But What For Newsletter - No. 013

Hanoi Hilton, the Volunteer, One Thing, Courage, Writing & Thinking for Yourself

Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Sunday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material that I think is worth reading. Occasionally, I share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ writings, on Tuesdays. If you enjoy our newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues or follow me on Twitter.

As always, any suggested materials for our Sunday newsletter can be sent to [email protected] Thank you!

Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

A Stoic Philosopher in a Hanoi Prison

No new article last week (sorry!); however, this one from a while back did get picked up on Reddit last week and I thought it was worth re-linking for our recent subscribers

Stockdale had no reason to think that the day’s mission was to be anything unique.

The flight in September 1965 was part of his third combat tour of North Vietnam, serving as Wing Commander of the aircraft carrier Oriskany. Despite his misgivings about the purpose of him being in Vietnam, he was a competent and skilled career fighter pilot. Nothing suggested he shouldn’t expect to make it back home that day – let alone that decade.

But sometimes life deals you a lousy hand, and it dealt Stockdale quite an unfair one.

While trying to aid trapped American soldiers on the ground, he was suddenly falling out of the sky and hurtling towards a small Vietnamese village. His plane was on fire, the control system shot out by North Vietnamese who had used the grounded soldiers as bait, and he didn’t have much choice beyond punching out of the plane.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz [Book]

  • Takeaway: It is better to fail to reach a goal that does something for others than it is to achieve one which only benefits you

Those who entered the hospital as patients rarely left alive. Besides, most of his recruits were in worse shape than he was. “How would it have looked if just once I had complained that I felt bad .  .  . or that I was weak .  .  . and that I was so overwhelmed with work that I was looking for anything to save myself?” he wrote later. “It was obvious that then I would be unable to inspire anyone else or require anything of them.”

He had been a prisoner for two years and lost almost a hundred men to executions, phenol injections, and sickness over the past year, many, like Stasiek, his closest collaborators. He wasn’t prepared to launch an uprising and risk a bloodbath and yet at the same time the Nazis’ atrocities were escalating at an incredible rate. It was obvious that the Germans meant to kill every Jew they could lay their hands on.

Witold nearly laughed in shock. The men standing with him looked as though they had been punched. Their reports, the atrocities—their lives—dismissed with a shrug [by word from outside the camp that no help was being sent, despite the numerous reports of atrocities Witold and his men managed to smuggle out of the camp]. Stanisław bid his farewell and left Witold with his mind racing over what to do. He couldn’t go on pretending that the uprising was imminent or ask his men to die in vain without Warsaw’s support. But closing down the possibility created a new dilemma. The mission he’d asked each man to risk his life for was suddenly meaningless. Morale was already fragile. Absent a purpose, he worried that the underground would fracture.

“By my death,” he [Szmul Zygielbojm] said, “I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.”

Just One Thing or Every Single Thing? [Link]

  • Takeaway: Make sure you focus on being good at one thing before moving on to something else - but also make sure that one thing is worth being good at

In investing, and in life, the more extraordinary results are, the more likely they are to be the result of getting literally one thing right. Google beat Yahoo because Yahoo had everything—sub-portals devoted to news, entertainment, sports, stocks, an email service, and a search engine—while Google spent all its early efforts on exactly one thing, making the best possible search engine. Early Facebook had a minimalist interface compared to other search engines, and a more restrictive approach to identity, but it was the one place online that was most likely to have a digital representation of your real-world friends…

Even when the outputs don’t follow this extreme distribution, you can step back one level and find a single determining factor... Stephen King and Danielle Steel show, in an entirely different domain, that while the N of publications is large enough that no one book defines their careers, their book production function, with an N of 1, is career-defining…

Courage Under Fire [Link]

  • Takeaway: The best way to teach others is to live what you teach

I had been in the navy for twenty years and scarcely ever out of a cockpit. In 1962, I began my second year of studying international relations so I could become a strategic planner in the Pentagon. But my heart wasn’t in it… I knew how political systems operated; I had been beating systems for years.

