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Richard Feynman’s Deliberate Genius

November 9th, 2015 · 24 comments

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Gleick’s Genius

I’m currently re-reading Genius, James Gleick’s celebrated biography of physicist Richard Feynman.

I was particularly drawn to the opening chapters on Feynman’s childhood in Far Rockaway, Queens. It’s tempting when encountering a brilliant mind like Feynman’s to resort to cognitive hagiography in which the future Nobel laureate entered the world already solving field equations.

But Gleick, whose research skills are an equal match for his writing ability, uncovered a more interesting origin tale…

The Math Team Factor

Arguably, the seed of Feynman’s success was his participation in the New York City public school system’s Interscholastic Algebra League.

As Gleick explains, Feynman was on his school’s math team. The team competed in meets in which the competitors raced to solve algebra problems. The important thing to understand is that these problems were designed with “special cleverness…there was always some trick, or shortcut, without which the problem just takes too long.”

Feynman became hooked on the feeling of uncovering these mathematical insights. Here’s Gleick:

“The heady rush of solving a puzzle, of feeling the mental pieces shift and fade and rearrange themselves until suddenly the slid into their grooves — the sense of power and sheer rightness — these pleasures sustain an addiction. Luxuriating in the buoyant joy of it, Feynman could sink into a trance of concentration that even his family found unnerving.”

Hungry for his next insight fix, Feynman began seeking out classic results from a variety of fields, with a particular interest in infinite summations that yielded pi or Euler’s constant (see the above image of pages from his teenage notebook).

To simply learn by rote what was already known would not provide him the hit of insight he craved, so he began working out the results on his own:

“His notebooks contained not just the principles of these subjects but also extensive tables of trigonometric functions and integrals — not copied but calculated, often by original techniques that he devised for the purpose.”

The Magician

Feynman’s colleagues, according to Gleick, understood him to be a magician: someone whose results seemed to come out of nowhere. But Feynman’s childhood training clarifies that this ability to confidently dive to the essence of a problem was a skill he pursued and sharpened starting from an age when most were still focused on backstreet stick ball.

Put another way, by the time Feynman graduated MIT — en route to the Manhattan Project, then the Cornell faculty, where his devastatingly original work on quantum mechanics would win him a Nobel Prize — he had likely spent more hours practicing the hunt for deep insight than almost anyone in his generation.

I don’t doubt that Feynman’s brain was special. But to borrow some useful terminology from David Epstein, what mattered was that this high power hardware was matched with exactly the right software, developed through years of deliberate practice, to unlock Feynman’s genius.

24 thoughts on “Richard Feynman’s Deliberate Genius

  1. Yan says:

    Hi Cal, I am a fourth-year PhD student major in biological sciences. i’ve been reading your blogs for months, and l’ve learnt much about time managing, focus, efficiency, etc. I found them quite helpful. so thank you and keep going.

    I have a question for you. I am using papers (the software) to manage my academic references. Now i’ve got 1045 articles in the library. I am using collections to category them. Still, i feel it is not a good system. When I want to find something relevant to a topic, i feel the things i found are not so relevant,and the most relevant things might be missing.

    Can you share with us that how you manage your academic articles. How do you keep them and what system do you use to help you keep everything in place.

    Thanks,
    yan

    1. Charley says:

      Hey bio major!

      Second year undergraduate here. Do you mind sharing a bit how you do deliberate practice in biology? I might have a skewed view, but it seems that deliberate practice works better for majors where you can do experiments by yourself (maths, comp Sci, etc). The theory part I get how you can practice, but to actually do research that might make a big impact seems harder. I thought about starting a research Bible a la Cal Newport, but I can’t really get past the third level without lab access, full funding, etc.

      Do you or Cl maybe have some ideas to share?

      Thanks!

  2. Daniel says:

    Well, this is a timely blog post. I finished re-reading Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman just last week, and came across a gem (among many others), which I thought you’d be interested in.

    The gem is a letter addressed to Francis Crick (of The Salk Institute) on March 7, 1978. The body of it says: “I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.”

    Interestingly enough, Crick wrote back: “I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: ‘Don’t tell me—I might think about it!'”

  3. Feynman once wrote two sentences on a blackboard:
    1) “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
    2) “Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.”

    This obsession with understanding things at a deep level definitely contributed to his unusual success.

    1. jld says:

      Very nice but the only problem is that “understanding” is like “p0rn” everybody knows it when it happens but nobody can *define* it.

      1. Daniel says:

        I like the way Ayn Rand defined it: “To understand means to focus on the content of a given subject (as against the sensory—visual or auditory—form in which it is communicated), to isolate its essentials, to establish its relationship to the previously known, and to integrate it with the appropriate categories of other subjects. Integration is the essential part of understanding.”

        I also like Feynman’s formulation, as written on his chalkboard: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” This isn’t a definition of “understanding,” but creating something based on the principles you hoped to understand can be an objective proof of it, especially in certain fields.

        Anyway, all that’s to say that there are definitions of “understanding” and that I at least think there are some good ones. In addition to Rand’s, for example, Marvin Minsky also saw integration as essential to the concept. “If you understand something in only one way, then you don’t really understand it at all,” he said. “The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all other things we know.”

        1. weak stream says:

          Completely agree. Rand is right on about this as well. “Nobody can define porn but they know it when they see it” is a popularly held myth. Of course you can define the essence of it. If you will do the work. Feynman’s construction of trig and integral relationships BY HAND deepened his sense for the numbers themselves. Nobody is willing to do this in this age. Feynman spoke at length about people describing/defining things/phenomena without an essential understanding of the thing. Defining is not understanding.

  4. Marcella says:

    Love the idea of matching hardware to software. I’ll be looking into reading that book, thanks for the rec.

  5. Alan says:

    Great post…thank you! My early introduction to the Feynman way of “seeing” was via his early book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.” Your piece reinforces the view that even superior mental capability still requires plenty of hard work in order to achieve greatness. In Feynman’s case (and certainly Einstein’s), overwhelming curiosity was the driving force which enabled their prodigious scientific efforts. Curiosity is the key to learning. Einstein claimed, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Some of the readers’ comments on “understanding” are illuminating. Most of us who studied math, science, and engineering at the university level are very familiar with that exam-time experience that rudely shows one’s understanding of a topic is incomplete, at best!

  6. NTT says:

    Great post as usual Cal :). This is a similar case to the Indian mathematical genius Ramanujan, who rediscovered classic results in number theory, despite being virtually isolated from the contemporary mathematical societies. I’ve always attributed his phenomenal insight to something as natural talent, until I read your post. I think the same reason (deliberate practice, though unaware) that explains Feynman’s genius can be used to account for the exceptional talent of Ramanujan

    1. CI says:

      I remember reading that he too was obsessed with mathematics as a student to the point where he neglected and started failing other subjects. He used to analyze the curves in people’s signature etc. So yeah, there was definitely unaware deliberate practice involved. But I’d like to point out that in both these cases the driving force for practice was their inherent curiosity and ‘passion’ about the subject matter. Though I agree that passion alone doesn’t guarantee success, it definitely eases the pain of deliberate practice.

  7. Shuttle Service Nvidia says:

    “I don’t doubt that Feynman’s brain was special. But to borrow some useful terminology from David Epstein, what mattered was that this high power hardware was matched with exactly the right software, developed through years of deliberate practice, to unlock Feynman’s genius.”

    I am glad you are reading books that (1) are related to the subjects you are writing about and (2) express ideas that are a lot more important and truthful than anything you’ll ever have to say.

  8. Yadvinder says:

    Hi this comment is in response to Yan, I really like using ZoTero to organize and sort academic articles please let me know if you’d like me to do a screen cast on how I use it.

  9. abi manesh says:

    Once again a very interesting and thought provoking post, Cal ! Thanks.

