The Best Path Is A Compromise
As an undergrad at MIT, the physicist Richard Feynman first discovered a law of nature that would come up again and again throughout his life: the principle of least action. It was taught to Feynman like this. A lifeguard is at their post on the beach, and she sees a drowning swimmer. The lifeguard can run faster than she can swim. To get to the swimmer fastest, should she take a straight line from where she sits (least distance) or a straight line from the shoreline (least water)? “The best path,” it turns out, “is a compromise,” as Feynman’s biographer put it. To get to the swimmer fastest, the lifeguard must angle up the beach then take a sharp angle to the swimmer:
When I learned about Feynman learning about the principle of least action, I thought, I wonder if I can find some other areas in life where “the best path is a compromise.” Indeed, it’s come up again and again…
The Best Path To Knowledge
Leonardo da Vinci used to sign off his letters, “Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia” (”disciple of experience”). Born out of wedlock, young Leonardo was not allowed to attend a traditional school. He was an “unlettered man,” he would say. In a subconscious response to “certain presumptuous people [who] strut about puffed and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others,” Leonardo crafted the conviction that it was better to not be a man of letters. “My subjects,” he wrote in his notebooks in 1490, “require experience rather than the words of other.” But those same notebooks show that he evolved out of this belief. Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the printing revolution introduced the possibility to become a self-made man of letters. When the first publishing house opened in Venice in 1469, Leonardo was there for it. Around this time, in his notebooks, he began to list the titles of books he acquired, copy out favorite passages, and record the titles he hoped to track down. “Thus,” his biographer Walter Isaacson writes, “Leonardo become a disciple of both experience and received wisdom.” Leonardo came to see that the best path to knowledge is a compromise between earned and received wisdom. Like his younger self—“those who are in love with practice without theoretical knowledge are like the sailor who goes onto a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whither he is going,” he wrote in 1510. The path of least time to knowledge, Leonardo came to see, is between the path of least experiential knowledge and the path of least theoretical knowledge—to put in terms similar to our lifeguard above.
The Best Path To Doing Important Work
In the 1960s, Donald Schön started working at MIT. The school of engineering brought him in not to solve problems but to choose problems worth solving. Alfred Keil, head of the engineering school, put it to Schön like this: “We know how to build any ship we choose to build, but we don’t know how to choose what ship to build.” Schön then met with MIT’s top civil engineer, who told Schön, “we know how to build roads. We can build any road you want. But the problem of where to put that road—that’s another issue altogether. The MIT school of engineering was confronting what Schön called the “dilemma of rigor and relevance”—they were really smart and working really hard but on trivial problems. This is a problem in every profession. The entrepreneur, the programmer, the writer, the designer, the architect, the accountant—“the problem that you face,” Schön said, “is the problem of constructing a problem. You have to construct the problem before you can effectively carry out any technical activity.” The best path to doing important work, we can imagine Schön saying, is a compromise between rigor and relevance. It’s not enough that you are really smart and work really hard. You also need a relevant problem to solve.
The Best Path To Generating Ideas
Mathematicians often refer to their job as “worrying about an idea.” One mathematician, for example, Dan Rockmore, analogizes his job to “a dog worrying a bone, chewing at it to get to the marrow—the rich, meaty part.” In a piece in the New Yorker, Rockmore weaves a number of anecdotes about mathematicians having a creative breakthrough when they weren’t worrying about their idea. Henri Poincaré’s moment of insight came while boarding bus. Sir William Rowan Hamilton’s while on a walk with his wife. I’ve told the story of Lin-Manuel Miranda having the idea for Hamilton when he was floating in a pool. All these stories, Rockmore writes, “suggest that an initial period of concentration—conscious, directed attention—needs to be followed by some amount of unconscious processing.” Lin-Manuel had to read Hamilton’s biography, but then he had to unconsciously process it. “The key to solving a problem is to take a break from worrying,” Rockmore writes, “to move the problem to the back burner, to let the unwatched pot boil.” We’ve all had the experience, Rockmore notes, of overthinking into a dead end. So the path of least time to a good idea, is a compromise between worrying and not worrying about having a good idea.
The Best Path To A Successful Startup
Marc Andreessen has cofounded and sold two companies that both sold for over a billion dollars. He was asked what advice he’d give to those wanting to start and build something great. Don’t start a “synthetic startup,” he said. “There are a lot of people who start with the goal of starting a company,” he said, “and then try to back into an idea.” Mike Maples Jr. calls it a market whitespace company. These can work, Andreessen said, but they usually don’t. “What’s more likely to work is an actual, honest to god, organic idea that comes out of something you’ve been deeply immersed in. If it’s a field you’ve been working in for five to ten years, and you know it inside-out, and it’s just obvious to you that something should work a different way—then you might be on to something.” A good startup ideas, Andreessen says, is really just a good solution to a problem. And to come up with a good solution, you have to have deeply felt the pain of the problem. But of course you, like the synthetic startup founder, you also need the goal of starting a company. You can’t be so immersed in what you do that you have no desire to do something else. So the best path to a successful startup is a compromise between being too eager to start a startup and being too immersed in what do.
The Best Path To Running A Four-Minute Mile
Roger Bannister trained for eight years to break the four-minute mile barrier. But then, leading up to the day he planned to attempt running a sub-four-minute mile, Bannister said, “I had done nothing for five days. I hadn’t trained. I just rested. And so I felt very full of running.” In the first lap, Bannister signaled to his pacers—Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway—faster, faster! “In fact,” Bannister said, “they were going at exactly the right pace. It was just that I was so full of running, I didn’t feel I was running fast.” He was running faster than any human had run at that distance and busted the barrier with a time of 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. The best path to running a four-minute mile is a compromise between training and resting. (File next to or below: Work Like A Lion).