Then, in what we call a “feel out pass” in stunt flying, I cruised into Stanford’s philosophy corner one winter morning. I was gray-haired and in civilian clothes. A voice boomed out of an office, “Can I help you?” The speaker was Philip Rhinelander, dean of Humanities and Sciences, who taught Philosophy… At first he thought I was a professor, but… within fifteen minutes we’d agreed that I would enter his two-term course…

Did I preach these things in [that Vietnamese] prison? Certainly not. You soon learned that if the guy next door was doing okay, that meant that he had all his philosophical ducks lined up in his own way. You soon realized that when you dared to spout high-minded philosophical suggestions through the wall, you always got a very reluctant response.

No, I never tapped or mentioned Stoicism once. But some sharp guys read the signs in my actions

The Purpose of Writing [Link]

  • Takeaway: When you write, first and foremost you are writing for yourself

Writing clarifies and sharpens your thoughts in a way that is superior to merely articulating them in a conversation. It allows you to look at your ideas more objectively, almost as if they were from another person. You can then examine them and think about if what you have written down is really true.

However, more often than discovering that your ideas are wrong, you will discover something different: that you do not know what you think. Sure, you have some vague idea, and you believe that there is a chain of reasoning that leads to a certain conclusion. But what you will discover is that this chain of reasoning is mostly not existent. At best, it has many holes and maybe leads not where you think it does. This discovery is, of course, very unpleasant and sometimes even painful. In a sense, you have lied to yourself by thinking you have thought through this specific topic when, in reality, you have only copied the opinion of someone else.

This process requires an immense amount of honesty because nobody likes to feel stupid. Either you do not know what you think, in which case you feel stupid. Or it turns out that what you believed to be your opinion does not really make sense, is logically inconsistent, and mostly copied from someone else, in which case you feel stupid as well. However, the reward for all this exhausting work is clarity and simplicity… 

How to Think For Yourself [Link]

  • Takeaway: Spending time with people who are different from you can make you more you

It matters a lot who you surround yourself with. If you're surrounded by conventional-minded people, it will constrain which ideas you can express, and that in turn will constrain which ideas you have. But if you surround yourself with independent-minded people, you'll have the opposite experience: hearing other people say surprising things will encourage you to, and to think of more…

It also works to go in the other direction: as well as cultivating a small collection of independent-minded friends, to try to meet as many different types of people as you can. It will decrease the influence of your immediate peers if you have several other groups of peers. Plus if you're part of several different worlds, you can often import ideas from one to another…

You can expand the source of influences in time as well as space, by reading history. When I read history I do it not just to learn what happened, but to try to get inside the heads of people who lived in the past. How did things look to them? This is hard to do, but worth the effort for the same reason it's worth traveling far to triangulate a point…

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.12, translation by Robin Hard

“But I want whatever I wish to happen indeed to happen, regardless of how I arrive at that wish.”

You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind! Don't you know that freedom is a precious and admirable thing? But for me to desire arbitrarily that things should happen as I arbitrarily decide risks being not merely far from admirable, but even exceedingly reprehensible.

Consider, now, how do we proceed when it comes to writing? Do I write the name ‘Dion’ just as I wish? Of course not, I'm taught to want to write it as it ought to be written. And when it comes to music? The same applies. And in general, with regard to any of the arts and sciences? The same applies. Otherwise, there would be no point in trying to gain knowledge of anything, if it could be adapted to fit everyone's individual wishes.

Is it, then, only in this most grave and important matter, that of freedom, that it is possible for me to desire according to my whim? In no way, but rather true education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does.

It is with this order of things in mind that we should approach our education, and not so as to change the existing order of things (for that has not been permitted to us, nor would it be better that it should be), but rather, things around us being as they are and as their nature dictates, so that we for our part may keep our will in harmony with whatever comes to pass.

Well then, what have they [the gods] made you accountable for? Only for what lies within your power, the right use of your impressions. Why do you charge yourself, then, with things for which you’re not accountable? You’re merely creating trouble for yourself.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.

But What For Newsletter - No. 012

Feynman, the Volunteer, Military History, Maya Angelou, the 97-year-old Lobsterman and Fear

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.

If you enjoy our newsletter, why not share it with a few friends or colleagues?

Any suggested materials for our Sunday newsletter can be sent to [email protected] Thank you!

Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

Richard Feynman | The Curious Character & Bongo-Playing Physicist

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool!

