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80 Life Lessons From Richard Feynman

May 11, 2020
Motivation and Self Development
Entrepreneurship

“You must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

This is perhaps one of Richard Feynman’s most celebrated quotes, and one that speaks volumes as to the nuanced way he thought about both scientific problems and life more broadly.

Feynman (1918–1988) was one of the most decorated minds of the 20th Century, a theoretical physicist and professor known for his work in quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics, winning him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He also worked with Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

But more than that, he was an incredibly curious cat. Among other things, he played drums at street parties in Brazil, he learned how to draw and subsequently tried selling his artwork to the brothels of Pasadena,and frequented many a nightclub where he worked on the art of picking up women.

“I must understand the world” he said.

His fascination took him beyond the realm of physics, to hanging out with and learning how poker playing cats like ‘Nick the Greek’ work tables in Vegas — why is it always Nick, and why is he always Greek?

In his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985), he presents a collection of reminiscences — anecdotes based on recorded conversations that Feynman had with his close friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton.

Aside from being an entertaining read, it offers insights into how one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century worked — how he thought about problems, made decisions and navigated the world around him, both in his personal and professional life.

I’ve taken the time to export key ideas from the book and present them here. I’ve attempted to categorise excerpts, and put them in bold italics. Any additional commentary or analysis I saw fit to provide can be found underneath.

On Doing What You Love

I didn’t get to do as much as I wanted because my mother kept putting me out all the time to play.

From a young age, Feynman worked on all kinds of science experiments from his bedroom — lorem ipsum — and unlike most kids his age who were begging to be let out to play, his mother forced him to go out to play.

This speaks to the alignment of one’s innate passions and curiosities with their work, and how when you end up working on something that truly aligns with your strengths, natural inclinations and so on, you are far more likely to succeed than merely going off and studying accounting because that’s what your parents or career counsellor told you would get you a safe and reasonably paid job.

On Solving Problems

The Puzzle Drive: I can’t just leave it after I found out so much about it. How to keep going to find out ultimately what is the solution to the puzzle.

Feynman’s ‘puzzle drive’ led him to such breakthroughs as XYZ, but also breakthroughs in life such as ABC (poker, drawing, picking up girls, hallucinating etc)

On Understanding Things

I invented a set of right triangle problems. But instead of giving the length of two of the sides to find the third I gave the difference of the two sides. A typical example was: there’s a flagpole and there’s a rope that comes down from the top. When you hold the roof straight down it’s 3 feet longer than the pole, and when you pull the root out type, It’s 5 feet from the base of the pole. How high is the poll?

Feynman repeatedly talks of using examples like this to demonstrate how things work in the real world when discussing physics or mathematics, especially when it comes to teaching it. This ensures that people understand the problem and the why more than they would with the kinds of arbitrary problems that have plagued the learning of K12 maths and physics students the world over for decades.

I suddenly realised why Princeton was getting results. They were working with the instrument, they built the instrument, they knew where everything was, they knew how everything worked. On the Princeton Cyclotron.

On Innovation at Companies

The world is full of this kind of dumb smart alec doesn’t understand anything.

Feynman encountered the typical “way we’ve always done things around here” mentality that pervades and holds back innovation at the modern organisation — especially the public service.

Early on in his life, while he worked menial jobs to make ends meet, he would suggest better ways of doing things. He learned that doing so is not always rewarded, and that to truly explore untrodden paths, one must step away from environments in which bad incentives root people to the present moment and to present behaviours.

He also began to gain an appreciation for the fact that not all people are as curious about the world as he is.

Here’s a brief snapshot of the kind of pushback he had to deal with.

“How did it fall?”

“Look at how many beans you spoilt! What is stupid way to do things!”

“What are all these papers doing? Why is the telephone on this side? Why don’t you … raaaa!”

I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.

On Bad Incentives and Conflicts of Interest

So the men in charge of programs at the NAL (National Accelerator Laboratory) are so anxious for new results in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, that they are destroying the value of the experiments themselves. It is often hard for the experimenters to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.

Bad incentives beget bad outcomes. The kind of conflict of interest that Feynman eludes to here shows up in many forms across many places. One such place is the public service today, where departments and agencies receive funding equivalent to what they spent last year, adjusted for inflation.

They are essentially rewarded for spending more on whatever, instead of finding ways to create more value with less, or spend on efficacious products and services. This is why many public service bodies will race to dump taxpayer money on all kinds of training courses before the financial year end.

On Education

It is a very dangerous policy to teach students only how to get certain results rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity.

Sound familiar? So many of us learned how to, say, grow mold as a high school science project. We learned which steps to follow to get a particular result, and if we didn’t get the result, then we failed.

