Moonshot Thinking: 2 Tips for Taking Giant Leaps

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Like a Rocket Scientist" by Ozan Varol. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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If you practiced moonshot thinking, what would you dream? What could you achieve?

In Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol describes principles to help you realize your seemingly impossible dreams, the same way that rocket scientists did when they successfully landed a man on the Moon. To achieve the impossible, you first must adopt moonshot thinking.

Continue reading to learn how to apply moonshot thinking to your own life.

Moonshot Thinking

Varol believes that one mistake many people make is setting overly timid goals. Instead, he argues that we should set audacious goals that seem impossible from our current perspective. Varol cites a parable popularized by political strategists James Carville and Paul Begala in which a lion has the choice between hunting plentiful (but unsatisfying) field mice or pouring all its energy into hunting a single antelope. The antelope is much harder to catch, but the lion can’t live on field mice alone—to succeed, it must go after the larger, more elusive prey. (Shortform note: Varol attributes this story to Carville and Begala because it comes from their book, Buck up, Suck Up…and Come Back When You Foul Up; however, in the book, Carville and Begala are actually quoting Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives.)

According to Varol, humans are the same way—we can’t truly succeed unless we focus on big, difficult goals. Chasing metaphorical antelopes is scary because it involves a lot of risk. However, that fear also keeps most of the competition away, leaving a higher chance of success for anyone who dares to try. Therefore, Varol argues we should set audacious goals that seem impossible from our current perspective—like rocket scientists’ once-impossible-seeming goal to land on the moon. This is moonshot thinking.

Shoot for the Moon—But Bring a Parachute

Moonshot thinking is similar to the technique of “black swan” investing that Nassim Taleb describes in his books, The Black Swan and Antifragile. Taleb made a fortune by investing in companies that had the potential to become positive “black swans”—extremely rare and extremely lucrative successes like Apple or Google. 

However, Taleb also insulated himself against the risk of those investments not paying off with a strategy he calls “the barbell”: He devoted 85% of his portfolio to safer investments and only bet on longshots with the remaining 15%. You can adopt the same risk-minimization strategy by devoting a small number of resources to risky endeavors while keeping the majority of them protected—for example, by growing your new business on the weekends while keeping your day job until your business takes off. 

How You Can Shoot for the Moon

According to Varol, here’s how you can apply moonshot thinking in your own life:. 

1) Focus on backcasting, not forecasting. When you forecast, you use the constraints of today to predict what will happen tomorrow. On the other hand, when you backcast, you ignore the status quo and ask, “What would an ideal future look like?” Then, you reverse engineer the path from your current situation to that ideal future. (Shortform note: In a blog post, Varol says this is the one technique in the book he uses most frequently. In fact, Varol credits backcasting for helping him achieve his professional dream of working in rocket science: While still in middle school, he researched the steps other rocket scientists had taken on the way to success, then set out to follow in their footsteps—for example, by learning computer programming.)

2) Beware of the sunk cost fallacy, in which you throw good money after bad. When you practice moonshot thinking, you’re bound to get attached to the project, which means you’re more likely to succumb to this fallacy. To avoid it, work on the hardest part of an audacious project first rather than investing your time and resources into minor details. That way, if your project has a fatal flaw, you’ll discover that before you get too deep into it to turn around. (Shortform note: According to Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, another way to avoid the sunk cost fallacy is to think of your life as a “global account,” not a set of distinct accounts. For example, if you’re tempted to stay in a dead-end relationship, don’t think of the time you’ve already sunk into it—instead, think of your life in general and decide if this is how you want to spend your limited time on Earth.)

Moonshot thinking literally put a man on the Moon. What could it do for you?

Moonshot Thinking: 2 Tips for Taking Giant Leaps

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  • How to solve problems like billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk
  • Why you should treat your ideas like scientific hypotheses
  • How to bounce back from failure and avoid complacency after success

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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