I don’t like honors… I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.

The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to…. No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz [Book]

  • Takeaway: The things in life that are worth doing don’t have you at the center of them

“Your Poland is dead forever, and now you are going to pay for your crimes through work,” he declared. “Look there, at the chimney. Look!” He pointed toward a building hidden by the row of barracks. 23 “This is the crematory. Three thousand degrees of heat. The chimney is your only way to freedom.”

Suddenly, he felt he might cry at the sharp reminder that life continued, indifferent to their suffering. Knowing that he’d left his own family in relative safety in Ostrów Mazowiecka was no comfort now that he knew this abhorrent world existed and that at any moment Maria [his wife] might be caught in some roundup and brought to Auschwitz or a place like it. Then he thought of the SS man whose flat they were renovating, how he talked excitedly about his wife’s arrival, no doubt imagining her joy when she saw the new kitchen. Outside the camp this SS officer appeared to be a respectable man, but once he crossed its threshold he was a sadistic murderer. The fact that he could inhabit both worlds at once seemed most monstrous of all.

As the Dutch theologian Willem Visser ’t Hooft wrote after the war, “People could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror, and .  .  . did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it.” It was possible, Hooft concluded, to live in the “twilight between knowing and not knowing.”

“I have listened to many confessions of my friends before their deaths,” he wrote around then. “They all reacted in the same unexpected manner: they regretted they hadn’t given enough to other people, of their hearts, of the truth .  .  . the only thing that remained after them on Earth, the only thing that was positive and had a lasting value, was what they could give of themselves to others.

Collections: Why Military History? [Link]

  • Takeaway: Don’t neglect to consider that which is uncomfortable

Frequently military history, because it has a large enthusiast and amateur audience, is regarded as an amateur field (something which is not helped by publishers who push quite out reams of quite frankly substandard works of this sort) lacking in sophistication, which is not accurate, but often believed. And perhaps most often, in my experience, these opinions serve as cover for a deeper conviction that studying militaries and warfare is icky and only done by people who like war…

Which brings us to the third reason why we study war and conflict: so that we might have less of it. It should be little surprise that, more than most other areas of history, the study of war is replete with veterans of conflict (if I had to guess very roughly, I’d say about half or so of academic military historians seem to have military experience? perhaps a little bit less?). In speaking, arguing and writing with them I find the common refrain that, as people who experienced war, they do not study it because they like war. Rather military historians study conflict in the same way that doctors study disease; no one assumes that doctors like diseases, quite the opposite…

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” This is the sad truth that makes military history a necessary, important discipline. It is essential both for understanding our past and our present. Consequently, it is not to be neglected merely because it is uncomfortable.

Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers [Link]

  • Takeaway: Examine what a person does, not who they are

You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up the next morning with the job still to be done. SSo you start all over again

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on…

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie… that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it…

Life Lessons from a 97-Year-Old Lobsterman [Link]

  • Takeaway: If you love what you do, you might find you have enough of everything else

If the definition of a true outdoorsman is spending more of your life braving the elements than seeking shelter from them, lobsterman John Olson may be the finest example alive…

“My mother wanted me to work in an office,” he says, nudging the boat close to an orange and black buoy bobbing off Griffin Island in midcoast Maine. “But that wasn’t for me.” He snags the buoy with a duct-taped gaff, and the hydraulic hauler whines as it lifts a wire trap with a tangle of lobsters inside.

“How do you know where to find them?” I ask.

“It’s all in here,” John says, pointing a yellow-gloved hand to his head, which, after 97 years, is still covered by a respectable amount of gray hair. “I been over this bottom so many times, it’s imprinted.

Fear Setting [Link]

  • Takeaway: Fear can distort your thinking and inhibit action, so take time to understand what you are afraid of - both in the near-term and long-term

“Run! Ruuuuuuuuuun!” Hans didn’t speak Portuguese, but the meaning was clear enough—haul ass. His sneakers gripped firmly on the jagged rock, and he drove his chest forward toward 3,000 feet of nothing.

