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Burned Out

Posted in: Misc

During this period I would get offers from different places -universities and industry- with salaries higher than my own. And each time I got something like that I would get a little more depressed. I would say to myself, “Look, they’re giving me these wonderful offers, but they don’t realize that I’m burned out! Of course I can’t accept them. They expect me to accomplish something, and I can’t accomplish anything! I have no ideas…”

Finally there came in the mail an invitation from the Institute for Advanced Study: Einstein… von Neumann… Wyl… all these great minds! They write to me, and invite me to be a professor there! And not just a regular professor. Somehow they knew my feelings about the Institute: how it’s too theoretical; how there’s not enough real activity and challenge. So they write, “We appreciate that you have a considerable interest in experiments and in teaching, so we have made arrangements to create a special type of professorship, if you wish: half professor at Princeton University, and half at the Institute.”

Institute for Advanced Study! Special exception! A position better than Einstein, even! It was ideal; it was perfect; it was absurd!

It was absurd. The other offers had made me feel worse, up to a point. They were expecting me to accomplish something. But this offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion. The other ones were just mistakes; this was an absurdity! I laughed at it while I was shaving, thinking about it.

And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible for me ever to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!”

It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing. It wasn’t a failure on my part that the Institute for Advanced Study expected me to be that good; it was impossible. It was clearly a mistake -and the moment I appreciated the possibility that they might be wrong, I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.

Then, within the day, by some strange miracle -perhaps he overheard me talking about it, or maybe he just understood me- Bob Wilson, who was head of the laboratory there at Cornell, called me in to see him. He said, in a serious tone, “Feynman, you’re teaching your classes well; you’re doing a good job, and we’re very satisfied. Any other expectations we might have are a matter of luck. When we hire a professor, we’re taking all the risks. If it comes out good, all right. If it doesn’t, too bad. But you shouldn’t worry about what you’re doing or not doing.” He said it much better than that, and it released me from the feeling of guilt.

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing -it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Taken from “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman.