Book Review: ‘Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life’ 

August 7, 2020 Updated: August 10, 2020

In September 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood before a packed Rice University stadium and pledged to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. Why did Kennedy choose this mission? He wanted to beat the Soviet Union to the moon, but at the same time, he wanted to unite the nation in an inspirational way.

The idea of inspiring hope is prevalent throughout Ozan Varol’s new book “Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.” Varol points out that when Kennedy gave his speech, he asked the nation to do something remarkable. He said, “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.”

Varol encourages us to see challenges as opportunities, not crises, and argues that how people react to challenges makes a huge difference in their lives.

A former rocket scientist himself, Varol manages to find parallels between how rocket scientists think and how to achieve success:

“The world is evolving at dizzying speed, and we must continuously evolve with it to keep pace. Although not everyone aspires to calculate burn-rate coefficients or orbital trajectories, we all encounter complex and unfamiliar problems in our daily lives. Those who can tackle these problems—without clear guidelines and with the clock ticking—enjoy an extraordinary advantage.”

Think Like a Rocket Scientist
Ozan Varol’s latest book.

Strategies for Rocket Thinking

Varol cleverly divides his strategies into three stages of action: to launch, accelerate, and achieve.

Launch: Varol’s excellent advice begins with how to ignite your thinking. This will involve making the most out of uncertainty. You will need to know some answers before you can begin, but asking the right questions is more important.

Remember, conventional thoughts lead to conventional results. Don’t be constrained by what you or others did in the past; rely on curiosity and divergent thinking to generate creative ideas. Ultimately, you will get things right by cutting out unnecessary steps and aiming for simplicity.

Accelerate: Once you’ve generated some original ideas in the first stage, it’s time to propel your ideas forward. Reframe your initial questions to get even better answers. Take some time to determine whether the problem you’re trying to solve is actually the problem that needs solving.

Be careful to stop your personal beliefs from distorting the facts—that means to never become overly attached to any answer. Remember: We undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that supports it.

Finally, make sure you are able to respond to worst-case scenarios.

Achieve: The final stage involves unlocking your full potential. While you needn’t celebrate failure, you shouldn’t let it get in your way. Without the ability to be wrong, after all, you can never be right. Treating failure as an option is the key to originality.

Then, even with success within your grasp, push the boundaries. Research shows that success and complacency go hand-in-hand.

Reaching for the Impossible 

In addition to presenting excellent strategies, Varol’s book presents a magnificent view of science. His discussion of the first mission to the moon is mesmerizing. It was a mission that turned the impossible into the possible, and is a shining example of what can happen when Americans unite to reach a goal. Other science stories that Varol features in his book will add to readers’ insights and appreciation of space exploration.

Varol’s book is heartening when we reflect on the situation today. Now science is often politicized, especially as social media often take sides on science issues instead of allowing the free flow of ideas.

More Inspiration

Varol’s book deserves applause for its rich language (there are terrific descriptions of cutting-edge science such as rovers and a balloon-powered internet), and the quotes from scientists he includes were, for the most part, new to me and quite profound:

Elon Musk: “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

Carl Sagan, explaining “Occam’s razor” or “law of parsimony” said: “When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well,” you should “choose the simpler.”

Albert Einstein: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

Can-Do Attitude

Especially enjoyable is reading about America’s can-do attitude of the past. As I write this, the nation is suffering from deep sadness and fear caused in large part by simultaneously struggling with a pandemic, associated lockdowns, economic recession, and riots. So many of the struggles America faces now are purposely being exaggerated to make citizens feel powerless. It seems that Pandora’s Box has truly been opened.

But reading this encouraging book is one small way to help counter a downward trend and enrich America’s psyche. Today, America longs for people with this very can-do attitude.

Varol’s optimistic look at the past can become America’s present and future. Read this book for inspiration, and think big.

‘Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life’ 
Ozan Varol
PublicAffairs
368 pages, hardcover

Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher with 45 years’ experience teaching children. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at LWiegenfeld@aol.com