Doing Things “For The Fun Of It”

A few days ago I watched an interesting documentary: The Fantastic Mr Feynman of The Late Great Richard Feynman.

What fascinated me was, how after being dispirited, he insisted on doing things For The Fun Of It (See the clip below).

There’s also a longer quote from “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman” where he talks about his motivation on his career after participating in the development of the nuclear weapon in Los Alamos.

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.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate – two to one [Note: Feynman mis-remembers here–the factor of 2 is the other way]. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” – working, really – with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

Doing things For The Fun Of It may not win you a Nobel prize, but there’s no reason to be disheartened by that. As Feynman mentioned in the documentary, those kind of prices are not “real” things and so they’re not a great motivation for doing anything. The real reward is being able to do the thing in the first place and finding pleasure in doing it (btw. I also highly recommend watching The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out.

These ideas resonated with me, as I realized that quite similar behaviour has pretty much gotten me to this point. In my childhood, I stopped playing Hockey when it no longer was fun. My decision to quite Hockey, was influenced by me trying Snowboarding and enjoying it really much. For me snowboarding was (and still is) purely done for the fun of it, it’s great to be able to hang out with friends and ride the wave 🌊.
Similarly I started making music because I managed to get my hands on Propellerhead’s Reason 2.0, and found it quite fun to experiment with sound (haven’t looked back, even though the tools have changed multiple times).
I could imagine someone criticizing this approach for it’s lack of ambition, but to me doing things to achieve something feels quite unnatural. And I have realized that ambition could help one’s motivation to finalize something, but maybe it’s better to replace that required push by investing in yourself and strengthening your character, instead of motivating yourself by thinking about prices/money/fame.

As I see it there are immediate benefits for doing things you enjoy, ie. you won’t be miserable while “working” on it (unless being miserable is your thing). You might also learn something about yourself, as you’ll be reacting to the notion “What are things you do just For The Fun Of It?”.

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