Richard Feynman Didn’t Win a Nobel by Responding Promptly to E-mails

Feynman’s Faux Irresponsibility

Around 38 minutes into the above interview, the late physicist Richard Feynman describes an unorthodox strategy for defending deep work:

“To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time…it needs a lot of concentration…if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, ‘no,’ I tell them: I’m irresponsible.”

Feynman got away with this behavior because in research-oriented academia there’s a clear metric for judging merit: important publications. Feynman had a Nobel, so he didn’t have to be accessible.

There’s a lot that’s scary about having success and failure in your professional life reduce down to a small number of unambiguous metrics (this is something that academics share, improbably enough, with professional athletes).

But as Feynman’s example reminds us, there’s also something freeing about the clarity. If your professional value was objectively measured and clear, then you could more confidently sidestep actives that actively degrade your ability to do what you do well (think: constant connectivity, endless meetings, Power Point decks).

Put another way: if other knowledge work fields judged merit with the academic model, you’d probably find it a lot harder to get people to show up at your next project status meeting…even if you promised extra-fancy animations in your deck.


Hat Tip: Eric S.

22 thoughts on “Richard Feynman Didn’t Win a Nobel by Responding Promptly to E-mails”

  1. Cal,

    how does this come together with your theory of intense bursts?

    Feynman is talking about solid lengths of time – this is btw. the same thing Peter Drucker observed about effective knowledge workers back in the 1950s: He observed that effective knowledge workers always tried to chunk together tasks so time blocks would become as large as possible.

    E.g., Drucker suggested if you have to hand in the business report, try to write the first draft in one sitting, even if it takes you 6 hours, and then edit the draft in shorter time blocks later.

    I found that this approach also works well with coding a chunk of software, say a class or two, or a function, and then later debug one bug after another in shorter, separate time blocks.

    It makes little sense trying to code a class in 15 minutes at a time spread over a week or two.

    Basically, Feynman says the same thing. How is this reconciled with the theory of short, high intensity bursts?

    • My experience has been similar A.I. Whenever I’m tackling a medium to large project, it always turns out best if I’m able to get the foundation out in a single stretch (even if the foundation is messy and needs lots of work), and then refine/polish it over time in smaller bursts.

  2. It comes down to how easy it is to measure the marginal products of individual workers. In most sales fields it is quite easy to measures. Lawyers have billable hours. Do fields, with easier to define metrics have fewer useless meetings?

  3. I admire Feynman a lot. But most of us are not Nobel Prize winners. We must do the “dirty work” to survive in academia. We need the good Powerpoint slides to impress the audience and make our research reach further…

  4. It’s very interesting to see this phenomenon as a time coach:

    At early career and mid-career, you absolutely need to block out time for the most important work, however you also need to make time for things like relatively prompt responses to e-mail. There’s enough people around you and above you that care that your responsiveness and can have an impact on your ability to advance.

    However, it seems like an inflection point happens at a certain point, typically when you’re in the top set of people in your organization (or department if you’re in a large corporation). At that point, your e-mail and responsibilities have increased to a level that it’s impossible for you to both be responsive and do the most important work. My observation is that when you’re at that point of your career, you provide the most value and get rewarded by focusing on the most important work. The people around you will follow up with you if they need to about e-mail and there will be relatively little repercussions because it’s understood that you’re incredibly busy and also that you’re the boss.

    Managing your expectations/behavior as you advance through this career arc is critical to ongoing success.

    To your brilliance!

    • Hello Elizabeth:

      I agree with your point as what you describe is part of my experience as a professor in a technical university. However, each of us makes a choice about goals and what we view as really important – whether it is to focus on science (such as Dr. Feynman) or to ‘advance’ within the organization.


  5. AI, I agree with you that certain tasks are best done in one sitting. A compromise between bursts and long stretches could be daily, 2-3 hour stretches. While a typical knowledge worker won’t get a whole day to work on a project, it may be feasible to train your colleagues to know that you’ll be unreachable between 2 and 5.

  6. Cal,

    Here is more evidence against the passion myth.

    Magnus Carson, 23, is the current world chess champion and chess prodigy. His father taught him to play chess at the age of 5, although he initially showed little interest in the game.

    If he had chess written into his genes he would have been passionate about chess from the start.

    • Sometimes passions develop with practice. If the passion never develops, then you will burn out before becoming world class. Passion is still critical to succeed.

  7. Cal,

    You are going to LOVE THIS!!! 🙂

    There is one man in the world that best embodies your philosophy of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”.

    Check out his homepage and look at the three “slides” in the homepage.

  8. To go along with that sense of irresponsibility, Feynman had an admin that was very good at making sure he could be free of distractions. (As Leonard Mlodinow, who used to work down the hall from Feynman, points out in his colloquial biography “Feynman’s Rainbow”.)


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