I found the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by the eponymous Richard Feynman from a coworker. This list was on a reading list for a strategy or leadership class, which was an interesting topic. I knew of Richard Feynman, but never really knew too much about his work in physics or his personality. But I knew he was famous and was awarded the Nobel Prize. So I sought out to read this book to see what messages of leadership he had.
What I got was a very interesting story about a very interesting man. Each chapter was an anecdote of a different time in his life, from when he was just a kid, to his undergrad days at MIT, to his graduate days in Princeton, to his work with the atomic bomb, to his days as a professor in Cornell, and finally to his days as a professor at Caltech. However, what made the book so intriguing is that he did not often bog the reader down in details of scientific fact (though he did relish in certain scientific discoveries). He talked about traits about himself that helped him have a great life. He talked about his methods of teaching, his methods of motivation, his methods of learning. But most of all, each story showed his natural curiosity not just for physics, but for the world around him. He was someone who was willing to listen and to try things that seemed interesting to him. This curiosity allowed him to have great adventures wherever he went, and it made him a smarter, more well-versed person.
But what did he have to say about leadership or strategy? Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t know if he set out to talk about the qualities of a great leader or the building blocks of a strong strategy. He set out to talk about his experiences, and they were quite a set of experiences. He became a professional artist in that he sold his drawings and was actually commissioned for artwork on multiple occasions. He was a drummer, having played music for ballets and for Carnaval in Brazil. He was a prankster as he showed in his fraternity and as he showed at Los Alamos. He was a safecracker who, just by understanding the mechanics of a lock and the psychology of the safeholder, could break into multiple safes. He was a flirt, where many of his stories seem to include him talking to multitudes of women to varying degrees of success. In fact, the only thing that seemed rarely clear was that he was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist (that is until he bemoaned the fact that he won the Nobel Prize because it didn’t allow him to be known as anything other than a Nobel Prize winner)!
So what did I learn from this book? Be curious about things. Learn things for yourself. Ask questions about the things that go on around you. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Nothing that seems out of the ordinary. But when you see someone as interesting as Richard Feynman tell it, it’s quite an extraordinary experience. Each story he tells has its own sense of intrigue and awe. So I don’t know if the point of this book is to show people that curiosity is key to leadership or there are ways you can understand the world around you that make you a better strategist. But what I do know is that this book showed me that a little curiosity and a willingness to put yourself out there can go a long way.