Mash's Musings

Dos and Dont's of Feynman

Published Apr. 18, 2021

I recently finished reading "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" and found his life to be often profound, sometimes cringe, and consistently wonderful. Here is my ranking of some of his advice.

Words to live by

Above all else, always focus on true understanding. The kind which you get from experiencing, teaching others, and extrapolating beyond the homework. This idea was best summed up by an analogy in which he blasts the Brazilian physics program for its emphasis on volume and rote. Unfortunately, the style of education on blast has become the norm.

Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren't many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek—even the smaller kids in elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, "What were Socrates' ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?"—and the student can't answer. Then he asks the student, "What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?" the student lights up and goes, "Brrrrrrrrr-up"—he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek.

But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!

What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the student can understand.

Try and understand the phenomena itself instead of just the word.

The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything... The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!

Make sure you have a real example to test your understanding.

He thinks I'm following the steps mathematically, but that's not what I'm doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he's trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing.

It is foolish to seek the wisdom of the crowd.

This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of pople who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.

Reflect on the value of what it is you're achieving. It's easy to get caught up in the joy of achievement.

After the [atomic bomb test] went off, there was tremendous excitement at Los Alamos. Everybody had parties, we all ran around. I sat on the end of a jeep and beat drums and so on. But one man, I remember, Bob Wilson, was just sitting there moping.

I said, "What are you moping about?"

He said, "It's a terrible thing that we made."

I said, "But you started it. You got us into it."

You see, what happened to me—what happened to the rest of us—is we started for a good reason, then you're working very hard to accomplish something and it's a pleasure, it's excitement. And you stop thinking, you know; you just stop. Bob Wilson was the only one who was still thinking about it, in that moment.


  1. Make learning fun. You won't get very far otherwise.
  2. "I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world."
  3. Don't overestimate your competition. You never know when the fifty person chemistry team you're competing against turns out to be just Feynman and a bottle-washer.
  4. "Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile."
  5. Be afraid when you find yourself wanting to drink or do drugs spontaneously.
  6. "To be a practical man was, to me, always somehow a positive virtue, and to be 'cultured' or 'intellectual' was not. The first was right, of course, but the second was crazy."
  7. "I've very often made mistakes in physics by thinking the theory isn't as good as it really is, thinking that there are lots of complications that are going to spoil it—an attitude that anything can happen, in spite of what you're pretty sure should happen."
  8. Don't worry about how esteemed anyone is in conversation, worry only about your ability to reason through the matter at hand. That's the type of person who the esteemed surround themselves with.
  9. Feynman on imposter syndrome: "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!"
  10. "When you're young, you have all these things to worry about—should you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up. It's much easier to just plain decide. Never mind—nothing is going to change your mind."
  11. When asked about his experience at an interdisciplinary conference on the "ethics of equality": "This conference was worse than a Rorschach test. There's a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!"
  12. On grading elementary school textbooks: "The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous—they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by 'rigor.' They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.
  13. "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."

Proceed with caution

  1. Pursuing lucid dreaming for sexual excitement.
  2. As a professor, asking students at your university to pose nude for your drawings.
  3. Accepting a brothel owner's commission for a nude drawing.
  4. Testifying in court about the merits of a topless dancing bar.
  5. Going into a sensory deprivation chamber for 2.5 hrs on ketamine.


  1. Crawling around your floor trying to see you can smell your own footprints.
  2. Driving straight back to work after your wife's death and telling your coworker, "She's dead. And how's the program going?"
  3. Getting into bar fights in Buffalo.
  4. Picking up a girl by unironically telling her, "You...are worse than a WHORE!"
  5. Sleeping with someone at her motel after she tells you she's a newlywed on her honeymoon.