3 min read

My Twelve Favourite Problems

My Twelve Favourite Problems
Richard Feynman responds to questions from students after one of his lectures on quantum mechanics at the California Institute of Technology (1963).

Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist and Nobel prize winner, was a master problem solver. He relished a new challenge. From fixing radios for his entire neighbourhood in New York when he was a child to pranking colleagues by unlocking their high-security safes when he worked on the Manhattan Project. From describing physics in a simple way for students and laymen to understand to pioneering the field of quantum computing. No problem was too big or small, he loved them all.

During David Perell’s Write of Passage course I learned about Feynman’s clever mental framework for problem-solving:

My approach to problem-solving is to carry around a dozen interesting problems, and a dozen interesting solutions to unrelated problems, and eventually, I’ll be able to make connections. […]. Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’

Once you have your list of problems, your antennas are out, you consume information more intentionally, you start making connections and sometimes there is a hit. Bingo!

I spent the last couple of days thinking about my favourite themes and topics. Old notes and diary entries proved to be a goldmine. Here are my top twelve problems grouped into four broad categories.

People:

  1. How can I help younger people navigate the world (careers, life, ambitions) better? What am I doing to send the elevator back down?
  2. What can I do to expand my reach? How can I use my writing to have the maximum positive impact on people’s lives?
  3. How can I support my friends, colleagues and connections better and promote their work more?

Work:

  1. How can we keep motivation levels high and maintain a sense of shared purpose in a remote working world?
  2. Can I become a creator? How can I build up a side hustle or passive income? What steps must I take to shift over to the creator economy?
  3. What is my personal monopoly? What is my unique intersection of skills, interests and personality traits where I can be known as the best thinker on a topic?

Habits:

  1. What steps can I take to foster more stillness and mindfulness in my life? Can I build checkpoints into my life to remind myself to switch off and reflect more?
  2. How can I find a state of flow more often? I often catch myself thinking while doing, how do I remove these distractions in work, sport and writing?
  3. How do I marry the concepts of building better habits (my will to improve) and determinism (free will is an illusion) to live a meaningful life? Can I calm my ego that loves the sense of being in control?

Personal:

  1. Can I become better at distinguishing between what is fleeting (the latest fad) and essential in my life (family, relationships, physical and mental health, purpose)? Can I allocate more time to the non-negotiables?
  2. What steps can I take to become a better storyteller? Speak and write in a way that captivates an audience and makes them laugh.
  3. How can I incorporate more elements of play in my life? Approach life and work less seriously, but still sincerely.

That’s my set for now. I’m excited to track these problems and see how the list evolves over time. It is a great framework for idea collection and I would encourage you to sit down and do the same exercise no matter your career or passion.

What are your favourite problems? Do any of the topics and themes above resonate with you?

Please hit reply below and let’s chat.


Thanks to Jess Schanz for reading drafts of this essay.