If there is a scientist who could teach us about creativity, it must be Richard Feynman. He was a Nobel Laureate who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. But aside from just a scientist, he was also a very creative person. He often found ideas in unusual ways. The idea which earned him the Nobel prize for example, originally came when he watched a plate wobbled in the cafetaria.
In addition, he was also known for his creativity in teaching physics. His famous work, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, makes him regarded as one of the greatest teachers in physics.
1. Be curious about anything
Feynman was curious practically about anything. He was curious about how dreams work, how smart ants are, how to play Brazilian music, how to speak Japanese, how hypnosis works, and so on. He was simply unstoppable. This, of course, is in addition to his deep curiosity in physics itself.
2. Be bold to try something new
Once when he came to Japan for a conference, he was placed in a Western hotel. But, out of his curiosity of the Japanese culture, he boldly asked to be moved to a Japanese hotel. Aside from just staying in the hotel, he did as many things as possible according to the Japanese culture. He also boldly practiced his Japanese in all occasions to the amazement of his colleagues.
3. Be playful
Once Feynman was given offers by some universities. Each offer expected him to accomplish something important in physics. Regarding this he said:
“Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing–it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.”
So eventually he decided:
“I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”
Within a week after this decision, he was in a cafetaria and watched a guy throwing a plate in the air. He watched the wobbling plate, and this gave him an idea which eventually earned him the Nobel prize.
4. The pleasure should be in finding things out
Talking about honors, Feynman said:
“I don’t need prize from others. I already get the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the observation of the people use it. Those are the real things. Honors are unreal for me. I don’t believe in honors. Honors bother me.”
Your pleasure should be in finding things out, not in honors.
5. Be brutally honest
Feynman was brutally honest about what he thought. He openly expressed what he thought without being intimidated by situations or other people’s reputation. As a result, other scientists – even the senior ones – respected him. This attitude also made everyone get to the right solutions sooner.
This was clearly shown when one day at Los Alamos, the famous physicist Niels Bohr asked him to have discussion with only him and his son. Amazed by the fact that the “great Bohr” asked him to discuss, he asked Bohr’s son for explanation:
Then the son told me what happened. The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”
I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition.
6. Get so deep that you forget about anything else
When he was a graduate student at Princeton, he got outstanding audience for his first seminar. The audience includes famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli, great mathematician John von Neumann, and a giant no less than … Albert Einstein. He openly admitted that knowing such audience would attend his first talk really made him pale. But, when he started delivering his talk, he forgot about all his nervousness and seamlessly delivered the talk. He wrote:
I remember very clearly seeing my hands shaking as they were pulling out my notes from a brown envelope.
But then a miracle occurred, as it has occurred again and again in my life, and it’s very lucky for me: the moment I start to think about the physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind–I’m completely immune to being nervous. So after I started to go, I just didn’t know who was in the room. I was only explaining this idea, that’s all.”
When he got into something, he got so deep into it that he forgot about anything else.
7. Provide solid length of time
You need to provide solid, uninterrupted length of time to do creative works. Feynman said:
“While working on physics, it’s very important to be in solid length of time. It needs a lot of concentrating. It’s like building house of cards. It’s a tower, and it’s easy to slip. Once there is interruption, the house of cards fall and you must start all over again. And you may build different house of cards than the first.”
8. Aim for simplicity
Real creativity won’t make things more complex. Instead, it will simplify them. Feynman found it true in physics. He said, “The deeper the law we found in physics, the simpler it becomes.” It should also be the true in other areas. There is beauty in simplicity.
9. Really know what you do
There is a sad phenomenon: many people claim that they know something while they actually don’t:
“Nowadays there are many myths and pseudo-science, where people claims to be “experts” on something without doing the necessary steps. I can’t believe they know it because they haven’t done all the works necessary, the checks necessary and the care necessary.”
It’s not easy to really know something. In fact, it might be much more difficult than you think:
“I know how hard it is to get to really know something; how careful you have to be about checking the experiments; how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something.”
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