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A Nobel Prize Winner's Method for Solving Tricky Problems
And Why Simply Naming Them Is a Powerful Step
Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was one of the most profound minds of the 20th century. And he is increasingly leaned upon for his wide-ranging insights and wisdom.
Chief among them, this:
Another of Feynman’s brilliant methods, this one, for solving for the theoretical quandaries that were blowing his mind is the Favorite Problems exercise.
Feynman believed that the subconscious mind could work its computational magic in the background of our days and ways. This is what’s known as the “diffuse mode” of thinking. Sure, it pays to think actively on the questions and mysteries that light our passions. But they can be noodled and even solved subliminally when we name them. Once formulated and uttered, our unconscious and subconscious faculties make profound connections towards elucidating the problems.
I’m deepening into my new coaching practice, so I’m steeped in the universe of questions about how we heal and change ourselves. And because this is a new career journey, this is a phenomenal time to undertake this type of practice. The Favorite Problems exercise is a powerful way to orient towards a north star, to clarify the parameters of a passion pursuit.
I’m not sure I love the name of the exercise: “problems” seems loaded. I haven’t found an alternative that sings though. “Questions” seems shallow; “inquiries” feels clunky; “curiosities” feels like a steampunk menagerie.
The “problems” are less problematic, and more the themes that orbit how I want to contribute in this world. These are threads that constitute the Gordian Knots of my lifelong pursuits. They’re intimate, they’re hairy, they’re beautiful. I’m realizing now it’s kind of tender to reveal them, and maybe that’s the magic of the exercise: naming and revealing your innermost inquiry to a community of your peers brings air to the sparks that ignite the flames of inspiration.
Or maybe it’s like Tyson Yunkaporta wrote in his brilliant book, Sand Talk:
“I need to pass these concepts on so I can leave them behind and grow into the next stage of knowledge. Failing to pass it all on means I'm carrying it around like a stone and stifling my growth, as well as the regeneration of the systems I live in.”
Whatever the nature of the magic of this exercise, there’s something alchemical and transformative about it, and I’ve only just drafted them. We’ll see what comes when they’re out in the ether with you.
Without further ado, here are my current 12 Favorite Problems:
1. What are the forces, seen and unseen, internal and external, that drive us (as individuals and as a society) to ways of being that are neither generative nor authentic?
2. What mindsets, models, and practices are best at counteracting these forces?
3. To what extent are we empowered to make manifest wild, bold, and beautiful changes in ourselves and in our world?
4. What mindsets, models, and practices are best at engendering that power?
5. How can we create avenues to increased synchronicity, serendipity, and luck?
6. How can we heal and/or overcome our deepest-seated fears, wounds, and insecurities, both individually and as a society?
7. How can I source my own unique offering for helping others in their journey to wholeness?
8. What more can I do right now to deepen my connection and intimacy with those I love?
9. How can I best hold these two truths at once: that I have deep faith and hope, and that I see everywhere massive evidence of the poly-crisis of our times?
10. How can we as a society pull back and disarm from the political divide and culture wars?
11. What quality of vastness, of beauty and depth will open to me with deeper spiritual practice and community?
12. What can I do to share that healing with others?
Even the simple act of naming those twelve questions feels like an opening, a relief, a right next step. Thanks for hearing them out.
What are your favorite questions and puzzles about life, about being human, the things you ask yourself all the time? See what happens when you name them. Share them if you feel inclined.