I just finished reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman”, a series of short stories or essays by Richard Feynman that reads like a memoir. Not only was this book a delightful read, but it had many takeaways that I think are relevant to those of us who are interested in building great products.
Feynman was a prankster and he has many stories about pulling someone’s chain, merely by having confidence. In one he recites gibberish and passes it off as Italian. In another, he responds to a Chinese greeting with nonsense. He gets away with it because he acts as if he knows what he is talking about.
But this doesn’t just apply to pranks. Throughout the book, he recalls story after story where he had an opportunity to present or discuss physics with big name physicists. Like most people, he related that these were stress-inducing events. Yet, when it came right down to discussing the topic at hand, he fully engaged. He didn’t shy away from his own thoughts or opinions, no matter who he was talking to.
As product managers, we spend a lot of our time discussing ideas. We need to sell our vision. We need to solve customer problems. We need to convince an engineer the solution is possible. Confidence goes a long way in these conversations. If you get bulled over by the CEO or the cranky engineer or the slick-talking sales rep, you aren’t going to be able to defend your product. Like Feynman, we all get intimidated from time to time, but when it’s time to discuss the ideas, take a page from Feynman’s book and focus on the ideas and not the people behind the ideas.
Be Curious – Experiment
As a physicist, it won’t come as much of a surprise that Feynman valued experimentation. He writes not just about scientific inquiry but about scientific integrity, to focus and share the results even when they don’t support your argument. He also didn’t just experiment in the work of physics. He had an insatiable curiosity and experimented in the world around him.
Feynman tells two stories that showcased his curiosity and his meticulous attention to detail in experimentation. First, he wonders if bloodhounds really have a better sense of smell than humans. So he runs some experiments on himself. He starts by smelling the things in his house. Then he asks someone to touch a book and he determines which book was touched by sense of smell. Second, he describes in detail his fascination with ants. He wondered how they communicated, how they formed such straight lines, and how they adapted when their course was interrupted. He spent countless hours experimenting in his own home until he figured it all out. Unlike most of us, when Feynman wondered something, he took the time to find the answer. It’s this same sense of wonder and follow through that led to his nobel prize winning work in physics.
In product management, it is so easy to get caught up in our vision of the world. We become blind to our underlying assumptions. We spend most of our days fighting fires and too little of our time wondering what would happen if we changed this one thing here or added this small tweak there. Recently, we’ve gotten better at measuring things, but often for the sake of pretty graphics and ever-growing numbers, not for the sake of true experimentation. How can we channel some of the child-like wonder that Feynman exhibited on a daily basis into our product work?
Find another way.
Feynman explains that he was taught how to do integrals using a different set of tools than most learn. This allowed him to solve problems easily that others had trouble with. This is a common theme throughout the book. He always looked for different ways, other approaches. He never settled for what he knew today and kept looking until an answer revealed itself.
So many things we do in product just don’t work. It doesn’t matter how much user research we do, how many A/B tests we run, or how many customers request a feature. It’s hard to make products that work well. Whether it’s due to technical challenges or usability problems or just for unknown reasons, if we want to succeed at making great products, we simply need to keep trying new ways.
Always be learning.
Feynman wasn’t just a nobel-prize winning physicist. At Los Alamos, he became obsessed with learning how to crack safes. During his Cornell days, he travelled to Brazil and became obsessed with samba music. Having picked up drums at Los Alamos, he joined a samba band and performed in carnival. Later in life, he learned to draw, and obsessively focused on improving, until eventually he sold many of his pieces.
At each stage of his life, Feynman always had something he was doing other than physics. There’s a lot of research that shows that creative thinkers draw from many areas and that lifelong learning is an important attribute of high achievers. Feynman exhibited both.
Many product managers are great at staying up on their competition, playing with new gadgets and services, and reading broadly in their field. But are we also exploring interests outside of our work? Where will our creative inspiration come from?
Do what you love.
Throughout the book, it was clear that Feynman always followed his interests. He clearly loved what he did. I strongly believe that you can’t make good products if you don’t love what you do. If you don’t love it, it’s simply not worth doing.
Feynman was an engaging writer, a fascinating character, and his book is a delightful read. I highly recommend it. What’s on your bookshelf?