Richard Feynman

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

480px-richard-feynman

Richard Feynman is a national treasure. I write is even though he passed away in 1988. Feynman may be in the first generation whose videos will live on in perpetuity. Fitting for someone who repaired radios during the depression. Books like, What Do You Care What Other People Think – which is where we will draw our notes from – are great, but there’s something about hearing a person’s voice, Feynman’s especially. He speaks – – no, Feynman doesn’t speak. Feynman declares, explains, and expounds.

Learn from Feynman. Watch him on YouTube. Or, read my notes.

  1. The name of the thing.
  2. Make it fun.
  3. Favor the simple.
  4. Doubt Descartes.

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

The book is worth it for just this story. Feynman explains how his father taught him the difference the name and the thing. People who know the name of the thing have only a superficial knowledge. Feynman saw this when his cousin studied the rules of algebra. “The rules had been invented so that the children who have to study algebra can all pass it and that’s why my cousin was never able to do algebra.”

Better is a deep understanding. Grant Oliphant has it for charities. Bill Belichick has it for football. Sam Hinkie and Phil Jackson for basketball. Yvon Chouinard for apparel. Charlie Munger puts it this way for investing, you better know the other side’s position better than they do.

“I’m always looking like a child for the wonders I know I’m going to find. Maybe not every time but every once in a while.”

One way to better solve problems is to not think of them as problems. Reframe them.

Danny Meyer wrote that when starting restaurants, “It was oddly exciting to manufacture challenges and surmount them.” In Superforecasting, Phillip Tetlock points out that super forecasters displayed Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Walter Mischel found similar things in his study (The Marshmallow Test). Ray Dalio writes about this in Principles: “I learned that there is an incredible beauty to mistakes, because embedded in each mistake is a puzzle, and a gem that I could get if I solved it.”

“When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real I wasn’t upset. Rather, I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon to explain how so many children all over the world got presents on the same night. The story had been getting pretty complicated, it was getting out of hand.”

Occam’s Razor is the problem-solving principle that the simplest explanation is probably the best.  In Daniel Levitin’s delightful A Field Guide To Lies I scribbled this principle throughout my notes.

Another quote of Feynman’s reminded me of Levitin’s book. This is from his investigation of the Challenger explosion.

“I tried to make sense out of that number (1 in 100,000)…that means you could fly the shuttle every day for an average of three hundred years between accidents. Every day, one flight, for three hundred years.”

Levitin encourages the reader to ask, ‘Does this make sense?’ and ‘Is it even possible?’ Pair this with some work from Nassim Taleb. In this video Taleb clarifies the difference between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In Mediocristan we can use predictive models for things like ladder deaths. In Extremistan we should not use predictive models for things like Ebola outbreaks.

 

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Ebola figures from Penn State Epidemics MOOC

Rare events are hard – impossible? – to model as if your life depended on it.  Related to that…

“‘Impossible!’ I said, without stopping to think I was doubting the great Descartes. It was a reaction I learned from my father. Have no respect whatsoever for authority. Forget who said it and instead look at where he starts at and where he ends up and ask yourself, ‘Is it reasonable?’”

It was this part of the book where I thought the narrator of the audiobook was earning his keep. I felt Feynman’s energy! Here again is a lesson we’ve seen. To use Levitin’s term, this is an “O.K. Name.” When research comes out from Harvard or when Bill Gates makes a video or when Oprah has a favorite thing it’s a case of the O.K. Name.

Remember that our brains are lazy, especially when it comes to critical thinking. Tetlock writes that we are experts at a mental bait and switch. Rather than answer the harder question, we ask, ‘is this someone I can trust?’. But we act is if we had done the heavy lifting.

One way to exercise the mind is to tackle Chesterton fences.

  • Danny Meyer asks, “who wrote the rule that…?”
  • David Heinemeier Hansson asks, “why the hell not?”
  • Yvon Chouinard said to study the juvenile delinquent, that’s someone that’s not happy about the way the world is.

People change the world because they don’t like the world they see. They aren’t people with ‘respect for authority.’

“I thought one should have the attitude of ‘What do you care what other people think?’ We should listen to other people’s opinions and take them into account. Then if they don’t make sense and we think they’re wrong then that’s that.”

Ahh. Feynman is great.

Thanks for reading.

 

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4 thoughts on “Richard Feynman”

  1. Also, it’s worth pulling a play from his book — Feynman Diagrams. i.e. first learn something, then reduce it; if it’s still unwieldy, create tools that make it simple to use.

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    1. Had to google what Feynman diagrams are. That’s a good extension, thinking about how I can expand this to non-physics areas.

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      1. It’s similar to Munger’s models… where Munger built a list of high-explanatory power models into an intellectual tool that he could bring to bear on any problem he faced.

        However, while Munger has made it easy for himself to use his tools, he has not yet been able to pull off what Feynman did.

        On a related note, Boyd also did something similar with his OODA loop — it’s easy to remember, explain, and use. And while one could argue that’s more marketing than anything else, we can compare that to Rickover — who didn’t make a similar mind-sharing tool….

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