This fundamentally misses the point of science, which is to run experiments under conditions of uncertainty in order to learn something new, and develop a better understanding of the world — and by extension how to navigate it by gaining an appreciation for testing our assumptions in whatever we do.

I don’t know what’s the matter with people, they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way, by roots, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

After a lot of investigation I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. So you see, they could pass the examinations and ‘learn’ all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized!

Seems not much has changed since Feynman’s time, with standardised testing still plaguing the way students learn things today. This is a major reason why first year college students have forgotten 60% of what they learned in high school.

When I put the problem to him (Einstein’s longtime assistant), he didn’t recognise it (even though it was similar to one he worked on with Einstein). It was just like the guys in mechanical drawing class, but this time it wasn’t freshmen. So this kind of fragility is in fact fairly common, even with more experienced people.

This echoes what Scott H Young, author of Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate, said in an episode of the Future Squared podcast — Honours level Physics students find difficulties solving physics problems that were only superficially different from the ones they were given in school.

“No wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology training. You’ve wasted all the time memorizing stuff when it could be looked up in 15 minutes.” — to Biology students

This is especially true in the age of Google.

One thing I could never get them to do was ask questions. Finally a student explained to me that, “if I ask you a question during a lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me what are you wasting our time for in class? We’re trying to learn something. And you’re stopping him by asking questions!” It was a kind of one-upmanship where nobody knows what’s going on and they put each other down as if they did know.

I explained that it was useful to work together, to discuss the questions, to talk it over, but they wouldn’t do that either because they would be losing face if they had to ask someone.

Self-censoring in this manner is a fatal flaws of human thinking that serves to spare our ego at the expense of learning and improved.

On Science

Science is the understanding of the behaviour nature. It is fundamentally about contributing to the improvement of the human condition.

On Religion

I didn’t believe anything about that stuff.

On Humility

When I was a student at MIT I was interested only in science, I was no good at anything else.

I decided that it was too hard for me and went back to Princeton (after being asked to invent a very complicated weapon for the army)

I learnt a lot from him I could have learnt a lot more if I weren’t so stubborn!

On Thinking

I noticed that I could think of two things at once.

I’ll tell you an argument that will make you think it’s one way, and another argument that will make you think it’s the other way.

As F Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to entertain two apparently contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time”.

I only realised later that a man like John Wheeler could immediately see all the stuff when you give him the problem. I had to calculate it. He could see it.

This automaticity comes with experience, and perhaps also a certain amount of innate ability.

I went back to my friend and I told him he must be right there is something to analysing dreams. When he heard about my interesting dream he said ‘no, that one was too perfect, to cut and dry. Usually you have to do a bit more analysis’.

This speaks to people’s tendency to overthink things — to look for a complex solution when a simple one might do, per Occam’s Razor.

It was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men represent a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet, while remembering what the other fella said, so that the end the decision is made as to which idea was the best, summing it all up without having to say it three times. These were great men indeed.

This speaks to the value of what Ray Dalio might call a ‘meritocracy’ or what Ed Catmull at Pixar might call a ‘brains trust’.

The ambassador answered in a way I like to hear. ‘I don’t know’, he said, ‘I might suppose something but I don’t know if it’s true’.

This is the kind of mind one must maintain if they are serious not just about scientific enquiry but when it comes to making better life decisions. “I don’t know” is much more powerful than staunchly professing to know everything. The former sets you up to learn, and get closer to ‘more right’, whereas the latter serves as a lid on learning.

As Feynman said in his lectures, “we can never be sure we’re right, we can only ever be sure we’re wrong”. Such is the nature of science. We falsify hypotheses to become less wrong, and more right, but most things are almost impossible to be absolutely right about.

I could find a way of making up an analogy for any subject, just as I did for particle physics. And I don’t consider such analogs meaningful.

Nowadays, non-fiction books and articles are plagued with analogies, and while they might make sense, it doesn’t mean they’re always meaningful.

You can find analogies to support your understanding of the world everywhere but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your understanding is true.

No one has ever seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the Greek you only see a surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things better.

Einstein appreciated that things might be different from what he has previously stated — he was very tolerant of other ideas.

On keeping an open mind and putting aside your ego, regardless of who you are or what you’ve achieved. There is always more to the picture and more to learn.

We can learn new things from everybody. As Galileo said, “I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him”.

They were all kinds of weird possibilities that we’re counter-intuitive.

Sometimes the best solutions are the least obvious ones.

On Good and Bad Timing

Before the war nobody knew how to use physicists. It’s interesting that very soon after the war, it was the exact opposite…, people wanted physicist everywhere!

If we had approached the experiment seriously and in a careful way with everything under control, the experiment would have worked and we would have been the first to demonstrate the uniformity of life, the machinery of making proteins, that ribosomes are the same in every creature. We were there at the right place, we were doing the right things, but I was doing things as an amateur, stupid and sloppy.

