The amazing Richard Feynman and his approach to problems

I’m fascinated by Richard Feynman.  Particularly by his perspective on problems.  Feynman is known for his involvement in the Manhattan Project and winning the Noble Prize for his work on quantum physics.


When Feynman was asked to join the Manhattan Project, he was only 22 years old.  Here, he joined some of the world’s top physicist and engineers, pooling their combined brainpower to try to beat the Germans in the race to develop the Atomic Bomb. 


One of the main issues the team faced was the sheer volume of calculations that needed to be performed.  He came to the attention of the lead scientists after he devised a very clever way of restructuring how they all worked together on these calculations.


The problem was, without computers, all calculations had to be done by hand.  This made it incredibly slow.  Feynman devised a way of getting calculations done in parallel.  He saw a way of separating out the operations, so they could be worked on in parallel and then the results merged back together.  This led to a massive leap forward in productivity.  Instead of 3 large problems being solved in 9 months, the team was solving 9 large problems in just over 3 months.


He thought about problems in a certain way that enabled him to see things others didn’t see.  He looked at a problem from more angles than anybody else.  He had a habit of working out the problem for himself.  He never accepted an answer at face value.  He saw beauty in the complexity hidden in plain sight.


“You have to stop and think about the complexity.  The inconceivable nature of nature!”  – Richard Feynman


Years later, the same kind of thinking led him to create Feynman diagrams in relation to the area of Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED).  It was for this work he was awarded the Noble Prize.  At the time there were many issues with QED theory.  Sometimes QED seemed to work, and sometimes it didn’t!  To be precise sometimes QED calculations would produce an answer of infinity, and in general answers weren’t very predictable.  This was stumping the smartest physicists in the world at the time.


To work around the infinity problem in QED, Feynman came up with a revolutionary idea.  He developed simple little diagrams that allowed him to side step the complicated calculations required for QED and make meaningful predictions about the world.  He associated certain terms in the complex equations with a simple little cartoon.  These little cartoons became known as Feynman diagrams and they enabled a simplification of the complex.  It turns out, this concept is so useful in physics, that it is now being used in a variety of fields such as solid-state theory.


The key takeaway here is to look at how and what you work on as an engineer.  As Feynman did.  Ask why you do what you do, the way you do it!  Big problems are usually best solved by examining how they can be broken out into little problems.  Then solve all the little problems.  Better yet figure out how to solve all the little problems in parallel.


To give yourself a better sense of how this man thought, have a look at his answer to a simple question of why two magnets repel or attract each other.


Solving puzzles at work

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As engineers, one of the main things we signed up for with the job is solving problems. We want to work on big problems… I imagine few engineers would disagree.
The best way of getting to work on and contribute to solving big problems is to solve little ones first. When you solve small problems, you become worthy of solving bigger problems.
The amazing American physicist Richard Feynman had a lot to say on the topic of solving problems.
“No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it” – Richard Feynman
As engineers I believe nothing is as important as making progress on improving the industry we work in.
Being in pharma and biotech its often important to remember how reliant people around the world are on you solving the problems in front of you… Every day, with gusto and urgency. It’s not exactly in your face every day as you show up to work but it’s real. Your work has meaning. As engineers, when we get our projects done on time people’s lives are improved and, in some cases, saved by the result.
The FDA and similar bodies often publish lists of drug shortages… Yes shortages. One of the reasons that can happen is when there is a problem manufacturing. If we solve problems we can control, then we can contribute.
Remember no problem is too small, if you can do something about it.
Think about the little or big problems in our industry. Just follow your curiosity. Look at these problems in different ways. Richard Feynman liked to think of them as unsolved puzzles. He worked very hard to first simplify the problem. He asked basic questions. For example, what’s the simplest example of the issue? How would I know when I have the solution?
Learn what works in similar industries or situations as you see it. Learn a new methodology, then see if it fits your unsolved puzzle.

Emotional Intelligence

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Warren Buffett the multi billionaire investor says he looks for 3 things when hiring.  These are integrity, intelligence, and energy.

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.” –Warren Buffett


I like this quote a lot.  However, I believe that the most important quality to look for when hiring is emotional intelligence.  It’s basically your ability to manage your emotions and it’s a measure of your ability to manage interpersonal interactions.


As an engineer, I believe the study of emotional intelligence is going to have the biggest impact on our ability to successfully communicate ideas.  Our work isn’t about packing boxes or moving heavy objects, it’s knowledge work.  Most of us are collaborating and working with others to design something.  This kind of work requires emotional labor.  That’s the effort of having difficult conversations, figuring out the right thing to do, bringing people together, or producing ideas that challenge conventional thinking.


IQ might get you your job, but EQ or emotional intelligence will have the biggest impact on how successful you are in that line of work.  A big IQ is great when you’re at school and a good IQ almost directly translates to good grades.  After school when we join the workforce it has less impact on our success.  At work, its more meaningful if you are self-aware, if you can stay motivated, and if you conduct yourself well inter-personally.  It’s more meaningful to be able to read other people and know how to get along with others.


An easy way to improve emotional intelligence is to try listening to others more intently.  As Steven Covey says, “seek first to understand, then be understood”.


I think it’s an important topic to be aware of.  Warren Buffett’s business partner Charlie Munger said, “Other people are trying to be smart, all I’m trying to be is non-idiotic.”  It takes more than IQ, EQ is the other piece.