaches to delicious cuisine every day of my holiday and live entertainment every night. And they'll get up to $300 on board spending money per room to spend on spoiling myself. Pianos, take me away. Sale is on book now tased and say supply.

Srini: I think that, to really sum this up, I love this quote because it kind of flies in the face of so much of what we think is, right when it comes to this, you said to cut is to make whole to subtract, is to add to constraint as to liberate expand on that briefly and then we'll get to the next section.

Ozan Varol: Sure. So that appears in a section of the book on, on Ockham's razor and outcomes. Raiser is as a mental bottle named after this, I think he's a 19th century philosopher. The mock them and the idea is basically that the solution to a complex problem is often the simplest one. And so our temptation, when we're building something is to add and to add an ad, right?

Ozan Varol: Where can I find more? Why can I add more features? How do I create more benefits? But the mental model suggests that you can actually find originality easier by cutting as opposed to adding. And so one of the examples I give in the book is from millennia, which is a three-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago, that's won basically every award known to man for restaurants.

Ozan Varol: And when they first started their business, they were asking, the typical question of like, how do we add, how do we add, how do we make this dish? What other vegetable can we add here? But over time they realized that they had that approach is flawed. And so now they're asking, looking at what they have in front of them and asking, what can we take away?

Ozan Varol: Michelangelo approached sculpting the same way. There was a famous quote from him where he says the sculptor arrives at his hand and by taking away what is superfluous. And so this is one way of getting to first principles as well. So looking at. What you have in front of you and asking, what can I remove?

Ozan Varol: Yeah, go ahead. You just

Srini: gave me an idea. I'm not going to share that right now. I want to let it just stay for a bit, but it reminds me of a story. I had a friend who worked at Oracle, who was an MIT graduate. And he was, this was when, before it was easy to stream things in the living room early two thousands where, you know, so I came over one day.

Srini: I said, what are you doing? He said he said he was working on RFID. So he said, I'm trying to build a remote to basically take the videos that are on my computer and project them on the TV. And, I looked at him and I said I said, why don't you just use a wireless mouse? Yeah, I guess I could do that.

Srini: Huh? That was what it reminded me of when you

Ozan Varol: said that. Yeah. And that story actually reminds me of another story from the book, which is about this legends. It's not actually true, but I think it illustrates the point you just made that NASA spent a decade and millions of dollars developing a ballpoint pen that were working zero gravity and function in extreme temperatures.

Ozan Varol: The Soviets use a pencil.

Ozan Varol: Wow. So that, that the story is actually a myth but the moral still holds everything should be made as simple as. All right. So

Srini: let's talk about this whole idea of mind at play. You there's a subject here that is a deep personal interest to me. You say we discourage curiosity also because it requires admission of ignorance asking questions or posing a thought experiment means that we don't know the answer.

Srini: And that's an admission that few of us are willing to make for the fear of sounding stupid. We assume most questions are too basic tasks. So we don't ask them. And to actually start writing this blog post or a curiosity, I talked about the fact that it turns out that I don't know if this was your case, but it feel, I feel like every male I have ever talked to has gone through a phase when they were kids, where they have a fascination with fire like a mini arsonist phase.

Srini: And I remember because my, one of my friends came over and he wasn't allowed to spend the night anymore. And his mom told him that I would become an arsonist when I grew up, the more I talked to male friends. And, I think this is primarily because I was genuinely curious about the impact that fire would have on things like it wasn't burning houses.

Srini: It was like GI Joe guys and, ELL, fudge

Ozan Varol: cookies,

Srini: So explain this to me what is it about the, I know the education system plays a role in stifling, our curiosity, but I see it all around me. People stop asking questions.

Ozan Varol: Yeah. I think, asking questions and especially uttering those three dreaded words, I don't know requires an admission of ignorance and that's an admission that most people aren't willing to make in part, because they'll come across that.

Ozan Varol: I think they assume that they'll come across a stupid, right? Like they shouldn't be, they should be know they should know something that the other person is talking about, but they don't. And that makes them somehow less than I think that's that's a large part of it. The other part, I think you mentioned is as both education system and well-intentioned parents because as children, we're just natural curious observers, whether it's playing with fire or playing with nature, you approach the whole world as your own.

Ozan Varol: Playground where anything is possible, but then the curiosity over time gets replaced with answers, the right answer, the life hacks, the silver bullets. What have you. And I think it's also because answer questions aren't really valued in the business world either. And the answers are far more valuable because all they point away out.

