A Father’s Gift…

When I first heard this story about a father’s gift to his son, I experienced one of those rare “Ah-Ha!” moments. I hope it’ll have the same effect on you.

This isn’t my story. It’s Richard Feynman’s story. Its about something his father had shared with him when he was very young. Its about something that I’m convinced can help us all realize our dreams…

For those who have never heard of Richard Feynman, we should really talk.

Until we do, I hope that, after reading this, you’ll know just a little more about him…

rockstars

Richard Feynman…

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning scientist and teacher. His accomplishments were many. For example, as a part of the Manhattan Project, he assisted in the development of the atomic bomb. In 1965, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Later, he was appointed a member of the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster.

In 1999, the British journal, Physics World, conducted a poll of 130 of the world’s leading physicists. They were asked  who they considered the greatest physicists of all time. They ranked Richard Feynman as one of the ten greatest of all time.

Apart from his contribution to physics, he also translated Mayan hieroglyphics and I understand was also an accomplished musician.

quote-on-the-infrequent-occasions-when-i-have-been-called-upon-in-a-formal-place-to-play-the-bongo-drums-richard-feynman-228633

He was also a storyteller who saw stories as an opportunity to offer “gifts” to others. In part, this is what his biography states—

“Anyone who knew Feynman personally knew that he was as much a storyteller as a scientist. For years he refined the telling of numerous personal anecdotes of many of his most interesting adventures…

At a much more important level his stories were mythology. In other words, Feynman was of the highest caliber intellectually and morally as well… His tales were the one gift he could give to everyone, not just fellow physicists, but his continuing ill health made him realize that before too long there would be no more stories. He decided, with his close friend Ralph, to put his very best anecdotes in print.”

In a nutshell, he was our kinda guy! He could have been a founder-member of The-Gift-Tree. After all, his love of storytelling and seeing stories as “gifts” is exactly what our project is all about…

Now for his story about a father’s gift…

When Richard Feynman was young, his family used to spend their summers in the Catskills mountains in New York. Because his father couldn’t take the entire summer off from work, he would spend the weekends there with his family.

Each weekend, the young Feynman and his father would go on long walks in the woods. They would talk endlessly about nature’s magic. Soon, nature absolutely entranced the young Feynman.

After one of these outings, the mothers of the other kids asked if they could join the Feynmans on these walks. His father politely declined. He explained how special this quiet time was that he was spending with his son. He said this was why he would rather not have the other kids join them.  Of course, the mothers understood. They then quite naturally demanded that their husbands take their kids on similar outings, which, of course, they did.

Feynman remembers being with some of these kids in the woods when his father was in the city. One of the kids saw a colorful bird and asked Feynman the name of that bird. Feynman didn’t know. The kid knew the name of the bird and mockingly asked Feynman why his father hadn’t told him. This made the young Feynman feel quite bad. He thought he should have known that bird’s name.

When his father returned from the city the following weekend, the young Feynman confessed that he felt silly not knowing the name of the bird. He asked his father why he hadn’t told him their names. His father answered by quietly asking the young Feynman a question he’d never forget—

Apart the names of the birds, his father asked, did the kid know anything about the birds? Feynman said he was sure he didn’t…

His father then offered his son this quite profound gift—

Merely knowing the name of something, he said, isn’t the same as knowing anything at all about that thing.

He explained—

Just knowing the name of this particular bird will tell you very little. A name is just what a particular culture chooses to call that bird. For example, he explained, the Chinese, Japanese, French, Germans and different African tribes gave exactly same bird quite different names. But, his father asked, what did a name alone tell you about the bird itself? He answered his own question: “Absolutely nothing!”

So, he said, what you can tell the other kids that, instead of just focussing on a particular bird’s name, what we do is to learn as much as we can about the bird itself.

you-can-know-the-name-of-a-bird-in-all-the-languages-of-the-world-but-when-you-re-finished-richard-p-feynman-36-96-69

A tool they would use…

Feynman later wrote that he and his father would often use the Encyclopedia Brittanica to learn more about things. He recalled how he and his father would “translate” the Encyclopedia. He wrote how he would later use this same technique throughout his long career.

He explained the technique in the context of learning about a particular dinosaur, which was 25 feet high. Its head was 6 feet across. His father would then “translate” this information in a way that the young Feynman would never forget:

If the dinosaur was standing outside their house, he said, he’d be able to look through the window of the room they were in. But couldn’t put his head through the window because his head was too wide for the window.

In this way, the dinosaur’s size had suddenly come to life in a way the young Feynman would never forget.

And this, Feynman explained, is what he tried to do for the rest of his life. In his research and studies, he “translated” information and tried to bring it to life.  His goal was to bring it to life for others…

Einstein - if you can't say it simply

The gifts the story offers…

It struck me that, as we try to bring our dreams to life, we too often settle for the superficial. Often, we seem to know little more than just the name of the bird. More often, I realized, we should consciously mine down beyond that superficiality. We should try to learn something more about it than just its name.

It also struck me that the best way of explaining anything is by trying to bring it to life. Often, the most effective way of doing that is through the magic of storytelling…

I suppose that’s why this story invoked in me that rare “Ah-Hah” moment!  🙂