Richard Feynman’s Personality: The Playful Scientist

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" by Richard Feynman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Did you hear about the time Richard Feynman attended a dance party for deaf students? Did you know he was a drummer with a samba band in Rio?

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman is known for his scientific accomplishments. He’s also known for being fun. Never one to turn down an adventure, he seized joy throughout his life. His personality shines through in his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Continue reading for a look at Richard Feynman’s personality as revealed through a few stories in his memoir.

Richard Feynman’s Personality

For Richard Feynman, personality shouts rather than whispers. In fact, even though he’s an award-winning scientist, he’s more commonly remembered for his colorful personality and quirky sense of humor than for his achievements in the world of theoretical physics. His scientific discoveries were merely one result of his lifelong love of learning, his spirit of adventure, and his determination to live life to its fullest. His memoir demonstrates his drive to solve puzzles, his joy at new discoveries, and his sense of inquisitive delight.

While Feynman took his stance on scientific integrity and the importance of education seriously, he was never very serious about himself or his importance to the world. In fact, Feynman states that not feeling responsible for the world is his secret to happiness. Instead, Feynman talks about being open to new experiences, grabbing opportunities as they appear, and having the confidence to fake his way through.

He learned his first lessons about loosening up in college, where his fraternity brothers taught him how to socialize and dance. Thanks to this, one time Feynman accidentally found himself at a dance party for deaf students. Instead of leaving, Feynman relaxed into the occasion, despite feeling like a traveler in a foreign country. Over time, Feynman says that he learned there are many interesting experiences in life if you’re patient enough to wait for them and go along when they present themselves.

(Shortform note: Though Feynman may come across in his memoir as an adventurous person, he’s clear that, for the most part, he allowed adventure to come to him. In The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath assert that meaningful experiences are occurring all around you and that you simply have to train yourself to spot them. Such experiences can be defined by the ways they stand out from your everyday background, give insight into the world around you, and help create connections with other people. Such moments, when recognized, can increase happiness at work, improve relationships, and help you live a more fulfilling life.)

One occasion when Feynman grabbed his chance at adventure was when he was invited to attend a scientific conference in Japan. He and his colleagues were put up in a western-style hotel, but Feynman felt like he was missing out on the authentic Japanese experience. To his hosts’ consternation, he pleaded to be housed at a traditional Japanese hotel, despite the hassle he’d create for himself getting to and from the conference. Feynman won out, changed hotels, and enjoyed his more genuine experience of Japanese culture so well that he returned to the country many times. He explains that in many ways he found the culture and customs of Japan far more civilized than those of the United States in terms of courtesy and hospitality.

(Shortform note: It may seem like a cliché to say that “travel broadens the mind,” but there is scientific backing for the claim that travel abroad increases cognitive function. Due to the plasticity of the brain, new experiences create new neural connections, but to get the full mental benefit from world travel, you have to immerse yourself as much as you can in another culture, as Feynman did in his travels. Research on students who’ve studied abroad shows that cultural immersion can be intellectually and emotionally transformative, especially if the students engaged deeply with their new environments and reflected on their experiences afterward.)

Another country Feynman grew to love was Brazil, where his enjoyment of travel merged with another hobby of his—playing drums. He’d started drumming in Los Alamos as a way to relax, though he never grew to be as good as a professional musician. Nevertheless, he grabbed at the chance to play drums for an amateur samba band in Rio—the “Fakers from Copacabana.” There, he learned to pretend to be a pro and let his show of confidence carry him along. As part of that group, he got to perform at the annual Carnaval celebrations. Feynman says that the fact that his playing wasn’t perfect didn’t matter. What matters is snapping up every chance at the joy that life provides.

(Shortform note: “Fake it till you make it” is another cliché that Feynman seems to prove true with his artistic and musical endeavors, but he’s clear that he was never aiming for perfection, only happiness. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu identify several core values that Feynman embodied as those that lead to happiness and contentment—humility, humor, a willingness to see from others’ perspectives, and accepting the world as it is.)

Richard Feynman’s Personality: The Playful Scientist

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Here's what you'll find in our full Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! summary:

  • The memoir of award-winning scientist Richard Feynman
  • A walk through Feynman's life, from college to winning the Nobel Prize
  • Why enjoying life is just as valuable as your education

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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