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2020-05-27

You're not ready. Do it anyway

In Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman talks about spending a summer at Caltech to "Just try out biology", a field he was completely untrained in and unfamiliar with:

"After the war, every summer I would go traveling by car somewhere in the United States. One year, after I was at Caltech, I thought, ";'This summer, instead of going to a different place, I'll go to a different field.'

...I went over to the biology lab to tell them my desire, and Bob Edgar, a young postĀ­doc who was sort of in charge there, said ... "You'll have to really do some research, just like a graduate student, and we'll give you a problem to work on." That suited me fine."

Feynman goes on to do work in the field and even contributes some non-trivial new findings to biology. Later in the book he sums up his experience with:

"I always do that, get into something and see how far I can go."

I read this memoir in the last year or so, and this section made me think some uncomfortable things about my own mindset when it comes to growing in one way or another. I realized that I've approached new and interesting things as a collector, excited about a topic or field or tool, but never quite ready to go beyond a superficial exploration of that topic. I've piled up bookshelves with resources on all kinds of things I'd love to learn about, but never seem to find the time for. Months, or even years later, I've looked at some of those books and said to myself, "Wow, I thought I'd know all about that by now".

My rationales for not being ready have been pretty straightforward: "I have to learn some more of the basics before getting to that", or "I need to learn this other thing before that'll make sense".

Reading about Feynman's detour into biology made me think about that rationale a little more critically. And after some thought, it started to crumble. You can't really be 'ready' for much of anything. Now I've been thinking, if you ever find yourself 'ready', that's probably a good indication that you could go a bit farther, dig a bit deeper, try something even more novel.

So now, I'm getting into some things. We'll see how far I can go.