He had realized something while arcing in slow circles toward the earth—risks weren’t that scary once you took them… Hans didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but he had tasted it…

I do an exercise called “fear-setting” at least once a quarter, often once a month. It is the most powerful exercise I do. Fear-setting has produced my biggest business and personal successes, as well as repeatedly helped me to avoid catastrophic mistakes…

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.11, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: Don’t blame others for your mistake - even if they misled you - but rather focus on how you can utilize better judgment in the future

In a word, it is neither death, nor exile, nor distress, nor anything else of that kind, that causes us to do something or not to do it, but rather our judgements and opinions

So in each case, as the causes are, so also are the effects. From this day forth, then, whenever we fail to act rightly, we'll ascribe the blame to nothing other than the judgement that led us to act as we did… In like fashion, we will also ascribe what we do rightly to the same cause.

And no longer will we blame slave, or neighbour, or wife, or children as being responsible for any of our ills, since we're now convinced that unless we judge things to be of a certain nature, we don't carry out the actions that follow from that judgement. Now when it comes to forming a judgement, or not forming one, we're the masters of that, and not things outside ourselves.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.


But What For Newsletter - No. 011

Feynman, Good Profit, Yes to Life, the Value of Coders, Wealth as a Byproduct and Board Games Getting Boring

If you enjoy our newsletter, why not share it with a few friends or colleagues?

Any suggested materials for our Sunday newsletter can be sent to [email protected] Thank you!

Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

Richard Feynman: How to Learn Anything Well

The next Monday we were playing in a field, and a kid said to me, “What’s that bird? Do you know the name of that bird?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” He said, “Well, it is a brown‑throated thrush.” He said, “Your father doesn’t teach you anything.”

But my father had already taught me about the names of birds. Once we walked, and he said, “That is a brown-throated thrush. In German it is called the Pfleegel flügel. In Chinese it is called Keewontong. In Japanese a Towhatowharra”, and so on.

And when you know all the names of that bird in every language, you know nothing, know absolutely nothing, about the bird… So I had learned already that names don’t constitute knowledge…

We have to learn that these are the kinds of disciplines in the field of science that you have to learn – to know when you know, and when you don’t know, and what it is you know, and what it is you don’t know.

You’ve got to be very careful not to confuse yourself.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Good Profit [Book]

[You can’t turn around every mistake] Rather than squandering our scarest resource (talent) trying to save a marginal business, we’ve learned to focus that resource on opportunities with real potential.

[The importance of the right incentives] When Soviet nail factories had their output measured by weight, they tended to make big, heavy nails, even if those big heavy nails sat unsold on the shelves while the country was crying out for small nails.

[Knowing the name of something tells you nothing] I confused articulate conceptual knowledge with knowledge of how to apply the concepts to get results. In other words, the team we assembled was much better at articulating the concepts than practicing them.

[A victim mentality won’t help you] When we find they[the competition] are better, we should never rationalize that it’s because of factors we can’t control. This self-protective thinking happens quite often and can be disastrous because it justifies inaction. Overcoming this tendency requires the humility to admit you haven’t kept up, as well as having senior leaders who refuse to accept any excuse.

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything [Book]

  • Takeaway: The goal doesn’t have to be in the future, it can be the moment you are in right now

It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning — insofar as we can answer life’s specific questions responsibly — we can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings: in our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good. Should I perhaps try to explain for you with some hackneyed phrase how and why experiencing beauty can make life meaningful?

I prefer to confine myself to the following thought experiment: imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favorite symphony, and your favorite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine; and now imagine that it would be possible (something that is psychologically so impossible) for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning.

I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: “It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!

Are Coders Worth It? [Link]

  • Takeaway: It is important to find meaning in what you choose to do, but it is also important to do something valuable to others

We call ourselves web developers, software engineers, builders, entrepreneurs, innovators. We’re celebrated, we capture a lot of wealth and attention and talent. We’ve become a vortex on a par with Wall Street for precocious college grads. But we’re not making the self-driving car. We’re not making a smarter pill bottle. Most of what we’re doing, in fact, is putting boxes on a page. Users put words and pictures into one box; we store that stuff in a database; and then out it comes into another box.

