"We humans are an innately curious species. Born through hips too narrow to pass a skull large enough to hold a fully formed human brain, we are born half-baked. Compared with those other animals, very few of our behaviors are hardwired. We don’t inherit genetic instructions for nest building, for instance, or for migrating south when the sun hits a certain angle in the sky. We come into this world programmed with few instructions, save for one paramount piece of code: Be curious."
In The Right Kind of Crazy, Adam Steltzner (with William Patrick) takes us on an autobiographical journey of how he ultimately lead the team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that developed the Sky Crain that put NASA’s Curiosity on Mars. In The Right Kind of Crazy, Steltzner explores how curiosity steered him toward self-authorization, overcoming the fear of failure, embracing imperfection, balanced judgment, managing stress with grace, and a style of leadership focused on interconnection, all of which opened up incredible opportunities and achievements. This book is about how curiosity transforms life.
Curiosity is the antidote to misinformed conclusions about other people, our world, even ourselves. We rely on data that we filter through our perspective. A perspective is our model of the world, and curiosity is the bridge to other models. The more we consciously seek out and accept other views, the more strictly our opinion matches reality. As we get closer to reality more possibilities open up; solutions and discoveries materialize.
Steltzner uses similar principles for leadership and problem-solving. For this summary, I will focus on problem solving but also include how that applies to working within a team. It is not enough to know the answer, we must share the valuable information.
Focus on the Problem
"Breaking the matter down, understanding your state of understanding, and keeping your mind free and purely focused on the matter at hand – not yourself – is the only way to strike the right balance between consideration and action."
Analyzing a problem is impossible when we are unable to focus on the problem itself. It is important to understand how everything fits together. Be curious. Break it into little pieces. Deconstructing allows us to see smaller details that may have been overshadowed by larger things. It also gives us a clearer idea of what we do not understand. Sometimes great innovative ideas distract from more sensible, simpler solutions. Steltzner mentions Occam’s razor; it is the economy of explanation that often reveals the truth. This is what brings us out of a state of confusion and gives us a clear direction.
The idea transfers to working with a team. People are not interchangeable. There are many components of a team—the star players and many people with ordinary jobs—but the team also works with other departments. Be curious and broaden the focus. Central players are important but appreciate and understand how everyone works together. When managing a team, getting to know them is also important to understand how the job fits the project and the people. Fostering interconnection creates a safe place for inconvenient truth to be expressed and heard. Knowing a little truth that may be overlooked or unobserved can be the difference between success and failure.
Clarity of ideas, resources, and people is important, but there are stumbling blocks that halt creativity and innovation. Our egos might prevent us from accepting new ideas and from sharing them. Read on to the GEMs.
Surrender the Ego
"And there is a virtue in staying in the Dark Room until you completely surrender—not give up but completely surrender the ego, which means that you stop trying to force the existing solution. That’s when a breakthrough can occur."
Our ego is our sense of self, and it is the mechanism for how we adapt to the world and build our model of it. Peppered with a measure of curiosity, we can look beyond our narrow field of observation from which we created our ego. Observation is the weakest form of evidence. Empirical data is something like an observation on steroids. Facts are essential and inseparable from the problem, but not the whole truth. To find a solution, we must include our judgment, a product of our model of the world. By releasing our ego, our analysis improves, and solutions materialize. It is only in the dark when we feel lost; we can surrender. In the light, reality supports our beliefs, and there is no need for submission.
Surrendering our ego also releases panic and opens the mind. Our panic is our ego protecting itself, working to preserve the world it created. People who can stay calm in chaos are not trying to control the situation, they are observing it so they can adapt. When our ego is too tenacious, we force the solution that fits with our view of the world. Our view is only a model of reality and a judgment made based on the model may not work in reality. In a state of panic, the most desperate solution in our world will seem to be the only choice. Steltzner offers the acronym HOTTD – hold on to the doubt.
Share the Answer
"Bringing all that you have requires offering up your opinion in the absence of invitation. It requires self-authorization. You need to believe that you have the answer, and you need to give it to the team, even if you only think you have the answer. It is a form of leadership, and it is needed at every level and in every element within a healthy and high-functioning team."
You do not need anyone’s permission to do exceptional work, nor do you need an invitation to share it. Steltzner writes, “What’s more, true authority comes not from a title or a position but because your words are well thought out, or at least strive to be.” You will be taken seriously if your ideas are well considered and well-articulated because they are useful. There is always room at the top for those willing to do the work and pass on their knowledge.
Respect and encourage all team members. Steltzner observes, “Ideas should win, not people.” Feelings about an individual or desire for a personal victory should not detract from the matter itself. When you decide to contribute it allows your work to mix with others, and there is a synergy that makes a team stronger than any one of its components. Allow imperfection and support imperfect ideas and solutions. The need for perfection drives fear and fear blocks creativity and contribution. Respect is the glue that maintains the interconnection that makes it possible to achieve great things.
The right kind of crazy is not insanity when the mind can no longer distinguish reality from fantasy. It is curiosity that drives discovery to define what part of fantasy can be a reality. Discovery does seem crazy until it becomes innovation and eventually ordinary, even mundane. Perhaps this is why those with an aptitude for creativity find a little magic in everyday life, challenge what is accepted and create what has never been before.