Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning law professor and bestselling author — which makes him perfectly poised to share the wisdom found in his latest book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.
What We Discuss with Ozan Varol:
- How to apply first-principles thinking in your life.
- How you can reverse your own processes to find the holes in your logic.
- The benefits of bringing in outside expertise that has seemingly nothing to do with the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Why brainstorming all the reasons your idea might fail may just ensure its long-term success.
- How to reframe questions and generate insights you may have missed.
- And much more…
Like this show? Please leave us a review here — even one sentence helps! Consider including your Twitter handle so we can thank you personally!
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one. The same strategies that put Neil Armstrong on the Moon can also help you make your own giant leaps in work and life. You just have to make sure you’re not stuck in the all-too-common rut of trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.
In this episode, we tap into the expertise of former rocket scientist Ozan Varol, an award-winning law professor and author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. We’ll discuss reframing questions to generate new insights, the benefits of consulting amateurs, brainstorming failure, and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Additionally, Ozan is offering two bonuses to the listeners of The Jordan Harbinger Show for ordering his book! If you forward your receipt to email@example.com and mention Jordan Harbinger, you’ll get (1) a pack of 10, three-minute, bite-sized videos with actionable insights from Think Like a Rocket Scientist that you can implement right away and (2) a video training with a behind-the-scenes look at Ozan’s productivity system (you’ll learn how to defeat procrastination and get more done in less time).
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, OZAN VAROL!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life by Ozan Varol
- Ozan Varol’s Website
- First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge, Farnam Street
- When SpaceX Tried to Buy Missiles from Russia: Vodka and a Run-Around, Inverse
- Reasoning by Analogy, FutureLearn
- This Year SpaceX Made Us All Believe in Reusable Rockets, Wired
- Blue Origin
- He Saw Uber Coming Before Uber Did. Here’s His Next Big Idea, Inc.
- Alan Alda at Twitter
- Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), CDC
- Shortage of Personal Protective Equipment Endangering Health Workers Worldwide, WHO
- What Is Jeff Bezos’ “Day 1” Philosophy? Forbes
- Mars Exploration Rovers, NASA Mars
- NASA Reveals Probable Cause of Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space-2 Mission Failures, SpaceRef
- The Costanza “Opposite” Strategy to Win Friends and Influence People by Mayo Oshin
- From the APL Vault: Transit and the Birth of Satellite Navigation, JHU Applied Physics Laboratory
- Don’t Buy This Jacket, Black Friday, and The New York Times, Patagonia
- The $5 Challenge by Tina Seelig, Psychology Today
- Are You Solving the Right Problems? Harvard Business Review
- Red Team, Wikipedia
- Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution by Lisa Bodell
- Humblebragging Makes People Dislike You, According to Science, Time
Transcript for Ozan Varol | How to Think Like a Rocket Scientist (Episode 338)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with my producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant people, and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. We want you to become a better thinker. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, you'll be right at home here with us.
[00:00:41] Today, we've got Ozan Varol. He's a former rocket scientist, award-winning law professor. I didn't think they gave awards for that but hey, fine, I'm not going to argue with you. He's also the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist -- simple strategies you can use to make giant leaps in work and in life. Ozan is a super sharp cat, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to think like one. The same strategies that put Neil Armstrong on the moon can also help you make giant leaps both at work and at home.
[00:01:07] Today, we'll discuss how we can reverse our own processes to find the holes, why we should bring in outside expertise that has nothing or seemingly nothing to do with the problem at hand, and why brainstorming all the reasons why our idea might actually fail can ensure success in the long run. There's a lot of solid thought exercises and novel -- well novel for most of us at least -- ways of thinking that come out of this episode. And I think you'll enjoy this, whether you're a rocket scientist and worked on the Mars rover or just a regular schmo like myself.
[00:01:36] If you want to know how I managed to book all these amazing guests, they always come through my network. I'm teaching you how to create a network for yourself, for personal and especially for professional reasons. That course is called Six-Minute Networking, and it's free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. By the way, most of the guests on the show actually subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company. Now here's Ozan Varol.
[00:02:03] Ozan, thanks for coming on the show, man.
Ozan Varol: [00:02:05] Jordan, thank you so much for having me on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:07] One of the first ideas here, and it seems like a good place to start is the concept of first principles and how to apply first-principles thinking in your life. And as I was reading this, I thought, "Oh, I've heard this," but this is one of those things I had to Google a few years ago. First principles is a concept I think a lot of people have heard of, but sometimes we're just not sure what the heck it means. So can we define it first?
Ozan Varol: [00:02:29] Sure. So first principles is a way of questioning outdated assumptions as if you're hacking through a jungle until you're left with the fundamental components. So when you apply first-principles thinking you leave behind the baggage of history. You almost force yourself to unlearn what you know and then you relearn. You clear the path to create a better tomorrow.
[00:02:53] Two great examples of first principles thinking come from Elon Musk. When he sold PayPal to eBay and he's thinking about starting his own space company. He first went on the American market to shop for two rockets that he could use to send people to Mars. And sticker shock usually isn't in the vocabulary of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but that's what he experienced when he was shopping for these rockets. He then went to Russia and I kid you not, he shopped for decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:23] Like warheads that would've had a nuke on the front. He was like, "Let me pick up a couple of these."
