Talking Big Ideas.
“Aiming at simplicity . . . is a moral duty of all intellectuals.
Lack of clarity is a sin.”
~ Karl Popper
I was excited to be a part of history.
We were at school. I was a little boy. Everyone gathered together around the TV. Millions worldwide joined us in watching live as the Challenger rocketed a teacher into space.
Our pride turned to confusion, then horror. Smoke streaks from an unexpected explosion filled the sky. We sat in stunned silence. What went wrong?
Allan McDonald, a NASA engineer who sadly died in 2021, had an answer. He believed some rubber gaskets got too cold. In fact, he risked his career trying to stop the shuttle from launching.
Physicist Richard Feyman was appointed to a commission to find out what happened. He concluded McDonald was right — and that a lack of clarity was foundational to the tragedy. NASA’s managers failed to be clear with each other, with their engineers, and with the public:
An almost incredible lack of communication . . . . Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
Officials were concerned with vanity metrics and winning the Cold War. They ignored reality and buried evidence under jargon and bureaucracy.
The truth is, we all struggle to be clear.
It’s hard to get outside of our own heads. In this way, we are all like the NASA officials. We look at the world through our own eyes and fail to see it from other perspectives.
Once we see something, it’s tough to unsee it. The same applies to understanding something. This is called the Curse of Knowledge. It tends to permeate everything we say and write. We end up hiding our ideas in clutter: technical language, extra words, and dry explanations.
Many of the ideas we explain and defend are complicated. But so is rocket science! Feynman used a vivid experiment to slash through the clutter, overcome the Curse of Knowledge, and show the world what went wrong with the Challenger.
During a testimony on live TV, he pulled out a rubber gasket and dipped it into ice water, reproducing the temperature the Challenger was exposed to at launch. Everyone could plainly see what happens to rubber gaskets when exposed to the cold. No technical knowledge was necessary.
Feynman (who specialized in quantum mechanics) liked to say, “if you cannot explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.” His example was simple and clear enough for the general public to understand.
He dominated newspaper headlines the next day and forever changed the conversation about the Challenger.
Clarity is essential to effective communication.
Think about a problem that you have been working on. How would you explain it to a child? Spend five minutes brainstorming your explanation.
The next time you are chatting with a young person, share your problem and see if they understand what you are saying.
A few days ago my buddy Charles, a subscriber to this newsletter, suggested my email subject lines were cluttered. We took his feedback to heart, and made a change this week to be more clear.
What do you think? I’d love to hear from you about the subject line — or anything else!
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