Why I stopped using the phrase “This is not rocket science.”

If you say, “My idea did not work out.”

Reply: I can see why it won’t work. Blah Blah…[An explanation follows]

If you had said, “My idea worked!”

Reply: Great! I can see why it would work. Blah Blah…[An explanation follows]

I am 100% sure that you have been in either or both situations above, if you’ve ever been an entrepreneur, an inventor, an author, a movie-maker, or anyone who created something new.

It’s funny that people always know why something worked or did not work, once they know the answer!

Earlier, I used to feel stupid and angry in such situations, when my work was analysed so accurately by others who had the luxury of knowing the answer. I vowed to myself never to do this with others. [Instead, put yourself in the creator’s shoes to understand the original hypothesis and the subsequent learning].

Now I don’t feel stupid nor angry. Recently, my husband pointed me to the work of a well-known sociologist, Duncan Watts, earlier at Yahoo! Research, who explains why people exhibit such behavior. Here is my favorite part of his TED talk,

Why does rocket science seem hard, and social science seem like common sense – when all the evidence shows that human beings are very good at rocket science (the rocket always lands as predicted), but we’ve still not figured out which half of our advertising dollars are wasted, or how to solve several social problems?  Because – common sense says the answer is obvious in social situations, and not obvious in rocket science.

It turns out that common sense is wrong. And, we’re terrible at predicting situations that involve several people interacting in different contexts over extended periods of time. This is precisely the challenge that entrepreneurs and creators face when introducing something new in the market. With limited data, and a lot of guts, they go out on a limb to get the answer. Others, just wait for the data and the answer to emerge, and use common sense to show why it should have been obvious to begin with.

Duncan’s speech informs why either answer can be explained with common sense. This is precisely why problem solvers must gather as much data as possible, avoid the common sense trap, and refute any obvious claims even if they come from an experienced professional, a boss, or a mentor. Let’s trust what people do, not what people say.

I’ve officially stopped using the phrase “This is not rocket science”, and switched to saying, “I wish this was rocket science!”.

I found out much later that this post was actively discussed on HackerNews. You can read all the comments here

One comment

  1. Ken

    Reminds me of the story of the locksmith. A business man had locked his valuable document in a safe and lost the key. He called a locksmith, who arrived, and within two minutes had opened the safe. He then asked for $1,000. The business man refused to pay, as he thought the cost was crazy. At which point the Locksmith locked the safe and said “Call me when you are ready to pay the $1,000 for my services.”

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