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The Cure for Burnout, According to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman: Play More

0 2 years ago

It’s official: Post-pandemic America is incredibly burned out. “According to Google Trends, which since 2004 has collected data on what the world is searching for, queries for ‘burnout’ –from work, life, and school–are at an all-time high in the US,” Quartz recently reported.

Which means there are a whole lot of entrepreneurs out there looking for ways to recover from exhaustion and lack of motivation after two years of Covid craziness. Psychologists have offered plenty of advice, but so too have geniuses.

In his 1985 book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman recounted his own case of burnout and explained what worked to cure him (hat tip to Kottke). His prescription is a whole lot more pleasant than a lot of advice you’ll get about rejiggering your work responsibilities or schedule: Play more.

How goofing off at lunch led to a Nobel prize

“Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics,” recalls Feynman in the book about one low point in his career. That can’t have been a pleasant feeling, but Feynman was clearly a guy who excelled at looking at reality from fresh perspectives. Eventually he started to see an upside to his burnout.

“I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever,” he recalls.

He started making seemingly trivial but fascinating observations about the world around him — say, the specific way a plate wobbled when a student goofing around in the cafeteria spun it in the air — and began noodling around with physics and math to explain them.


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