The late physicist Richard Feynman famously won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. But here’s something most people don’t know about him: He was also a world-class safecracker.
In the 1940s, in the New Mexico Desert, Feynman was bored while working on the Manhattan project that would birth the atomic bomb. Naturally, then, he decided to occupy himself by pulling pranks on his colleagues.
Knowing that most of them were relatively careless when dealing with the safes that stored top secret documents — whether forgetting to lock them, or leaving them on factory settings, or choosing obvious dates as their codes — he began leaving notes in the place of their work like:
“I borrowed document no. LA4312 — Feynman the safecracker.”
Eventually, he got so good at it that the Colonel in charge of his unit began advising people that if Feynman had been anywhere near their safe, it was a part of their job to change their combination lock once more.
This story is one of many stories Feynman tells in his autobiography Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, where his playful nature gets the better out of both him and his attention.
One of the things I’ve personally always admired about Feynman is that he was so deeply curious about things that the only purpose behind what he decided to commit himself to was what he found interesting.
He had general aims, I’m sure, and given the complexity of the work he put out, he was obviously an insanely focused person, but the orienting impulse that guided him was beyond goals and simple ambitions. He was far more interested in getting somewhere past the known.
Goals as orientation are common in almost all of our pursuits. We look ahead, predict what may make us happy in the future, and we then narrow down towards something specific. But what if that’s not the way?
Is living goal to goal the answer?
When dealing with the future, an orientation of some sort — however vague or specific — is necessary. If we didn’t have one, we would be entirely shaped by the current of luck and randomness, which isn’t always a blessing.
To exercise some semblance of agency over our lives, then, we often resort to goal-setting. We are taught to do so early on so that we can keep up with the world around us. Later, corporations, for example, even have acronyms, like SMART goals, that have us continuing to do so.
Now, whether we are setting SMART goals or personal ones under our own framework (or no framework), the one thing that they have in common is that they are relatively concrete. You want to be married by 30, earn an executive position by 40, and be retired by 50. That’s how they usually go.
For the most part, my inclination is to say that having these is better than not having any, and certain people have a genetic disposition to find satisfaction in specific accomplishment more so than others, but there are also problems that come with spending an entire life living goal to goal.
For one, it attempts to predict an unpredictable future. Who is to say that what you want tomorrow or the year after is the same thing you want right now? More critically, what if what you want right now isn’t even oriented in the right direction over the long-term and you’re actually going the wrong way? Life changes, we change, and none of this is evident without hindsight.
Secondly, and just as importantly, it creates an anchor: You bind your expectations of happiness and contentment onto something so singular that you often forget that other things in your life are capable of adding just as much joy to your experience than the thing you’re so fixated on.
Everybody knows that the ultimate reward is the process, not the goal, but what we forget is that the virtue of even having goals makes it very hard to stay honest to a process that often deviates day to day.
This creates a strange tension: On one end, goals of some sort are necessary, and giving the future its due attention is the right thing to do; on the other hand, the act of creating these goals and worshiping them, as we often do, leads to a conflict that we can’t easily get away from.
To solve this tension, we have to move towards something more nebulous.
The pursuit of interestingness
The really fascinating, and even admirable, thing about Feynman was that if he ever had a goal, it was simply this: to learn as much as possible in any direction that his innate curiosity took him.
For brief periods of his time, working on one problem or the other, he may have had more specific goals, sure, and he certainly took the time to focus on them as he needed without distractions. But broadly, his orientation was pointed towards the most interesting thing he could find.
The pursuit of interestingness, I think, solves the predicament that is inherent in goal-setting. It’s vague and nebulous enough to be honest about the unpredictability of the future, without being hopelessly lost in the chaos of pure luck and randomness.
Throughout life, we all see things, learn things, and pursue things. This process is different for each of us, but as we do so, we also develop a very strong intuition of what we, personally, find fascinating about the world — something that aligns with our deeper nature while respecting that we change over time as human beings, letting us adapt accordingly.
Interestingness isn’t hedonism or materialism or the chase of anything new and shiny that seeks to distract us. It’s deeper than that. It’s taking on that random project you had no plan to take on because you have a feeling that you might just learn something you didn’t know about yourself. It’s seeing a person you just met not as a potential partner or someone who can do something for you but simply as an individual who may open up a new, unknown, and unique dimension in your life.
The great thing about pursuing this kind of interestingness is that it has a far shorter feedback loop than specific goals. You keep doing something for as long as it’s interesting, but if you were mistaken about your initial impulse, you move on, without too much lost.
Naturally, not everything or everyone is interesting all the time, but generally speaking, if something maintains its interest over a period of time, it’s likely worth dedicating some energy to.
By making interestingness the goal, you give your actual goals a fluidity, one that can better accommodate new information. This also better amalgamates the goal with the process, rather than the goal being a distinct thing that battles to keep your attention off of the process.
More than anything, however, the pursuit of interestingness honors a simple truth about the human experience: The best things in life are by-products. They come when they come, as you commit yourself honestly to a process, not when you spend time striving for imagined perfection.
The future demands attention, and while focusing all of our energy on it is self-defeating, we do need to be intentional about directing some of our effort towards it as we orient ourselves in the world.
Goals are one way to do that. They give us a way to make concrete what is otherwise uncertain so that we can make progress without losing ourselves to anxiety. The problem, however, is that they often mistake what exists to provide orientation as a thing of value in itself.
The best way out of this trap is to pursue what is interesting — to use our intuition for what it is that we find novel in this world to make the process and the goal one and the same thing; to continually update our sense of what is worth pursuing without being confined to false certainty.
Interestingness seeks out the riddle of life. It gives us a reason to turn the next page, to see the next scene, to give form to the unknown.
Feynman embodied this, but he also once said something that captures what it is that differentiates such a pursuit from mere goals and certainties:
“I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives… In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
Goals, incorrectly, assume that we already know what it is that we want. Interestingness is more humble. It makes up its mind as it moves, slowly blowing from one thing to another, until it eventually grasps something that lies beyond prediction.
Looking ahead, imagining scenarios that we think may be worth our time, has a place, but at the end of the day, what is most relevant is unfolding around us right now, and it doesn’t care what we thought about it yesterday.
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