Richard Feynman on Self-Doubt and Meeting Others’ Expectations

We all have moments of self-doubt. Times when we feel we can’t possibly live up to the high expectations other people put upon us.

I think it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone. Richard Feynman, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize and be one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, felt the same way.

After the death of his wife and working for the Manhattan Project during WWII to construct the first atom bomb, he felt burned out:

“When it came time to do some research, I couldn’t get to work. I was a little tired; I was not interested; I couldn’t do research! … I was convinced that from the war and everything else (the death of my wife) I had simply burned out.”

At this time, he was invited to participate at an elite research institution. Of course, to Feynman, he was already washed up. There was no more useful work that could be wrung out of him, so to take up such an offer would be an enormous mistake.

“And then I thought to myself, ‘You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!’

“It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.” [emphasis added]

You Have No Responsibility to Be What Others Expect of You

Now, of course, the twist in the story is that Feynman did live up to those expectations. He went on to have an enormously influential physics career. But it was only possible once he dropped his perception of the expectations being placed on him.

“Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.”

Interestingly, the expectations Feynman faces from his colleagues and employers wasn’t explicit. Rather, it was his own perception of those expectations that felt intolerable. However, I strongly suspect that there was no small part of those expectations that Feynman had placed upon himself.

Often it’s not the expectations of other people that burn us out and make us miserable, but those we place on ourselves.

Setting the Right Standard

Too low of a standard, and you won’t make a change. Too high a bar, and you’ll avoid what seems to be an inevitable failure. Expectations, like every virtue, are always a matter of moderation.

However, sometimes we perceive the standards from other people as being beyond our abilities. Perfectionism and procrastination result.

In these moments, I think it’s helpful to remember Feynman’s advice, and remind yourself that you have no responsibility to live up to what people expect of you. And that sometimes, you must forget those expectations in order to really fulfill your potential.

This story was first told in Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. We covered it in our book club and podcast here.

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