I recently discovered “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track,” a 514 page collection of Dr. Richard Feynman’s letters. I’ll try not to turn my blog into a reposting of his letters, but they’re so interesting that I can’t promise not to…
Here’s a couple of letters from students asking Feynman for advice on how to succeed intellectually. It’s impressive that Feynman takes time to write back with advice that is both aspirational and practical.
A pharmacology student asked Feynman for help on being creative:
â€œHow is it possible to reach that high level of preparedness without stifling the creative process that permits the examination of problems in novel ways?â€
In this letter dated Mar. 31, 1975, Feynman responds:
Dear Mr. Stanley,
I donâ€™t know how to answer your question – I see no contradiction. All you have to do is, from time to time – in spite of everything, just try to examine a problem in a novel way.
You wonâ€™t â€œstifle the creative processâ€ if you remember to think from time to time. Donâ€™t you have time to think?
Richard P. Feynman
In a letter dated Sept. 30, 1969, Feynman wrote back to a student who was struggling with physics:
I am sorry, but of course I cannot advise you without knowing you better. Sometimes a situation like yours arises from a little block of misunderstanding that can be found and cleared away. At other times it may be harder to straighten out and really not worth it.
Your 93 in Electricity and Magnetism looks good. But it is not good to hit yourself on a stone wall, either, so what can I say?
I say this. Try to find some friends who are also somewhat interested in physics and try to discuss physics things with them. If you find yourself able to explain things in your own words, so that they are led to understand things from what you say, you are OK.
Soon you will find yourself able to explain things to yourself. Otherwise, give up and plan for a different career. If you canâ€™t find such friends, try to tutor elementary physics, and see how it goes.
Richard P. Feynman
(I wonder how Mr. Wang and Mr. Stanely acted on Feymnan’s advice?)
Again, check out “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track,” if you’re a Feynman fan. At under $10 for the Kindle edition, it’s a great bargain.
Related: a letter from Feynman to his wife