Ozan Varol: Whereas a question is just the beginning of the inquiry, not the end. And people look at that and say it's, it's too much work. Let me just go online and see what other people have done. And then I can find some answers that I can copy from my own.

Srini: There's a guy who wrote a book I'm going to reach out to him and try to have him on the show about curiosity.

Srini: It was a very like science-based approach. And one of the things he actually said is one of the downsides to having this much information at our fingertips is that it stifles the natural curiosity in which we had to work a lot harder to find answers. So one, what do you have to say about that?

Srini: Like where do we, how do we balance those two things? Because let's face it. It is incredibly convenient to be able to do that. There are a lot of things where I'm like, okay, I don't need to know this. I just need this one little fact for right now. But again, if it's stifling, our curiosity, the by-product of that is we're not asking questions that could lead us to really interesting places potentially.

Ozan Varol: Yeah. I think there's a balance to be struck there, right? So it's not like answers are not important or that you shouldn't be looking for answers, but you shouldn't just be looking for answers to the exclusion of asking questions because the answers are often and on top of that, so one struck a balance between finding answers and asking questions.

Ozan Varol: And second is don't just accept the answers you find. So hang a question, mark. To the extent you go online and research something about how to start a blog or podcast to go back to our earlier conversation, instead of taking the answers you find as granted, just hang a question, mark at the end ask yourself, how can I put my own spin on this?

Ozan Varol: So it doesn't mean you just, you stop looking for answers. It's just, you treat answers like the beginning points and not the end.

Srini: So one other idea that you talk about here is common atory play, which I really appreciated. I think that, my version of describing that was creative.

Srini: Cross-training where you said common and Tory play requires exposing yourself to a Motley coalition of ideas. Seeing the similar in the dissimilar and combining, and recombining, apples, and oranges into a brand new future fruit with this approach, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. And I, we're doing a month inside our private social network about transforming information into wisdom.

Srini: And I, the thing that I'm coming across more and more is that, wait a minute, if you're just reading the same self-help books and listening to the same shit all over again, there's no way that information turns into knowledge or wisdom. So what exactly is common in Tory plate? Like how do people bring more of this into

Ozan Varol: their lives?

Ozan Varol: So common already play the idea goes back to our, the name goes back to Einstein. And so he said, combinatory play is the essential feature and in productive thoughts. And so that requires. Basically that you don't specialize in just one field. So instead of just looking to what, what your industry knows, it requires exposing yourself to ideas from very different places.

Ozan Varol: So not reading the same books that others around you are reading, not listening to the same music that others around you are listening to not reading the same magazines, not reading, not attending the same conferences. And so adopting ideas from diverse disciplines allows you to be original in a way that many people are not because a breakthrough in one field is often a combination of ideas from other fields.

Ozan Varol: So one of the examples I give in the book is from Yohanas Gutenberg. He had a printing press problem. So he looked to other industries like the olive oil industry or the wine making industry that use a screw press to extract. And he took that same idea and applied it to kickstart the era of mass communication in Europe.

Ozan Varol: And that was a very simple, seemingly simple technology, perhaps obvious in hindsight, but it wasn't obvious to the fields of communication. And so the borrowing them an idea from another field helped him become who he was. And the way to, to do this is to, again, branch out and attend conferences that you wouldn't normally attend or pick up books that, that you know nothing about and surrounding yourself with people from.

Ozan Varol: Different professions and backgrounds and interests. That goes back to the point. You mentioned serine earlier in the conversation about the, the impact of social media on our curiosity. I think that's one of the places where it comes into play here as well because of algorithms and whatnot.

Ozan Varol: We're only exposed to ideas that interest us that resonates with us, that sort of vibrate on the same frequency that we're operating in. And then we also like friend people like us be follow people like us on Twitter. So it becomes this giant echo chamber where we're completely secluded from other ideas, which really hampers hampers common it's already play.

Ozan Varol: And yeah, go ahead. It's

Srini: funny you say that because I'm sure you know who Roger Ailes is. He was the founder of Fox news by most accounts that despicable human being, I'm not a fan of Roger Ailes. And I remember my brother. I saw that I had dropped Roger Ailes book. You are the message along with the other, biography that somebody wrote about him.

Srini: And he was like, what? And I said, listen I may not agree with a messenger or who he is, but Roger Ailes built Fox news into a massive media brand. There's gotta be something I can learn from him.

Ozan Varol: Exactly. And this is something that I try to teach my students as well. I'm a, my day job is as a law professor and I tell them, look, the best lawyers are the ones who know the opposing sides argument better than the opposition does.

