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Feynman On The Importance Of Playing (pythonwise.blogspot.com)
190 points by tebeka on Sept 24, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments



I'm a grad student and I regularly run across this quote of Feynman. What strikes me about the quote is that unlike Feynman, I can't always just drop whatever project I'm currently working on and start doing "cool new stuff". I have responsibilities and commitments to my adviser and my colleagues. Even if I'm at a point in my research where starting something new is possible, sources of funding, adviser's expertise and interests etc. still constrain what I can possibly work on.

I guess you can do whatever catches your fancy if you're Richard Feynman. For the rest of us mortals, the challenge is in finding interesting stuff to do within the constraints of the environment we're working in.

The lesson that I take from the quote is that you've got keep yourself interested in whatever you're doing. If getting up in the morning and turning up to the lab seems like a chore, then something needs to change until it isn't.


In the second year of my doctorate, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; between the effects of the illness (hyperglycaemia makes me very sleepy, which makes it hard to concentrate on anything) and learning to manage it (measuring blood glucose levels, figuring out how much of which insulin I needed, dozens of visits with doctors) I found it very difficult to get any work done on the project I was working on.

That's when I wrote FreeBSD Update and bsdiff, and found new algorithms for matching with mismatches and feedback-free file synchronization. In hindsight, that was probably the most productive year of my life so far -- and all because a life-threatening medical condition forced me to step back from the project I was working on.

Now, you might want to avoid getting hospitalized or losing several years of life expectancy; but I still recommend taking at least a few hours a week to explore new directions. If you got hit by lightning, your colleagues would find a way to replace you; if you get hit by a bolt of inspiration and run off to win a Nobel prize, the same applies.


While I sympathize with your specific situation, I can't help but suspect that, in the general case, there's something of a selection bias when it comes to playfulness and autonomy. What I mean is, people who are dedicated to maintaining their playfulness will tend to opt out of systems that don't allow it.

Anecdotally speaking, a lot of the creative and playful people I know seem to spend their careers moving, incrementally of course, from less autonomy to more autonomy. I see these moves happen when people leave a job, accept a new job, start a business, switch majors, transfer universities, or apply to specific grad program.

My point is that it could have been something essential to Feynman's character that led him toward the amount of autonomy he's famous for having had.


your mentioning 'autonomy' triggered off something in my buzzword laden head. Dan Pink came up with the autonomy/mastery/purpose triad in his book.... Cal Newport ( corrupted callings ( http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/04/09/corrupted-callings-the...) ) talks about how you need to GET that Autonomy for yourself through 'following your calling' and levaraging your 'career capital' rightly. hope this helps


He was a professor. With tenure. Lots of those around.


A sentence. Requires. A verb.


Jerry Lettvin seems to agree (http://www.tengerresearch.com/learn/interviews/jeromelettvin...):

"Up to about 1950's there was a kind of freedom in the scientific world — certainly at MIT — that allowed you to play games of all sorts. As two or three decades went by MIT was taken over by managers."

"Managers have wrecked education immensely. The differences between education and research now and what was done 50 years ago is fantastic. There's a profound difference in the freedom to research and question that you could do then, and what you're not allowed to do now. I wouldn't be able to get a job now under any circumstances."

BTW, one of his hacks showed up on HN a while back. (http://apps.ycombinator.com/item?id=2670243)


"... I can't always just drop whatever project I'm currently working on and start doing "cool new stuff". I have responsibilities and commitments to my adviser and my colleagues. ..."

There is a great section on "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman" with Feynman describing burnout. From what I took from this was play as such wasn't time out from commitments but a different way of approaching problems. If you get bored it's a chore but if you play it's not. Read this extract (pg. 157-158) to understand ~ http://pages.swcp.com/pcaskey/feynman.html


Well, obviously not everyone has as much autonomy as Feynman had. Though if this is pre-QED then it's likely that Feynman didn't have quite as much autonomy at this stage as he might be making it sound. But having the correct attitude is key, and I'm sure you can rustle up at least an hour a day to just play with cool new stuff -- grad students certainly have more autonomy than most people.


Hmm.. I think the point is that people can accomplish a lot more when they are playing instead of working. I think the strategy works as long as you produce results that are better than your peers. Sure mgmt/profs will complain how your estimates/proposals are always inaccurate, but ultimately delivering results is what matters. It's a risk of course; certainly the less travelled road, but I don't think you have to be feynman for the strategy to work. You do, however, need the abililty to "not care what other people think," which is part of the title of another one of feynman's books.


That's why I left grad school. You can choose your environment.

Also, academia encourages you to think in terms of the theories/dogma/paradigms of the day, in order to relate to the literature, to get published, and to get funded - as you say (it's a market, but not based on actual need). This is very effective for incremental improvement, but makes it harder to be truly original (which is hard enough already).

Yet, within any environment, there are constraints but also some freedom. There's a choice of approach to that free time: adapting yourself to your environment, or using it for play.


You can do whatever you want in your mind while you're commuting or taking a shower of falling asleep. Nobody is preventing you. There's no funding or responsibilities involved in that.


A lot of the barriers are in your head ;-)


I assume you're trying to say that if I actually asked for something, I might get it. Good point, and I agree!


Well, you said that you can't just 'drop the project' but that's not true. No one is forcing you to work on it but yourself.


A TED talk from a woman (Paula Scher) who knows how to be "serious" without being "solemn" and losing your sense of play: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/paula_scher_gets_serious....


Thanks for the link, it is a fantastic talk and her work is very good.


There's a good anecdote about Feynman and his sense of play in Danny Hillis's keynote for the 2000 Game Developer's Conference (video at http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014862/2000-GDC-Keynote-Dr-Dan...). At 10:50 he talks about asking a physics question with respect to why dry spaghetti shatters a certain way, and what that led to.

There are also some other good stories in that talk, one about Marvin Minsky which immediately follows the Feynman story. The whole thing is worth listening to, I think.


This is what I like about coding. I enjoy trying to solve those small puzzles that make up a full application. The problem sometimes is that the application gets so big and the solutions take too long that it becomes a grind.

I find that when I reach that point, it helps to take a break, look at the problem with a fresh mind, and try to break down the solution into smaller pieces. At that level, some parts become interesting and fun again, even though others might not be. At least you have fun in some of the parts, instead of feeling the grind of the entire thing.


Play is so important, but since it's difficult to measure the value, it gets down-played as "non-productive." While it's obvious when someone is "over-playing," it's just as important to identify when you're "under-playing"...

Some of my biggest breakthroughs on work-related projects have come to me as I've been hiking, taking in a museum with my wife, or pushing my daughter on a swingset.



You can't like to do something unless you can play with it without worrying about the consequences. This is the exact reason why I didn't want to do PhD... and I am glad I still like Physics, Statistics, and Mathematics - because I play with them whenever I want to.


Principal Skinner: Here's a whole box of unsealed envelopes for the PTA!

Bart: You're making me lick envelopes?

P.S.: Oh, licking envelopes can be fun! All you have to do is make a game of it.

Bart: What kind of game?

P.S.: Well, for example, you could see how many you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.

Bart: Sounds like a pretty crappy game to me.

P.S.: Yes, well... Get started.


Sound a lot like something was done at my work. Metrics, just as number of tickets closed, were given. More we do the better :-)


Upvote if you spent at least a couple seconds trying to unhighlight the Feynman text.




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