How To Think Like Richard Feynman

by
Feynman

Nobelist Physicist, teacher, storyteller, bongo player” This is how one commentator chooses to describe Richard Phillips Feynman, arguably the most influential – and easily the most charismatic – popular scientist in the latter half of the 20th century.

For all his famous showmanship, Feynman wasn’t a Nobel Physicist for nothing: he worked hard, and he worked efficiently. Really efficiently. Here’s how everyone – be they quantum physicists or aspiring poets – can learn from Feynman’s unique way of working.

The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out 

For Feynman, productivity was less about work and more about exploring problems that intrigued him.

In his best-selling collection of reminiscences, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Feynman tells a story about an ant scuttling along his bathtub.

Most of us would get rid of the ant. Feynman, the world-renowned physicist, had a better idea.  He sprinkled some sugar near the ant and, with a coloured pencil, plotted its return back to the nest. Then, another ant appeared, and another, and another. Feynman jotted down the course taken by each ant with a coloured pencil.

Soon, he noticed not only that the ants followed one another’s trails, but that, over time, they were incrementally improving the route back to the nest.

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It’s true, your boss might have a hard time believing you when you say that tracking ants all day with colored pencils is productive. But for Feynman, productivity was never a simple case of material output. Instead, he prioritised his curiosity: if something caught his eye – be it an ant’s nest or a quantum anomaly – he was keen to investigate it. The results were less important than the draw of the questions and the process of investigating them.

Things You Know That You Don’t Know 

Maintaining a dedicated notepad – paper or digital – can help you remain orientated as you work through a disorientating project. The concrete sense of progress that follows filling those first few pages fans the flames of motivation and reinforces the feelings of forward movement.

James Gleick, Feynman’s biographer, anecdotally relates Feynman’s study method for his graduate oral exams at Princeton: Feynman found a place “where he could be alone,” at his alma mater, MIT, where:

“[He] opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.”

“When [Feynman] was done,” Gleick writes, “he had a notebook of which he was especially proud.”

Feynman’s idea is a simple one: stop yourself from abandoning a difficult task by capturing your growing knowledge in writing. Such simple ideas are often the best ideas, and this particular one may help you to go beyond your previous limits.

Enjoy What You’re Doing And Do What You Enjoy 

Feynman lived by a simple rule:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Feynman wasn’t known for his modesty, but in fact he was always aware of his limitations, of the need to take the time to master new concepts and theories. He simply wanted to know about the world, and he was willing to take an honest look at his own methods with a view to doing so. Follow in Feynman’s footsteps – be frank in examining your own limitations. And make sure to be direct and clear in what you say and write.

For Feynman, clarity and honesty was of paramount importance. He was famous for his ability render complex theories comprehensible to non-specialists, and he always tried to explain things with a touch of humor:

What Can I Learn From You, Mr. Feynam?

Richard Feynman certainly had his own way of doing things, and it’s precisely this aspect of his life that’s worth looking at for those seeking to become more productive. Let your interest carry you away, avoid constant worry about where you’re going, and keep a notebook to both monitor and further your progress.

Such radically new ways of operating might be just what’s needed for an astronomical leap forward.

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