Ozan Varol: So if you only read books that, that you resonate with, if you're not reading, Roger Errol's book, you are the message. Then you're going to stifle that ability to be able to robot arguments. On the other side, you have to know what those arguments. So that's one point and then the second is you'll benefit from knowing how he built Fox news into what it is today, even if you don't agree with the messenger.

Ozan Varol: And so I think that's really important. And it relates to another idea. I talk about the book about another idea that I talk about in the book, which is this notion of trying to prove yourself wrong, which is our default is trying to prove ourselves, but to be able to find what's right, to be able to discover new ideas, not only do you have to exercise this combinatory play muscle, but also expose yourself to ideas that you don't necessarily agree with because that reading those will make your own ideas.

Srini: Yeah that's what I noticed. Part of the, I stopped reading medium because I realized I was like, oh, when I go here, all I'm getting is content similar to what I've written. And I'm like, wow, the algorithm is basically confirming all of the things I already believe. And I also have stopped discovering people that I find interesting as a result.

Srini: That's the number one thing I look for is literally as my primary filter for how I choose people. Is, am I curious about this for some reason? Yeah. There's something about this interests me. So with that in mind, let's get into this whole idea of moonshot thinking because when I saw this, he said, moonshots force you to reason from first principles.

Srini: If your goal is a 1% improvement, you can work within the status quo. But if your goal is to improve tenfold, the status quo has to go. Then you also followed it up with something I thought was really observant. You said, we need the idealism of divergent thinking to be followed by the pragmatism of convergent thinking, because.

Srini: Often, I think that moonshots, particularly in the self-help world seem more like mental masturbation. They're like, oh, I'm dreaming of this like crazy life in which you might date the most beautiful people. I have a six pack of six pack, abs live in a mansion and I'm the most enlightened human being on the fucking planet.

Srini: Now that's nonsense. Nobody is like that. This is why a joke. He said, if I to actually implement the advice of everybody I've ever interviewed, I would be. But I'm human. So how do you take that whole idea of moonshot thinking? Because the other thing I think when I read the word moonshot thinking is, yeah I don't have a Google Plex and I don't have Astro teller.

Srini: So let's say that I want to imply moonshot thinking to what we're doing here at unmistakable, or even if our listeners wanted to apply to one of their projects, how would we

Ozan Varol: do that? Yeah. Great question. To go back to the first thing you asked, because which is the idea that so divergent thinking should be followed by convergent thinking.

Ozan Varol: So divergent thinking is this idea of moonshot thinking where you sit down and you think through a question. Without considering constraints. So you don't worry about what's possible. You don't worry about what's doable. Given the budgets, the resources, the skills, the software, the fill in the blank has to just re let your brain run wild and come up with potential answers to whatever you might be struggling with.

Ozan Varol: But that it, that can't be the end of that. Cause starry-eyed dreamers, as you said, aren't the best people to execute on those ideas. You can dream all day, but if you're not doing anything about it then it's not going to work. Of course. So that idealism of divergent thinking has to be followed by the pragmatism of convergent thinking.

Ozan Varol: And convergent thinking basically brings in constraints into the mix. So now you take your wild dreams and you collide them with reality. And think through how you can implement what you dreamed about by introducing these constraints. And so one of the ideas that I talk about in the book is Ideas of doing that is called backcasting.

Ozan Varol: So you look to this imagined future, and then you backward go backward from it to figure out the steps you need to take to be able to get there. If you have this again, dream of launching a business, you would sit down and write out every single thing you need to do to be able to get to that end goal.

Ozan Varol: And that has a number of benefits. So one is it's a reality check. So to the extent that those steps seem to honor us or not doable for you, but maybe this is not the right idea. And it's also a reality check because sometimes if you list out everything you need to do, you pivot your focus from outcome to process.

Ozan Varol: So you actually look to if you have this idea of, or you want to climb a mountain, or you want to run a marathon, if you look to everything you need to do to get there, it serves as a really solid. Reality check because often we fall in love with the destination and forget about the path required to get there.

Ozan Varol: Like we want to have climbed a mountain. We don't actually want to climb a mountain. And so backcasting is a good way of introducing some convergent thinking and and pivoting back to process and the concrete steps required to achieve that dream. Okay.

Srini: Hey, it's funny. I hope you're liking this episode of the unmistakable creative.

Srini: Did you know that every Sunday, our community manager Molina sends up 10 key takeaways from episodes like this one. All you have to do to receive it is sign up for our newsletter. Just visit unmistakable creative.com/newsletter, and you'll get them delivered right to your inbox. Again, that's unmistakable creative.com/.