Ozan Varol: [00:03:27] Yeah, exactly, exactly. And even those were way too expensive. And so on a shopping spree back from Russia, empty-handed on an airplane, he had an epiphany and he realized that his approach had been flawed -- the epiphany he arrived at by using first-principles thinking. In buying or trying to buy the rockets that other people had built, he realized that he was not using first-principles thinking; he was reasoning by analogy. He was looking at what other people had done and basically trying to copy them. And so instead of doing that, he went back to his physics training and he asked himself, "What's actually required to put a rocket into space? What are the fundamental non-negotiable raw materials of a rocket?" And if you look at the raw materials and try to buy them on the market, it's like two percent of the typical price of a rocket, which is a crazy ratio. So instead of buying rockets that other people built, he decided to cut his own metal from scratch and build next-generation rockets in his own factories. And so if you walk through a SpaceX factory, you'll find people doing everything from welding titanium to building in-flight computers.
[00:04:38] And then the other deeply held assumption that he questioned -- and Jeff Bezos is in this category too with this company Blue Origin -- a deeply held assumption in rocket science was that rockets couldn't be reused. So once you put a rocket into space, once it delivered its cargo into orbit, it would plunge into the ocean or burn up in the atmosphere and couldn't be reused again. Now imagine for a moment doing the same thing for commercial flights. Like you fly from Portland to Los Angeles, and then after the passengers, the plane, someone comes up and just torches the airplane. That's basically what we did for rockets. And the cost of a Boeing 737 is actually about the same as a modern rocket, but commercial flights are so much cheaper because airplanes can be reused over and over and over again. And so both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos decided to question that assumption that rockets couldn't be reused. And questioning that assumption has allowed both SpaceX and Blue Origin to reuse and refurbish numerous rocket parts, sending them back out into space like certified pre-owned vehicles. And so what was once a wild idea is now on its way to becoming routine.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:48] It seems bizarre that we ever didn't reuse rockets, but also of course, how would we get them back? So me knowing nothing about rocket science, obviously, clearly it does make total sense to reuse rockets. And of course, in the future, people will be like, "Wait, you just let them burn up in the atmosphere. How Stone Age of you," right?
Ozan Varol: [00:06:08] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:09] Because even in science fiction in the '50s of the UFO would take off and land, it didn't just fly up in the air and then that was it. We've been envisioning that that's kind of how things should go forever. We just couldn't get there technologically.
Ozan Varol: [00:06:20] Exactly. And it's so hard once you have that assumption in place, and it seems so obvious in hindsight, right? Of course, rockets should be reused, but it's the assumption that's just hiding under everybody else's nose. And one of the benefits, I think that both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos had, and I think this is one of the concrete tactics that people can use if they're struggling with first-principles thinking is to bring outsiders to the conversation. So Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were both outsiders to rocket science. I mean, Elon Musk came from the Internet world. Jeff Bezos was a finance guy and a lot of them were able to one, write on a blank slate because they're starting these companies from scratch, and two, challenge a lot of the assumptions that industry giants had taken for granted.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:06] Now how do we then reset some of our thinking? Because it's really easy for us to go, "All right, I'm going to reset all my assumptions," and then just not do that at all. Because the assumptions are there in many ways unconsciously. We've been operating off them the whole time. That's why you see these young disruptive companies, and I remember years and years ago, there was an app called Taxi Magic, and it was a way to order a taxi on your phone, but you couldn't see where the taxi really was most of the time. You certainly couldn't pay for the taxi. And then they were like, "We're going to add payment functionality," because I talked to the founder. And then after a few months, Uber came on the scene and it was for black cars. But since the people who took black cars almost universally had to pay with a corporate credit card and use a company account and bill it, they built all that stuff in there and then they found, "Oh wait, everybody wants to use this."
[00:07:55] But that isn't something that the taxi companies thought of -- but that's ridiculous. Why didn't a taxi company come up with an app that allowed customers to book the taxi from their phone? How was that not obvious? They already had every other piece in place. They had taxis with credit card processors. They had a fleet of cars, they had a phone system, they had a dispatch. I mean, they did everything but the stinking app that they could've made for 20, 25 grand, and now Uber came in and pretty much annihilated the entire industry.
Ozan Varol: [00:08:22] I think the example you just gave Jordan is a great illustration of the downside of expertise. So experts are often too close to the problem to think differently. They're too ingrained in what's worked in the past, which makes it really hard for them to step back and see these obvious insights that Uber saw, for example, as opposed to Taxi Magic. And so one thing that people can do, and this doesn't require an expensive consultant to come in, but just bring in -- like if you're running a company, bring in people from a different division or a different team or a different project who know nothing about what you're working on and ask them for their opinion.
