The Feynman Work Principle: Seek Enjoyment, Do Things That Don’t Matter

Richard Feynman loved physics.

From the time he was a young boy, Feynman had always had a special affinity for the physical world and its governing principles.

But as he grew older and worked in more “important” roles, Feynman came to a place where he no longer felt the same energized love for physics. After receiving multiple job offers from various universities and institutions within a small window who valued his work and wanted him to join their teams, Feynman pondered his relationship with his work and discovered some uncomfortable truths.

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics.

On the heels of some incredible job offers, Feynman had to face the reality that he felt disgust for what he did. He didn’t enjoy it like he used to. With this in mind, he asked himself a simple question.

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.

What did he discover? He originally fell in love with physics because it felt like play.

When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the supposed importance of what we’re doing that we forget to have fun. Our seriousness about work can be equally beneficial and detrimental to our enjoyment of and performance in our profession.

Returning to a playful attitude reduces the weight of pressure we feel over the importance of our work. We are reinvigorated by the enjoyment of what we do and begin to turn out better work.

This is not to say that everyone will understand your approach.

Some people—determined to act sophisticated—may be confused by your changed attitude. This happened to Feynman shortly after he renewed his manner of engaging his field.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate—two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. (emphasis mine)

What might happen if you made up your mind to enjoy your field? Maybe you’d see Feynman-like results.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing”—working, really—with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos; my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

What might happen if you sought enjoyment of your field? What value would you add to others by doing things of seemingly no importance? What might you mistakingly accomplish?

To quote Dr. Suess: “Oh, the places you’ll go!”


Footnotes

All quotes come from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Zero to One: How to Build a Personal Monopoly

I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. – Jay Z

Our society loves competition. We’re enamored with it.

Competition is deeply engrained in each one of us. We were ranked against our peers in standardized testing as 4th graders and fought hard to improve our high school class ranking because we were taught that it meant something. We do it all because we were taught to compete.

The irony of it all is that the more we compete, the less we gain. In all of our competition, we trap ourselves within a finite game.

What is a Monopoly?

Since our primary school days, we’ve been taught that monopolies are bad. Some of our teachers might have gone so far as to say that they are evil companies led by ever more evil people.

Peter Thiel thinks differently about that. In Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, he defines a monopoly as “the kind of company that’s so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute.”

This kind of monopoly is not evil. Instead, it’s a flourishing company. It’s a sign that somebody has innovated and made something truly incredible.

Thiel’s definition makes even more sense when we contrast it with perfect competition.

In our basic economics classes, we were taught about perfect competition. Generally held up as the gold standard, perfect competition does away with all profits. It’s perfectly competitive, and therefore nobody loses. Unfortunately, nobody wins either. Perfect competition is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

The goal of any company should be to escape competition. When you monopolize an industry (by becoming so good at what you do that nobody else can offer a close substitute), you have all sorts of new doors open up for you.

Becoming a Monopoly

Personally, I don’t aspire to build a startup any time soon. I suspect that most of you don’t either. What I am interested in is doing interesting things with interesting people. Maybe your goals are similar.

As I’ve contemplated how to do this, it’s become clear to me that the best way to do this is to become what I call a personal monopoly.

According to Thiel,

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful business…All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Swap “business/companies” with “people” and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful person…All happy people are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed people are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to become a personal monopoly to be happy. Nor am I saying that you are a failure if you choose the route of competition.

But, if you want to design a remarkable career, building a personal monopoly is your best chance.

2 Types of People

Within the Zero to One framework, there are two types of people. First, there is The Competitor. Second, The Monopolist. Let’s learn more.

The Competitor

If you want to be a Competitor, build a skillset that is general in nature. Competitors generally do things well, but they don’t do any one thing exceptionally well.

They’re mostly tasked with executing instructions and they don’t add anything new to the world. They don’t innovate. They do a great job of maintaining the status quo and adding more of what already exists.

The Monopolist

On the flip side, The Monopolist does one thing exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that no one else offers a close substitute.

They develop a monopolistic skillset. That is, something that is so much better than others in their same line of work that nobody else even comes close. Because of their skillset, they escape job competition.

As a result of no longer needing to place their energy and focus on their competition, they navigate their way into interesting opportunities. They may even find that an organization they admire creates a role specifically for them, just to have them on their team.

Building a Monopolistic Skillset

I don’t want you to believe this is easy. Becoming a personal monopoly is difficult. Building the skillset required to have this type of career takes years of focused attention.

But there are a few nuggets of wisdom that Thiel shared in Zero to One that are worth considering.

Think From First Principles

Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

Successful people think different than unsuccessful people. They simplify problems by breaking complex issues down to their understandable and foundational parts. If you want to be successful, apply first principles thinking to difficult problems.

