We had a major problem on our hands.
At the time, I was serving on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, which sent two rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—to Mars. The rovers arrived on the red planet at two different landing sites.
We had some idea of what to expect when we landed. We had seen snapshots of the two landing sites taken from Martian orbiters.
But once we touched down, our expectations for both landing sites turned out to be “totally, completely, utterly wrong,” as Steve Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator and my former boss, put it. So we learned to use the rovers’ tools to solve the problems that Mars gave us—as opposed to the problems we expected.
For example, when Spirit’s right front wheel failed, the navigators drove the rover backwards for the rest of its life. On a different mission, when a mechanical problem crippled the drill on the rover Curiosity, engineers invented a new way to drill using the still-functional parts of the rover. After successfully testing the new drilling technique on Earth using a twin rover, they beamed up instructions to Curiosity to try it on Mars. It worked beautifully.
There are important lessons here for us all.
When we face uncertainty, we often manufacture excuses for not getting started: I’m not qualified, I don’t feel ready, I don’t have the right contacts, I don’t have enough time. We don’t start until we find an approach that’s guaranteed to work (and preferably one that comes with job satisfaction and a six-figure salary).
But absolute certainty is a mirage.
In life, we’re required to develop an opinion based on imperfect information and make a call with sketchy data. “We didn’t know what we were doing when we landed” on Mars, Squyres admits. “How can you know what you’re doing when no one has done it before?”
If we had postponed until the conditions presented themselves with perfect clarity—until we had perfect information about our landing sites so we could design the perfect set of tools for them—we never would have gotten to Mars. Someone else willing to dance with uncertainty would have beaten us to the finish line.
Here’s the thing: We can’t predict the future with any certainty. Yes, you don’t have all the answers—but no one does. Life has a way of fooling even the most celebrated experts.
When the winds of change come—when your rover’s wheel gets stuck or its drilling bit breaks—you’ll have a choice.
You can build a shelter and wait for the perfect solution to arrive before you start moving again.
Or you can turn the obstacle into an opportunity, start driving backwards, and figure out a new way to drill.
Which will you choose?
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