[00:09:03] I did that with my book that just came out, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, where I just gave the book to people who were generally interested in business books, but who knew nothing, who had no background in what I was talking about. And they are amateurs, are really good at asking those "dumb" questions, but they're not dumb at all actually, because they go to some like fundamental aspects of the problem. Like, why can't you make rockets reusable? Amateurs will ask those questions even though experts may not because they're too ingrained in and what's worked in the past. And so bringing in outsiders who know nothing about what you're working on can be really, really valuable. Which by the way, is one of the reasons why I love teaching -- my day job is a law professor -- and I teach first-year law students and they are really good and asking dumb questions that are not at all that give me amazing ideas for academic articles. And it's a joy to work with them because they often see what I'm missing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:01] You've got a great quote from Alan Alda here. "Your assumptions are the windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while or the light won't come in." Of course, we have to own our own assumptions. How do we get there though from a practical standpoint? What questions do we ask ourselves? Or what do we do? Do we write this down? Do we journal our assumptions? Like what are we doing here to scrub off these windows?
Ozan Varol: [00:10:22] So I would spend a day questioning your assumptions. You can't go through life questioning everything you do. But in areas where innovation and creativity matters, question your assumptions. With each commitment, each presumption, each budget item ask yourself: What if this weren't true? Why am I doing it this way? Can I get rid of this or replace it with something better?
[00:10:43] There's a quote in my book from an innovative CEO, he asks, "What if you had not already hired this person? What if you had not already installed this equipment? What if you had implemented this process or bought this business or pursued the strategy -- would you be doing the same thing that you are doing today?" And when you engage in this exercise, it's important to demand current evidence. So a lot of our processes and habits are backward-looking. So if you pull up the standard operating procedures of a typical company, you'll find a lot of processes that were implemented in response to problems of yesterday and those problems no longer exist. So it's important to question them.
[00:11:24] And right now, I should say we're recording this interview in early April when the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc in the world. And I should preface what I'm about to say with this, there is a lot of suffering in the world right now, and it's not just physical suffering but mental and emotional and suffering as well. And so if you are suffering, my heart goes out to you. But if you are privileged enough to be healthy and if you're privileged enough to be safe and have enough food, this is a really good time to be engaging in this exercise of questioning your assumptions because we have been forced out of the status quo, whether we like it or not. And a lot of the things that business leaders, educators, really everyone took for granted, for example, that you can't run a major company remotely. Or in my case that you cannot teach law school classes remotely. All of those assumptions are being challenged and upended. So this is a great time to step back and apply this exercise of questioning assumptions across the board because we're getting disrupted left and right.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:12:30] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:20] This episode is also sponsored by FIGS. A nurse walks about five miles per shift. Doctors can work up to 80 hours per week, all on top of devoting themselves to our wellbeing, especially right now. So medical professionals, practically superhuman, yet they're wearing these repurposed bedsheets called scrubs. FIGS is out to change that. FIGS scrubs are packed with tons of features and functionality. They created their own fabric that's antimicrobial, anti-wrinkle, moisture-wicking, full of stretch. You know you don't want to be wearing a freaking pillowcase -- or what was once in a past life a pillowcase -- when you're doing all this work and you're walking around in these things all day. There are pockets, tons of pockets. Some of the styles of FIGS include over 10 pockets, which is amazingly useful, I would imagine when you've got a stethoscope and pens and a penlight and masks and tape and alcohol pads and sanitizers and some freaking snacks. So these things look good. They're comfortable, they make great PJs. But you know, if you're just kind of a poser like me, you can wear them as PJs, but they're good for people who actually work in these jobs. And I think we need to highlight the gifting element. Jace, what do you think?
Jason DeFillippo: [00:15:23] Definitely right now everybody's running out of PPE and things like that, and I'm guessing scrubs are in high demand as well. So pick up a couple of pairs and drop them off at your local ER.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:33] Jason, tell them where to go get these FIGS.
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[00:16:03] Thanks for listening and supporting the show and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don't forget we have a worksheet for today's episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you'd like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. And now back to the show.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:29] Many of our habits and processes were developed in response to problems that no longer exist. We mentioned that prior to the show, and I think that's an important note. Because if we've always done something this way, often that's because that was the way to do it back when we had old technology or we had to do things in a certain specific way because of limitations of, I don't know, physics, science, technology, logistics, whatever it was. And then we kind of have this immune response, as you phrased it, the immune response remains long after the pathogen leaves.
[00:17:02] So, "Oh, well, we have to run everything through this and we have to do everything on paper and we have to do everything in the office." We see these assumptions melt away. "I can't believe it. There's no way I can teach law classes remotely," which by the way, that seems exactly like the type of thing that you could do remotely. I mean, I think that if out of all of the things that people say that can't be done remotely, giving a lecture is probably not in the top 10 that can't be done remotely. But look, maybe you do more than that when you teach and call on people and stuff. But, you know, I get it. There's a lot of people that think if people aren't in the office, they're not working as hard, and they may well be right at some level. However, we've created that because there was no other way to get this knowledge to people.
[00:17:46] But when I was in law school 12, 13, 14 whatever, maybe even 15 years ago now, we could have taught classes online way back then. We just didn't. So 15 years later, people are being forced to do it, and it's like, "Oh my God, how are we going to do that?" We'll have you heard of Zoom. It's really not that hard.
