Crazy Questions and Teachable Moments: Feynman for Professionals

We’ve put the time in to learn the basics, the processes, the methods, and still – it’s never-ending. Part of the fun of being a professional is the constant learning. And, like the locals who have to deal with the tourists in vacation spots, occasionally someone will randomly throw a “hey – did you ever think to try…” at us, leaving us scratching our heads. When these moments happen, we have to know: A. How to process the comment, and B. How to explain our acceptance or rejection in a way they’ll understand. This isn’t easy, this is teaching.   


Richard Feynman said the hard part about science isn’t making random guesses. Anyone can take a wild guess. The hard part about science, the part that makes it valuable, is that once we have a decent idea our goal is to come up with a better one. Nothing is ever final. The higher we raise the bar, the harder it gets to breakthrough to the next level. Gravity isn’t “right,” but it’s the only thing we haven’t found a better substitute for explaining why stuff falls when we drop it, and why planets do that circling thing around stars.  


Having a better idea versus having a random guess is where our out-of-nowhere customer questions can throw us for a loop. They’re all valid questions (a point we can’t forget), but they’re not all done in the name of scientific discovery. Feynman said,


You see, the problem is not to change or to say something might be wrong but to replace it by something. And that is not so easy. As soon as any real, definite idea is substituted, it becomes almost immediately apparent that it doesn’t work.


Let’s say your spouse asks “Why don’t we just put half of our money into cryptocurrencies? Haven’t they gone up a lot?” What do we even do with that? There’s a lot of directions to turn this into a teachable moment, but they all start with some form of “I don’t know. How should we think of cryptocurrencies as a substitute for whatever we currently have, compared to anything else we could possibly have, and extrapolate the ramifications into the future? Are we more likely to create an unintended negative consequence than an intended positive consequence by doing this? What do you think, dear?” We can teach, and learn, by talking through these oddball questions out loud.


One more Feynman story. He recounts a time he claims to know “all about flying saucers,” which is why he doesn’t think there are any. A layperson accuses him of not being scientific, and he explains: (emphasis added):


…I can’t prove it’s impossible, it’s just very unlikely…

If you can’t prove it impossible, then how could you say it’s likely that it’s unlikely?…

It is scientific only to say what’s more likely and less likely, and not to be proving all the time, possible and impossible…

…listen. I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than unknown, rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.


Use the crazy questions to create teachable moments. We’ve invested, and continue to invest, all of this time in learning more. Whether it’s our spouses and cryptocurrencies or our clients and their equivalent flying saucers, remember the wise words of Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spread good knowledge.

*h/t to Michael Covel for sending me to retrieve the speech these quotes are from. Listen to his podcast “Feynman Teaches Us All” for snippets or see: