An auto-biography of Richard Feynman, available on Amazon. This was a great book, and the format of chronologically-ordered short-stories is very reader-friendly & digestible. I’d recommend it to any person who is at risk of taking themselves too seriously (thanks Barron Caster for lending it to me).

Book Cover

Things to Imitate

  • Dick (Richard) was naturally curious, worked very hard, but didn’t take himself too seriously.
  • He would often find himself in unusual situations, and he would always do small pranks to make things interesting.
  • He ended with a strong emphasis on integrity & always stating uncomfortable truths
  • Many of his most famous pranks were the direct result of him putting orders of magnitude more effort into things that nobody expected.

For instance, he was famous for picking locks & opening safes at Los Alamos during his work on the Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb).

How was he able to do this? It was because he was naturally curious about his own safe, and while investigating how it worked, he realized that when a safe was already open, you could look at the gears & determine at least 2 / 3 numbers for the combination. He then practiced for hours until he could determine these numbers by feel, instead of by sight. Then, for months, whenever he would visit an office with the safe open, he would idly wander that direction & innocently fiddle with the drawer, and immediately write down the 2 numbers when he would leave.

He did all of this with no real end-goal in mind, but was eventually able to open almost any safe for anybody, and here we are talking about it years later.

This book is full of inspiring anecdotes that encourage curiosity, irreverence, and mischief. They grow from innocent (childhood pranks) to interesting (Los Alamos) and eventually seem to be a fundamental part of his character & set him up for a much more interesting life, winning the Nobel Prize, testifying in court on behalf of a topless-bar he frequented, playing significant roles in local bands in Rio at Carnival, and generally doing all sorts of interesting stuff.

Things to Avoid

I respect the matter-of-fact manner in which Dick displayed dark sides of his personality & endeavors. I did get the sense that he presented a 1-sided story & only scratched the surface here, but regardless, the book isn’t all sunshine-and-rainbows, and now I also have a clearer understanding of characteristics to personally avoid:

  • Dick was sort-of a creep, or at least, he was shameless about his love for the female body & promiscuous endeavors.
  • He did get divorced from his 2nd wife, and his reasoning didn’t sound great.

His reasoning was that he only proposed in the first place because he was lonely & in another country, and had fond memories with this person… he proposed remotely, via letter, on sort-of a whim. Then, after actually being married, he remembered all of the reasons why he didn’t propose in-person years ago.

Perhaps this is the darker side of chasing interesting experiences – “interest” tends to be short-term & the cheap laughs don’t last. However, he also held positions at CalTech for a long time, so I don’t think it’s quite that simple – but he did eventually re-marry & found a sustainable relationship.

One perspective is that, in the failed marriage, his proposal was very self-centered. He was lonely & wanted to solve his own problem, but he wasn’t in constant communication with his fiance! Later, at CalTech, he was able to stay long-term because the relationship was mutually beneficial, or symbiotic. This is an imperfect model though, because he specifically stated that he just “decided” to stay at CalTech, partly because of the interesting cross-disciplinary study at the place, but also because he just plain decided & never changed his mind, and offered nothing in the traditional realm of reasoning for the decision.