Ozan Varol: [00:18:01] Yeah. And I should say on some metrics, and I do miss the in-person interactions that I have with students, but I should say on two metrics, Zoom is proving to be better. One is engagement is up. I teach these really big constitutional law classes that are about a hundred students each. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands and speak up in this huge lecture hall are far more comfortable unmuting themselves and speaking from the comfort of their home. And so students who haven't engaged with the material are now engaging with it over Zoom and the second part as office hours. So I've been doing office hours over Zoom and students are more willing to show up to office hours over Zoom, than they were to the in-person office hours because I think people are intimidated sometimes and they don't want to bother me. But when I hold office hours over Zoom, a lot of people come.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:52] That makes sense. I can understand not wanting to wait in line somewhere for a professor. Everyone thinks you're stupid. You're hanging out, you feel awkward. You're sort of wasting your time. Meanwhile, if you're doing office hours on Zoom, you're just kind of at home. You make a cup of tea, you go to the bathroom, you hear Zoom ding. You run back to your computer or you're telling your phone anyway. You unmute yourself. And additionally participating in a big lecture hall where you get it wrong and everyone looks at you and is like, "I knew it. She's stupid." But meanwhile, at work, rarely at work in the real world are you in a position where you have to get up in front of everyone that you work with and throw a Hail Mary out because you got called on or because you have an idea and then risk being wrong in front of 200 people. That just doesn't happen. So, I mean, I'm doing it right now, but I'm used to being wrong and having nobody around to correct me except for you.
[00:19:42] So here's what I predict. Yes, we're going to see some people who aren't great at working from home, and that's going to be problematic for a while. And then there's going to be a learning curve and people are going to get through it. There's going to be monitoring software that some employers use for better or for worse. But then after a while, there's going to be a huge portion of businesses that go, "I guess we really don't need a $65,000 a month office space because we're getting like 95 percent of the productivity in this situation right now. And we'll have the C-Suite people and the people that load freight, you know, they've got to go to the warehouse and we all should work from the office because we're doing conferences all day and it's just easier and we've got to see the product and the engineers have to mess with the hardware. But the sales team doesn't need to be there, the customer support team doesn't need to be there. The remote tech compliance, whatever, people don't need to be there. The law legal team doesn't need to be there. All those people can work from home and you can cut your office space down by 80 percent and save a ton of money as a result.
Ozan Varol: [00:20:35] Exactly. So human beings are really good at adapting, which is somewhat ironic because we're also really afraid of change.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:42] Stubborn as hell.
Ozan Varol: [00:20:43] Yeah, stubborn, really afraid of change, really afraid of the unknown, really afraid of uncertainty. Yet, at the same time, we're also really adapting to things, adapting to new circumstances. I mean, when life throws curve balls at us, as long as you're not sticking to your guns and you're seeing what could be done differently and you're seizing those opportunities, human beings are really good at adaptation. We just need to employ these tools and not go back to business as usual. I think that's really important, right? So taking these and what we're learning from this period and actually applying it to create a better tomorrow as opposed to going back to what we did yesterday.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:21] I also love the points you had about the wisdom of amateurs. You're bringing outsiders into the conversation. We touched on this earlier. Experts are far too ingrained in what's worked in the past, and that's where they got their expertise. Now, it doesn't mean that expertise is not valuable. I'm very much a pro-expert, especially in this modern culture of like, "I make my own truth." "No, you don't. That's ridiculous." Experts are great at what they do, but also we can find them being rooted in the past.
[00:21:47] Right now, for example, I'm trying to get a bunch of masks to hospitals around the country. And I've sourced masks directly from the manufacturer that are produced in probably overseas but are located in North America. They're from 3M and these hospitals are like, "I need millions of masks." And I'm like, "Great. I have the actual source that nobody else can get right now. That's way behind, but they're willing to do us a solid minimum order quantity is a million." They're like, "No problem." And then they go, "Ah, yeah, our payment terms are our net 90," and I'm like, "You don't understand. You have no leverage. You have no masks. Your frontline healthcare workers have no protection." And they're like, "Yeah, but you know, we've got, we really can't pay right away. We need like 30-day payment terms." And I'm just thinking, "What planet are you on where this is a workable solution for you? You know, like you literally don't have enough PPE, four people, and you're telling me that you won't work directly with 3M because you need like 90-day payment terms. They're just going to sell it to somebody who's got cash in their hand. What are you doing?"
[00:22:49] This for me was mind-boggling and for a lot of the other entrepreneurial people who have been helping me source these masks, they're just blown away at how these bureaucratic health systems can't seem to understand that. I was like, "What are we missing?" Because it seems like our simple view of this where we got a hold of a bunch of the masks and somebody just needs to cut a dang check and then get the truck there. That seemed too simple. And as I talked with more and more hospital systems and I got them off the record and on the phone, they would say, "Look, we just don't have any flexibility. Nobody wants to take any risk here because they're going to lose their job if anything goes wrong. Or if somebody finds out that we had to send money to China to buy the masks," which by the way, is where they buy their masks from literally every other time they've bought masks. Just right now, political climates, the governor of whatever state doesn't want to send two million dollars to China for political reasons. So that's one reason why there's a mask shortage, which is infuriating.
Ozan Varol: [00:23:43] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:44] And looking at it from a total outside perspective, these dumb questions, which actually aren't dumb at all, such as, "How come you can't just order these from the factory that's making them?" Turned out to be the best answer possible and the reason they couldn't was because they didn't want to, not because there was any good reason or that it wasn't possible.
