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A rocket scientist who helped explore Mars explains how ignorance helps solve problems

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Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images

If your job is to help humankind explore a new planet, you're probably intelligent and hardworking. And according to Adam Steltzner, who was a lead NASA engineer for the Mars Exploration Curiosity Rover mission, you probably benefit from being a bit ignorant, too.

It may be counterintuitive, but a healthy dose of ignorance is crucial when trying to come up with disruptive ideas, the rocket scientist tells Todd Henry on the podcast "The Accidental Creative."

Here's why: Experienced professionals "can get stuck in the rut of the past, or the way it worked before," Steltzner says. "However, if you're at the edge of your field, how it's been done before may be a poor indicator of how it should be done in the future."

In other words, being less aware of the status quo or how things "should" be done sets successful people apart from the rest.

Steltzner currently serves as chief engineer of the Mars 2020 Project, the long-term effort to explore the "Red Planet" using robots. And he plans on using this mindset to continue achieving scientific feats.

"How it's been done before may be a poor indicator of how it should be done in the future." -Adam Steltzner, NASA engineer

"That beginner's mind, those eyes of the fresh naivete, they allow you to ask very penetrating questions," he says. "You're not invested in the way it has been done in the past."

In fact, one of his most important achievements, co-developing the sky crane method, is an example of using ignorance to innovate, he says. In order to get the heavy Curiosity rover onto Mars, Steltzner and his team had to create a new way of safely landing an object moving at 620 miles per hour.

The traditional method of using airbags and parachutes wasn't going to work, and so they developed a strategy Steltzner himself once called "crazy."

Having a beginner's mindset also encourages you to ask others for their insight and critique, the rocket scientist writes in his book, "The Right Kind of Crazy."

When developing new methods for NASA, Steltzner often brings in people from the outside to review his team's work. This ensures that the "group itself has not developed group think, fallen in love with a solution that isn't really a fit."

"They can look a fresh at what we're choosing to do," he says, "and either confirm, through their eyes, that it looks right or help point out holes."

Watch Jay Leno drive a version of the $2.5 billion Mars Rover.