Intellectual Curiosity - 10 Lessons From Richard Feynman

"Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes

What Got Me Thinking 💭

  1. 📚 Richard P. Feynman | Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman

  2. 📚 Clayton M Christensen | Competing Against Luck

The first book I read this year was Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman. From the start, his curiosity amazed me. I was convinced by the end that it was the driving factor behind his success and many others. For example, Peter Thiel confessed that 4 out of 6 of Paypal’s earliest staff made bombs for fun in high school. I don’t encourage it, but that underlying curiosity drives many innovators.

Here are some principles I’ve extrapolated from Feynman’s life:

  1. Curiosity makes most people uncomfortable because people resist change.

    Curiosity usually questions the assumptions underlying convention. Challenge naturally threatens peoples’ beliefs, causing resistance - even when those beliefs are wrong.

  2. Curiosity fuels contrarianism - challenging conventional thought and rules.

    Feynman continually reimagined questions assigned during his studies at MIT, changing the emphasis, granting him unique perspectives and answers.

    “If everyone is defining a problem or solving it one way and the results are subpar, this is the time to ask, What if I did the opposite? Don't follow a model that doesn't work. If the recipe sucks, it doesn't matter how good a cook you are.” — Tim Ferris (The 4-hour workweek).

  3. People don’t like to learn by understanding but by rote.

    Feynmann recounts stories when MIT students and Einstein’s apprentice couldn’t practically apply the theory they already knew. Feynman concludes that many prefer memorising because they dislike understanding.

    “Change is the result of all true learning.” ― Leo Buscaglia.

  4. Understand good thought can arise from anyone.

    Feynmann was often underestimated in his earlier years and also underestimated others. He realised, credentials don’t make you insightful and insight can come from anyone.

  5. The best minds prefer challenge over conformity.

    Famous physicist Niels Bohr commended Feynmann as “…the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea…”. The best minds view the absence of critique as problematic.

  6. T-Shaped individuals leverage the depth and breadth of knowledge simultaneously.

    Feynman was both a deep and broad thinker. This allowed him to notice synergies as a multi-disciplinarian whilst excelling as an expert physicist.

  7. Be curious and experiment with things you enjoy, even if there's no end in mind.

    “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.” — Henry Ford.

    After working on the Atomic Bomb, Feynman suffered from burnout. He decided to go back to fun experiments with no end goal in mind. These experiments led to the work that won him a noble prize.

  8. The more you learn, the more opportunities you create for yourself.

    Feynman was a physicist, but his curiosity led him to paint, learn new languages and pick up several instruments - leading to unique performances, exhibitions and travel experiences. This fortune also extended to his chosen profession.

  9. Don’t fear failure.

    Feynman’s willingness to fail led to his multi-disciplinarian and expert successes. Each failure presented an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work and grow. I presume this is why children learn new languages quickly.

    'An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.' — Niels Bohr

  10. Be investigative - everything is an experiment.

    Feynman viewed life as an array of experiments - enabling him to try new things and learn from the outcomes. He even questioned the well-established ideas, rather than asserting inherited ideas. If the assumptions were false, he discovered something. If they held, he understood them better.

Final Thoughts

Intellectual curiosity lays the foundation for innovation and learning. With information being so readily available, we have no excuse.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin.

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— Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

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