Srini: So what role does your own self perception? And self-belief play in that because you may have heard our interviews with Greg hurdle who, was an old mentor. And he had a very clear way of saying something that, in some ways seemed deterministic, but also was realistic. He said, look, the modern age, self-help new age world that we live in creates these sort of delusional fantasies that anybody can become Elon Musk.

Srini: But he said, that's not true. He said, because he said, it's not inspiring to say Michael Phelps is Michael Phelps because he was born that way or that Oprah became Oprah because she was destined for that. And he said, we're not all created equal. Yeah. And I remember that it was a harsh reality check, but I think it was still one of our most popular episodes for good reason, because he kept it real.

Srini: And so when you think about a moonshot, like I think of the moonshot and think, am I ever going to be, Larry, Pedro Sergei Brin? I don't think so.

Ozan Varol: Yeah. I think that's a great point. What's a moonshot for Elon Musk. So moonshots are relative as well. So I don't have a goal of sending humans to Mars like that.

Ozan Varol: I have, I don't have any interest in that ADA mustache. So that's a moonshot for him, but I have my own moonshots in my own world, which are certainly more limited compared to what Elon Musk is dreaming about. My moonshots, I dunno, five years ago, was to write a mainstream nonfiction book that you can find in bookstores.

Ozan Varol: And at the time that seemed out of reach for a number of reasons. And for me that was a moonshot. And moonshot thinking doesn't have to be science fiction thinking it can be, but it doesn't have to be. And so in your world, what are you thinking about doing but you're not doing because you don't think you're capable of getting there.

Ozan Varol: And usually our dreams. The problem that I see, at least in my audience and the people that I interact with. Yeah. Not that people's dreams are too big, but they're too small because we've been conditioned by society that, flying low is safer than flying higher. And so if you course correct a little bit in the direction of the moon, it doesn't actually have to be like getting to Mars.

Ozan Varol: But if you course-correct a little bit in the direction of the moon, then you might end up actually getting there. And even if you don't get there, then you'll you'll fail above everybody. Else's success. So I think it's all relative. And and to go back to your question too, about yeah, we're not Google X, we're not Astro teller.

Ozan Varol: We don't have the financial might have of Elon Musk or Amazon. But in, in a lot of cases, it's like you don't, it's not about finances. The roadblock to dreaming big tends to be in know. Reinforced by just decades of conditioning, my society I love Seth Godin's book, the Icarus myth about the pit, which I'm sure many of your listeners will have heard, or the Icarus deception is the name of the book, but it's based on the Icarus myth where it, Chris, his father tells him to not fly high, too close to the sun because his wings are going to melt and he ignores his father's advice and ends up plummeting to his death.

Ozan Varol: But as golden points out in his book, there's a second part to that myth as well, which is his father also instructed him to not fly too low because then his wings would get caught, I think, in the waves or what have you. And he would also plunge as well. But that second part of the myth gets ignored.

Ozan Varol: We all focus on this idea that flying too high as dangerous. So I think course-correcting just a little bit and the direction of the moon. So aiming a little bit higher than you otherwise would can be quite bad. Yeah.

Srini: So I think that the other thing that, you talked about sending two rivers instead of one in this chapter about redundancies.

Srini: And, you said two things that really stood out to me. When we immediately launch into answer mode, we end up chasing the wrong problem. When we rush to identify solutions, we fall over their diagnosis or initial answer, or our initial answer hides better. One's lurking in print site. But the other thing that really caught my attention is just because a hammer is sitting in front of you, it doesn't mean it's the right tool for the job.

Srini: It's only when you zoom out and determine the broader strategy or you can you walk away from a flood tactic. And I think about that in terms of people like Gary V who go out on Instagram and say, oh, everybody should be on Snapchat. And then millions of people as a result go and, get on Snapchat.

Srini: I was like, wait a minute, have you not considered the context here? He happens to be an investor in this company too. Like that to me is always one of those things like, okay, is the person who is telling you to do this thing, gonna benefit from it because that is a context to consider. If I offered a podcasting course and said, everybody should start a blog.

Srini: I have a potential upside for you following that advice,

Ozan Varol: right? No, absolutely. And so when people are out looking for answers about, say how to implement a social media strategy and they find Gary V advice about Snapchat, it's always a search for tactics, right? Tell me what to do, give me the three step formula, the life hack so I can go out and do it.

