American quantum physicist Richard Feynman was one of the world’s greatest thinkers. He’s famous for his Nobel Prize-winning work in unraveling quantum mechanics and for his work on the Manhattan Project where he helped design the first atomic bomb — but Feynman not only made his mark as a physics genius but also shined as an educator.
Feynman’s legendary Lectures on Physics are available for free on Caltech’s website, still relevant as ever. But rather than formal lectures, I’d rather focus on sharing some of Feynman’s wisdom — particularly his innovative but practical method for solving huge, challenging problems. Essentially, it’s a blueprint for thinking like a genius — from a genius.
Feynman was a rebel who refused conventional education and groupthink. In other words, he strived for originality and creativity, but never at the expense of accuracy. According to Marvin Minsky at MIT, “When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.”
It is thanks to such thinking that Feynman arrived at the counterintuitive results of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster investigation, in which he had a leading role. Feynman quickly realized that NASA had a disconnect among its engineers and its managers, and he concluded that “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
But keeping a childlike curiosity is only part of the approach. In order to really think like a genius (the kind that is rewarded with a Nobel Prize for fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics) one needs to always have big problems at the back of their minds.
According to MIT professor Gian-Carlo Rota, who is a famous professor in his own right, Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on ‘how to be a genius:’
“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your 12 problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’,” Rota says.
This is very straightforward but extremely powerful advice. It shows that rather than needing a super high IQ, it is possible to tackle very difficult problems with some foresight and mental hacking. Spotting patterns on some abstract test might score you bragging rights, but ultimately it is the ability to solve problems and make the world a better place that is the mark of a real-life genius.