On Hard Work and Persistence > Education

He compensated for his lack of training by hard work.

On Multi-Disciplinary Thinking

But I often advised my students to do what I did, to learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile.

After a bit I thought, it would be nice to see what the rest of the (non-physics) world is doing, so I’ll sit for a week or two in each of the other groups (such as biology for philosophy and so on).

This summer, instead of going to a different place, I’ll go to a different field.

That’s the trouble with not being in your own field, you don’t take it seriously.

This can be a blessing and a curse. When you try to, say, learn a new instrument that you have no desire to take to recital centres or concert halls, or you attempt to code a piece of software but not become employed as a software engineer per se, it creates a sense of freedom that being tied to outcomes doesn’t. Speaking of which…

I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

This ‘disassociating from results’ is something that Dan Harris points out in his book 10% Happier. When we immerse ourselves in the process, without thinking too much about the outcome, we can open ourselves up to enjoying it more and not seeing it like a job, for once we see things as a job, which can have an oddly deleterious effect on creativity.

On Fear and Anxiety

I remember very clearly seeing my hands shaking as they were pulling out my notes from a brown envelope. But then a miracle occurred, as it has occurred again and again in my life, and it’s very lucky for me. The moment I start to think about physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind — I’m completely immune to being nervous. So after I started to go, I just didn’t know who was in the room. I was only explaining this idea, that’s all. (Johnvon Neumann and Albert Einstein were but two of a decorated cast of people in the room at this, Feynman’s first talk in front of such accomplished intellectuals)

On ‘Experts’

That shows you how much I trusted these real guys (blue collar men). I have this attitude that anything can happen, in spite of being pretty sure what should happen. Mixing red and white should make pink, but I was still open to the idea that maybe there was something I didn’t know that would make it turn yellow (per what a blue collar painter had told him). They ran an experiment…it came out pink.

I never pay any attention to anything by experts. I calculate everything myself.

On Seeing Things Differently

Because I was self-taught using that book, I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s. They had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.

We did a few more experiments and I discovered that while bloodhounds are indeed quite capable, humans are not as incapable as they think they are… it just that they carry their nose so high off the ground (and therefore can’t smell as well as dogs).

“I don’t bet on the table, instead I bet with people around the table who have prejudices, and superstitious ideas about lucky numbers“ — Nick the Greek

The parity rule which is based on the assumption that all laws of physics I mirror image symmetrical turned out to be flawed. But Feynman had to challenge this long held assumption in order to open up new possibilities.

On Leadership

We were recruited by Robert Oppenheimer and other people and he was very patient. He paid attention to everybody’s problems. He worried about my wife who had TB and whether there would be a hospital out there, and everything. It was the first time I met him in such a personal way. He was a wonderful man.

On genuinely caring for your team.

I said that first thing that has to be done is that these technical guys know what we’re doing. ‘Were fighting a war! We see what it is!’

Complete transformation. They began to invent ways of doing it better. They worked at night. They didn’t need supervising. They didn’t need anything. They understood everything. As a result although it took them 9 months to do 3 problems before, we did 9 problems in three months, which is nearly 10 times as fast!

On highlighting the importance of why people are doing what they’re doing — per Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why.

I never can decide anything very important in any length of time at all.

We all struggle with big decisions. Don’t feel too bad.

On Conversations

You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, ‘what are you wasting my time all this time for’?

On the contrary, it’s because somebody knows something about physics that we can’t talk about it. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss — we can talk about the weather, social problems, psychology…it’s a subject that nobody knows anything about that we can talk about.

I’ve never been tricky about meeting somebody, I just go right up and introduce myself.

Ordinary fools are alright — you can talk to them and try to help them out. But pompous fools, guys who are busy impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all their hocus pocus, that I cannot stand.

In today’s age of social media influencers and life coaches, pompous fools, as Feynman defined them, appear to be everywhere. Tread carefully.

On Losing a Loved One

I was surprised how I didn’t feel what I thought people would expect to feel under the circumstances (of losing one’s wife). I wasn’t delighted, but I didn’t feel terribly upset, perhaps because I had known for seven years that something like this was going to happen.

On Solving Problems and Decision Making

You’re not supposed to do more than one problem, only one problem!

Don’t spread yourself too thin — whatever the pursuit!

Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there. He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we won’t be able to do it with these guys who say everything’s ‘yes yes’. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.

Echoing today’s popular ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ mantra, it’s a good idea to avoid ‘yes men’ and false positives when you’re trying to solve problems and make big decisions. Often there is more value in seeking out friction and opposing views to get to something closer to the truth.

On Philosophy and Life

Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea. ‘You don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in’. So I developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann. It made me a very happy man ever since.

