Lessons Learned from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
The second selection of Half Half Man’s Book Club was Richard Feynman’s Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. I read this book originally in August 2011 and liked it so much that I read its sequel, What Do You Care What Other People Think, in February 2014. When reading these books before, I considered them from the perspectives of a writer and scientist but never from the point of view of a magician. Going back through his writing, it’s clear there is so much to learn from Feynman and so many sources of inspiration for magicians.
I can break down my biggest takeaways and inspirations into two broad categories: his personality (who he was) and his work (what he did). Of course these are intricately linked and affect each other, but I think each presents a different way of understanding this curious character and learning lessons from his life.
Inspirations from Feynman’s Personality
Wide Interests and Love of Life
If there is any phrase that captures my understanding of Feynman’s personality, it is “joie de vivre.” His book was filled with his stories showing his immensely wide interests and life experiences. These all informed his life and helped him be a better person and scientist.
He wrote about taking breaks and learning from other fields. And he didn’t take this lightly. Even in his “non-professional” pursuits, he excelled. He took immersion class to learn Spanish and went to South America, teaching physics classes in Rio and going to the beach in the afternoon. He loved to learn about other cultures and keep a balance in his life. He learned the samba drum and joined a samba school and succeeded in learning the frigideira instrument quite well. In Las Vegas, he spent a lot of time talking to beautiful showgirls and learning about them.
This love of life and learning about things outside his field is directly applicable to what we are doing with the Half Half Man Book Club: finding inspiration from other areas and learning to excel at whatever you put your mind to.
Practicality, Uniqueness, and Mischief
These three aspects comprise a striking part of Feynman’s personality, and magicians can learn from each of these in turn.
Feynman wrote in depth about how he hated pretension and preferred practicality. He said he wanted to be practical, not cultured (even though he seemed to end up quite cultured in his own way). For example, he didn't want publicity and attention from getting the Nobel Prize, didn't want a reception to celebrate, and was brought up to not like royalty. He even said the prize was a “pain in the neck;” he always wanted to be taken straightforward.
A lot of magicians miss the mark by trying to make their clothing, style, and manner seem too high and mighty, as if they can use these to fill in gaps in skill or structure and impress people by showing off. Feynman’s magical style would be one of naturalness instead.
He also embraced his uniqueness and quirks and even said, “you have no responsibility to live up to what others expect” (and he has a whole book called What Do You Care What Other People Think). Unlike many of his more serious peers, he said he liked “playing” with physics, inventing things for his own entertainment. He wrote about his “effortless playing with things that were interesting,” leading to the design of the diagrams that contributed to his the Nobel Prize. He learned to entertain himself in Chicago bars, staying there without getting drunk for his own entertainment.
This aspect of not taking yourself too seriously, playing with things you like, and not trying to fit a common mold but instead embracing your uniqueness is directly applicable to magicians. A lot of new methods and effects have come from this sort of tinkering or doing things in ways that were different from the traditional/classic way. And magicians frequently do care what others think and in fact do what they do to inspire their audiences to think certain things; but surprisingly, if they try less hard to impress or worry about their image and focus more on their own enjoyment of and playing with their art, they may be more successful.
A third important part of his personality was his paradoxical combination of mischief and honesty. He liked to play jokes on waitresses, but he said he's usually very honest, even when joking and playing tricks on people. For Feynman, this also translated into his absolute dedication to scientific honesty. He taught that you must disclose all the facts, even those that invalidate your cause and you must publish results and advice no matter what the result was (complete opposite of traditional advertising). Above all, he said “you must not fool yourself.”
In my mind, this is exactly how a magician should act: perfectly honest in his deceptions and not trying to convince anyone of anything supernatural actually existing or happening. And a magician must be honest with him or herself about his or her own abilities and others’ reactions to his or her demonstrations, looking at his or her results objectively and actually aiming to improve instead of believing in one’s own illusion of grandeur.
Inspirations from Feynman’s Work
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
This is not only Feynman’s approach to his work and the world of learning but also the title of another of his books. His childhood really brought this lesson home for him. Urged to solve puzzles from a young age, he built a science lab for radios when he was 11 and couldn’t ever leave a puzzle unsolved. This "puzzle drive" led him to try to learn all the puzzles in existence, guiding him to inventing problems and theorems of his own. He wrote how he learned to understand theorems by making up examples in his head, helping him solve his own puzzles. He tried to learn from everything around him, carrying a magnifying glass around everywhere and experimenting with ants. He got some experience with the opposite approach of finding things out yourself (“judging books by their covers”) and hated it; he was the only one who actually read all the math books on a committee of people who were evaluating them.
The pleasure and effectiveness that are gained from finding things out yourself the hard way is directly applicable to the study of magic. Audiences can tell when you’ve put in the work, the time to think, and iterated on every detail instead of just copying someone else verbatim at the shallowest level. And one’s own understanding of technique and presentation comes only through direct, firsthand experimentation (and mistakes) instead of just trusting someone else’s word.
Persistence and Hard Work
Feynman wrote that “the only way to solve a safe is with patience.” This was his approach not to just to safe-cracking but to everything. He married several times and continuously worked to become a better teacher with every single class he taught, putting a lot more time into lecture preparation than other professors. His self-amusement in learning to pick locks is a direct demonstration of his tenacity even towards “extra-curricular” pursuits; he wrote how he would practice everywhere he went, picking the last two numbers from people's safes all the time when visiting others’ offices. He learned multiple brute force reduction methods and even some cold safe cracking with psychological methods. He befriended locksmiths slowly and learned their tricks and skills. He applied this same approach to math, learning different tricks to make mental math easy and memorizing logs and exponential tables and multiple approximation methods.
This model of persistence and hard work is a great one for magicians to follow. Finding the right mentors, learning from them slowly and intentionally, and practicing everywhere you go apply directly. One of my personal maxims is that the most precious things in life are difficult and complex, and getting these right takes a lot of pushing through failure and persistence.
The second selection of Half Half Man’s Book Club was a joy to read and an inspiration for me as a lover of science, magic, and the humanities. There were so many points of Feynman’s personality (his wide interests, love of life, practicality, uniqueness, and mischief) and his work (the pleasure of finding things out and the value of persistence) that everyone should model. I think that magicians who adopt some of these traits and ways of working will be able to deepen their understanding of their craft and create more impactful results.