We fill our days with the humdrum upkeep of these boxes: we change the colors; we add a link to let you edit some text; we track how far you scroll down the page; we allow you to log in with your Twitter account; we improve search results; we fix a bug where uploading a picture would sometimes never finish…

I don’t have the courage to say no to that. I have failed so far to escape the sweep of this cheap and parochial thing, and it’s because I’m afraid. I am an awfully mediocre programmer — but, still, I have a secure future. More than that, I have a place at the table. In the mornings I wake up knowing that I make something people want. I know this because of all the money they give me.

Wealth: The Toxic Byproduct [Link]

  • Takeaway: What matters is what you create for others

Suppose one day you wake up to find a large pile of Congolese francs heaped on your living room coffee table.

That's not all. You also find that your front door, previously a single slab of wood, is now divided horizontally into top and bottom halves (a so-called Dutch door). When you use the doorknob, both pieces move together, opening out onto your front porch as usual. But you can open just the top half, separately, like a window. And when you do, it pushes open to reveal the unfamiliar sights and sounds of a Congolese outdoor market.

Before you have time to object to this strange new reality, a man approaches your window. He's carrying a sack of grain over his shoulder and calling out to you. Luckily you speak enough French to understand him. He's asking if you'd like to buy his grain for 500 francs.

What should you do?

Board to Death: How Scrabble Blew Its Big Moment [Link]

  • Takeaway: It’s fine to do things that don’t increase the balance of your bank account

“I know we’ve had our glory days,” Hopkins says, but “the game is in a healthy place because of the children.”

Children like Heather Jordan. Despite being the advanced division’s only solo entrant, the 15-year-old blows away the competition at the school finals. But this was a predictable result. Hopkins knew Heather had that special Scrabble drive when he saw her studying words on the trolley ride home from a club meeting.

As Heather accepts her trophy, her father, Eric, watches nearby with pride. Just a few months earlier, after attending her first NASPA tournament, she’d sent him a text: “I keep losing. Why do I enjoy it so much?” Obsessed as she may be, though, Eric says she is also realistic about the game’s limitations, starting with the obvious. No one plays Scrabble for a living. The money just isn’t there.

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.10, translation by Robin Hard

If we had devoted the same unsparing effort to our own work as the senators at Rome have in achieving what they have set their mind on, perhaps we too might have achieved something. I know a man older than myself who is now the official who superintends the grain supply at Rome.

While he was passing through this town on his journey back from exile, I recall what things he said to me as he denounced his former way of life, and declared that from now on, after he got back, he would concern himself with nothing other than living the rest of his life in peace and calm— ‘For how little time is now left to me!’

To which I replied, ‘No, you won't do that, but as soon as you get the slightest whiff of Rome, you'll forget every word of it.’ I added that if he were granted the least access to the palace, he would push his way in, with a joyful heart and offering up thanks to the gods.

‘If you ever find me putting one foot inside the palace, Epictetus,’ he replied, ‘then think what you like of me.’

And what do you suppose he did? Before he even arrived in Rome, he was met with dispatches from Caesar; on receiving them, he forgot all that he had previously intended, and from that moment on he never ceased from heaping one activity on top of another. How I wish that I could be standing beside him now to remind him of what he said while he was passing through and tell him, ‘I've proved to be a much shrewder prophet than you!’

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.


Takeaway Tuesday - Richard Feynman & The Feynman Learning Technique

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. - Richard Feynman

Takeaway Tuesday on The Feynman Learning Technique, inspired by Richard P. Feynman

If you enjoy our newsletter, why not share it with a few friends or colleagues?

Any suggested materials for our Sunday newsletter can be sent to [email protected] Thank you!

Richard P. Feynman (1918 - 1988) was an American theoretical physicist often referred to as “The Great Explainer” due to his ability to make complex topics understandable. While he won the Nobel Price in Physics in 1965 for his work developing quantum electrodynamics, today he is also famous for his forays into bongo drum playing, Tuvan throat singing, and safe cracking.

It is 1941 and you have a problem. While you haven’t yet gotten around to defining quantum electrodynamics or even started your work helping design the atomic bomb, you are nearing the end of your second year of graduate school. This means you have an exam soon.

That’s OK though. You know what to do. After all, you have made it this far already. You just do what you always do - you pull out a notebook. And not just any notebook, but one especially well-prepared for the task at hand. Namely, a blank one.

