Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman: How To Succeed As A Modern Thought Leader
Personal note: This morning I went to the beach (five-minute drive) after dropping my daughter off at school. I was tempted not to, because I had a lot of writing to do today.
But here I was with my golden retriever (Chloe) taking in the view…
I don’t know what it is about the ocean. Maybe it’s feeling the sun’s light without the interference of trees or buildings. Maybe it’s panoramically gazing into the horizon. Or maybe it’s just the combination of the smells, the feel of the water, or the sound of the waves. But I feel revelry when I’m here.
I feel grateful to live so close to nature.
I feel grateful that I’ve personally grown to be able to appreciate the wonder of nature.
I feel grateful that I made the time for it on a weekday.
Also, do you notice how empty the beach is on a warm, sunny weekday at 8am? This is one of five beaches in the state. It’s free to visit. More people work at home than ever. Yet, out of all of the people who live in the state, you can see how empty the beach is. Furthermore, when I talk to many folks who live in the area, many of them barely visit the beach at all during the year.
It all makes me wonder, how much beauty there is in our day-to-day lives that we miss because we’re busy.
I’m not exactly sure what the technical return on investment on my beach visit was, but I know that when it comes to my soul, it was positive. And when my soul is fed, I believe that fullness reverberates throughout my life, family, and work in ways that are important beyond measure.
What moment of delight do you want to give yourself permission to experience today?
Now, let’s jump into today’s post…
In this 1970 video clip, philosopher Mortimer Adler explained what it takes to be a world-class thought leader.
(Side note: Adler is known to me from his two great books: How To Read A Book and Six Great Ideas.)
In just one minute, Adler provides a solid overview of what I call the Modern Thought Leader archetype…
#1: Great teachers don’t just share knowledge, they share wonder
The best teacher, in my own experience, is the teacher who, in the course of teaching, is learning.
#2: The ultimate transmission is the aliveness inside of us
The teacher who has learned it all is merely becoming a means of transmission of knowledge that's dead for him because it's not being actively acquired at the time.
The inspiration that happens in the classroom is when the students see the teacher learn something. Thinking, learning, ideas occurring.
#3: Great teachers often learn more than their students
I know it's kind of trite to say that Socrates was the greatest teacher, but he was. And he was simply because he was teaching while conducting an inquiry. His teaching was the conduct of an inquiry in which the students were engaged in the inquiry with him.
I deeply resonate with Adler’s model, and it serves as a stark contrast to Conventional Thought Leadership (i.e. content marketing), which I think ultimately does more harm than good (more on that later in the post).
Today’s post is important because it challenges the fundamental assumptions that people go into thought leadership with without even realizing it. Rather than focusing on tactics, it focuses on a higher leverage point—paradigm. In other words, rather than teaching you how to fish, I’m teaching you about the water you’re swimming in without even realizing it so you can make better choices.
Today’s Game Plan
Introducing Conventional Thought Leadership (pros & cons)
Introducing Modern Thought Leadership (pros & cons)
The Richard Feynman Case Study (paid subscribers)
Three life-changing exercises—at least they were for me—to help you become a Modern Thought Leader (paid subscribers)
Ultimately, this post will help you avoid the trap of Conventional Thought Leadership, which provides benefits in the short-term, but in the long-term is worse for both you as the thought leader and the people you serve. And then this post will help you get the benefits of Modern Thought Leadership.
The Conventional Thought Leader Gives Thought Leadership A Bad Name
The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing.
― Nassim Taleb
The conventional thought leader often has the following qualities:
Learns on a surface level (often in the same way that a student learns knowledge to pass a test but not to understand at a fundamental level)
Shares what they learn primarily to create wealth and prestige for themselves
Stops learning in order to focus most of their energy on marketing
Cherry-picks research in order to prove their thesis so that they will appear more credible (rather than disproving their thesis in order to have better ideas)
Presents ideas that are just good enough to motivate others to buy their program without asking for a refund (rather than making the program so it good people refer it to everyone)
Blindly defends their ideas without seriously considering good arguments
Builds a brand as the “know-it-all” of the niche without acknowledging the limits of their knowledge
Has no skin in the game if predictions are wrong
While the Conventional Thought Leader may be successful in the short-term because they’re efficient and good at marketing, in the long run, I believe it is a losing strategy…
The Downsides Of Being A Conventional Thought Leader
SUMMARY 1. Conventional Thought Leaders fool themself 2. The ideas of Conventional Thought Leaders get stale 3. Conventional Thought Leadership is not as fun
#1: Conventional Thought Leaders fool themself
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.
― Nassim Taleb
Ultimately, if your ideas aren’t accurate or helpful, you won’t benefit from applying the ideas to your own life and your predictions of the future will be less accurate.
For example, in a fascinating study of expert predictions, UPenn researcher Phil Tetlock found that there was an inverse correlation between how famous an expert was and the accuracy of their prediction…
#2: The ideas of Conventional Thought Leaders get stale
Have you ever seen a presenter using an outdated slide from 10 years ago? Or noticed that all of their citations were from 30 years ago?
Without constant learning and growth, the Conventional Thought Leader becomes a pale imitation of themself.
