Book Club: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (August 2017)

Kalid Azad and I discuss August’s book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.

This is the autobiography of the Nobel-prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman. As I make the case at the start of the video, the benefit of reading biographies is that you get to see how someone very accomplished lived and thought in ways different from you. I find this a lot more effective than reading books expounding the virtues of creativity, curiosity or  courage–you actually get to see how someone who embodied those characteristics lived in concrete terms.

If you would rather read the transcript, click here.

Below are some of the highlights:

…on The Feynman Technique:

Scott: One of the first stories I really like was in his later years and he finds this paper and he can’t make heads or tails of it and at the time, it’s actually his sister who says “you’re saying this because you didn’t discover it.”

This is a small example but it made a profound impact on me. It was the story that led me to develop what I call The Feynman Technique which is basically the idea that if you can’t explain it yourself, maybe you don’t really understand it.

Going through things and explaining them to yourself is always a better way to understand something.

Kalid: It’s one of my favorite books, I’m always thinking, “What would Feynman do?” He has a Socratic wisdom to him where he pretends not to know anything and he’s always willing to question himself and others.

I think his attitude towards learning is to take away the academic pedestals and the reverence of experts and sort of, work things out for himself.

He’s not afraid to say he’s confused and he asks people to give examples when needed. That type of attitude leads to real understanding. For me it’s inspiring to see someone who has reached the highest level in his field and have that approach.

We also discuss Feynman’s confidence and humility and his unique ability to question absolutely everything, including himself.

Scott: In Feynman’s case I see this fearlessness to try things and do new things and feel as though he will be successful.

On the other hand you have this profound humility. I think he said something to the effect of “I know how hard it is to know a thing” … He didn’t just accept things or take them for granted.

Even from his own perspective, I don’t think he took his own ideas with that much conviction unless he had personally proven it himself. On the other hand you have this incredible confidence and they seem to work seamlessly together. 

Kalid: I think his success came from his willingness to admit he didn’t know so I think. A man can’t learn what he thinks he already understands. I think Feynman was wiling to constantly question himselfConfidence and humility are not opposed. I think the caricatures might be. But in Feynman’s case I think it was a confidence in the process. I think he was confident that by questioning things and being humble would eventually get him to understand things better. I think he was confident in the strategy.

Kalid and I talk about Feynman’s experience with the impact of different educational traditions, memorization versus understanding and the idea “educational theatre”.

Scott: I’ve seen that a lot when talking to students often from other educational traditions.

Often, they’ll talk about how they have to memorize everything and I don’t know whether that’s a systematic thing, meaning that, certain educational systems, they like the “repeat the definition of X” verbatim rather than did you actually understand it.

But, it may be true that in other places the way that you’re tested really benefits someone who is going to memorize instead of understand. I think Feynman had some sharp words to say about that.

Kalid: I think it’s easier to test a memorized definitions than it is to ask a creative question. Ultimately we’re concerned about true education and not just education theatre, sort to speak. If we actually want to understand something, we need to go beyond those memorizations.

And finally, we discuss our key takeaways from this profound book.

Kalid: I think the first takeaway is recognizing when things make sense and it’s okay for things not to make sense. Something might click, great, if it doesn’t, maybe you can resolve it then or maybe you can write it down later.

Everyone has their own checklist or their own requirements but you should have something… Have a standard for yourself, it’s important.

I think Feynman would stop people and ask them for a plain English example if they were explaining something and he couldn’t understand it. Whatever it is for you, having that standard is important.

Scott: I think if I were to say the biggest takeaway from how Feynman was doing things was to be curious and I think that sounds really simple but you can see how (in the book) he gets himself into situations and how your intuitive response, like what you’d do by reflex, is not actually what he does in the book.

It might be his confidence or his charisma but I think a lot of it is his curiosity. He’s genuinely interested in trying to find out about things.

I feel as though this was brought up in the discussion about this curiosity. A lot of people asked “aren’t interest or curiosity just inherent qualities?”

You know, you can’t just snap your fingers and be as smart as Feynman so you shouldn’t be able to snap your fingers and be as curious. But, I actually disagree here.

I think that curiosity is something that you cultivate and it’s because a lot of the things that push us away from curiosity are these encrusted fears and aversions that we have to things from maybe negative exposures in the past. Particularly through school. 

I think if you take it from the perspective that curiosity and interest is something you can cultivate to the extent that you want to tear down those barriers, I think there’s a huge benefit and possibility.

For those of you who want to read the book, it is available here. If you want to participate in the group discussions and join our book club, click here.

Special thanks to Kalid Azad of BetterExplained.com Be sure to visit his website for great articles.

The book for September will be Predictably Irrational: the Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely.

  • metrprof

    Two winners from this new blog for me today. First, googling for AI applied to Scrabble brought me here, and then this wonderful book discussion. One of the few books that I read twice. Here is a link to the youtube video: https://youtu.be/y7h4OtFDnYE

  • Scott Young

    One of my favorite videos 🙂

  • Kind

    Hi Scott!
    This is an exceptional book, thank you for the recommendation. I have to say, the chapter about Brazil got me really depressed, but that is not a bad thing. Sometimes, it is good to hear bad news (though, they are old). You see, I am from Brazil and our schools and universities haven’t changed… If only, our system got worse – I wasn’t even taught how to memorize. I gave up trying to learn things that I would like to know (like playing an instrument, drawing, math, etc.) for feeling stuck and not knowing how to deal with it. I have, though, been “trained” not to ask for help from teachers and professors because it might “slow down the class”. Also, never question the authority, your grades will suffer… convenient, right? Anyway, I’m going to try to apply Feynman Technique and see how that goes. I am looking forward to reading your book. Thanks for the blog and the emails you send.

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