What was Feynman's secret to success?

Jun 1, 2021 0 comments
feynman secret to success

We all know Richard Feynman as a Nobel Prize winner and a beloved teacher whose lectures on physics are enjoyed by millions of students globally. Now, it would be interesting to know how Feynman became so imaginative and curious about the world. Which books did he study from?

When asked whether anybody could become a physicist like him, Feynman candidly replied: "Of course. I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There are no miracle people. It just happens. They got interested in this thing and they learned all this stuff."

The young Richard Feynman was largely influenced by his father, who encouraged him to ask questions and challenge orthodox thinking.

He recalled: "The most important thing I found out from my father is that if you asked any question and pursued it deeply enough, then at the end there was a glorious discovery of a general and beautiful kind."

Feynman also learned very early the difference between knowing and understanding. He would later say: "I don't know what is the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way – by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!"

When he found a subject which interested him, Feynman was not the kind to wait for the right teacher to come along; he was always determined to master it himself.

Like, he self-studied calculus at the age of 14 by reading Calculus for the practical man. This and other books by James Edgar Thompson such as Algebra for the practical man intrigued him.

Richard Feynman's notes calculus
Table of contents. Picture credit: Melinda Baldwin

His notes were quite extensive although less wordy and more visual in nature. He used to draw diagrams with great attention to detail and perhaps it was this early obsession with drawing that led him to discover Feynman diagrams.

So, while Julian Schwinger's formulation of quantum electrodynamics was mathematically superior and far more complex to work with; Feynman's approach, on the other hand, broke the whole thing down in to the simpler diagrams.

He studied really very hard in his Caltech years too. Before giving a lecture, he would prepare late into the night. Feynman's strategy was: To study in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.
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In other words, his ability to consume knowledge was phenomenal. He would teach it to himself and in the process discover tricks and tips to succeed in maths and physics. Thus, in short, his two secrets to success: Self-learning and teaching.

Feynman was a life-long learner and no matter how long it would take him to learn on his own, he would never give up or lose hope and stayed focused till the problem at hand was resolved.

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