I can often tell someone’s work has become stale when they’re more of an advocate of an ideology than an explorer of what’s true. I can also tell that someone is losing vitality when I can predict everything they’re going to say based on what they’ve said in the past.
#3: Conventional Thought Leadership is not as fun
When we focus on the outcomes of thought leadership and minimize the value of enjoying the process, we make the process boring and mechanical.
The Conventional Thought Leader contrasts to what I call the Modern Thought Leader…
Introducing The Modern Thought Leader
SUMMARY 1. The Modern Thought Leader is a student first 2. The Modern Thought Leader is a doer second 3. The Modern Thought Leader is a teacher third
The Modern Thought Leader is a student first
As a student, their goals are to:
Explore their curiosity
Understand the truth of how something works at a fundamental level
Build upon a foundation of the best of what others have figured out
Find the holes in their existing thinking
Grow and develop as a person
The Modern Thought Leader is a doer second
They don’t just want to learn knowledge to scratch a random intellectual curiosity; they want to apply the knowledge to the world in order to create a positive outcome for themselves, for others, or for the planet. This process of application refines the knowledge in two ways:
Helps one understand what works in practice and what doesn’t.
Helps one understand the nuances of how it works in practice.
By applying what you learn, you have skin in the game. You aren’t recommending ideas to people whose consequences you’ll never see. When you apply ideas to your life, you reap the rewards of good ideas and the costs of bad ideas.
Steve Jobs brilliantly captures the importance of having skin in the game as a doer in this clip…
The Modern Thought Leader is a teacher third
From this foundation, students eventually learn rare and valuable knowledge that others would want to learn and might even pay for. In other words, the fodder for teaching comes from learning and then doing. Stated differently, a great teacher is also a master student.
From here, the student becomes the teacher, but in a very different way than our conventional model of teaching:
The teacher learns with the student. Every time a teacher revisits a topic is an opportunity to relearn it at a deeper level (see Explanation Effect). This happens in the same way that we never walk in the same river twice or that when we reread something years later, we get something new, because we are a different person.
The goal is not just transmitting knowledge, it’s transmitting passion. When we share our passion for a topic, we give students the fuel they need to learn on their own.
The Modern Thought Leader builds on a foundation of learning and doing:
The Conventional Thought Leader inverts the pyramid and does not build on a solid long-term foundation:
Granted, marketing is arguably the most important skill if your goal is short-term money. And marketing is a fundamental skill overall. It’s just not foundational for thought leadership any more than self-promotion is foundational to leadership in general.
Bottom Line: When you take a money- and prestige-first approach to thought leadership, you risk becoming dogmatic, losing relevance, and having to fight harder for attention in the long run, because you’re failing to grow the skills and knowledge that would keep you on the cutting edge of your field. The Modern Thought Leader’s learning-first approach makes it possible to keep generating new insights and applications that add to your existing body of knowledge, ensuring that you’ll always have something new, rare, and valuable to share with your audience. The learning-first approach helps you stay ahead of the pack, giving you longevity as a thought leader.
The Benefits Of Being A Modern Thought Leader
SUMMARY 1. More fun 2. Deeper learning 3. More impact 4. More success
On the one hand, being a Modern Thought Leader is a longer and more windy road. It’s hard to predict where curiosity will take you. And, to build up expertise takes a long time. But, ultimately, I think it’s better in almost every other way:
It’s more fun to both learn and teach.
You learn more deeply upfront and even more deeply as you teach. Thus, you get a foundational understanding of your topic that you can use for the rest of your life.
You make more of an impact. Because the things you teach are more true and useful. Furthermore, people appreciate your passion and authenticity. You don’t just transmit ideas, you transmit wonder
You are ultimately more successful. I would argue that the top people in their fields are often driven by Infinite Devotion in the form of curiosity, passion, flow, constant improvement, purpose, and wonder.
For me, the epitome of a modern thought leader is physicist Richard Feynman who embodies the following qualities…
Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman Is The Ultimate Modern Thought Leader
Feynman embodies the following Modern Thought Leader qualities... 1. Understand and then question conventional wisdom 2. Don’t do it all for the honors 3. Don’t just memorize formulas and names 4. Find unique perspectives 5. Understand that knowledge is deep (hierarchal) 6. Go past the edges of what is known 7. Don’t see boundaries between fields in the same way
Imagine learning about fire.
On the surface, it doesn’t sound that interesting. Right?
Then, watch this four-minute video clip of Feynman explaining what a fire actually is:
This clip is a masterclass:
Feynman is able to get to the core of what a fire is beyond repeating a formula
He translates his understanding into simple, concrete terms he illustrates with his hands
He’s able to explain a fire in the context of the larger system in which it appears (soil, moisture, sun)
He transmits his wonder and curiosity
This clip and Feynman, in general, embody the energy, mindset, impact, sensibility, and ultimately, the success that’s available for Modern Thought Leaders.
In a few other clips I’ve collected I dive deeper into the nuances of how Feynman thinks differently…
#1: Modern Thought Leaders understand and then question conventional wisdom
With true expertise in their topic combined with a questioning mindset, the thought leader challenges the conventional wisdom of things that everyone thinks or does because that’s how it has always been done…