5 Lessons from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” | Richard Feynman

What is Like Going on an Adventure With One of the Great Minds

Jack Yang
5 min readFeb 6, 2021
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character


Before reading this book, I heard of the name “Richard Feynman” mostly from two places, one is from physics books such as A Brief History of Time, the other place is from the “Feynman technique”, which is essentially a way of learning through teaching. Without any background knowledge of Mr. Feynman, I thought he would be an insanely smart scientist and an eloquent teacher. After this book, to some degree, I was right, but there is much more depth to his character than I previously imagined. The book a collection of stories told from the first-person perspective. Thanks to the great writing and narration of Mr. Feynman, I feel like going on all these adventures with him. Better yet, I know his feelings and his thought processes throughout the journey. He is an extremely curious, humorous, and fun person that I would imagine myself hanging out with. More importantly, there are many great lessons to take away from one of the greatest minds in history.

Score: 5/5

Who Should Read It: People who want to know more about Richard Feynman or just want to learn how great minds think.


1. Be Intensely Curious About the World.

The biggest impression I had of Mr. Feynman is just how intensely curious he was about the world. Throughout the book, Feynman picked up many interesting skills from lockpicking to painting to playing the bongos and often develop those skills to a level comparable to an expert. Sometimes in the middle of a story, I would forget I’m reading a narration by one of the greatest scientists but the story of a child who is full of wonders. In fact, Mr. Feynman’s research style follows a similar fashion. He would play around with things following his interest even though they may not resemble any immediate value, but after further researching and investigating, the true value will be revealed. In fact, his finding that eventually led to a Nobel prize started with him piddling around a wobbling plate.

Jack’s Take: I believe this is especially true of modern-day entrepreneurs. It is important to take every chance to explore the world and play around with things based on your interests. When I first started, I always tried to look for problems to solve instead of exploring the world and finding opportunities. However, in retrospect, my best projects usually come from just trying things and figuring stuff out, even though these pursuits might not be important at first sight.

2. Learning Is About Understanding.

Mr. Feynman is known for his incredible ability to explain complicated subjects in a simple and understandable manner. How does he do it? The answer is simply: because he truly understands it. The revelation comes from his story teaching in Brazil. He found that all the students are great at taking exams and talking about complex physics theories, but why is there no great scientist from Brazil? He realized that it was because the students learn physics by memorizing the textbook instead of actually understand the concepts. The same happens in the U.S. as well. Students would be able to recite the definition of a theory and solve problem sets accurately and quickly, but when there is a problem that examines the theory from another perspective, the students would be stuck because they have memorized the way to solve that specific problem set. Feynman is a master at learning. The fact that he could pick up so many skills and develop them to an expert level tells a lot about his ability to learn, which is through true understanding. To learn more about the famous known “Feynman Technique” to boost your learning ability, check out a great post by Evernote here.

Jack’s Take: Coming from an education system where students are forced to memorize things to do well on exams, I never understand why I would quickly forget everything after learning until now. I have a great memory since I was little but it turns out to a counterproductive skill for my situation. I could simply memorize everything, do well on exams, and forget everything about it. This is a bad habit I developed throughout my student career, which I believe many other students share. I’m trying to break this habit by understanding the concepts when I learn them, even it takes more time and effort.

3. Social Irresponsibility.

An interesting point raised by Feynman is the concept of active irresponsibility. The main argument is as simple as this: you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you are in. Throughout your life, there are many responsibilities and obligations you take on yourself, such as what you ought to accomplish. If you actively neglect this responsibility and many others that are imposed on you, you will become a happier person because it is the others’ mistake for pressing this responsibility on to you instead of your own failure.

4. Decide Never to Decide Again.

Another interesting point raised by Feynman is to actively decide to never decide again. In life, there are always many choices to be made and people get anxious about them. It is much easier to plain decide and never change your mind. For instance, when Feynman was a student at MIT, he got tired of deciding what dessert to get, so he decided to only choose chocolate ice cream. He used the same method to decide to be in Caltech instead of other schools.

Jack’s Take: The idea of minimalism probably didn’t exist around Feynman’s time, but this is essentially the idea. If you decide never to decide what clothes to wear, you can only decide to wear a gray t-shirt like Zuckerberg always does. Making permanent decisions like these could potentially free up a lot of mental power and empower you to devote more energy to important things.

5. Don’t Fool Yourself.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. (Richard Feynman)

This quote is very well known. Essentially, Feynman advises to always have integrity. In scientific researches or any decision making in that matter, people sometimes would lean toward a certain outcome and try to justify that outcome by any means necessary. It is important to provide enough information on both sides of the argument and make informed choices accordingly.