Ignorance Of Others Can Be Bliss

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-10-20 12:00:00 No comments


Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others! | Steps & Leaps

Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he’d been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript. The word was “Disregard!”

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.”

Richard Feynman always struck me as a good model to emulate, both for his humility and good humor and for his best practices. I've written before about his habit of keeping crucial things in the back of the mind and letting them bubble up as needed to stimulate inspiration on crucial projects. But I like this bit of advice as well. Worth drilling into, since it also seems easy to misinterpret.

The full anecdote (read it, it's fun) involves the original manuscript of James Watson's The Double Helix. I doubt Watson made the breakthroughs he did by disregarding the scientific work of other people. But I do think he made them by not worrying about whether or not he was repeating someone else's ambitions.

Crucial distinction there. When you are working on something, you need to steel yourself out of the worry that other people are doing a better job than you in the same way. Nobody else is doing your job, even if it looks like they're doing your job.

Over at my other project, Ganriki, I get afflicted by this a lot. I worry that a given writeup of a given show won't make the cut because someone else has already gotten there and mined the material of any possible insight. But no two people are ever going to see the same thing in the same way, and they aren't going to express insights in the same way either. And those expressions aren't going to land the same way with the audience that seeks them out, and so on.

You can imagine how this extends to other realms. Let's say people had told David Webb Peoples to lay off writing that stupid Western of his because a) everyone's written one or is writing one and b) Westerns are passé anyway. Let's say he took the advice. Then we would never have had Unforgiven, arguably one of the finest movies made in any genre.

Now, I need to back up and make a point. None of this should be an excuse for complacency. In other words, you shouldn't use it as a way to give yourself permission to just do whatever anyone else is already doing. It's a way to keep yourself on a track you've already chosen for its relative uniqueness, not a way to avoid selecting for absolute uniqueness.

Zen teachers caution against comparing one's self to others. "That guy is doing something that looks worthy of learning from" is one thing, but "That guy is doing something that makes him better than me" is another. The former is self-master; the latter is self-abasement. If you pay attention to what other people are doing, it should be for the sake of education, not succor.


Tags: Richard Feynman creativity psychology