In response to the posts on, “Leadership / Lonely,” a reader writes:
“As far as rookies entering in the conversation, I agree with SC, we can all benefit. Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was keen on staying in contact with students, even after winning the Nobel Prize in physics. Feynman stated: “I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, “At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I am making some contribution” — it’s just psychological.
When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.
Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!
In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer period of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say “I’m teaching my class.”
If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.
The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.
So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.
This is from the book “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” Part of Feynman’s true brilliance was his appreciation of rookies.”
Good point and great example. If you haven’t read “Surely Your Joking,” you should put it on your reading list. The book is probably 20 years old, but it is a great account of one of the geniuses of our times and a person who loved teaching, life and the pursuit of knowledge.
Think. Work. Achieve.
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