Don’t Be Common

The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

The same thing can be said for your career. If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t have the same skill sets as those you’re in competition with. This will ensure that you stay in competition until the day you retire.

Start Small and Monopolize

What’s something small within your industry that you could learn to do better than everyone else? Bill Belichick built his personal monopoly by noticing things others didn’t on film and building game plans around other coaches’ blind spots. What will you do?

Scale Up

Once you dominate that niche market, how can you scale that up? How can your skillset become more valuable as the market for it gets bigger?

Don’t Disrupt

“Disruption” is a huge buzzword in the tech space. Thiel recommends not seeking to disrupt. Did you actually like that disruptive kid in Mrs. Smith’s 3rd grade classroom? No, of course not. You wanted nothing more than for him to stop talking.

In other words, don’t seek to compete with others just because you think you should. The beauty of starting small and scaling up is that you may never need to disrupt anybody. Nobody needs to know that what you’re actually doing is becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

And when you’re so good they can’t ignore you, you’ll have built your personal monopoly.

The Career Lesson Bill Belichick Learned After Being Rejected for a Job

The person who has to lead the fight against complacency, Belichick had learned, was the man at the top. Some three years into his career, after he had finished working at more or less entry-level positions in Baltimore and Detroit, he was at something of loose ends. The group he had been a pat of in Detroit had all been fired. His colleagues at both places had understood how talented he was, that he was a young coach with the rare ability to take film and turn it into a living profile of an opposing team, that he produced scouting reports of exceptional value. Because of his Ohio connections, Don Shula, then one of the two or three ranking coaches in the game, was a possibility. Shula, too, had come out of the Paul Brown alumni association, and Steve Belichick, if he had not actually played for Brown, was connected to him because Bill Edwards had once roomed with Brown and had been an assistant coach under him. The name Belichick would be known to Don Shula in Miami. So Bill Belichick had contacted Shula, explained what he thought he could bring to the job, and given his references, which were already glowing, especially for someone in his mid-twenties. Shula was gracious and listened carefully. Then he said, “I’m afraid you’re exactly what I don’t want. I don’t want someone like you doing film. I want my coaches to do it themselves. I don’t want them delegating responsibility to their assistants and distancing themselves from what is happening. I want them right on top of it.” With that Shula apologized, and there was no job offer–it was an interesting lesson; Belichick had been rejected for being able to do something important too well.

The Education of a Coach, page 27

Bill Belichick learned a valuable lesson after only three years of coaching. It seems unlikely that this would even be a thing, but he was rejected for a job because he was too good at something crucial to the game of football.

The temptation to specialize is real. We hear it from all over.

The temptation comes backed with enough logic that some fall prey to it.

Become an expert at one specific thing, and you’ll be very valuable to an organization.

In Belichick’s case, he thought being the best advanced scout would open up doors.

Instead, he faced rejection precisely because he had become so good at one thing.

Years later, Belichick had changed his stance.

“The less versatile you are, the better you have to be at what you do well.”

Bill Belichick

The Don Shula interview and many other experiences led him to understand the value of not just being a one-trick pony. Instead, Belichick looked to master every discipline of football. He’s known as a defensive mastermind, but his understanding of and innovation on the offensive side of the game is up there with some of the all-time greats.

Belichick didn’t stop with becoming a master scout.

He continued on and built a wide range of skills.

You should too.

No matter what you do, look to build a broad range of skills. Read widely. Understand things outside of your discipline. I bet you’ll start making connections you would have never expected.

You may never break down film in your life, but you can surely benefit from Belichick’s lesson learned.

Why Heroes are Better than Mentors

Seth Godin ruins everything I think about everything.

In an interview with Chris Do of The Futur, Seth gets questioned about his stance that we don’t need mentors. Instead of mentors, Seth says, we need heroes.

Will you take advantage of what the Internet has made available to you?

A hero with heroes

Everyone is called to be a hero. And all heroes need guides.

But guess what, a guide doesn’t have to know you exist.

Let’s go to Seth. (Start at 10:20 if it doesn’t already)

Everyone wants a mentor.

But if you’re claiming to be stuck because you don’t have a mentor, you haven’t realized what’s already available to you.

If you’re reading this blog post, that means that somehow, some way, you have an Internet connection.

Leverage this blessing and find your heroes.

Do you want to be like Seth Godin? Go to your local library and check out every book he’s written — then apply what he says.

Do you want to throw harder? Follow specific pitchers who are ahead of you and share what they’re doing (more on this soon).

Do you want to make an impact on your place of work? Align yourself with people who have done it and are sharing their advice.

It’s easier than ever to become like your heroes. Leverage what is readily available. People know this is true; few follow through.

