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A Rocket Scientist’s Advice on How to Do Impossible Things

A few profound thoughts on innovation from the man who helped put the Mars Rover on the red planet.

(This article originally appeared in my column at Inc.com.)

Have you ever been at a cocktail party, had someone ask you what you do for a living, and wished you could come up with something impressive-sounding to wow them? Adam Stelztner probably never experiences that. He’s an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has worked on flight missions including Galileo, Cassini, and Mars Pathfinder, and the Mars Exploration Rover project. He was the team lead for the development and execution of the entry, descent, and landing of Curiosity on Mars, and oversaw the development of the innovative Sky Crane landing system.

I recently had a chance to interview Adam for my podcast about his new book [amazon_link id=”1591846927″ target=”_blank” ]The Right Kind Of Crazy[/amazon_link], and learned a lot about the nature of collaborating on impossible things and leading teams into uncertainty.

Here are a few of the takeaways:

To get it right (eventually), you have to be willing to be wrong

Steltzner says that the fear of failure can be a paralyzing force and prevent you from seeking non-obvious solutions. Thus, you have to be willing to try things that are frightening, and embrace risk as a part of the process. As he told me, “You have to be committed to the outcome above all else. It’s noble to be willing to be wrong in the pursuit of what’s right.”

Lesson: where are you playing it safe, or defaulting to comfort rather than pushing for a truly valuable solution?

What’s worked before may not work now, or ever again

In his book, Steltzner references the term Shoshin, which is a Zen Buddhist term meaning “beginner’s mind”. He says that the longer you’ve been working in your field, the harder it can be to break through to new kinds of thinking. “If you are innovating, and you are an experienced practitioner in the field, you can get stuck in the rut of the past, or the way it worked before. However, if you’re at the edge of your field, how it’s been done before may be a poor indication of how it should be done in the future.” He says that the JPL team would frequently invite outsiders, who weren’t deeply invested in the project, into their problem solving sessions to provide fresh insights and ask obvious questions. Often, those penetrating, disruptive questions were enough to jog innovative thoughts in the more experienced team members.

Lesson: How can you seek outside perspective on a problem you’re solving, or challenge your assumptions and cultivate “beginner’s mind”?

Don’t fear the “dark room”

There are times when no solution is in sight. Steltzner calls this the “dark room”, or the place where everyone is desperately seeking a ray of light that will illuminate the problem. However, he says that this can be a dangerous place because it’s tempting to panic and attempt to force solutions too soon. This is especially true when there are hard deadlines, whether that means timing interplanetary alignment, or navigating the unreasonable expectations of a client. He says that we should be patient in the dark room and allow the right ideas to emerge in time. “You’re in the dark, and you don’t have the path out. There’s no process that’s guaranteed to work. Don’t anticipate and die a death by worrying about that death. Instead, just be comfortable and know that the idea will emerge. Keep thinking, change your perspective, and don’t stress.”

Lesson: Where are you forcing a solution too soon instead of being patient and allowing the right one to emerge?

These tips apply to any of us who are trying to do complex, or even seemingly impossible things, whether that’s landing a rover on another planet or trying to please a challenging client. Stay humble, stay flexible, and don’t fear the dark.

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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