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“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
— President John F. Kennedy
MOONSHOT THINKING
MOONSHOT THINKING
Apollo 11 Launch in 1969 / Image: ? NASA
In a 1962 speech at Rice University, JFK told the world about his dream to put a person on the moon by the end of the decade. The genius of the original moonshot was that the sheer audacity of the challenge inspired motivation and passion in a way that a smaller goal never could.
Original culture plate of the fungus Penicillium notatum, which led to Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the antibiotic penicillin in 1929
Throughout the course of history, we’ve seen that when people set their minds to wildly ambitious goals, the seemingly impossible starts to become possible. Moonshot thinking is about just that — pursuing things that sound undoable, but if done, could redefine humanity.
PCR, a DNA-copying technique invented by Kary Mullis in 1983, which revolutionized forensics, genetic testing, and medical diagnostics
At X, we’re trying to build a “moonshot factory”, a place where the processes and culture make it easier to make radical breakthroughs — repeatedly. Here are the guiding principles that have been most helpful to us in X's first 10 years, and we encourage others to use them too.
Early prototype from the Waymo team, whose goal is to transform mobility for millions of people
MOONSHOT BLUEPRINT
MOONSHOT BLUEPRINT
Our recipe for moonshots
Anyone in any field can take a moonshot. Not all moonshots have to include a science or technology breakthrough; that’s just what we know best at X. Each of our moonshots sits at the intersection of these three ingredients:
1.
A huge problem in the world that affects millions or billions of people
2.
A radical, sci-fi sounding solution that may seem impossible today
3.
A technology breakthrough that gives us a glimmer of hope that the solution could be possible in the next 5-10 years
MOONSHOT MINDSETS
MOONSHOT MINDSETS
Ten tips for moonshot takers
Innovation is a delicate thing. It needs just the right mix of serendipitous discovery and structure. There’s no step-by-step manual for striking this balance, but there are some mindsets and habits that will help improve your odds.
Aim for 10X, not 10%
Aim for 10X, not 10%
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The surprising truth is that it’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better. Think about it: when was the last time you got really excited to work on something that was just a little bit better than what came before? Aiming for 10X lights a fire in your heart and your mind, and that, counterintuitively, can make the hardest things much easier to accomplish than you might think. It also forces you to free yourself from existing assumptions and start over, guiding you to an answer that’s practically unrecognizable from the status quo.
Aim for 10X, not 10%
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Fall in love with the problem
Fall in love with the problem
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Technology is a tool, not the end game. If you catch yourself spending a lot of time refining a new technology, saying “look at the cool thing I’ve just invented — it must be great for something!”, without a clear sense of what that something is, then that’s usually a bad sign. The starting point for any new challenge should be to focus on the problem at hand and seek to gain a deep understanding of it. That way, you can be more open to discovering new approaches, or even changing your approach, to find the best solution possible.
Fall in love with the problem
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Make contact with the real world early
Make contact with the real world early
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It can be very tempting to sit in your office or lab, dreaming of the day you’ll finally unveil your magical ideas to the world. But this rarely works. No matter how smart or good at planning you are, the outside world will always teach you things you could have never anticipated. The key is to get out and test in the field as early and often as possible. The world, be it public opinion or the realities of nature, will tell you quickly and bluntly what’s broken with your idea and how you can improve on it.
Make contact with the real world early
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Fuel creativity with diverse teams
Fuel creativity with diverse teams
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The myth of the lone genius inventor with a single eureka moment is just that: a myth. Innovation happens when teams of people from diverse communities, cultures, and disciplines come together, challenging each other to spark even better ideas. When assembling a team, ask yourself whether each person’s background lends itself to a unique point of view, or might just mirror someone else’s. People who've traveled wildly divergent paths can break each other out of ruts and generate creative connections that aren't likely otherwise.
Fuel creativity with diverse teams
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Tackle the monkey first
Tackle the monkey first
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If you were asked to train a monkey to stand on a pedestal and recite Shakespeare, where would you start? Most people would start by building the pedestal, because it’s easier, even though training the monkey is the vital task. When taking moonshots, it’s almost always best to take on the hardest, most important part of the problem first, rather than waste time on relatively simple tasks you know you can do later. This will help you learn as quickly as possible whether you should keep going or move on to more promising ideas.
Tackle the monkey first
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Embrace failure learning
Embrace failure learning
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“Fail fast” has become a Silicon Valley cliché. But let’s admit it: people hate failing. Society has conditioned us to see failure as something shameful and best to be avoided at all costs. The thing is, though, taking moonshots isn’t possible without failing a few times along the way. The trick is to create a culture that makes it psychologically safe for people to fail, and reframes each failure as an opportunity to learn. Once you start celebrating your team’s failures as much as its successes, valuing each mistake for its lessons, you’ll be surprised to see how quickly audacity can become the path of least resistance.
Embrace failure learning
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Become a chaos pilot
Become a chaos pilot
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Taking moonshots is no smooth sailing. It’s an inherently unpredictable and bumpy ride. Rather than shy away from the uncertainty, it’s best to just embrace it. That means challenging yourself to stare into the unknown and instead of being paralyzed by it, seeing it as a source of creative energy and momentum. The sooner you decide to surf the chaos, the easier the chaos gets — and could even be used to your advantage.
Become a chaos pilot
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Learn to love “v0.crap”
Learn to love “v0.crap”
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Years of schooling and corporate conditioning have taught us that it’s bad to hand in less-than-polished work. But when you’re taking moonshots, it’s nearly impossible to get things right the first time. Or even the second or third time. Rather than waste time trying to perfect something right off the bat, learn to love what we call “version 0. crap” — the earliest, scrappiest version of your work that you can get honest, open feedback on. This first prototype will help you quickly understand how your ideas can be refined and what experiments you should run to keep iterating on them.
Learn to love “v0.crap”
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Shift your perspective
Shift your perspective
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Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart. All too often, people assume that the answer to a difficult problem has to be complex or expensive, when simply looking at it from a different perspective could uncover an answer that’s surprisingly simple. To get to these “ah-ha!” moments, try picking a very closely held assumption about a problem and then seeing what would happen if you broke it. Or, draw insights from disparate fields and apply them in fresh, unexpected ways.
Shift your perspective
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Take the long view
Take the long view
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Lasting innovation doesn’t happen when you’re scrambling to meet short-term, quarterly targets. It happens when you give yourself and others the freedom to tackle problems whose answers may still be far out over the horizon. By carving out space for weird and creative souls to think a few years out vs. just a few months out, you’ll be allowing them to explore, experiment, take risks, and ultimately pursue more audacious ideas than you ever could have imagined otherwise.
Take the long view
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