Learning Like a Scientist
“Having goals is a pain in the neck.
If you don’t have a goal (a corporate goal, a market share goal, a personal career goal, an athletic goal…) then you can just do your best. You can take what comes. You can reprioritize on a regular basis. If you don’t have a goal, you never have to worry about missing it. If you don’t have a goal you don’t need nearly as many excuses, either.
Not having a goal lets you make a ruckus, or have more fun, or spend time doing what matters right now, which is, after all, the moment in which you are living.
The thing about goals is that living without them is a lot more fun, in the short run.
It seems to me, though, that the people who get things done, who lead, who grow and who make an impact… those people have goals.”
– Seth Godin (The Thing About Goals)
It’s definetly cleaner, easier, and safer to not care about outcomes and to get rid of our goals. But it’s not that black and white – and that’s not what the great learners do.
Great learners walk the tightrope of:
• Caring about outcomes
• Having big goals
• Focusing on the process
• Appreciating the opportunities to grow and get better
Scientists have this down. They have found the balance, and are tremendous models of great learning.
LEARNING LIKE A SCIENTIST
First – scientists have HUGE goals and outcomes that they care about and that they pursue…
Curing cancer, self-driving cars, colonizing mars.
It’s not like they rock up to the lab and go “ok y’all let’s just learn as much as we can today…”
There is absolutely an outcome, vision, goal, and explicit pursuit that they’re on.
Scientists understand that simply obsessing over these outcomes and goals is not how to achieve them.
They know that outcomes are a reflection of the process.
So they obsess over continually improving their method and process. They do this by experimenting with it, by tweaking it, by breaking it, by seeking out knowledge and information from anywhere and everywhere.
They welcome feedback, mistakes, and failures because they know that these things provide valuable information that is helping to improve their process, helping them grow, and moving them closer to their goal.
What’s this process look like IRL?
Model #1: Elon Musk
Elon sold his share of PayPal for close to a billion dollars, back in the day, and then started a rocket company (as you do) with the goal of revolutionizing the space industry.
Space has always been slow and clunky.
Old school approach: We launch the rocket, it sends satellites and supplies up to space, we blow up the booster, we spend millions of dollars and lots of time to build a new booster before we can launch again.
This is obviously a huge waste of time, money, and material. If we used this process for airplanes it would cost you like $3 mil to fly to New York.
Elon and SpaceX decided to change this.
New goal: A reusable rocket. One that we launch, that sends satellites and supplies to space, that we land back on earth like a pencil, and that is ready to go again – almost immediately.
Def a HUGE goal. One that many said was impossible – but they pursued it anyways.
What do you think they did a lot of in this pursuit?
haha, yeah… (stop the video at 1:45)
Lots of pain, lots of frustration, lots of failing – yet they persisted…
This is what we really need to steal from scientists.
By understanding that the outcome (the rocket crashing) is a reflection of the process – they are one step removed from the equation.
Scientists take outcomes seriously, not personally.
When the rocket crashes…
of course there is pain
of course there is frustration
of course they care
But they know: the outcome is a reflection of the process, NOT of me as a person.
I am not a failure, the failure was in the process.
Seriously, not personally.
By detaching their ego from the outcome they were able to fail enough times to finally figure it out…
(start at 1:50)
Space not your thing?
Model #2: The Skateboarder
Model #3: Babies
Those are three versions of the SAME VIDEO – because learning is learning.
Whether we’re trying to land a rocket, or skateboard, or figure out how to walk – the process is the same.
Set a goal, try, crash, learn, try, crash, learn, try, crash, learn, try, crash, learn…(repeat for hours, months, or years) try, land.
The goal is the fuel and the outcomes are the measuring stick that helps to refine our process.
The problem is most of us don’t learn like scientists, babies, or the skateboarder.
Most of us take outcomes personally. Which means our outcomes are a reflection of us, as a person.
When our rocket crashes we take it personally: “I’m stupid, I failed.”
When our ego is on the line and we take every failure personally, the learning process usually hurts too much, and we’ll quit before we figure out how to land.
I do this all the time, and so do you.
The good news is that we can change this. Learning like a scientist is a skill that we can all develop.
Think about a student that fails a math test…
Default response (taking it personally): “I suck at math. I am a failure. I am stupid”
If we teach the student to learn like a scientist they can work to find and fix the error that led to the outcome.
(i.e. – Dang! The rocket crashed, that’s not very much fun, but let’s figure out why it crashed.)
Did I fail because I didn’t study? Because I didn’t understand the assignment or a certain type of equation?
Once we identify the error we can go to work on fixing it: asking for help, improving our study habits, getting a tutor.
Same is true after a tough loss. Most of the time we obsess on the outcome and take it personally – which can lead to tension, excuses, and blame.
If we flip the script, own the crash, look into the process for things to tweak and fix, we will grow more, learn more (and win more) over time.
A missed shot, a poor decision, a bad grade, falling off the bike, and a spectacular crash of a $200m rocket ship all fit into the same category – they all provide useful information and feedback to our process. They are all tremendous opportunities to learn and grow – if we allow them to be.
• The goal = fuel/direction
• The outcome = a way of measuring our process/experiments
Real talk: Writing about outcomes and goals is a messy subject. I don’t know if anyone has the perfect framework for navigating the topic.
However, I do know that this is NOT black and white. We can’t simply get rid of our goals. Just like we can’t become defined by our goals.
The USA Women’s Olympic Volleyball team is a great example. They’re on a pursuit to win their first ever Olympic gold. That’s their explicit goal, they own it, and they’re not afraid to talk about it.
That goal fuels their process – which is to create the best learning gym in the world.
My goal since 4th grade was to play basketball at Duke. That explicit goal fueled my process for years. It got me out of bed in the morning and drove me to spend hours in the gym every single day.
Having the big/explicit goal: “I want to play in a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium” made me a better basketball player than a more broad: “I just want to see how good I can get at basketball” approach.
It made it hurt so much more when I was the last guy cut when I tried out for the team.
When it comes to goals, I side with Seth. I think they matter, I think they’re necessary (when used properly), and I know they can cause pain.
So let’s not get rid of them. Let’s be brave and let’s use them to drive great learning.
Set big goals, dream big dreams – but understand that the only way to achieve something spectacular is with a spectacular process. You do that through a commitment to always experimenting, always breaking, always fixing, and always learning – like a scientist.
1. Set a goal
2. Invest in the process and systems to achieve the goal
3. Absolutely go for it
4. When you struggle and stumble take it seriously, not personally. Ask: “what would a scientist do?”
5. Identify and fix the errors
6. Keep going for it
This is definetly not the most comfortable or easy approach.
Setting and pursuing a goal takes vulnerability and courage. It can lead to lots of bumps and bruises – but it’s what the best learners do.