Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!


Author(s): Richard P. Feynman

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This book is a collection of prominent physicist Richard Feynman’s letters. My impression of it is that he was an ass. A smart ass, but an ass nonetheless.

There’s the way he treated staff (dude, you don’t have to troll the waitrees and you could just give accounting the bloody receipt). Bigger still is the misogyny, like yikes! Angry that giving women stuff doesn’t entitle him to sex, he becomes a pickup artist just to realize “you just ask”, like no shit! Fortunately, he understood how shitty being a dick to get laid is but goes on to hit on students and draw nude portraits of his own female students.

While this sounds like I dislike him, which I kinda do, there were two things I admired about him—his passion for learning and his view on imposter syndrome.

The first is his passion for learning and philosophy on learning. Whether it’s learning to pick locks, different languages, fixing appliances or drawing (his female students topless), I envy is sense of curiosity and willingless to learn. Along with that if his philosophy on learning. Disappointed at Brazillian students learned physics, he made a speech criticizing the Brazilian educational system mainly for its emphasis on rote memorization over understanding, how isolated students are from each other and the university and few avenues for further science exploration. Seems like something applicable to many developing countries and I think it’s worth going through.

The second is what I think is the best response to imposter syndrome:

You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing…It wasn’t a failure on my part that the Institute for Advanced Study expected me to be that good; it was impossible. It was clearly a mistake ­­ and the moment I appreciated the possibility that they might be wrong, I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.

What I take from this is that if people view you more competent than you think you are and you fear being “exposed” as a fraud, that’s not on you. Unless you were lying, they constructed an image of you and compensate you based on that, regardless of if it was based in reality. If you don’t measure up, that’s their problem. It’s an empowering stance—rather than stop yourself from seeking opportunities because you don’t feel qualified, let others decide how “qualified” you are.

So that his biography. If you can get past all the eye-roll worthy moments, it’s a great way to learn about him and some of his work and it might inspire you to get out and learn.