  10. weak stream says:

    I don’t think hardware/software is a precise enough analogy for this. It is the idea that in order to create real progress real essential understanding is necessary. Not simply defining or repeating handed down ideas, whether they be factually correct or not. Feynman made this distinction. And it’s why all progress will halt if society continues to skip steps in the learning process simply because a table or computer function does something with a keystroke. A critical loss of essential understanding is lost. Logical positivism had killed art, philosophy and has created a cookbook approach to science which has little to show for itself.

  11. deborah says:

    Dear Cal, I’m brazilian and I read your book “How to become a straight-A student”. I can’t believe I went to high school and college without knowing those tips. That upsets me a lot. However, I believe that your book would be sooooooo useful for so many brazilian students. The thing is: we speak portuguese! How can we make this precious knowledge acessible to more brazilian readers?
    Thanks!

    1. Camilo Andrade says:

      I agree, definitely would be very useful for brazilian students. By the way, DEBORAH, where do you live in Brazil? Brasópolis?

  12. deborah says:

    Oh, I’m trying to get my master’s degree, so still useful! Can you believe that I read most of my readings at the BUS? It just require a very very little planning (put them all in my backpack). I just can’t believe I used to waste my time listening to Miley Cyrus in my way home.
    I’m a mom of a two year old, so your efficiency tips are THE BEST! I don’t have time to waste, ’cause – you know – “doody” calls (a LOT).

  13. Harshit Saini says:

    This explains why I could not understand half of the things mentioned in Feynman’s ‘Lectures on Physics’ series when I was in 12th standard. Indian education system!

  14. Jeewoong Chang says:

    Some of my geeky friends (myself included) have “discovered” circle equation, ellipses, vector coordinates and the like, up to 3 years before standard curriculum. What I find interesting is that most rely on memorizing types of questions, and only few end up discovering these things.
    Hardware matters, too. Feynman was much more than 3 years ahead of his age for sure.

  15. A.I. says:

    Macchiavelli once wrote there were three kinds of people:

    1. People who understand things by figuring them out on their own

    2. People who understand things when explained to them

    3. People who don’t understand things even when explained to them

    I suppose Feynman had a lot of practice figuring stuff out on his own.

    However, he wasn’t alone and not the only genius. Dyson helped him a lot by putting his ideas into proper mathematics.

    Which leads me again to the question always ignored, can you become a top performer outside a community of other top performers?

    My guess is no.

    It’s certainly true with sports performance. You can become pretty good on your own or on a weak team, but you won’t become elite unless you play with, train with and compete with other top performers.

    “The math team factor” – what would’ve driven him if not the competition of the math team?

    1. weak stream says:

      A.I. Agreed. But some in the community that make you better are working with you and others in the community that make you better are working against you. So I think the best collaborative efforts are made by very small groups of people in a large, interested, committed community. So definitely not group think/committee think.

      1. A.I. says:

        @Weak Stream

        Yes, thank you for pointing that out. I wasn’t advocating group think at all, and I don’t think of work group committees when talking community.

        I have in mind rather an informal association of highly motivated individuals. This kind of people often likes to work alone and are highly independent thinkers, making it unlikely to submit to group think. Yet, they discuss ideas with each other, and this is how you might get puzzle pieces that you might have missed.

        I’ve recently read a story about Gell-Mann who was puzzled by the properties of elementary particles, until he talked about it to mathematician Richard Block at Caltech who told him that he is describing a problem long known and solved in mathematics as SU(3), if I’m not mistaken.

        So this is what I mean when I suppose that elite performance not seldomly is enabled by a community of other top performers.

        Even Newton remarked that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”, even though some accounts suggest that he wasn’t a particularly pleasant character.

        1. weak stream says:

          A.I. completely agree. I think that a bigger problem now is that the proper community as you explain has been conflated with groupthink/design by committee. It’s created a false sort of vision with a lot of social confirmation. Thus game changing progress is ever more difficult to achieve. Also, completely agree about people in adjacent fields being accessible. You can’t know every possible field in enough detail to make progress. I think the real visionaries are general thinkers, for the most part, but there are real limitations.

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