Ozan Varol: [00:24:03] That's a great example of process trumping reason. Jeff Bezos has this question that he likes to ask his employees from time to time. He says, "Do we own the process or does the process own us?" And what you're describing, sticking to the payment terms, even in an emergency, seems like a prime example of the process owning us as opposed to us owning the process. And there are so many times in these big mega-corporations or bureaucracies where people will say, "Well, I followed the process," and as you said, Jordan, it's a way of creating safety of covering their own butt basically, and making sure that they're not going to be fired. Because they're not going to be fired for following the process, but they might be fired for going outside of it. And if you structure a bureaucracy that way, where process trumps reason, you're going to end up with these well unreasonable outcomes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:54] So there's a bunch of people trying to raise money to buy the masks, get them to the United States and then to the hospital -- because what they will do is if the masks are already here, they will then just grab them but they can't do it when they're outside the country. And I'm sure there's a reason for that. That was put in place 10, 20, 30 years ago to avoid some problem that probably doesn't exist. Or is a small enough problem where a bunch of people dying from coronavirus would probably trump the need to adhere to this policy.
Ozan Varol: [00:25:22] Yeah, exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:23] And it wasn't invented with the idea that we would be critically sure. It was invented with the idea that gee, we hope we don't get screwed out of a bunch of money when we're reordering our routine supply of personal protective equipment. And so, it's going to take people from the outside, and that's why we're looking towards our national leaders right now to say, "Cut through the bureaucracy. Invoke these government orders and get these FEMA funds and just buy the damn things and quit complaining about how things aren't going to fit perfectly into the little square peg situation you've created for yourself to get new equipment."
Ozan Varol: [00:25:55] Exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:56] You have to take the hammer and bash the square peg through the round hole, or you're going to have a messier situation than we already have.
Ozan Varol: [00:26:02] I agree completely.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:03] So how do we reframe questions to generate insights that we may have missed? You give the example in the book about George Costanza asking himself questions on Seinfeld. How can we utilize this ourselves?
Ozan Varol: [00:26:15] So I'm going to begin with a different example from my own background and then maybe we can circle back to George Costanza later, which was definitely cited in the book. But I want to first go back to the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. I worked on the operations team for that back in 1999. Our initial mission was to send a single rover to Mars in 2003. In 1999, when we were building our rover, another lander called the Mars Polar Lander that was using the same landing mechanism as we were planning to use crashed. Now the Polar Lander wasn't our baby, but our mission got scrapped because, well, they were using the same landing mechanism as us, and that landing mechanism had just failed spectacularly. We were scrambling to figure out a way to fix the landing mechanism and come up with a new way, a better way, of landing on Mars.
[00:27:07] And I remember distinctly when my boss, who was the principal investigator of the mission, he walked into my office and said, "I just got off the phone with the administrator of NASA, and he asked a simple question, 'What if we sent two rovers instead of one?'" Such a simple question, but one that none of us had thought about asking before. So up until that point, NASA had just been sending one rover to Mars every two years and crossing their fingers that nothing bad happens along the way. The NASA administrator, in asking that question, reframed the problem. Because the problem wasn't just the landing system. I mean, even if you fix the landing system, sending a rover to Mars is really risky. You're sending this delicate robot 40 million miles through outer space and landing it on this surface that's littered with scary-looking rocks. And so instead of putting all our eggs in one spacecraft basket, we decided to send two rovers instead of one. Even if one failed, the other might make it. And what's more with economies of scale, the cost of the second rover would just be pennies on the dollar. We built the rovers to last for 90 days, so they were called Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit lasted for six years until it got stuck on soft soil, but Opportunity -- and I still get goosebumps every time I say this -- it kept roving Mars until 2018 -- over 14 years into its 90-day lifetime. All because someone was willing to step back and ask a question that reframed the problem in a way that everybody else had missed.
[00:28:46] So then the question becomes, "Well, how do you do that?" I mean, it's easier said than done. Yeah, it's a simple question. But how do you actually come up with a framework for asking that question that nobody else had thought of asking? So I talk about a number of strategies in the book for doing that, but one way to do it is to differentiate between strategy and tactics. So those terms are often used to mean the same thing, but they're actually referring to different concepts. A strategy is a plan for achieving an objective, whereas tactics are the actions you take, the questions you ask, the tools you use to implement that strategy. And tactics can be traps. When we're blinded by the tactics in front of us, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You stop seeing other possibilities in the peripheries, and it's only when you zoom out and determine the broader strategy that you can come out with questions like, "What if we sent two rovers instead of one?"
[00:29:42] And so to find the strategy, ask yourself: "What problem is this tactic here to solve?" So that requires moving from the what to the why, framing the problem more broadly in terms of what you're trying to accomplish. Going back to the Mars example, if you frame the problem more broadly as the risk involved and landing on Mars, not just as a defective lander, then sending two rovers instead of one decreases risk and increases reward.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:13] What breaks on a rover? I know that's totally not the point you're making, but I'm so curious. If something's supposed to last 90 days, what are you expecting to burn out, or whatever? What goes first? Or are you just thinking, "Eh, these things are going to run into some ravine and we're never going to see it again?"
