Ozan Varol: “A Moratorium on Failure Is a Moratorium on Progress.”

Portrait of Ozan Varol

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning law professor and bestselling author. A renowned professor, author, and speaker, Ozan writes and speaks often about creativity and critical thinking.

He’s authored many book chapters and law review articles, and now he has a new book: Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Ozan about happiness, habits, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Ozan: A few years ago, I had an epiphany.

I had woken up and automatically reached over to my bed stand to grab my phone so I could take my morning dose of digital notifications. As I was about to start scrolling through my various feeds, it struck me.

I couldn’t remember the last time I was bored.

Gone were the days when I would lie awake in bed in the morning and daydream for a while before deciding to immerse myself into reality. I’d no longer twiddle my thumbs while waiting for a haircut or strike up a conversation with a stranger waiting in line at a coffee shop.

I viewed boredom—which I define as large chunks of unstructured time free of distractions—as something to be avoided.

The decline of boredom in my life came with a serious consequence: My creativity was suffering. Research shows that boredom is key to coming up with new ideas.

As the mind begins to wander and daydream, the default mode network in our brain—which, according to some studies, plays a key role in creativity—lights up.

I decided to proactively rekindle my long-lost affair with boredom. I began deliberately building time into my day—an airplane mode of sorts—when I sit on my recliner doing nothing but thinking.

I spend twenty minutes, four days a week, in the sauna, with nothing but a pen and paper in hand. Odd place for writing? Yes. But some of the best ideas in recent memory occurred to me in that solitary, stifling environment.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I spent much of my life repressing negative emotions. If I felt anger, sadness, or disappointment rearing their ugly heads, I’d banish them into a dark basement, lock the door, and throw away the key.

But I learned that those emotions, when banished, don’t go away. They start downing Red Bulls and doing push-ups. Sooner or later, they bust open the lock on the basement door and roar back to life louder than ever.

The key is to give yourself the permission and space to feel and process these emotions. If you don’t, happiness will elude you.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one.

That was the biggest epiphany for many readers of my new book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist. In the book, I share nine simple strategies from rocket science that you can use to make giant leaps in work and life—whether it’s landing your dream job, accelerating your business, or creating the next breakthrough product.

We often assume that thinking like a rocket scientist is beyond the ability of mere mortals without a special kind of genius (hence the common saying “It’s not rocket science”). But that assumption turns out to be wrong. Lurking behind the elusive subject of rocket science are life-changing insights on creativity and critical thinking that anyone can acquire without a PhD in astrophysics.

Here’s an example.

In one chapter, the book discusses the “test as you fly, fly as you test” principle from rocket science. According to the principle, experiments on Earth must mimic, to the greatest extent possible, the same conditions in spaceflight.

For example, during simulations for space shuttle missions, scientists activated roughly 6,800 malfunction scenarios, throwing every imaginable failure—computer crashes, engine troubles, and explosions—at the crew. The more catastrophic, the better. Repeated exposure to problems inoculated astronauts and boosted their confidence in their ability to diffuse just about any issue.

In our lives, we often don’t follow the “test as you fly” rule. We train in conditions that don’t mimic reality. We practice a major speech in the comfort of our home, when we’re fully rested and awake. We do mock job interviews in our sweatpants with a friend using a predetermined set of questions. We train for a race from the comfort of a gym while watching Netflix.

If we applied the test-as-you-fly rule, we would practice our speech in an unfamiliar setting before an audience of strangers, after downing a few espressos to give us the jitters. We would do mock interviews while wearing an uncomfortable suit, with a stranger ready to throw curveballs at us. We would prepare for a race in the same environment as the race—facing the wind, the rain, and the cold—so we’re desensitized to the conditions awaiting us.

The “test as you fly” principle is one example in the book, among many others, of how you can use simple strategies from rocket science to launch your own moonshot and achieve liftoff.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m a Rebel—against all odds.

I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, where the education system was deeply conformist. As elementary school students, we wore the same outfits to school—a bright blue uniform with a crisp white collar—and the boys all had the same buzz cut.

Well, all boys except me.

I once skipped a haircut, which drew the ire of my school principal—a bulldozer of a man better suited to be a prison warden. He spotted my longer-than-standard hairdo during one of his “inspections” and began grunting like a winded rhinoceros. He grabbed a hair clip from a girl and stuck it in my hair to shame me publicly—a retribution for nonconformity.

The students who got ahead weren’t the rebels, the creatives, the trailblazers. Rather, you got ahead by pleasing the authority figures, fostering the type of subservience that would serve you well in the industrial workforce.

Although I was shamed into conformity when I was growing up, I have reconnected with my inner rebel. Today, I spend much of my time writing and speaking about contrarian thinking and reimagining the status quo. I feel at home being a rebel, but cultural programming can be sticky. From time to time I still have to resist the programmed urge to crawl back into my conformist skin.

Fortunately, my writing serves as self-therapy—a reminder for me to write my own story instead of conforming to someone else’s. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

I choose to risk my significance.

This motto comes from Dawna Markova’s poem, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life.” Here’s a snippet:

I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

It’s only when you risk your perceived significance—and give up the story about who you are and who you’re not, and about what you “should” do and “shouldn’t” do—that what comes to you as seed can spread as a blossom, and that blossom can eventually turn into a fruit.

I’ve committed these lines from the poem to memory, so that when I’m afraid of making a leap, Markova’s words come to me as echoes from my subconscious, reminding me that I’ve got nothing to lose—and unknown treasures to gain.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

Quiet by Susan Cain.

I first read Quiet eight years ago. At the time, I was a baby law professor attending a conference where I was supposed to network with other professors. As an introvert, I found this shoulder-rubbing ritual exhausting. Every now and then during the conference, I would run up to my hotel room to recharge in solitude and read sections from Cain’s book.

The book made me realize that I wasn’t missing some “socialization” chip that came pre-installed in other humans. I realized that it was acceptable—even valuable—to prefer listening to speaking and deep conversations to small talk.

Beyond that, the book also planted a seed in me that took eight years to blossom. Having read Cain’s book, I realized that academic writing may not be the end-all and be-all for me, and that someday I might want to write a book for general audiences. That seed started the journey that eventually blossomed into my new book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist.

In your field, is there a common misconception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

In the movie Apollo 13, there’s a scene where a group of rocket scientists are gathered in a room after learning that the spacecraft suffered an oxygen tank explosion on its voyage to the Moon. The spacecraft’s power is dangerously low, and the astronauts’ days are numbered. The scientists in mission control must figure out a way to get them back before their power runs out.

“We never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch,” roars Gene Kranz, the flight director, before adding the punch line: “Failure is not an option.”

The mantra makes sense when you’ve got human lives at stake. But as a descriptor for how rocket science works, it’s misleading. There’s no such thing as a zero-risk rocket launch. You still have to compete with physics. You can plan for some mishaps, but accidents are inevitable when you’re creating a controlled explosion in a machine as complex as a rocket.

If failure weren’t an option, we never would have dipped our toes into the cosmic ocean. Doing anything groundbreaking requires taking risks, and taking risks means you’re going to fail—at least some of the time.

It’s only when we reach into the unknown and explore ever-greater heights—and in so doing, break things—that we move forward.

A moratorium on failure is a moratorium on progress.

More on Ozan Varol.



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.