Feynmanian Virtue

The man himself.

Supposedly Richard Feynman, the great 20th Century physicist, used to give advice on how to be a genius. His recommendation? Keep a dozen or so problems constantly in the back of your mind. Every time you meet a new trick or result, test it against each of your problems. Eventually, something will click, and people will think “How on earth did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to take Feynman’s advice, though the advice itself is genius. There’s far more sweat than inspiration in that approach to problem solving. You don’t even have to be a theoretical physicist or mathematician to do this. What if the manager of a grocery store took this approach to problem solving, for example? In the back of his mind he has the major problems confronting him at the moment—improving his hiring process, more effective marketing, training employees, better unloading procedures for produce, etc. As he goes about his day, he reads a little something on motivation here, or sees a television documentary on sales there, or has a conversation with a friend on efficiency. With a bit of work, some of these insights can be adapted to his own situation.

I see two virtues and one undergirding presupposition here. The virtues are perseverance and creativity. Perseverance in keeping these problems in front of the mind, turning them over from time to time, dragging them forth whenever some relevant new information comes up. Creativity in considering problem from each angle, along with the information presented, the “tricks” and “results,” that you come across, until you find that the problem and solution each have one matching side. These intellectual virtues stand against the laziness so many of us tend toward in our thinking.

The presupposition that lays under this approach to problem solving is possibly not one which Feynman held, since he was thinking inside his own field—I don’t know whether it was in his mind or not. For me, however, it seems that this kind of progress against the issues and problems we all confront in our work, families, churches, ministries, personal lives, etc. can only be made if we hold to some notion that all knowledge is interconnected somehow. If you’re an engineer at the doctor’s office and the only magazine within reach in the waiting room is Better Homes and Gardens, is it possible that some tidbit or factoid in those polished and gleaming pages could hold some relevance for your job designing plastic injection molds? Can a farmer learn from a graphic designer? Can a Bible teacher learn from a theoretical physicist?

This conviction that all knowledge is somehow connected, to a greater or lesser degree, seems to me to be indispensable to any serious thinker or leader. It’s also a great argument for each of us to read outside our field.

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