Why heroes are better than mentors

Here are a few benefits of having heroes instead of mentors:

  • Geography isn’t a limitation. They can live on the opposite end of the world, and you’ll still be able to glean from their lives.
  • You can think to yourself over-and-over-again, “What would my hero do right now?”
    • This strategy worked great for me during my early days of velocity development. Thinking, “What would Casey Weathers do?” helped me to stay focused and put the work in. (I wasn’t within 2,000 miles of Casey at that time).
  • You can have multiple heroes and piece together aspects of these heroes to form your ideal self.
  • Heroes are generally becoming more accessible through social media, email, and their published work. You might have to pay to get to them, but that advice can be invaluable.
  • Heroes give you a road marker to follow. Want to be a particular type of person? Follow the people who have already done it.

On your hero’s journey, you have the opportunity to decide who you listen to.

The gates holding you back from access to some of the world’s most successful people are gone.

The only thing holding you back from the heroes you need is a willingness to use the Internet for more than cat memes and pissing matches about politics and baseball analytics.

4 Valuable Skills Most Athletes Already Have

Many elite athletes leave the playing field feeling under-prepared for the next phase of their lives. They gave their all to sports, and they leave the game they once loved with many memories but little confidence that they possess any valuable skills for the real world.

At this time, remember that your entire athletic career was preparation for your life after sports. You spent years maximizing your potential on the field, and in the process developed high-value, transferable skills that will carry over into your new professional career.

There’s variance between individuals, and no two people will be the same, but I believe there are some essential skill and experience advantages former athletes carry with them into the job hunt. If utilized correctly, your experience will have recruiters and managers everywhere salivating for you to join their team. 

How to Interview: Tell Stories

Humans are story-crazed. We watch movies, read books, and play story-driven video games. A good story can evoke a myriad of emotions from deep within us. Stories make us laugh with hysteria and weep in melancholy.

When you interview, aim to tell stories. Have a story for every question. Not only does this make you come off as more friendly and approachable, but it also demonstrates that you have experience in this area.

If you can tell a story which demonstrates one of your essential skills, the interviewer will remember you better than the job seeker who couldn’t connect the question with a personal anecdote.

All this to say: The best interviewees tell stories.

The Four Skills

In the paragraphs that follow, I will reveal the four skills most athletes possess that set them apart from their peers in any job search.

  1. Leadership
  2. Teamwork
  3. Competitiveness
  4. Work Ethic + Accomplishment

Leadership

Did you have a formal or informal leadership role on your teams? If so, share a story of a problematic leadership moment that ended positively, or caused you to learn something from a leadership perspective.

  • Did you inspire your team’s late-game comeback with a fiery speech?
  • Did you take on the role of informal player-coach at an understaffed program?
  • Were you elected a team captain, and then actually did something positive?
  • Did you work with other teams to improve tense relations between units?
  • Did you try something as a leader, but utterly failed? <–You can use this too!

I believe almost every athlete took on a leadership role at some point in their career. You can use this to your advantage to show that you are capable of leading and being the pioneer of positive change in that organization.

Teamwork

Recruiters and managers want to know that you’ll be able to work together with others inside the company. Demonstrate your aptitude for teamwork and let them know you’ll be easy to work with and a valuable contributor to the team.

To tell a story of teamwork, you can talk about a time when you sacrificed yourself for the good of the team. Or, you could speak of observing someone else sacrifice and speak to the impact this made on you with a real-life example of how you changed afterward. (The latter case also speaks of your teachability.)

Competitiveness

In my last interview, I was asked flat-out, “Are you competitive?”. Managers and companies are looking for individuals with a healthy dose of competitiveness whom will drive results. The ability to remain driven when everybody else is falling away is essential in the long-term, and companies are looking to have a pool of Type-A, driven individuals.

To tell a story of competitiveness, think about pre-game rituals, intense moments in your career, or examples of your competitive fire sparking you to athletic triumph. These examples will help the interviewer connect with you and see the competitive juices within you.

Work Ethic + Accomplishment

Did you work extremely hard for something and see results? Did you go above the regular call of duty to make something happen? Talk about this. What did you do? Did you have any major setbacks?

In the startup world, most companies talk about their “Origin Story.” For me, my “origin story” is my journey from 81 MPH to 95. It checks a lot of boxes in the interviewer’s mind (hard work, dedication, ability to achieve, etc.) and is far better than telling them, “I’m a hard worker and dedicated to any task at hand.”

Companies are looking to hire people who produce results. If you can tell an account of a time you put in work and got the desired result, you’re going to set yourself apart. It’s as simple as that.

Remember: You Have Valuable Skills

It’s easy to think that you don’t have any valuable skills because you didn’t intern at Google. Instead, you spent your time training to be your best on the field.

If you think that way, I have good news for you.

You’re wrong.

Your entire athletic career prepped you for your new professional career in something other than sports.

It’s just time you believe it.

Discussion Question:

What skills did I miss?