Ozan Varol: And that's problematic for the reasons that we discussed earlier, because it gets in the way of first principles thinking. So it was much better to zoom out and determine the right strategy. Then once you determine the right strategy, then the tactics become malleable. So you don't have to go to Snapchat.

Ozan Varol: There are other ways of better ways actually, of accomplishing the same strategy, the same end goal then copying somebody else's tactics, which gets in the way of first principles thinking. So it was helpful to just step back and ask What is this tactic for? Why is Gary V suggesting that I go into Snapchat?

Ozan Varol: What is the larger goal that, that tactic is supposed to serve? And if that goal resonates with you, if that's what you're trying to build, then step back and you'll be able to identify other tactics that you may have missed before. Because you were narrowly zooming in on with somebody else who's famous has done and copying their playbook, basically play by play.

Ozan Varol: But when you focus on strategies or principles, you're you'll be much better positioned to be able to develop your own voice and your own tactics for getting to similar.


Srini: Let's and we definitely already talked about the whole flip-flopping idea that, it is organically.

Srini: It made its way into our conversation. So I want to skip that one, but one of the things you talked about was testing, and this really struck me when you give the Seinfeld example where you said the distortions introduced by the observer effect or significant effect and fool you into believing that a hit show will flop or that a horse is a mathematical genius.

Srini: Now, this is interesting because there's so much research that says. You should basically survey your audience, listen to what they have to say. There are literally entire books written about this. I know because I've followed the advice in them and sometimes it works.

Srini: Sometimes it doesn't like, I am like, okay, look, the data might say this, when we've done things that the data doesn't say to do, we've had some pretty surprising successes.

Ozan Varol: Yeah. And so the idea in the book about the observer effect and the whole chapter, it goes back to this simple principle from rocket science called test, as you fly as you test.

Ozan Varol: And the idea is that tests, experiments, surveys should take place. And this is true, whether you're launching a rocket and new business, a new website, really anything the test or the experiments should take place in conditions as close as possible to the flight. Any disconnect between the test and the flight can cause catastrophe in a system as complex as a rocket, but that same principle applies in your own personal and work life as well.

Ozan Varol: And so the problem with most surveys and most books that sort of instruct people to run surveys, is that asking people questions about what they would do or what they would prefer. Hypothetically is very different than the actual flight when they actually, when the users actually get the thing you're offering them.

Ozan Varol: And yet the example I've given the book, one of the examples is the iPhone. That there was a survey conducted, apple connected, the survey and asked I think this was done in the U S Japan and Germany. If they like the idea of having one device to fulfill all their needs, only 30% of them said yes.

Ozan Varol: So they seem to, if you look at the survey results, they seem to prefer carrying around a separate camera, a separate phone, IPod type music player instead of a single device that could perform all three functions. But then once the iPhone actually came out, people felt very differently once they could actually hold the iPhone in their hands they couldn't let it go.

Ozan Varol: So the indifference that you saw in the surveys quickly morphed into desire. And so as business owners, it's much better instead of asking people hypothetical questions about what they would prefer, what they would like, just give them the price, give them the product. So if you're a shoe company and you're thinking about how much would people pay for this shoe?

Ozan Varol: Give people the shoe, ask them to actually take out their wallet and fork over their hard-earned dollars to the cashier. That's very different than asking them hypothetically in a survey, how much they would pay, because then the survey spits out perfectly wrong answers. Yeah

Srini: I think this is a perfect way to bring us full circle.

Srini: Like you, you talk about this idea of both failure and success, and I think you had some really interesting ways of observing things. You talked about, that we admit black boxes to our detriment, so let's go there with the whole failure idea, then we'll wrap things up with success.

Ozan Varol: Sure. So the idea of a black box, as as I'm sure your listeners know it's this recording device in an airplane that captures everything that happens. And it's actually a misnomer because the black boxes as orange, so it can be identified readily in the event of a crash.

Ozan Varol: Our goal should be to incorporate those black boxes in our lives. There is this notion and in Silicon valley that the mantra fail fast, fail often fail forward, which I think for the reasons I get into in the book as, as misguided it, the mantra should really be learned fast, not fail fast because just because you're failing doesn't mean you're learning from it.

Ozan Varol: And research bears this out. I cite a number of studies in the book, both from the entrepreneurial world, but also there was a study on cardiac surgeons who had Bosch a previous procedure. They tend to perform worse on later procedures because they don't learn from their mistakes. So it's important to adopt a learn fast.