A fitting title is needed for the first page. You think for a moment, smiling to yourself as you creatively run through all the options you could pick. But, alas, none of them seem right. You opt for the tried-and-true but never worn out choice. You write it down.

You are Richard P. Feynman, arguably the brightest young physics mind in the United States at the time, and you have just written “Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About” on the title page.

The Feynman Learning Technique

Feynman realized early on that people can trick themselves into believing they understand something more deeply than they truly do. This self-delusion often comes from an earnest effort focused on learning the wrong thing - learning the name of something as opposed to that which it truly is.

The next Monday we were playing in a field, and a kid said to me, “What's that bird? Do you know the name of that bird?” I said, “I haven't the slightest idea.” He said, “Well, it is a brown‑throated thrush.” He said, “Your father doesn’t teach you anything.”

But my father had already taught me about the names of birds. Once we walked, and he said, “That is a brown-throated thrush. In German it is called the Pfleegel flügel. In Chinese it is called Keewontong. In Japanese a Towhatowharra”, and so on.

And when you know all the names of that bird in every language, you know nothing, know absolutely nothing, about the bird… So I had learned already that names don’t constitute knowledge…

We have to learn that these are the kinds of disciplines in the field of science that you have to learn – to know when you know, and when you don’t know, and what it is you know, and what it is you don't know.

You’ve got to be very careful not to confuse yourself.

Understanding this, Feynman was very careful to not delude himself into a superficial understanding of important topics. He developed a more holistic, multidisciplinary approach to learning that served him well throughout his career. While never specifically stated by Feynman as a set technique with steps, Feynman loved sharing with others enough that we can piece together his teachings, along with stories of his life, to better understand how he naturally approached learning anything new.

This combination of ideas, which different authors outline slightly differently but are holistically the same, is known as The Feynman Learning Technique.

So how does this technique actually work?

Step 1: Whatever you are trying to learn, take a stab at learning it

The way that Feynman learned and internalized new ideas was to first attack them head on the old fashioned way - by reading and thinking through them. The key emphasis in that sentence is on the word thinking. Famously, Feynman would read the abstract of a scientific paper, and before reading any further, attempt to solve the stated problem. Only then would he read through the rest of the paper. He was focused on mentally wrestling with an idea as opposed to letting someone else walk him to the final answer.

So the first step in the process is to pick something that you need (or better yet, desire) to learn and spend time with the new idea until you have internalized it to the best of your ability.

Now, you might aptly question, “What is this hogwash? Step 1 of this supposed wonderfully useful learning technique is to learn something? I’m out.”

Stop your swining and don’t worry - there is more to it than that. Which brings us to the second step.

Step 2: Write everything down, in as simple a way as possible, as if you were preparing a lecture for an inquisitive child

This is where the notebook comes in. Open it. Close everything else.

From memory, write down everything you can about what you are trying to learn as if you were preparing to teach it to someone else. Preferably, pretend you are planning to teach the topic to a child - the more you can simplify your language and the ideas, the more likely you are to find areas where you are hiding behind the name of something as opposed to true understanding.

Test it this way: You say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog's motion.” You cannot. So you learned nothing about science. That may be all right. You may not want to learn something about science right away.

You have to learn definitions. But for the very first lesson, is that not possibly destructive?

At this point, you will probably notice that there are things that you are missing or don’t remember as well as you thought you did. Write those items down - make a list of all the things you don’t know.

Now open everything back up and search out the answers to those items. Get to a point where you feel like you have conveyed what is required for your theoretical student to deeply understand the topic.

Step 3: Ask questions as if you were a child to identify gaps in your understanding

Now you need to channel your inner child. Feynman’s neverending child-like curiosity is often viewed as the core, natural foundation that differentiated Feynman from other equally intelligent individuals. As children are wont to do, start questioning every line you have written down.

If we take a concept - for example, the calculation of net present value. Why do we discount cash received in the future? How do you choose a discount rate? Can the rate change between people? Should it change over time? Can you use a different discount rate in different periods? How many years of cash do you think about? How do you determine what those cash numbers will be in the future? What happens if cash is negative in the future? And so on.

If you are seeking Feynman-level understanding, it is not enough to merely know the math formula as that is akin to just knowing the name of something. You need to understand the information qualitatively and quantitatively supporting the formula - only then should you feel confident in your understanding.