Ozan Varol: [00:30:27] Yeah, I mean, there are so many things that can go wrong. I mean, so part of the problem, part of the uncertainty is coming from the fact that we knew very little about the landing sites for these two rovers. I mean, we had orbital photos of what the landing sites were going to look like, but we didn't have photos up close. And so that's one unknown that can completely throw a cosmic wrench in your plans. If the rover ends up in a rough landing area, if it gets stuck on soft soil, for example, which is what ended up happening to Spirit, it can cut the mission short. Equipment can break, and unlike on Earth, you can't just pop the hood and have a look inside once you've sent the spacecraft to Mars. You could have a dust storm on Mars, for example, that can take out the solar panels, deprive the rover of the energy it needs to be able to do its mission. So many things can go wrong.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:17] Huh. So why did it last 14 years? You just said it just got caught in some soil? The 90 days is almost like a dice roll of "All these things can go wrong. We're expecting them to not happen for 90 days in some way that's catastrophic for the mission," but it's not like, "Well, the battery dies in this amount of time," or "The wheels explode from the atmospheric pressure."
Ozan Varol: [00:31:41] No, that's like the bare minimum, mission success criteria. That's sort of the lifetime warranty that we could give the rovers. But you know, in this instance with respect to two rovers, one ended up being six years, the other being 14 years. And that's in part because we designed the rovers to be really versatile. Going back to what we were discussing before with respect to adapting to different circumstances, instead of solving the problems that we expect it to solve, we just sort of learn to solve the problems that Mars throws at you. And you can do that if you're versatile with respect to how you designed the rovers, and also with respect to how you operate them.
[00:32:18] For example, one of the things that happened to one of the rovers, one of its wheels got stuck, I think. This was after my time on the mission. And the operators basically had to drive the rover backwards for the rest of its life -- and it worked. I mean, if you design the rover properly, there's nothing stopping it from going backward as opposed to forward, but you just need to be versatile and not get too stuck on how you expected things to turn out and just look at the problems that are actually, that reality is giving you instead of like engaging in the very unproductive exercise of wanting reality to be different than it is just saying, "All right, we have the Swiss Army of tools in front of us. How can we use them?"
Jason DeFillippo: [00:33:04] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show. We'll be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:08] This episode is sponsored in part by LightStream. It's not surprising if you have two or three high-interest credit cards in your wallet right now. We just did a Feedback Friday question about this where people are wondering whether they should pay off these cards that have like 15 to 30 percent APR. That's no good. LightStream believes that people with good credit deserve a better loan experience, and that's what they offer. You can quickly roll balances from multiple credit cards with super high-interest rates into one single monthly loan payment, and you get a low fixed interest rate to free up money, especially right now, if you're not sure if you're going to need the cash later, you get a little bit of inflexibility in your budget. So say goodbye to credit card bills and just take control or take more control of your money LightStream is credit card consolidation loans have rates from 5.95 percent APR with autopay, and there are no fees to go with that. So you can get your money as soon as the day you apply and start knocking those balances down and stop paying ridiculous interest to some credit card company. Jason.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:30] This episode is also sponsored by ZipRecruiter. Right now, we cannot be overwhelmed. We have to work. We have to keep our loved ones safe and protect our communities. We have to work to stay strong, to stay connected, to stay focused. We have to work to inspire, to innovate, to build new solutions. But for all of this to work, we have to work together. ZipRecruiter connects employers and people every day, but today is different. They are partnering with first responders, government officials, and the medical community, the innovators, the manufacturing, transportation, and food distribution industries to make sure that they are finding the right people for the right jobs right now. Let's work together, ziprecruiter.com/worktogether.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:39] Going back to Costanza, because I'm not going to let you off the hook without a George Costanza reference here. What could that guy possibly have done that we could take into our own lives for any bit of good? I mean, he's the example of everything not to do in life, right? That's kind of the whole point. So you're asking what question from George Costanza that could possibly be used in either business, space exploration, or in our lives in general.
Ozan Varol: [00:36:01] Right, or to reframe it slightly differently, what do a rocket scientist and George Costanza have in common?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:06] Probably a lot.
Ozan Varol: [00:36:08] At least one thing, which is this question. So Seinfeld is one of my favorite shows of all time, and there was an episode where George Costanza sets out to do the opposite of what he had done up until that point. So he keeps asking himself, "What if I did the reverse?" Or "What if I did the opposite?" So for example, he goes up to a woman at the diner and instead of trying to woo her, he just says, "I'm unemployed, and I live at home with my parents." And the woman ends up saying, "Yeah, okay, let's go on a date together." So his life has improved because he asks this question that most people don't ask, which is, "What if we did the reverse?" And "What if we did the reverse?" gave rise, not to these amazing dates that George Costanza had with this beautiful woman, but also to a technology that we take for granted every day, which is GPS.
[00:36:55] GPS was founded in the aftermath of Sputnik. So after Sputnik was launched, a group of engineers working at the Applied Physics Laboratory, they figured out a way to compute the location and trajectory of Sputnik using the Doppler effect, which I won't go into details but basically, they figured out a way to track Sputnik using this location on Earth. The boss, whose name I don't remember, he asked these engineers, "Can you do the reverse? If we launched a satellite into space and we know the location of that satellite, can you find an unknown location on Earth? Can you do the reverse of what you did with respect to tracking the location of Sputnik?" And the answer, which took a couple of years to figure out, was a resounding, "Yes," and this is how the global positioning system, or GPS, was born. Because they asked, "What if I did the reverse?" So this is a great way of reframing problems to generate better answers. We're often way too focused on what other people are doing, what influencers are doing, what our competitors are doing, which gets in the way of first-principles thinking. And so the next time you're tempted to adopt a common best practice or industry standard, reframe the question by asking, "What if I did the reverse?"
