Feynman and little havens of play

“When I was a kid I had a ‘lab.’ It wasn’t a laboratory in the sense that I would measure, or do important experiments. Instead, I would play; I’d make a motor, I’d make a gadget that would go off when something passed a photocell, I’d play around with selenium; I was piddling around all the time. I did calculate a little bit for the lamp bank, a series of switches and bulbs I used as resistors to control voltages. But all that was for application. I never did any kind of laboratory experiments.”

This is Richard Feynman, physicist, teacher and explorer, talking about his childhood infatuation with the world in Surely You’re Joking My Feynman. Later on, he describes how he did the work that netted him a Nobel prize.

“He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?’
‘Hah!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.’ His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind that I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.
I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was ‘playing’—working, really—with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.
It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

It’s a recurring theme in the book. Feynman does his best work, and is at his most happy, not when he’s doing “important” work, but when he’s fooling around. When he’s playing. When he’s using fascination and curiosity as his compass.

Now, I look at my life. I have a daily standard. The things I’ve decided I would like to do every single day for the rest of my life. Here it is: Med / 2R / Wr / Mo / Pl. That means that, every day, I try to meditate, read for 2 hours, write, move and play

See, intellectually, I understand the importance of play. But I don’t translate that into my work. And I suspect, not many other people do either. But we should. The thing that destroys this sense of play and experimentation is expectation. Most things we do because we are expecting something. In fact, there’s probably a strong relationship between effort expended and the magnitudes of our expectations. That project at work that we’ve sacrificed weekends and evenings for over the last month? When it’s done, what do you stand to gain? Something big if you’re willing to sacrifice time with people you love.

The state of play cannot co-exist with expectation. The two contradict and cancel one another. 

Of course, we cannot avoid and shed all expectation. Our jobs and our lives are in part, dictated by the impact we have on others. But there are little havens, small pockets of time and space in which we can reclaim play and leave behind expectation. And If you and I are to elevate ourselves, we need to find these havens. We need to find them in our lives and protect them fiercely.