Richard Feynman on the Value of Straight Talk

Do you speak freely and communicate your ideas directly?  Or do you filter, hedge, calculate, or adjust your message based on what you believe your audience wants to hear?  Richard Feynman highlights the value of straight talk through a short story found in his collection of autobiographical adventures, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Richard Feynman’s Direct Communication

Feynman (1918-1988) was an American theoretical physicist, lifelong learner, and academic adventurer.  His work spanned many decades, and he made gigantic contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics.  He participated in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, taught at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, and assisted in the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle explosion.

Aside from his professional accomplishments, Feynman is often admired for his humorous and bawdy adventures in life.  His direct communication style often startled conventional thinkers: when learning feline anatomy, for example, his question was reported to be, “Do you have a map of the cat?”

Deliver an Honest Opinion Directly

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, Feynman recalls the opportunity to meet and work with Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the Manhattan Project.  At the time, Bohr was a giant in the field, while Feynman was still in the early stages of his career and relatively unknown.

“I also met Niels Bohr.  His name was Nicholas Baker in those days, and he came to Los Alamos, with Jim Baker, his son, whos e name is really Aage Bohr.  They came from Denmark, and they were very famous physicists, as you know.  Even to the big shot guys, Bohr was a great god.

[…]In the morning of the day he’s due to come next time, I get a telephone call.



‘This is Jim Baker.’ It’s his son. ‘My father and I would like to speak to you.’

‘Me? I’m Feynman, I’m just a-.’

‘That’s right.  Is eight o’clock OK?’

So, at eight o’clock in the morning, before anybody’s awake, I go down to the place.  We go into an office in the technical area and he says, ‘We have been thinking how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea.’

I say, ‘No, it’s not going to work.  It’s not efficient …Blah, blah, blah.’

So he says, ‘How about so and so?’

I said, ‘That sounds a little bit better, but it’s got this damn fool idea in it.”

This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing.  The great Niels kept lighting his pipe; it always went out.  And he talked in a way that was un-understandable -mumble, mumble, hard to understand.  His son I could understand better.

‘Well,’ he said finally, lighting his pipe, ‘I guess we can call in the big shots now.’ So then they called all the other guys and had a discussion with them.

Then the son told me what happened.  The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, ‘Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea.  So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.  Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.

I was always dumb in that way.  I never knew who I was talking to.  I was always worried about the physics.  If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy.  If it looked good, I said it looked good.  Simple proposition.

I’ve always lived that way.  It’s nice, it’s pleasant – if you can do it.  I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.”

An honest opinion delivered directly can be of immense value.  Don’t waste your opportunities to share them.  Over time, the reputation as someone who shares ideas candidly will become even more valuable to your audience than the individual opinions.