[00:38:16] Another great example comes from Patagonia. They ran this advertising campaign in, I think it was in 2011. It was a full-page ad in The New York Times that ran on Black Friday, and the ad was just the photo of a Patagonia jacket with big block letters on top that said, "Don't buy this jacket." They basically did the reverse of what everybody else was doing. They were the only retailer in the country that asked people to buy less on Black Friday, and the ad was a huge success. They got so much publicity out of it and it helped their bottom line too because one, it resonated with Patagonia's mission of reducing consumerism, enlightening environmental impacts, but it also helped the company's bottom line by attracting customers with a common mindset. And so you don't have to execute by the way, but this simple question, "What if we did the reverse?" The simple process of thinking through the opposite will make you question your assumptions and jolt you out of your current perspective.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:14] I do appreciate the difference between strategy and tactics, but for people who might not run their own Fortune 500 company or something like that where they can really dig into this, can you give us a more relatable example? There has to be something that's small enough for people to kind of absorb right away, even if they're a preschool teacher, for example.
Ozan Varol: [00:39:31] There's another example that I give in the book about a Stanford professor. Her name is Tina Seelig, and she runs this entrepreneurship class and she uses what she calls The Five-Dollar Challenge to illustrate the difference between strategy and tactics. So what happens is she breaks up the class into teams and she gives each team five dollars in funding. And their goal, the goal of each team, is to make as much money as possible within two hours and then give a three-minute presentation to the class about what they achieved. Most teams use the five dollars to buy start-up materials for a makeshift carwash or a lemonade stand. Some have the idea of going to Vegas and putting it all on red and sort of seeing what happens from there, but the teams that follow these typical paths tend not to do so well. The teams that make the most money don't use the five dollars at all. So they realize that the five dollars is a distracting and essentially worthless tactic, so they ignore it. Instead, they'd go back to first principles and reframe the problem more broadly as, "What can we do to make money if we start with absolutely nothing?" And so one particularly successful team made reservations at popular local restaurants in Silicon Valley and then sold the reservation times to people who wanted to skip the wait. And those students generated an impressive few hundred dollars in just two hours.
[00:40:59] But here's the thing: the team that made the most money approached the problem completely differently. The students on that team understood that both the five-dollar funding and the two-hour period were not the most valuable resources in their toolbox. Instead, the most valuable resource in their toolbox was the three-minute presentation time they had in front of a captive Stanford class. They sold their three-minute slot to a company interested in recruiting Stanford students and walked away with $650. And so that's a great example of the teams who don't do well are stuck with a tactic. They're looking at the five dollars in front of them and they're having a really hard time walking away from it, and Neil Gaiman has a quote that I love. He says, "[Tools] can be the subtlest of traps." If you just have a hammer in front of you, everything looks like a nail. But if you can walk away from the tactic and ask yourself, "What is the five dollars here to achieve," which is making as much money as possible, and you've reframed the question more broadly to focus on that broader picture, it becomes easier to walk away from a flawed tactic and see other possibilities lurking in plain sight.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:16] Cool. We'll link to that in the show notes, of course. There is something else I want to ask you. We talked about red teaming and sort of trying to break your own ideas in business. And that's explained well in the book, but I'd love a little taste of that. For example, you can employ variations of that type of exercise in your own life whether or not you have a business by asking things like, "Why might my boss pass me up for a promotion?" "Why should this person not hire me?" Can you give us some other examples? Because I think a lot of people right now maybe got laid off right before coronavirus, or are looking to make a switch and they're thinking, "How do I make myself really presentable and captivating?" What they could also be asking is, "Why should this person not hire me, but instead hire someone else?" Because there is a lot of competition for jobs right now, as there always is.
Ozan Varol: [00:43:01] Absolutely. And by the way, I should say, I mean the best time to ask these questions is before a crisis strikes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:07] Generally. yes.
Ozan Varol: [00:43:07] So generally, right? You know the idea is to dig the well before you're thirsty, but the second-best time is to ask them now. You mentioned a number of these questions, Jordan, and these are based on an exercise that I talk about in the book called Kill the Company, which was invented by Lisa Bodell, and she has that book with the same title. But basically what the exercise does is ask you to play the role of a competitor looking to kill your company, put your business out of business, and then figure out ways to defend against those threats. And the idea is that we're too close to our own problems and weaknesses to evaluate them objectively. It's like trying to psychoanalyze yourself. It's one thing to say, "Let's think outside the box." It's another to actually step outside the box and look at your company, your product, or yourself from the viewpoint of a competitor who is seeking to weaken it.
