Richard Phillips Feynman was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Born on the outskirts of New York City in 1918, his work in theoretical physics radically reshaped our understanding of the universe we live in at the most fundamental subatomic levels. When it was all said and done, his biography would simply and fittingly be titled Genius.
12 Favorite Problems
In this step-by-step guide, I’ll share the exact process I use for myself and my students to formulate the most powerful open-ended questions possible. In Part 1, I introduced “favorite problems” as a lens through which to filter the immense amount of information we are exposed to every day. A favorite problem is an open-ended question you use to prime your subconscious to notice potential answers in the information you’re consuming.
Writing down your open questions is an act of “externalization” – you are taking passing curiosities and interests from your mind and externalizing them into the outside world. That is a first step to making those questions active generators of possibility in your life, but certainly not the last. Once they exist in written form, such as in your notes, you now have a place to begin collecting potential answers to those questions without having to memorize them.
Your favorite problems will likely stay consistent over many years, but that doesn’t mean they can’t evolve. I’ve found that in most cases I never actually arrive at a final, definitive answer to a question. Instead, the question changes as I learn more. Let me illustrate this with a case study. I’ll show you how one of my favorite problems – teaching – changed over time as my life went through different stages.
The future has become so uncertain that goals are now obsolete. The stable, predictable world we grew up in is gone. The idea that you can make a “5-year plan” and execute it one step at a time is laughable. No one knows what’s going to happen in the next 5 years or even the next 5 weeks. Goal-setting was once central to our conception of what it means to navigate the future successfully. But goals can no longer serve as guides to an unfolding future that we have so little control over.
One of my favorite things about open questions is that they can be freely borrowed anywhere you encounter them. In my course Building a Second Brain, I lead students through an exercise to identify their own favorite problems. They can then serve as a filter for what to capture in their notes, a guide for…