As you write out these new questions, you’ll find you can answer some of these. Maybe even most of these. However, at some point, you will run out of answers for the incessant child - write all these things down as items you “don’t know about.” Then go find the answers to these new topics.

By doing this, you are strengthening the foundation upon which your primary new learnings are ingrained in your head.

But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens? For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out, slipped on the ice, and broke her hip. That satisfies people. It satisfies, but it wouldn't satisfy someone who came from another planet and who knew nothing about why when you break your hip do you go to the hospital…

And you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications. If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions. For example, if you go, “Why did she slip on the ice?” Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that, no problem. But you ask why is ice slippery? That’s kinda curious. Ice is extremely slippery. It's very interesting. You say, how does it work? You could either say, “I’m satisfied that you’ve answered me. Ice is slippery; that explains it,” or you could go on and say, “Why is ice slippery?” and then you're involved with something, because there aren't many things as slippery as ice...

A solid that’s so slippery? Because it is, in the case of ice, when you stand on it (they say) momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so you get a sort of instantaneous water surface on which you're slipping. Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes, so the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it. It's capable of melting, but other substances get cracked when they're freezing, and when you push them they're satisfied to be solid.

Why does water expand when it freezes and other substances don’t? I’m not answering your question, but I'm telling you how difficult the why question is. You have to know what it is that you're permitted to understand and allow to be understood and known, and what it is you're not. You'll notice, in this example, that the more I ask why, the deeper a thing is, the more interesting it gets. We could even go further and say, “Why did she fall down when she slipped?” It has to do with gravity, involves all the planets and everything else. Nevermind! It goes on and on.

Step 4: Repeat step 3 until the questioning adds no incremental value

Now you iterate with yourself. After you have written down the “things I don’t know about,” open the books again - and maybe you have to find new books - and review those items. Get to the point where you can, for each new item you don’t currently know, incorporate these new items into the same lecture for the theoretical student. Continue to do this from memory with the new books closed.

Once that is done, you need to again bring out your inner child and question your own lecture. What questions could a child still ask - especially about the newest parts of your lecture? Can you answer those? Is there a gap in your understanding?

This back and forth with yourself is how Feynman defined “studying” and “working hard.” This intellectual curiosity and willingness to break down complicated topics to expose your own ignorance was how he approached most new things in life. It was through this time and effort that he learned and shared everything that he did, and those of us who are not destined to earn a Noble Prize can still put the same ideas to good use.

You asked me if an ordinary person, by studying hard, would get to be able to imagine these things like I imagine.

Of course! I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There’s no miracle people. It just happens that they got interested in this thing, and they learned all this stuff. They’re just people. There’s no [science] talent - a special miracle ability to understand quantum mechanics or a miracle ability to imagine electromagnetic fields that comes without practice and reading and learning and study.

So, if you say you take an ordinary person who’s willing to devote a great deal of time and study on work and thinking and mathematics and time - then he’s become a scientist.


  1. Whatever you are trying to learn, take a stab at learning it

  2. Write everything down, in as simple a way as possible, as if you were preparing a lecture for an inquisitive child

  3. Ask questions as if you were a child to identify gaps in your understanding

  4. Repeat step 3 until the questioning adds no incremental value

While not stated explicitly by the man himself, the Feynman Learning Technique finds its inspiration in the life of Richard Feynman. He was constantly learning, teaching, tearing apart, and then reorganizing the various things he found interesting.

Because of this and his good-hearted, tireless sharing of the outcomes with others, Feynman is remembered not only for his work in physics but even more so for the beautiful mind and quirky personality that made him who he was.

Take care and good luck this week,

— EJ

Originally posted on butwhatfor.com

But What For? - For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.


But What For Newsletter - No. 010

Good Omens, Why There is Something, Multiple Paths, Secret Spies and Abe Lincoln

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(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Good Omens [Book]

  • Takeaway: Got to love Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

That was the trouble. Witchfinders didn’t get paid by the hour. Any witchfinder that spent a week examining the local crones and then told the mayor, “Well done, not a pointy hat among the lot of them,” would get a fulsome thanks, a bowl of soup and a meaningful goodbye.

