Feynman was famous for his sense of humor. It is understandable that when reading this blog post title, you are anticipating a funny story about Richard Feynman playing the bongo, pulling pranks on his peers, or telling a thought-inducing joke.
This post, however, will fail to meet those expectations. In fact, I want to talk about the period in time when the famous physicist was at his lowest. In the famous book “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman,” I learned a lesson that accompanies me daily. And if you have ever felt burned out or suffered from imposter syndrome, you’ll want to learn it too.
Richard Feynman and imposter syndrome
In the chapter titled “The Dignified Professor,” Feynman tells the story of his early days as a young professor at Cornell. Some people would not believe he was a professor there due to his young age, but other physics professors would have him in the highest regards and praise him for his intuitions and for his teaching skills.
While surrounded by so much appreciation, Feynman felt like an imposter. He spent so much time preparing his lectures that he burned out. When he had some spare time, he would read the Arabian Nights in his office, instead of making progress on any theoretical physics he was hired to investigate. The only thing that made him feel good was the thought that, at least, he was teaching.
Feynman kept on receiving better and better job offers: every time he received a new one, he would feel more depressed. He rejected them, knowing that he could not rise to their expectations. These offers were surely mistakes: the people sending them did not know that Feynman was a fraud and he had nothing new to offer to physics. Or at least, that’s what Feynman thought of himself at the time.
One day he was offered a special position at the Institute for Advanced Studies, an institute where Einstein and Von Neumann had worked. He could choose to spend half the time thinking and theorizing at the Institute and half the time teaching at Princeton.
A “Special exception! A position better than Einstein, even!” — Feynman says in disbelief in the book.
This changed everything for Feynman. In fact, while the other offers could have been mistakes, this one was just so absurd that he made him laugh. And laughing made him change his perspective:
“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 their mistake, not Feynman’s failing. He was who he was, and he had no reason to feel like he was failing for being himself. Even without new ideas, even without producing new insightful physics.
The importance of play
Now that that feeling of guilt and the pressure of performance was released, he could finally think much deeper. And there is a sentence in the book that surprised me:
“Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics.”
This phrase is changing my life. I am a physicist too (but you can apply this to any branch of science or research), and I have periods in which physics disgusts me. I have periods in which I do not have any idea for my research and want to dedicate my time to something else. And I feel guilty because I am surrounded by people that are more passionate, more focused and more achieving than I am.
Feynman tried to remember why he did enjoy physics in the first place. He remembered that he loved to play with physics, to study things for the sake of understanding rather than for proving something to the world. Since he was already burned out, since he was not achieving anything important, he decided that he would be spending time playing with physics once again. With no expectation to solve a complex theoretical equation, or to publish in a journal, or to prove his worth to his colleagues at the University.
The rest is history. One day in the cafeteria at Cornell, someone threw a plate in the air. Feynman decided to study the plate’s motion. It was a funny, interesting physics problem with no practical application that would not contribute to his research career. And while thinking of the wobbling of that plate, he started to compare it with the motion of an electron, and he started playing again with the Dirac equation. And he continued playing with Quantum Electrodynamics. All of them, all the things that were impossible to work and to study when physics disgusted him, came flowing back. The work that awarded him the Nobel Prize all came from playing with a wobbling plate.
Feynman’s lessons in everyday life
Is this the recipe for winning the Nobel Prize? Of course not. But I believe there are a few lessons that should make us reflect.
Have a purpose
At the start of the chapter, Feynman talks about the importance of teaching. Even when he was not productive with new physics theories, he could find his purpose in teaching. It was fundamental to know that he could still play a part in the advancement of society. And I think every one of us should think of a purpose that is beyond our research. Curing cancer is a noble objective, but you might have several streaks in a row of negative results. What will keep you going then, if saving the world is not an option? Of course, it does not have to be teaching. Volunteer, learn a new skill, dedicate time to your hobbies, celebrate the people in your life: remember that your worth is not limited to the single area of focus of your academic research.
One great thing about academic jobs is that often we work in teams. And even if we don’t, social media makes it easy to look around and pick at other people in their labs. It is tempting to fall in the trap to compare ourselves to smart researchers around us. But everyone has their own story, their own background, and their own path. By looking at others, we tend to look at their strengths and their successes and compare them with our weaknesses and failures.
One important practice I have incorporated in my daily life is to compare myself with myself only. When I feel overwhelmed by a feeling of inferiority to my peers, I stop and reflect on my own achievements, on what I learned in the past two years, on how different and better I am now at what I am doing.
You should still look at others to improve yourself and see what skills to master next, but by reflecting mostly on your own path, you will learn to focus on your personal growth.
Finally, play with a wobbling plate. Find a way to remember why you started doing science in the first place. What motivated you? What brings you joy? Look for a way to incorporate play as part of your daily tasks. The reward will come in the long term.
I recently had a discussion with a Principal Software Engineer at Amazon who has had one of the fastest career growth in the company. When asked how he managed to get promoted so quickly, he replied that he focused on nurturing his passions rather than thinking about advancing his career.
Instead of looking for projects that would give him promotion opportunities, he searched for the ones that were fun, which would bring personal growth and that would force him to learn something new. Career advancement came as a result. It was not the goal.
If everything we do has the scope to advance our career, we might miss the opportunity to stumble upon unexpected discoveries or new skill sets that could be useful in the future. Creativity is a fundamental trait that all academics have to some extent — so let’s take advantage of it and find fun ways to play with our science and reinvent ourselves more often.
I hope that next time you will feel down, you can think of these three suggestions I wrote. Or at least picture in your mind a plate wobbling mid-air and how it could bring you the Nobel prize if you have the courage to have fun with it.
This blog post was originally published on the Marie Curie Alumni Association Blog.