To Overcome Failure, Think Like a NASA Engineer

UPDATED: June 16, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 30, 2016

Join Peter Diamandis for a free webinar that teaches the eight steps for Exponential Thinking on Jan. 17 and discover what you can accomplish.

If you’ve ever seen the film Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, you’ll remember the scene in which the spacecraft sustained damage and the astronauts’ oxygen began leaking into space. The team of NASA engineers predicted the astronauts had less than 2 days of oxygen left.

The NASA engineers back on earth were forced to create an emergency CO2 recycling device from the limited supplies they knew the astronauts had in space.

At a crucial moment in the discussion, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, played by Ed Harris in the movie, confronts the problem and says, “I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rapidly.”

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If you’ve seen the film’s conclusion, or you were around in 1970 to remember the Apollo mission to the moon, you know the engineers were able to solve the problem—they built the impossible-to-build CO2 filter, the astronauts were able to breathe again and, eventually, the crew returned home safely.

Many organizations today face similarly dramatic (though not as life threatening) situations. A client needs impossible results by the end of next week. The financials are in and profit by the end of the month looks like an impossibility. The product that took two years to develop just hit a serious snag.

Whatever it might be, the problem requires a solution outside the normal method of thinking. Outside normal culture and procedure. It takes more than just “trying harder” within the closed system.

It requires an entire re-imagining of possibility.

I faced this exact problem when I challenged private industry to build a reusable aircraft that could launch, return to earth and launch again in under 48 hours.

The secret, I have found, to having these breakthrough solutions for what seem to be impossible problems is what I call Exponential Thinking.

Exponential Thinking is about completely reimagining the problem itself. It’s constantly trying to fit the square peg in the round hole.

Let me show you what I mean.

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Imagine if you were tasked to rebuild the engine of a car to get better gas mileage.

Traditional business growth strategies would ask you to take the car from 30 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon in the next 12 months. To accomplish this goal, you may retool the engine, look for inefficiencies, and reduce wind drag and weight on the design of the car.

Exponential Thinking asks you to take the car from 30 miles per gallon to 400 miles per gallon in the next six months. It requires you to 10x the goal itself. To accomplish this goal, you must completely rethink what the word “car” means. It isn’t a simple re-tooling of what already exists. It is a complete restart.

Exponential Thinking requires invention.

Just like the engineers from Apollo 13 who invented a new type of CO2 filter in order to save the astronauts’ lives, some problems in business require rapid innovation. They require the expansion of old boundaries and getting outside of our preconceived notions about how things “should” work.

One of the fastest ways to adopt the methodology of Exponential Thinking is to pull out a sheet of paper. Grab a pen and list all of the problems that your organization faces right now. Small or large, long-term or acute.

Now, and this may seem counterintuitive, line by line add impossible pressure to the problems. If you need to make $50,000 in sales this month, force yourself to believe that you have to actually make $500,000. 10x the mark you need to hit.

What you’ll find is a mental shift occurring each time you do. Your brain will rise to the occasion and offer up solutions that will not only be valuable to you, but may completely revolutionize your marketing industry. They will be new solutions.

Exponential Thinking is the opposite of complacency, and that’s why it works.

So the next time you’re faced with a “failure is not an option” problem, 10x the mark. Use Exponential Thinking to innovate a new solution. You’ll be in good company when you do.

Related: 5 Ways to Harness the Power of Disruptive Thinking