Feynman is one of my idols. He's famous for his teaching skills and Physics discoveries, but above all, he was a great questioner. He even questioned his student's knowledge of basic arithmetic.
In his physics lectures, he was known to start his classes teaching the number line and progress to modern physics' most complicated and current problems. Feynman believed only by questioning our most basic assumptions could we build the understanding necessary to tackle life's most challenging problems.
Before rising to the legendary status he holds today, Feynman's most significant problem was finding out how to revolutionize physics while also making his research understandable through outstanding teaching.
To do this, he needed a filter, something to tell him what information to consume and actions to take. Otherwise, he might find himself saying yes to things he shouldn't. He formulated twelve problems to guide everything he did in life—most of his twelve problems revolved around these two goals.
"You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large, they will lay in a dormant state. 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!" - Richard Feynman.
This process is known as the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method holds questioning as a primary virtue. It's named after Socrates, who was famous for walking the streets of Athens and other Greek City-States questioning random folk sitting outside.
He would start with a question like, "why do you look so gloomy," and might get a response about the weather. Then he would pester them with questions digging further into the issue until they couldn't answer anymore.
This questioning process revealed just how much the unfortunate citizen didn't know about the world. This might seem obnoxious, but Socrates held to this method because he knew the first step in the path of wisdom was humility.
Just like Feynman, Socrates believed forming a basic foundational understanding of the world was necessary to succeed with anything in life. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us, but I like to think if he was, he would have one question for you.
What are your 12 problems?
There is nothing special about the number 12. 10 seems too little, 14 too much. 12 Hits the sweet spot.
I recommend you start by looking at your current information diet. Get out a notebook and answer these questions:
- What do you consume you feel is a deep part of you?
- What subjects are you interested in?
- What are your five core values (ex: honesty, gratefulness, humility, timeliness, discipline; here is a longer list if you need inspiration).
- What do you talk about with friends?
- What gets you up in the morning?
Here are my twelve problems for inspiration when writing yours. Don't feel bad if you take a few of mine. I did the same with Tiago Forte when he showed me his.
- How can I instill the most effective and sustainable reading habit into my and others' lives?
- How can I find and foster long-term relationships in my life?
- What does the Theory of Constraints have to teach us about our information diets, especially towards reading?
- How can I improve the skill of Happiness?
- How can I make my personal projects fun, helpful, and profitable at the same time?
- How can I build a second brain that works for me instead of against me?
- How do I create long-term intellectual property that is insightful and valuable years in the future?
- How do I balance short-term fun and long-term pain?
- How can I design the perfect lifestyle for me?
- How can I convey ideas in the most concise, useful, and interesting way possible?
- What can we do to make the internet work for us instead of against us?
- How can I balance time management with living in the present?
Formulate your twelve problems. Don't be a perfectionist. Write anything coming to mind. Remember, you can always come back and tweak your problems as your life changes.
My problems change all the time. It's likely as you are reading this they are slightly different than in this post. There may come a time when you feel satisfied with your answer to a question. If this happens, simply create a new one.
But the best problems are never answered. In fact, you don't want to answer them. They are what drive you. They are what give you purpose.
Your twelve problems are what underly everything you do in life because they make every day an the opportunity to advance them. They guide you in building your own Infinite Library and reigniting your Childhood Curiosity.
At any point, you are one question away from a life worth living. It's all a matter of finding the rights problems.
Thanks to Astrid Helfant for the conversations which helped form this essay.