The late physicist Richard Feynman famously won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. But here’s something most people don’t know about him: He was also a world-class safecracker.
In the 1940s, in the New Mexico desert, Feynman was bored while working on the Manhattan Project that would birth the atomic bomb. Naturally, he decided to occupy himself by pulling pranks on his colleagues. Knowing that most of them were relatively careless when dealing with the safes that stored top-secret documents — whether forgetting to lock them, leaving them on factory settings, or choosing obvious dates as their codes — Feynman began leaving notes in the place of their work, like:
“I borrowed document no. LA4312 — Feynman the safecracker.”
Eventually, he got so good at it that the colonel in charge of his unit began advising people that if Feynman had been anywhere near their safe, it was part of their job to change their combination. This story is one of many Feynman tells in his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
One of the things I’ve always admired about Feynman is that his pursuits seem to have been motivated purely by a deep curiosity. He had general aims, I’m sure, and given the complexity of the work he put out, he was obviously an insanely focused person. But the orienting impulse that guided him went beyond simply having goals or ambitions. He wanted to venture somewhere beyond the known.
Goals as orientation are common in almost all of our pursuits. We look ahead, predict what may make us happy in the future, and then narrow it down to something specific. But what if that’s not the way?
When dealing with the future, an orientation of some sort is necessary. Without one, we would be entirely shaped by the current of luck and randomness. To exercise some semblance of agency over our lives, then, we often resort to goal setting. We are taught to do so early in life so that we can keep up with the world around us. These days, corporations even have acronyms, like SMART goals, that push us to continue our goal-setting habits.
If something maintains your interest over a period of time, it’s likely worth dedicating some energy to.
Whether we are setting SMART goals or personal ones under our own framework (or no framework), goals tend to be relatively concrete. For example, maybe you want to marry by 30, earn an executive position by 40, and retire by 50. Having these sorts of focused goals is probably better than not having any, and certain people may find satisfaction in achieving them. But there are also problems that come with living goal to goal.
For one, you’re attempting to predict an unpredictable future. Who’s to say that what you’ll want tomorrow or next year will be the same as what you want right now? What if what you want right now isn’t even oriented in the right direction over the long term and you’re actually going the wrong way? Life changes, we change, and none of this is evident without hindsight.
Secondly, setting a specific goal for the future creates an anchor. You’re binding your expectations of happiness and contentment onto something singular. It’s easy to forget that there are other things in life that can bring just as much joy as the thing you’re so fixated on. Everybody knows that the ultimate reward is the process, not the goal. But just having goals makes it very hard to stay honest to a process that deviates day to day.
This creates a strange tension: On one hand, goals of some sort are necessary, and giving the future its due attention is the right thing to do. On the other hand, the act of creating these goals and worshipping them, as we often do, can become counterproductive. To solve this tension, we have to move toward something more nebulous.
The really fascinating, even admirable, thing about Feynman is that if he ever had a goal, it was probably this: to go wherever his innate curiosity took him. Perhaps, for brief periods of his life, working on one problem or the other, he may have had more specific goals. But broadly, it seems that his orientation was pointed toward the most interesting thing he could find.
The pursuit of interestingness, I think, solves the predicament that is inherent in goal setting. It’s vague and nebulous enough to be honest about the unpredictability of the future, without leaving us hopelessly lost in the chaos of pure luck and randomness. Throughout life, we all see things, learn things, and pursue things. We develop a strong intuition for what we find fascinating about the world. We discover something that aligns with our deeper nature, while also understanding that we will change over time as human beings.
Interestingness isn’t hedonism, or materialism, or the chase of anything new and shiny. It’s deeper than that. It’s taking on that random project you had no plans to take on because you have a feeling that you might learn something you didn’t know about yourself. It’s seeing a person you just met not as a potential partner or as someone who can do something for you, but as an individual who may open up a new, unique dimension in your life.
The great thing about pursuing this kind of interestingness is that it has a far shorter feedback loop than specific goals. You keep doing something for as long as it’s interesting, but if you were mistaken about your initial impulse, you can move on before much effort is invested.
Goals, incorrectly, assume that we already know what we want.
Naturally, not everything or everyone is interesting all the time. But generally speaking, if something maintains your interest over a period of time, it’s likely worth dedicating some energy to. Making interestingness your general goal in life provides a fluidity and allows you to adapt to new information. This also better amalgamates the goal with the process, rather than the goal being a distinct thing that pulls your attention from the process.
Above all, the pursuit of interestingness honors a simple truth about the human experience: The best things in life are byproducts. They come when they come, as you commit yourself honestly to a process, not when you spend time striving for imagined perfection.
The future does demand our attention, and we do need to be intentional about directing some effort toward it as we orient ourselves in the world. Goals are one way to do that. They help us make concrete what is otherwise uncertain. The problem is that we often mistake what exists to provide orientation as a thing of value in itself.
The best way out of this trap is to pursue what is interesting, what we find novel in this world. This makes the process and the goal one and the same. It allows us to continually update our sense of what is worth pursuing, without confining ourselves to a false certainty.
Interestingness seeks out the riddle of life. It gives us a reason to turn the next page, to see the next scene, to give form to the unknown. Feynman embodied this, and he also said things that capture what differentiates such a pursuit from mere goals and certainties.
For example, in a 1980s interview with the BBC, he said, “I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.”
A couple of decades earlier, giving a lecture at an academic conference in Italy, he offered this advice:
We do not know what the meaning of existence is… If we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave opportunities for alternatives… In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar — ajar only.
Goals, incorrectly, assume that we already know what we want. Interestingness is more humble. It makes up its mind as it moves, slowly blowing from one thing to another until it grasps something that lies beyond prediction. Looking ahead and imagining scenarios has a place. But what is most relevant is unfolding around us right now, and it doesn’t care what we thought about it yesterday.