12 Favorite Problems

In Gian-Carlo Rota's Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught, he shares the Feynman Method.

It is Richard Feynman's advice on how to be a genius.

“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

– Richard Feynman

Richard Hamming had the same idea too.

Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say "Well that bears on this problem." They drop all the other things and get after it.

Now I can tell you a horror story that was told to me but I can't vouch for the truth of it. I was sitting in an airport talking to a friend of mine from Los Alamos about how it was lucky that the fission experiment occurred over in Europe when it did because that got us working on the atomic bomb here in the US. He said "No; at Berkeley we had gathered a bunch of data; we didn't get around to reducing it because we were building some more equipment, but if we had reduced that data we would have found fission." They had it in their hands and they didn't pursue it. They came in second!

The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn't work out, but you don't have to hit many of them to do some great science. It's kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!

– Richard Hamming, "You and Your Research"

Here are my 12 favorite problems

  1. how to imbue curiosity and agency in others?
  2. how to write with authority and authenticity?
  3. how to figure out which big problems to devote your life to? (related: how to find the right ideas to work on?)
  4. how to dive into rabbit holes (consuming) effectively in a way that's generative and not overwhelming?
  5. how to integrate boredom into our lives?
  6. how to have low expectations yet have ambition?
  7. how to be good at selling?
  8. how to prevent loneliness for all ages?
  9. how to create a community from scratch, and maintain it?
  10. how to cure acne for good?
  11. how to self-differentiate in interpersonal relationships?
  12. how to use AI to reduce suffering in the world?

12 favorite problems of others