Reading Richard Feynman: On curiosity, learning and selfishness

Richard Feynman was a problem-solver. He got to be a problem solver by tinkering, and he tinkered because he was curious. Moreover, his parents encouraged his curiosity.

In one interview (since deleted from YouTube), he discusses learning about inertia as a child. He noticed the funny way a ball rolled around in a wagon, and he asked his father about it. His father told him to watch again, that the ball actually behaved differently from how he thought, and then he explained why.

His father taught him the value of learning, as opposed to knowing.

With this, as Feynman relates in his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he was running around his neighborhood repairing radios when he was a young boy. He found them interesting, he played with them, and when someone had a broken radio he would pace around their living room trying thinking about how to fix it, and then he’d fix it.

People were astonished.

Now, you probably know Feynman’s name because he was part of the Manhattan Project. And he won a Nobel Prize (something he didn’t want because of the extra attention, but upon learning that it would be more of a hassle to turn it down, he accepted it). And he taught for a long time. Or you just watch too much “Big Bang Theory.”

What strikes me about Feynman is his curiosity, and his willingness to follow that curiosity. Here’s a guy who wanted to know how radios worked, so he took them apart and played with the pieces.

Later in life, he wanted to learn how to draw, so he took a class and wound up having a gallery show.

He thought it would be fun to learn the drums, go to Brazil and play at Carnival. So he did.

While he enjoyed teaching, it sometimes led him to get stuck in his own work. One time, he went out on the quad and saw some students throwing around a disk (a Frisbee, though there weren’t Frisbees yet). He noticed it wobbled, soared and curved. He went and did some calculations, and it helped in his work on subatomic particles.

There’s that tinkerer again.

Another thing that strikes me about Feynman can only really be described as selfishness. If he didn’t want the hassle of a committee position, he didn’t take it. If he didn’t want to go to a party, he didn’t go. We only have so much time, why not have fun with it?

And have fun he did: He was a prankster as a college student, leaving tips under full glasses of water turned upside-down, stealing doors from rooms in his fraternity. He writes that he used to do some of his work at a strip club. Nobody bothered him, he didn’t bother anybody, and the owner would send over a free soda every night.

Take three action items from Feynman, then.

(1) Leave your house and find something you know nothing about. Leave your house, because if the thing is in your house, you’ve been ignoring it long enough that it won’t sustain your interest for very long. It could be coffee roasting, snowblowers, the physics of how chalk sticks to a board – anything. Now, learn all about it. This will take you some time. If you figured it out in an hour, you didn’t get the point.

Now, report on it. If you have a blog, post it there. If you don’t, use my comments section. If you think your story’s absolutely awesome and you don’t have a blog, email me and maybe we’ll do a guest post here.

Mine: I’ve begun home-brewing beer, just this past weekend. I’ve been a beer fan since – well, since I was 4 and I was already only drinking my dad’s brand – and over the past few years I’ve become a fan of craft brews. So I’m going to start making my own. I sort of expect that the first batch will fail. It’s not fermenting as quickly as expected, and while I know a scotch ale is more malty than hoppy and has a low-ish ABV, I think we might be looking at something a little too sweet and flat. The second batch will be better because I’ll work with it a little differently. Beyond that, I’ll start experimenting with flavors and probably fail a few times. Either way, it’s something new – and it’s committing to a process (really, it takes at least three weeks before it’s drinkable).

(2) Say no to something. Make it something you really don’t want to do but that society dictates you should do. Feynman tried to turn down the Nobel prize. When he finally accepted it, he managed to say no to a banquet in his honor. When Woody Allen won an Oscar for “Annie Hall,” he was in Manhattan playing his clarinet at a weekly gig. He snuck out the back door, unplugged the phone and read about it in the paper the next day. He said no to sitting around uncomfortably on the other side of the country waiting to see if his name would be called.

Mine: I’m not sure on this one, honestly. I’m in the fortunate situation that I get to choose just about all my interactions. There’s the give-and-take of a relationship, but other than that, you pretty much have to come ring my doorbell (and hope I answer) to get me to make an unplanned social interaction.

(3) Go do something at a place it’s not the norm to do it. I used to go to bars, sit in a crowded spot and read. Since I was typically reading something interesting, it led me to interesting conversations with interesting people. I met someone who described himself as a freelance lawyer while I was reading Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear at Al’s Wine & Whiskey in downtown Syracuse. That was one interesting dude. I wound up giving him the book when I was done.

Another time I was reading the Sunday New York Times at a now-defunct chain coffee shop on the north side (I had friends who worked behind the counter, making the coffee, er, awfully affordable) when someone came up and admonished me from getting all my news from such a liberal source. Until I pulled out a Wall Street Journal. No more political discussions over newspapers for me, thanks.

Mine: Now that school’s back in session and the public playgrounds are free of children during the day, I’ll do some playground workouts. [Adult males are generally discouraged from hanging out on playgrounds when they don’t have kids; just sayin’.] There are lots of opportunities to climb and do bodyweight exercises, and plenty of opportunity for people walking or driving by to stare. It also gives me the chance to walk with the dog and bring him to the “gym.”


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