[00:44:01] And so you can do this in your own life by, as you mentioned, Jordan, asking, "Why might my boss pass me up for a promotion?" "Why is this employer justified in not hiring me?" or "Why might my boss fire me?" "Why are customers making the right decision by buying from our competitors?" And answering these questions, by the way, it's really, really important to not treat them like that awful interview question, "Tell me about your weaknesses," which tends to create humble bragging. Like, you say, "I work too hard," right? Instead, really get into the shoes of the people who might reject your promotion, who might refuse to hire you, who might buy from your competitors, and ask yourself, "Why are they making that choice?" It's not because they're stupid. It's not because they're wrong and you're right. It's because they believe something that you don't believe. It's because they're seeing something that you're missing. And you're not going to be able to change that belief or change that story by doing what you did yesterday. So once you come up with a really good answer to these questions, switch perspectives and find ways to defend against those threats, and then most importantly, implement those right away. Now. Don't wait.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:15] Ozan, there's so much more in the book. I'm really grateful you got a chance to stop by. Well, stop by remotely here and do the show, because you are a rocket scientist. You don't get to talk to one of those every day. The book, of course, has a lot of other great ideas about how to break your own ideas down or break them completely or think about business from the perspective of your competitor that's trying to ruin your business and put you under. These are really useful. These are really useful ways of thinking about business strategy and tactics from maybe the field of rocket science but definitely, that applies to everything that we do, especially if we run our own business. Well, you know what? Honestly, even if we don't. We can apply all this to our careers as well.
Ozan Varol: [00:45:54] Absolutely, and that's the book was, I mean, I wrote the book precisely for that reason, for both people who are interested in improving their businesses, but also improving themselves. And I do have a special offer for your audience, Jordan. If they go to rocketsciencebook.com/jordan, that's rocketsciencebook.com/jordan, there are two bonuses that they can get for ordering the book there. One is a video training with a behind-the-scenes look at my productivity system, and so you'll find tips on how to get more done in less time. And then the second bonus is a pack of ten three-minute bite-sized videos with actionable insights from the book that you can implement right away. So you'll learn, for example, an unstoppable astronaut training strategy that you can use to nail your next presentation or product launch, and the one word that you can use to boost your creativity. So you can find all of that at rocketsciencebook.com/jordan.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:52] Ozan, thank you so much, man. Really enlightening.
Ozan Varol: [00:46:54] My pleasure, Jordan. Thank you so much.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:57] Big thank you to Ozan Varol. His book is called Think Like a Rocket Scientist. Simple strategies you can use to make giant leaps in work and in life. If you do buy the book from us, well please make sure you use the website links. That does help support the show. Those book links are always in the show notes. Also in the show notes on the website, there are worksheets for each episode. You can review what you've learned here from Ozan. That way you don't have to take notes in the car or while you're out walking, running, whatever. We also now have transcripts for each episode. Those can be found in the show notes as well. I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Don't wait and think you're going to do it later. You've got to dig the well before you get thirsty. Build your network before you need it even if it means starting from scratch. These drills take a few minutes a day. I wish I knew it 20 years ago. You can find it all for free at jordanharbinger.com/course.
[00:47:56] By the way, most of the guests on the show actually subscribed to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company. In fact, why not reach out to ozone and tell him you enjoyed this episode of the show? Show guests do love hearing from you, and you never know what might shake out of that. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and follow me on social media. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[00:48:17] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFillippo, engineered by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I'm your host, Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own and yeah, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. I'm sure as heck, not a doctor or a therapist, and I'm definitely not a rocket scientist in case you couldn't tell. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. So if you know a systems thinker or someone who could stand to learn how to think -- I don't know what do you call it backwards? Or just like a rocket scientist, share this episode with them. I do hope you find something great in every episode, so please do share the show with those you love. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[00:49:11] A lot of people ask me which shows I recommend and listen to and something I find myself listening to quite often is The James Altucher Show. James, thanks for coming on, by the way. Sometimes, James, I listened to your show.
James Altucher: [00:49:24] Thank you. Thank you for having me here.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:26] Sometimes, James, I listened to your show and I listened because I'm doing an interview with somebody. And I want to make sure I don't ask the exact same questions, but sometimes you have on a real gem that nobody else can get. And one of those was Richard Branson. So what was that like? I'm tempted to ask you how it happened, but I think that's less interesting than what he probably said on the show.
James Altucher: [00:49:42] He's so interesting because. I mean, just think about any of his stories. Like when he was 27 years old, he was a music magazine publisher, 27 years old with no experience, and he just decided, "You know what, I'm going to start a major airline to fight a monopolized competitor." British Airways had a monopoly in England for airlines, and everyone, of course, told him, "Oh, you can't do that. You're just a 27-year-old music magazine guy," and he's like, "No, no, I can do it". And he calls up Boeing, convinces them to lend him a huge jet. He calls them, convinces them to give him an airstrip at Heathrow, convinces JFK to give him a landing strip and boom, he has an airline. And so understanding the mechanics of what makes him different so that he can do things like that is very interesting. Here, he is a crazy guy it seems at 27, has no opportunities. He doesn't have billions of dollars at the time, and just like that, he starts an airline and now it's a spaceship company, the same company. So he's just a fascinating guy with so many fascinating stories.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:52] You can find that on The James Altucher Show anywhere you find your podcasts. Of course, we'll link to it in the show notes as well. Thanks, James.
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