Richard Feynman and Fighting Burnout With Curiosity

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While going back through my Kindle highlights, I came across the autobiography of Richard P. Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character. Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 but was also something of a celebrity in his time due to his varied contributions and many eccentric adventures.

To me, the most inspiring thing about him was his almost child-like endless curiosity. He didn’t mind getting into the dirty details of something he found interesting. It could be a radio or a bank safe. In addition to his physics research, he started making art (under a pseudonym) and sold enough pieces that he scored a gallery showing. He played samba in a Carnaval band in Brazil. Feynman liked “authentic knowledge”, meaning learning by tinkering and doing, not by memorizing something in a book.

However, even Feynman felt pressure at times as a professor of physics at a prestigious research university. He was getting burned out:

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

[…] So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Eventually, his scientific wanderings led him to his shared Nobel Prize.

My takeaway: We all get burned out sometimes. Try to keep it fun. Look for something that sparks your natural curiosity. Make it a game.

The NY Times has an article right now about Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Such Terrible Advice. It’s really just an argument about terminology. We don’t “find” our passions like a lost sock. We develop them over time. It’s hard to get good at anything if you’re not enjoying yourself when early on the learning curve. Your inner curiosity (“passion”?) still matters.

I’m pretty sure I enjoy personal finance more than 99% of the population, but even I get burnt out occasionally. This is often when I take my “fun money” account and look for new investments that might be a learning opportunity. I haven’t written about it yet, but one of my experiments is buying a small multi-year guaranteed fixed annuity (MYGA). (Don’t take this as a recommendation.) I also challenged myself to put together two family vacations for 5 people over 15 nights funded entirely with a hodgepodge of airline miles and hotel points. I combined American miles, Hawaiian miles (also an American Express transfer partner), Hyatt hotel points (also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner), and Marriott points.

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  1. Thank you for this post. It’s a great reminder to always be curious, to not take your work too seriously, and to have fun in life and career.

  2. Thanks love this article .

    If you ever are able to share would love to hear your vacation and points redemption story!!!

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