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Richard Feynman on Refusing an Honorary Degree, Being Driven, and Understanding his Circle of Competence

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track is a wonderful collection of letters written to and from the physicist and professor Richard Feynmanchampion of understanding, explainer, exemplar of curiosity, lover of beauty, knowledge seeker, asker of questions—during his life and career in science.

The book explores the timeless qualities that we cherish in Feynman. Let’s dive a little deeper.


Feynman was precocious; it’s clear that even early in his career, he knew he had the intelligence and drive to make an impact in science. At the age of 24 he had the foresight to mention, in a letter to his parents defying their wish that he not marry a dying woman (his fiancé Arlene had tuberculosis, a deadly diagnosis in those days), that:

I have other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute to physics as much as I can. This, in my mind, is of even more importance than my love for Arlene.

He worked hard at that goal, and he showed signs of enjoying the process. In letters he wrote during his time working in academia and on the atomic bomb, Feynman writes that:

I’m hitting some mathematical difficulties which I will either surmount, walk around, or go a different way—all of which consumes all of my time—but I like to do (it) very much and am very happy indeed. I have never thought so much so steadily about one problem—so if I get nowhere I really will be very disturbed—However, I have gotten somewhere, quite far—to Prof. Wheeler’s satisfaction. However the problem is not at completion, although I’m just beginning to see how far it is to the end and how we might get there (although aforementioned mathematical difficulties loom ahead)—SOME FUN!

This week has been unusual. There is an especially important problem to be worked out on the project, and it’s a lot of fun so I am working quite hard on it. I get up at about 10:30 AM after a good night’s rest, and go to work until 12:30 or 1 AM the next morning when I go back to bed. Naturally I take off about 2 hrs for my two meals. I don’t eat any breakfast, but I eat a midnight snack before I go to bed. It’s been that way for 4 or 5 days.

We see this frequently in genius-level contributors doing intensive work. It is not so much that they find the work easy, but they do find pleasure in the struggle. (There is actually another book about Feynman called “The Pleasure in Finding Things Out.”) Warren Buffett has said many times that he taps dances to work every day, and those who have spent time with him have corroborated the story. It’s not a lie. Charlie Munger has mentioned that one of the main reasons for Berkshire’s success is the fact that they enjoy the work.

Feynman is an interesting character though; for a super-genius scientist, he comes off as unusually romantic with passages like the following one, in a letter to his then-wife, Arlene:

There is a third thing you will be interested in. I love you. You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as other times but it rises and falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength — without you I would be empty and weak like I was before I knew you — but your moments of strength make me strong and thus I am able to comfort you with your strength when your steam is low.

And long-time readers will remember the heart-breaking letter he wrote after she had passed away.

Honor and Honesty 

As the book rolls along and Feynman gets older and more famous, he is regularly asked to be honored. Generally, as most who have studied Feynman would know, he showed considerable discomfort with the process, which valued exclusivity and puffery over knowledge. One letter is typical of the middle-aged Feynman:

Dear George,

Yours is the first honorary degree that I have ben offered, and I thank you for considering me for such an honor.

However, I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work—and felt an “honorary degree” was a debasement of the idea of a “degree which confirms certain work has been accomplished.” It is like giving an “honorary electrician’s license.” I swore then that if by chance I was ever offered one, I would not accept it.

Now at last (twenty-five years later) you have given me a chance to carry out my vow.

So thank you, but I do not wish to accept the honorary degrees you offered.

Sincerely yours,

Richard P. Feynman

He also offers his usual wit upon resigning from the National Academy of Sciences:

Dear Prof. Handler:

My request for resignation from the National Academy of Sciences is based entirely on personal psychological quirks. It represents in no way any implied or explicit criticism of the Academy, other than those characteristics that flow from the fact that most of the membership consider their installation as a significant honor.

Sincerely yours,
Richard P. Feynman

In fact, Feynman was constantly displaying his tendency towards intellectual honesty, whenever possible. He understood his circle of competence. Several letters scattered throughout his life show him essentially throwing up his hands and saying “I don’t know,” and he took pride in doing so. His general philosophy towards ignorance and learning was summed up in a statement he made in 1963 that “I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy…that doubt is not to be feared, but it is to be welcomed…”

The following letter was typical of his lack of intellectual arrogance, this one coming in response to something he’d written about teaching kids math in his younger years:

Dear Mrs. Cochran:

As I get more experience I realize that I know nothing whatsoever as to how to teach children arithmetic. I did write some things before I reached my present state of wisdom. Perhaps the references you heard came from the article which I enclose.

At present, however, I do not know whether I agree with my past self or not.

Richard P. Feynman

He does it again here, opening a reply to a highly critical letter about a TV appearance with the following:

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Thank you for your letter about my KNXT interview. You are quite right that I am very ignorant about smog and many other things, including the use of Finest English.

I won the Nobel Prize for work I did in physics trying to uncover the laws of nature. The only thing I really know very much about are these laws….


In the end, Feynman’s greatest strength, outside of his immense scientific talent, was his basic philosophy on life. In 1954, Feynman wrote with tenderness to his mother:

Wealth is not happiness nor is swimming pools and villas. Nor is great work alone reward, or fame. Foreign places visited themselves give nothing. It is only you who bring to the places your heart, or in your great work feeling, or in your large house place. If you do this there is happiness.

Check out Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, and learn more about life and learning from the best.