Ozan Varol: So yeah, you're going to fail and it's important to not let failure get in the way, but to pivot to a mindset where you're not just mindlessly moving from one failure to the other, but you're actually taking the time to, to look at the black box and see what it contains and learning from those misses.

Srini: So I think the, of all the quotes that stood out in the final chapter where you're talking about postmortems and the fact that nothing feels like success, you said the next time you're tempted to start basking in the glory of your success while admiring the scoreboard, stop and pause for a moment, ask yourself what ranked, what went wrong with the success, what role did luck, opportunity, and privilege play.

Srini: And when I looked at that, I thought about my book deal. And I was like, yeah, that was a fluke. If there ever was one, you think about somebody like mark Cuban, who sells broadcast.com for a hundred million dollars@theheightofthe.com boom, to Yahoo of all people. And he walks out of billionaire and Yahoo is pretty much, on running on fumes at this point.

Ozan Varol: Yeah. There was a quote in the book and this is from EBV white, but luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men. People, when you succeed, you tend to look and say I'm a genius. I'm so talented. This was because of what I did. And we completely discount the role that luck and opportunity.

Ozan Varol: Play in the process, but just because you're in a hot streak, doesn't mean you'll be at the house. And one of the, the pieces of advice I've given that chapter is to treat failure and success the same. So follow the exact same process, going back to the point about black boxes after a failure and after a success.

Ozan Varol: So once you, when you succeed, it's important to look back and say what went wrong with the success? What role did luck play? What can I learn from it? Because if you don't do that, then the, the near misses that didn't quiet become roadblocks. Your success will catch up to you. And then in the future.

Ozan Varol: So I think companies should be conducting postmortems, not just after catastrophic failures, but also after successes as well. Wow.

Srini: This has been just absolutely phenomenal. I have one final question for you, which I know you've probably heard me ask, what do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable.

Ozan Varol: So I'm going to answer that question with a story about Johnny Cash. In 1954, Johnny Cash walked into the audition room at sound records. And at the time he was a, nobody, he was selling appliances door to door and playing gospel songs. At nights, he was broke. His marriage wasn't ruins. And for his audition cash picked this gospel song because it was what he knew best.

Ozan Varol: And also gospel was really popular in 1954. Everyone else was singing it, but the audition, which is depicted in the movie walked the line, which is really phenomenal. It doesn't go as cash plant cash begins to sing this slow Drury gospel song, the record label owner, Sam Phillips feigns interest for 15 seconds before interrupting cash.

Ozan Varol: And he says, we've already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just like how you're saying it. And he asked cache to sing something different, something real, something you felt because that's the kind of song that truly saves people that rant Joel's cash out of his conformance. Let me sing you some good old gospel attitude.

Ozan Varol: You collect himself and he begins singing the false the Folsom prison blues in that deep distinctive voice of this. And in that moment, he stops trying to become a gospel singer and he becomes the unmistakable Johnny Cash. So being on mistaken will, for me, requires embracing those distinctive qualities about yourself, that the world tries so hard to beat into conformity.

Ozan Varol: It requires singing the Folsom prison, blues. When everyone else around you is singing gospel.

Srini: Incredible. Where can people find out more about you, your work in the book?

Ozan Varol: I have a weekly email that goes out every Thursday and people can sign up for that@weeklycontrarion.com and the book is called think like a rocket scientist it's available everywhere that books are sold.

Ozan Varol: Folks can go to rocket science book.com to find the links to purchase the book. There was a bunch of pre-order bonuses as well that come with the book. So if people forward their receipts to rocket@azanmoral.com, we'll send them a whole bunch of pre-order bonuses for. I've got a special bonus for the listeners of unmistakable creative.

Ozan Varol: If you order to think like a rocket scientist by April 21st, 2020, you'll get two amazing bonuses. The first is a video training with a behind the scenes. Look at my productivity system. You'll find tips on how to defeat procrastination, how to minimize distractions and how to get more done in less time.

Ozan Varol: The second bonus is a pack of ten three minute bite-size videos with actionable insights from the book that you can implement right away to learn more. And to order the book, head over to rocket science book.com forward slash unmistakable. Once again, that's rocket science book.com forward slash unmistakable.

Srini: Very cool. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that.

Ozan VarolProfile Photo

Ozan Varol

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning professor and #1 bestselling author. He is one of the world’s foremost experts in creativity, innovation, and critical thinking.

A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Ozan grew up in a family of no English speakers. He learned English as a second language and moved to the United States by himself at 17 to attend Cornell University and major in astrophysics.