Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Summary Written by Peter Nakamura
"Here I stand, atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity. A universe of atoms, an atom in the universe."

- Richard Feynman

The Big Idea

Live a life of passion and curiosity

"Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible."- Richard Feynman

From a young age Richard Feynman was fixing radios and tweaking phones at hotel reception desks to improve processes and efficiencies. He always had a sense of curiosity about the world and why things worked the way they worked. There’s also no doubt that Professor Feynman loved science.

His passion for physics pour through the pages and the numerous stories of him spending hundreds – if not thousands – of hours to solve a physics problem shows how much he cares about what he does. In one story, he recounts an experience in Guatemala when he became exhausted hiking the Mayan pyramids and instead spent the time at a hotel re-calculating – successfully! – the complex calculations that the Mayans had completed thousands of years ago.

If you can call someone a renaissance man, Professor Feynman was it. From being a nude portrait artist to an accidental member of a Brazilian samba band to a Nobel Prize winning physicist, Professor Feynman loved to live. He poured his full energy and effort into projects that he believed in and focused on the WHY behind his work and the impact it would make on others.

We might not possess the incredible mind for science of Richard Feynman but we can all learn from his passion and curiosity for life. How do you create your zest for life? What is something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had a chance to try yet?

Insight #1

Be a student everyday

"I wanted very much to draw, for a reason I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world."- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, page 299

One time Professor Feynman was playing the bongos at a party and he befriended an artist named Jirayr Zorthian. They agreed to teach each other the subjects they specialized in. Feynman began to teach Zorthian physics and Zorthian taught Feynman how to draw. Feynman always had an interest in learning how to draw and he began to draw wherever and whenever he could. He would go back to Zorthian occasionally with his drawings and ask for pointers for improvement. (Zorthian didn’t get too far with physics.)

Early in the process of learning how to draw, a lady that Professor Feynman knew suggested that he draw nudes. Professor Feynman was embarrassed to think that he would be good enough to draw nudes but he gave it a try anyway. After trying to draw a few portraits, Professor Feynman built his confidence and began to get quite good with his drawings. On one occasion, he was even commissioned by an owner of a strip club to paint a naked female toreador!

For a reputable Professor of Physics at Caltech, Professor Feynman could’ve easily focused on continuing in his speciality. But we can all admire his passion to learn and develop new skills. What new skills are you working on? How do you think acquiring a new skill will help fulfill your happiness and growth?

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Insight #2

Be persistent… but it’s okay if you don’t get it

"I have to keep going to find out ultimately what is the matter with it in the end. That’s a puzzle drive."- Surely You’re Joking, My. Feynman!, page 28

When Feynman was just 12 years old, he setup a lab at home to fix radios. People would seek him out to help them fix their radios. When he was working on the Manhattan Project team, aside from working on some of the most complex physics that was being done in the world at the time, Professor Feynman spent hours learning how to become a safecracker. He even spent years working on the quantum theory of half-advanced retarded potentials (if someone knows what this means, please contact me) and nothing came out of it. In addition to his natural curiosity, he also possessed an incredible amount of persistence.

How does this apply to you? Perhaps there are certain things in our lives that we may give up on too early. When just a few more minutes, hours, days, or weeks could help turn the corner on a problem, we decide to take the easier option and quit. But plainly banging your head against the wall over a problem isn’t going to help. It takes a level of understanding and thinking to make sure that the problem you’re working on can be solved for the time being. And perhaps more importantly you have to genuinely enjoy trying to solve the puzzle. Think about the challenges you’re facing right now. Are you enjoy the puzzle drive? Or is the puzzle drive actually driving you crazy?

There is a lot we can learn from a man’s life like Richard Feynman’s. But if we can find a way to live a life of passion and curiosity, be a student every day, and be persistent with our most important problems, then I think we can make our lives and perhaps the lives of others just a little better. For those interested in learning more about Feynman’s work, go to How do you plan on bringing a little bit more “Feynman” in your life?

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Richard P. Feynman

Richard P. Feynman was born in 1918 and grew up in Far Rockaway, New York. At the age of seventeen he entered MIT and in 1939 went to Princeton, then to Los Alamos, where he joined in the effort to build the atomic bomb. Following World War II he joined the physics faculty at Cornell, then went on to Caltech in 1951, where he taught until his death in 1988. He shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965, and served with distinction on the Shuttle Commission in 1986. A commemorative stamp in his name was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 2005.

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