I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is I have to have something that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere, I can say to myself at least I’m making a living, at least I’m doing something, I’m making some contribution… it’s just psychological.

If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition. I’ve always lived that way. It’s nice and pleasant, if you can do it.

As my father used to say the difference between a man with the uniform on and with the uniform off it’s the same man? There is no difference.

On the Bomb

When you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure — it’s excitement. And you stop thinking, you know, you just stop. Bob Wilson was the only one who was still thinking about it (the potential deadly consequences of what they were working on).

On Burnout

I simply couldn’t get started on any problem. I remember writing one or two sentences about some problem in gamma rays and then I couldn’t go any further. I was convinced that from the war and everything else such as the death of my wife, I had simply burnt myself out. I underestimated how much time it takes to prepare good lectures for the first time and to give the lectures and to make up exam problems and to check the results, and so on.

You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you’re to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing. I am what I am and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I’m burnt out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Samuel Johnson said if you see a dog walking on his hind legs it’s not so much that he does it well as that he does it at all.

On Not Taking Drugs

I get such fun out of thinking that I don’t want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick. It’s the same reason that later on I was reluctant to try experiments with LSD despite my curiosity about hallucinations.

On Relationships

When you’re away and you’ve got nothing but paper and you’re feeling lonely, you remember all the good things and you can’t remember the reasons you had the arguments. And it didn’t work out. The argument started again right away and the marriage lasted for only 2 years.

On Reserving Judgment

People who say ‘showgirls hey?’ have already made up their mind what they are! But in any group, if you look at it there’s all kinds of variety.

Cornell had all kinds of departments that I didn’t have much interest in. That doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with them — just that I didn’t happen to have much interest in them.

On Commitment

But I decided then never to decide again. Nothing would ever change my mind again. (about which college he would work at)

So I decided I would always be chocolate ice-cream and never worry about it again. I had the solution to that problem, and I decided I would always be Caltech.

On Being a Bit of a Rebel

I set out to visit the brothels at Pasadena to sell my drawing.

“Will you sleep with me?”

The pickup line that Feynman tested out an opener a couple of times. Apparently it worked but he stopped doing it because it just wasn’t the way he liked to do things.

I was going out sneakily with the married woman who worked at the time as a cashier in a cafeteria and wear a white uniform.

On Ego

I kept the idea to myself because I thought I will never be able to do it.

Somewhat surprisingly, Feynman initially kept his drawings to himself instead of sharing them with others for feedback. This tends to go against his own and society’s conventions when it comes to creativity and innovation.

On Reciprocation

Giving him (the bar owner) the drawing turned up some useful results. He became very friendly to me and would give me free drinks all the time.

On Not Trying to be Everything to Everyone

Nothing is acceptable to everybody.

My problem is I like to please the people who come to hear me talk and I can’t do it if everybody and his brother wants to hear. I don’t know my audience then.

On Defining Problems

The reason why nobody got anywhere in this conference was that they had failed to define the subject of ‘the ethics of inequality in education’.

On Capitalism v Socialism

I started to say that the idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place and therefore we should give it back to them. But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries — a development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and to do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires a concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important.

On Quality and User Experience

I’m sure the books will speak for themselves. (upon being offered an explanation of school books he was reviewing, by the publishers of the books)

Good UI and UX doesn’t require explanation.

On Bureaucracy

It turned out that the blank school book (Feynman was reviewing) got a rating by some of the other members! The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with this rating. I believe the reason for this is that the system works this way — when you give books all over the place to people, they’re busy, careless and think a lot of people are reading this book so it doesn’t make any difference. And they put in some kind of number. Then when you receive your reports you don’t know why this particular book has less reports than the other books, perhaps one book has 10 and this one has an 6. This process of averaging all the time misses the fact that there is absolutely nothing between the pages of the book!

‘Do you have a receipt?’ I told you how much it costs. If you don’t trust me why do that me tell you what I think is good and bad about school books?

Screw the Government! I feel that human beings should treat human beings like human beings.

On Giving Speeches

I realised nobody was going to listen to my thank you speech carefully and nobody was going to read it.

On Meditation

Now that I saw what to do, I realised that all you have to do is sit quietly.

On Cargo Cults

So I called these things ‘cargo cults’ science because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential because the planes don’t land. On undeveloped societies that practice rituals hoping to bring modern goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society that they have seen previously.

On Truth and Integrity

I’m talking about a specific extra type of integrity that is not lying but bending over backwards to show how you may be wrong that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists and I think to laymen. You should not fool laymen when acting as a scientist.

One example of this principle is if you’ve made up your mind to test the theory or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

Feynman’s One Wish For You

So I have just one wish for you.. the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to meet that kind of integrity. Where you are not forced by a need to maintain your position in the organisation, or financial support, or so on to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

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