Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (Book Discussion)

I had a recent book club discussion with Scott Young on the book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman.

Richard Feynman is one of my explanation heroes. His biography contains dozens of stories, capturing a spirit of curiosity, awe, and a desire to figure things out your own way. Feynman's approach informed how both Scott and I approach learning.

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.

Feynman inspired our own learning techniques:

  • ADEPT method - use Analogies, Diagrams, Examples, Plain-English and Technical descriptions
  • Feynman technique - to learn something new, attempt to teach it in simple terms (make an ELI5 explanation for yourself or another student)

It's inspiring to read about a Nobel-prize winning expert unafraid to admit their ignorance and break difficult concepts into simpler terms ("No, I don't understand, can you give me an example?"). He had the humility to question his own understanding and the confidence to know he could eventually figure it out -- an approach we can all learn from.

Join Scott's book club for updates and discussions on upcoming books. Thanks again to Scott for having me on!

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