So in order to turn a profit, Hopkins had to find a remarkable number of witches. This made him more than a little unpopular with village counsels.

“It's like you said the other day,” said Adam. “You grow up readin' about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus' when you think the world's full of amazin' things, they tell you it's really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nucular waste hangin' about for millions of years. 'Snot worth growin' up for, if you ask my opinion.”

Many phenomena - wars, plagues, sudden audits - have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing [Book]

  • Takeaway: Follow the evidence and keep an open mind, especially when it doesn’t fit into your current worldview

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be as willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beautify or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models

Depending on your perspective, then, either every place is the center of the universe or no place is. It doesn’t matter.

I usually never get that far in my discussion, of course, because data rarely impress people who have decided in advance that something is wrong with the picture.

By forgetting that most of the time nothing of note occurs during the day, we then misread the nature of probability when something unusual does occur: among any sufficiently large number of events, something unusual is bound to happen just by accident.

The Multi-Path Career [Link]

  • Takeaway: It usually takes some luck to have a better than average result, so it can be good to have several irons in the fire

From executives to individual contributors, we all make one career bet at a time.

This is poor “portfolio theory” (to use a phrase from investing), meaning that this is not a balanced “portfolio” of diverse bets. It’s a career “portfolio” of extremely concentrated bets.

You can win big this way, but admittedly, most will not.

With current technology, remote work-styles, and the catalyst of Covid-19, the future will allow for (and incentivize) multiple career bets at the same time; albeit perhaps at different stages of each path — like an architect with three parallel projects (one in concepting, one in planning, and one in construction).

With the possibility, the incentives, and the social norms in place, it will become the ideal work-style for executives over the next decade… From “freelancing” as a performance marketer to “C-lancing” as a CMO of three companies at the same time.

This isn’t for everybody, but for the adventurous minority, a new wave of working style will emerge in the coming years.

Secrets and spies: Behind the doors of the UK's most enigmatic government agency [Link]

  • Takeaway: Invest in remembering where you have been and what you learned along the way

We’re not very good at learning lessons; most organisations aren't,” he says. “But having a corporate record of why we made a [certain] decision in 1977 or 1984 – you can use that to educate future management and leadership; so as not to trip up again.”

Intelligence and espionage are continually evolving. This, says Abrutat, is what keeps him and his colleagues at the Doughnut focussed on their missions.

“We save people’s lives, we stop bombs going off, we stop army units being killed in Afghanistan. If that doesn't motivate you to get to work in the morning, I don't know what does.”

How Abraham Lincoln Confronted—and Helped Spread—Political Misinformation [Link]

  • Takeaway: Just because someone calls out misinformation doesn’t mean they aren’t spreading misinformation themselves

On May 18, 1864, U.S. troops marched into lower Manhattan and entered the offices of two key New York City newspapers. Soldiers leveled guns at staff members’ heads. They blocked the doors with bayonets. President Abraham Lincoln had ordered the arrest of the editors and the seizure of the newspapers. That particular May morning, the papers had run a presidential proclamation announcing a draft of 400,000 new soldiers.

The problem: Lincoln had issued no such proclamation…

Although President Lincoln declared the bogus proclamation a complete fabrication, “false and spurious,” which the newspapers had passed “wickedly and traitorously” to the American people, he had in fact written and signed an order for 300,000 new soldiers that very same day. He just hadn’t sent it out. His outrage—and the likely constitutionally illegal act of arresting the editors and stopping the newspapers— covered up what was at its core a leak.

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.9, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: It can be dangerous to rely on others to tell you who you should be

“If you were to say to me now,” he tells his judges, “We will acquit you on these conditions, that you no longer conduct the discussions that you have conducted hitherto, and no longer pester any of us, young or old.” He would reply, “How absurd of you to think that if one of your generals had stationed me in a post, I should hold it, and defend it, preferring to die a thousand deaths rather than abandon it, but if God has stationed us in some position and laid down rules of conduct, we should abandon it!”…

For it is indeed pointless and foolish to seek to get from another what one can get from oneself. Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility of mind from myself, shall I seek to get a patch of land from you, or a bit of money, or some public post? Heaven forbid! I won’t overlook my own resources in such a manner.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.


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