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27 Jun

To do well, start thinking beyond labels.

My mother, who was born a Jew in Poland, once told me a joke from her childhood:

There was a small town located along the frontier between Russia and Poland; no one was ever quite sure to which it belonged. One day an official treaty was signed and not long after, surveyors arrived to draw a border. Some villagers approached them where they had set up their equipment on a nearby hill.

“So where are we, Russia or Poland?”

“According to our calculations, your village now begins exactly thirty-seven meters into Poland.”

The villagers immediately began dancing for joy.

“Why?” the surveyors asked. “What difference does it make?”

“Don’t you know what this means?” they replied. “It means we’ll never have to endure another one of those terrible Russian winters!”

This excerpt from the book Debt by anthropologist David Graeber resonates with a prevailing trend in our professional lives today: the tendency to attach our happiness and self-worth to labels, to titles, to the metaphorical ‘borders’.

However, much like the villagers who believed they had escaped Russian winters by just being declared Polish, we might be confusing labels for reality. We often attach labels to our work and ourselves, believing that these labels can alter our experiences or define us in any meaningful sense. Yet, these borders never end up bringing the changes we expect.

In the quest for professional recognition, we sometimes lose sight of what truly matters: solving problems, regardless of their scale or perceived prestige, and making a difference through our work.

This lesson is also beautifully captured in a letter Richard Feynman wrote to his former student, Koichi Mano, in 1966.

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depend on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself — it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.


Richard P. Feynman.

In the letter, Feynman implores his former student to find joy in solving problems — any problems — regardless of how humble or small they may seem. I think it's a powerful reminder for many of us to value our work based on its tangible impact, however insignificant, not the prestige or grandiosity it may supposedly hold.

Feynman's advice is a timely counterpoint to our tendency to equate a bigger job title with better work. By redirecting our focus from the pursuit of titles to the resolution of problems — whether they're grand scientific challenges or operational hitches in our daily work — we might have a real chance at discovering what it is we are looking for in our work; the list of things we find personally meaningful and enriching.

The world doesn't need more title chasers. The jobs and opportunities go to those who have proven they can add real value. Usefulness trumps job titles every time. Here are some questions to ask yourself to operate within this simple philosophy:

What skills do I have that can be of immediate benefit to others?

What is the rough gestalt of problems I enjoy working on that others would find useful?

This can't be something as vague as “product” or “strategy”. Try being more specific. As a rule of thumb, lead with tactical skills you can do a great job at versus some vague and fancy job description you know nothing about. The earlier you are in your career, the truer this holds for you.

What impact do I want to make with my work? How do I imagine that impact to show up in my work?

Is it simply an increase in the size of my paycheck? Or is it something else, something more recurrent and intimate to the work itself?

Who can I help and in what concrete ways?

Let usefulness be the goal. Focus on becoming an asset. Before you latch on to a label, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

How can I be of service?

Visualize this in as much detail as possible within the job title you're aiming for.

And if you're just starting, remember Feynman:

“No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

The country and its businesses need more useful people — now more than ever — not just degree or title holders.

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