Finding Direction and Motivation with Richard Feynman's 12 Favorite Problems Technique
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I am a person who is interested in learning about everything, including everything from interior design to urban planning and beyond. While that might sound like a great trait to have, it often leaves me in a position where I know a lot about various topics but not enough about each topic to be useful.
It's the classic "Jack of all trades, master of none" situation.
There is no doubt that creativity comes from connecting ideas from different topics. Books like "Range" by David Epstein and the famous "T-model," used frequently for career development, show that we need a diverse information diet that comes from various topics. But spreading our attention across too many topics at once would make it hard to get anything done. Even artists who supposedly have all the creative freedom in the world are constrained by their medium to deliver their art.
In an effort to become more focused with my work and interests, I look to the people I admire online for inspiration. The two individuals that immediately come to mind are August Bradley and Tiago Forte. They both have systems that help them stay oriented and focused. August's system is called "Year Zero," and Tiago's is his "Second Brain."
The two systems have different philosophies, but they are both based on the central theme of alignment. Everything in the system needs to be aligned with the problems that you are trying to solve. Even books about focus and productivity, such as "Work Clean" and "Ultralearning", emphasize the importance of aligning oneself with their mission or learning goal.
All these methods are variations of the 12 favorite problems technique, which was created by Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist known for his ability to simplify complex concepts and explain them in a way that anyone could understand. He made significant contributions to physics and science.
This technique involves keeping 12 complex, open-ended questions or problems with you at all times, and only consuming content that relates to these questions. These questions should be ones that you want to answer but have no clear solution. By focusing on these questions, you can deepen your understanding of the topics.
Although focusing on 12 problems at a time may sound permanent, the questions can always be revised as needed. Both August and Tiago have regular reviews in their systems to ensure that the 12 problems remain up-to-date and relevant to the context of their lives.
The idea behind this technique is to provide some direction in life and prevent the absorption of irrelevant information, which can be a common pitfall. By focusing on a specific set of complex, open-ended questions, we can make more progress than spreading ourselves too thinly.
This technique is especially applicable to me, as I tend to go down irrelevant rabbit holes often. While it's important not to completely disregard potentially useful information, we also don't want to invest time and energy in exploring topics that aren't directly related to the 12 problems. A system like Tiago's "Second Brain" even includes an archive folder for storing useful but currently irrelevant information, so that it can be easily accessed at a later time.
Making your own list
Creating a list of your own 12 favorite problems is actually quite simple, but it does require time and effort to create a list that truly resonates with what you want to achieve in life. While prompts and guides are available on the internet to help with this process, ultimately, it comes down to your own reflection and consideration of the problems you want to solve. My advice is to take your time and avoid becoming too attached to your initial versions of the problem list.
Here are a few resources that helped me when I was creating my list
- 12 Favorite Problems: How to Spark Genius With the Power of Open Questions (fortelabs.com)
- How to Generate Your Own Favorite Problems: A 4-Step Guide (fortelabs.com)
- 12 Favorite Problems: A Framework for Discovering Your Purpose
If you are interested, here is my list.
I've had a list of problems for over two years now, and it anchored me whenever I felt myself getting sidetracked or feeling lost. Over the past two years, I have done four reviews and have removed or modified some of the questions from my initial list of 12 problems. My list of problems has also helped me understand my personal interest and how that changes with time.
I hope that this article inspires you to create your own list, because I have found my list to be crucial in helping me focus in life.
Thanks for reading