Part 1: Book Review: “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.” My Thoughts and Reflections.
(Caption: Dr. Richard Feynman. courtesy of caltech.edu )
I recently completed the autobiography of Dr. Richard Feynman. For those unaware, he was a Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist that is known for his work on the Manhattan project as well as the Feynman method of teaching. In short, the Feynman method challenges the educator to teach the subject at a level a 5 year old could understand.
Given my recent transition back to academia I wanted to read it. It came highly recommended. The forward is written by Bill Gates. The book is on several must read lists for educators. I had very high hopes.
It was not what I expected. It is a 400 page ramble, bouncing from one episode of fortune to another. The book had no plot. It lacked any particular direction. There was really nothing he was working towards. In fact, he barely spoke about his work. He barely spoke about his teaching for that matter. It was nothing about the Professor, which I expected, and all about the Man.
When I finished the book I was very frustrated. After some reflection, I understand why people like it. He was the “King” nerd. He won the Nobel prize in physics. He was bold, in a friendly way. He challenged his colleagues in a non-threatening way. He was cool. He played the bongos. He spoke Japanese and Portuguese. He taught himself how to paint portraits on a dare from a friend. Women found him charming. There was a lot to like about him.
Most of his intellectual accomplishments were not planned. He didn’t set out on a path to solve anything. His graduate work at MIT didn’t have a particular interest, or focus. There was nothing he dedicated his life too, other than curiosity. He was into everything. Anything he found curious he would fiddle with until he figured it out. It could be the most mundane thing. There were three chapters in the book dedicated to cracking combination locks on filing cabinets while he was at Los Alamos.
He spent much of his time thinking, fiddling, deconstructing, and reconstructing. Somehow, he made a career out of this.
There were two passages out of the 400 pages that I was most fond of.
Dr. Feynman lived in Pasadena, CA, and worked as a professor at Cal Polytech. One day recruiters from his previous employer, Cornell University, visited him. They wanted him back. And he was interested. They were offering him full professorship, minimal teaching requirements, and a salary far above what he was being paid at Cal Tech. When they asked him if he would like to know the salary amount, he refused. He said he would need to think about the offer.
The recruiters eventually sent him a letter with the offer and salary attempting to entice him back to Cornell. After some time contemplating the offer, he responded: “I must refuse. The reason I must refuse is with all that money I’d finally be able to do all the things I’ve wanted to do – get a wonderful mistress, buy her expensive things, put her up in an expensive apartment, etc. I’d be constantly worried about what she is doing; I’d be getting into arguments at home with my wife and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy.”
The letter is written in jest, but it gives a window into the core of his being. Dr. Feynman knew that money would corrupt him. He knew it would disrupt the balance in his life. His freedom of thought. His curiosity. His rest. His energy. His hobbies, etc.
More responsibilities and higher expectations would be attached to this agreement. Implicit and explicit expectations. It’s not that he didn’t have high expectations for himself, he did, but they were his expectations. If he had accepted “all that” money he would now be responsible for their expectations. Just the thought of having to spend “all that” money he found troublesome.
He was already satisfied with his life. Why reach for more?
The ancient philosopher Epicurius said the wise will accomplish the following: 1) leave written works behind, 2) be financially prudent to provide for the future, 3) cherish country living.
Dr. Feynman was a wise man. He didn’t live in the country, but he did live in Pasadena, which is beautiful and was probably peaceful at that time. He didn’t worry about money. His writings have provided incredible insights into our physical world and our ability to teach. As I reflect on the book, I begin to understand why so many of the great thinkers in history protected their time from the perpetuality of work.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said the life of a slave is: 1) work, 2) punishment, 3) food. That’s it.
I have found myself somewhere in-between. That’s not to equate myself to a slave, so please turn your “triggered” switch to off. I work each day, sometimes I’m criticized, I eat, then start all over again the next day. But there is a small portion set aside for “Feynman” time. Time for reflection. Time for knowledge. Time for growth. Time for family.
Last year I was told that I would need to offer one day per week of extended hours in the office. These are non-traditional hours in which I would be available to see patients. On Wednesday mornings I go into the office around 7am to be available for those patients that need an appointment but don’t want to miss work.
On Wednesdays my soul is restless. The reason why…the morning is my time. It’s my “Feynman” time. I wake up every morning around 5am. The world is still. It’s dark. The only sounds are the wind through the trees and the random creaking of walls and floorboards of a house settling in for the day. I read. I think. I write. There’s peace. For a few hours each day there’s nothing but curiosity. My mind goes wherever it wants when it wants. This time sustains me through all the turmoil going on in the world that day. On Wednesdays its cut short.
I assume this change was the result of research from marketing that discovered patients would like the option for off hours appointments. Which, in my opinion, you didn’t need research to answer. If you offer someone optionality at the expense of someone else, they are going to say, “sure!” So, I’m stuck. Maybe I’m lazy. It could be I’m grumpy because I wasn’t given the choice. If I reflect, it’s mainly that Wednesdays are all labor. No wandering. No Silence.
It sort of reflects a sickness in our society today. Not just on my end, but the patient side as well. They are hesitant to take an hour away from work to address their health. There must be some fear of punishment if they miss that hour, or miss some opportunity to be “productive.” Seriously, I’ve had to fill out FMLA paperwork for patients that need more than 3 office visits/year to manage a chronic illness. We shouldn’t be surprised that we suffer so much from depression, anxiety, ADHD, back aches, migraines, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. Work, punishment, food, screen, repeat.
We spend little time being curious. Looking in, instead of looking out. Our time for reflection is stolen by working “overtime,” unreasonable production expectations, or an extra 1% profit margin. Netflix, YouTube, and Instagram have stolen our time for curiosity (you don’t rest when you binge watch Squid Game). We have taken much needed rest away from our souls. We are strung out, and sick because of it.
When Dr. Feynman would paint, his soul would rest. When he played the bongos, his soul would rest. When he was cracking safes, his soul would rest. This time was precious to him. He protected it. When it was time for work, he was ready.
I will end this post here since it is already on the long side. For part two I will discuss the other passage in the book that I found to be very valuable.