Tuesday, February 14, 2012

From Feedback to Kaizen: reflecting on Richard Feynman

Yesterday, I started telling our new Director of Sales about my father's guiding rules. These are simple concepts that take a lot of thought and effort to truly understand (in the sense that you can effectively apply them), but they are easy to carry around. These memes take up little space in the noggin.

Examples I gave included "feedback on results" and "design controls". It occurred to me that these were systems my father used not to fool himself. This reminded me of a 'speech' by Richard Feynman, the brilliant humanist and scientist.

He said,
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are
the easiest person to fool."

A recent salon.com article spoke of the importance of fact-checking. I think the article's view is old and tired. Let's all be each other's fact checkers! But on the other hand, what she is saying is a very exciting idea. She is suggesting a much more democratic process than traditional human discourse. But how do we fact-check each other?

Well, one thing that really pissed me off as I grew out of school (figuratively, as I am only 6' tall, but dropped out of highschool at 16) was how woefully underprepared it left me for being a human being. I knew there was stuff that was much more important to my day-to-day life, that somehow other people were learning and I wasn't.

"But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves--of
having utter scientific integrity--is, I'm sorry to say, something
that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that
I know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis."

well, it turns out all this stuff other people were learning was not this. Somehow I caught on to the integrity of not fooling myself. I got it by osmosis from my father and ran off screaming on an exciting adventure. I took not-fooling-yourself to absurd extremes, then realized they weren't that absurd. I realized that RPF was talking about science, but that not-fooling-yourself as a human is much harder. We're designed to fool ourselves. We don't even have the words to describe this deep introspective process. I went cave diving into my own underpinnings with a very weak guide line to find my way back out. I'm pretty sure I nearly went nuts.

Well, I'm back.

And I'll tell you, we need a lot of clever people to tackle the world's problems today. RPF was a sharp guy, and I don't think he even thought to delve into the underpinnings of language, the Progress Paradox, the myriad ways we are now unraveling how we have been naturally selected for survival, not in this world we live in now, not for an optimal life, but as carriers for genes.

But damn, he sure came impressively close. Check out his speech here. If you like it, I suggest finding a copy of The Meaning of It All.

"The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. ... No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it. " -RPF

So we have some very good scientific principles for science, but we don't have very many good ones for living our lives.

So I leave you with a call-to-action! An extremist guiding rule of my own: Kaizen.

The zen philosophy of taking the smallest possible step forward. The idea of, when necessary, breaking every action into as many smaller actions as possible, and noting the progress of each nigh-imperceptable step. This is the concept of how to climb a mountain. One step at a time.

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