The Feynman principle

A review of a review about scientist Richard Feynman in the Freakonomics blog caught my eye this morning because it also provides a simple but telling thought for every brand owner.

The author of the blog post, Sanjoy Mahajan, comments “It’s not quite true that Feynman could not accept an idea until he had torn it apart. Rather, the idea could not yet be part of his way of thinking and looking at the world. Before an idea could contribute to that worldview, Feynman wanted to turn over the idea, to see why it was true, from any angle that he could find.”

We don’t have to look far to see what Feynman was fighting against. Once something has been widely accepted as fact, the temptation is to absorb it unquestioned and to work with it on that assumption. What Feynman did though was to say “you may very well think that, but before I can think that, before I can actually absorb any thought into my worldview, I need to prove it to myself”.

For Feynman, concerns over “you don’t know what you don’t know” seem to have been replaced by a preoccupation with “you should always question what you do know”. I like this idea. After all, it is only by questioning what goes without saying that something new can be said. That it seems is what Feynman did. He re-litigated every assumption not so much to go over old ground but rather to uncover anything that had been missed in order to give himself something to build on. In other words, he used the re-litigation process to extract new value and new possibilities.

So how might you apply this Feynman principle to your brands? Perhaps by asking yourselves this the next time you sit down to strategise: What have we never questioned?


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  1. Alexandra Lutyens says

    Here’s another fabulous example of questioning. Kevin Kelly (love his blog, The Technium) claimed that technologies don’t go extinct. Science journalist Robert Krulwich, challenged this. Read the story here

    Good post, Mark, and so much your style too. Working with you always leads to deep insights because of your relentless questioning.


    • Part of it too I think is being able to sort the “convenient” questions – the ones everyone expects, knows, feels comfortable with – from the questions that Feynman was always looking to ask: the “inconvenient” questions. Inconvenient – not because they’re rude or embarrasing or confrontational, but because they come at issues from that position of assuming nothing.

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