Richard P Feynman (1918–1988) was one of the most celebrated 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.
He reminisced about his many life experiences in his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman.
One such memory pertained to choosing where to research and teach — Caltech or Cornell.
After much deliberation, he took a philosophical stance and chose Caltech.
“I decided then never to decide again. Nothing — absolutely nothing — would ever change my mind again”, he wrote.
“When you’re young you have all these things to worry about — should you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up.
It’s much easier to just plain decide. When I was a student at MIT, I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again.
I decided I would always be Caltech.”
But the story doesn’t end there.
After rejecting Cornell, they kept pursuing him.
One of the Cornell faculty members he later met with told him that “it’s funny you didn’t accept our offer at Cornwell. We were all so disappointed and couldn’t understand how you’d turn down such a terrific offer”.
But Feynman didn’t know what the offer was because he never let them tell him. He didn’t want it to distort his ‘I would always be Caltech’ philosophy and leave him with cognitive dissonance.
With this in mind, Cornell sent him a letter. He opened it and the very first sentence said “The salary we’re offering you is $___”.
It was four times what Caltech were paying him.
And this is where Feynman’s playful and somewhat uncharacteristic side — for a professor of physics at least — and perhaps sincere side, given his tendency to frequent bars and enjoy the company of women, came into play.
He wrote back a letter which read:
“After reading the salary, I’ve decided I must refuse.
The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do — get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things. . . . .
With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy.
I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”
While a fabulous rejection letter and an amusing anecdote, there is nuanced wisdom in Feynman’s thinking here.
His decision to always be chocolate ice-cream and always be Caltech aligns with what psychologist Barry Schwartz dubbed the ‘paradox of choice’ a good five decades later.
The paradox of choice suggests that an abundance of options stresses us out and ultimately leaves us suffering from the grass is greener complex, and never truly happy with our decisions. Schwartz argued that truly committing to an option, even an inferior one, as someone with less options might do, can make them happier and more content in the long run.
By intentionally not letting Cornell tell him what the offer was, he was guarding his mental space from intrusions that might compromise his earlier decision to always be Caltech.
This strategy with the principles of ‘environment design’ advocated by habit-forming thinkers like BJ Fogg and James Clear.
If you want to change your habits, willpower will only get you so far — but if you change your environment, it’s much easier to develop and maintain good habits. For example, if I don’t want to eat Dorito’s at 10pm while I’m chilling out on the couch, then it would help if I didn’t have any in the house.
By not letting Cornell tell him what the offer was, it was akin to not having the Dorito’s in the house, and was a form of mental environment design for Feynman, ultimately making his decision easier.
Whether playful or otherwise, he was also practicing a form of environment design when it came to cultivating a life where he could continue to be a great physicist. The emotional turmoil that might come from navigating the complexities of keeping a mistress were simply not worth it.
Finally, with the rejection letter that he penned, he gave both himself and Cornell no real space for subsequent moves, essentially removing the pieces from the chessboard and packing it away.
By effectively burning his bridges in this way, he could continue with his commitment to Caltech without having the Cornell offer still hanging over his head.
Of course, these lessons can be applied to various dimensions of life where we find ourselves wrestling between options.
There are no doubt times when we could all benefit from: