True Lies! Richard Feynman & Domino Principle #1: Deceptive Perceptions

feynman_first_princ2The 10 Domino Principles provide a framework for taking control of our lives and businesses, navigating the present, and shaping an exceptional future. Over time, I am introducing and applying the 10 Domino Principles through articles on this blog. Today we are going to delve into Domino Principle #1, the principle of Deceptive Perceptions.

As my old friend Mr. Spock said: “In critical moments men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see” and “Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose — and excluding that which is painful.”

In my previous article I Have Been — and Always Shall Be — Your Friend — LLAP, I talked about some of the fictional characters who have inspired me to become the person who I am today. As far as the real individuals who have served to influence me during the course of my life, none except my family have been more important than the late Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988), one of the greatest physicists and most extraordinary geniuses of the twentieth century.

I was first introduced to Feynman by my wonderful high school AP Physics teacher, Bill Layton, at Palisades High School in West Los Angeles. Feynman’s textbooks, and videotapes of his Cal Tech college lectures, were frequent components of a high school curriculum that was one of the very best in the country, delving deep into advanced college-level material. By going well beyond that, Bill Layton introduced us to the wildly irreverent, eccentric and eclectic man who Richard Feynman was at a personal level.

As a theoretical physicist, Feynman was known for his work in quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. Feynman shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He also assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.

Feynman turned out to be incredibly prescient at predicting technologies of the future. But he wasn’t clairvoyant. Feynman followed clear principles that we can all follow. The article “Dr. Feynman’s 6 Principles of Trendspotting” provides a glimpse into techniques used by Feynman, ones which we all can use ourselves to chart a clear course into the future.

If you are old enough to remember the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the subsequent Rogers Commission investigation, you’ll likely recall that during a televised hearing Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-ring material used in the Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters became less resilient and subject to seal failure at ice-cold temperatures. He did it simply by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water:

Feynman’s style of investigating with his own direct methods rather than by following the commission’s schedule put him at odds with commission chairman William P. Rogers, who once commented, “Feynman is becoming a real pain.” That’s a description I think Feynman would have taken as a compliment. In the end, it was Feynman’s perceptions that provided by far the greatest insights both into the direct engineering problems that led to the Challenger explosion, as well as, and even more importantly, the extreme management problems at NASA that allowed the engineering issues to be overlooked. See “Wikipedia: Rogers Commission Report” for further elaboration on this topic.

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Feynman later wrote about his experiences during the investigation in his wonderful 1988 book “What Do You Care What Other People Think?“, and an audio version of the part of that book that deals with the Challenger Disaster is also (at least for the moment) available on YouTube. His other splendid book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’: Adventures of a Curious Character,” provides further insight into his inquisitive nature with a recounting of his adventures on topics such as trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr; exchanging thoughjokingts on gambling with Nick the Greek; cracking the uncrackable safes guarding the most deeply held nuclear secrets; accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums; and painting a naked female toreador. Both of these books are classics… required reading for anyone who wants to learn how to be curious enough to cut through all the bullshit we are fed BOTH by the media and the “expert’s” lenses in order to see the world clearly for ourselves.

As I started working on fleshing out The Domino Principles, I recalled how frequently “experts” have turned out to be wrong when telling us that “everything is cool and under control,” right before an economic recession or other crisis proved otherwise.  I remembered the lessons I had learned from Feynman. My research led me to Feynman’s “official” web site, and there I found Feynman’s First Principle on his home page, staring me right in the face: “The First Principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” It was therefore fitting that Feynman’s  First Principle in turn became my inspiration for Domino Principle #1: Deceptive Perceptions.

In the future, as we delve into how the repercussions of various world issues will affect our own lives, it will be critically important to continually examine our underlying assumptions so as to not fool ourselves. We also must remember that those out there making public statements, particularly those with a vested interest in the outcome, may be lying to us as well as themselves. In most cases, when people lie, they are not doing it deliberately. They are lying because they have deceived themselves into believing false and unwarranted assumptions upon which their conclusions are based.

Here are two quick examples of articles in the news recently that caused me to scratch my head and wonder if I was being lied to…

Take a look at this January 28, 2015 article from CultureMap Houston,
Houston named America’s No. 1 city by top national magazine: Oil bust no matter.” In reading the article, I’m struck by several likely deceptions… firstly, the conclusion by Forbes, and restated by CultureMap, appears based strictly on data obtained at a time when oil prices were booming, and no attempt has been made to model future growth around the recent significant drop in the price of oil. Then comes the statement: “‘When oil prices are low, Houston’s economy grows,’ Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, tells Forbes. ‘When oil prices are high, Houston’s economy booms.'” Red alert here. I love the Greater Houston Partnership to death, but the fact is, they function as a cheerleader for Houston’s growth. Jankowski’s statement is entirely inconsistent with the recession that occurred in Houston in the 1980’s.

Next check out this January 30, 2015 article in CNN Money: “Texas banker: Let the reckless oil companies die.” My first reaction in reading the article is to say kudos to Cullen/Frost CEO Dick Evans for seeing the larger scale economic realities of the situation and making the effort necessary to stress test the survival of his bank based on a scenario in which oil prices stay low for a prolonged period of time. BUT, and this is a big BUT… the stress test is only as valid as the model on which it is based and the data that is input into the model. The question needs to be asked: does the model incorporate only the first tier effects of the drop in the price of oil, or does it also the reflect the much more complex secondary and tertiary effects that will occur as mortgages fail, deposits drop, and non-oil-related businesses start to fail due to trickle down effects from a prolonged drop in the price of oil? As was so aptly noted by Denise Walker of Frontier Services in this January 6, 2015 article “Cheap oil is killing my job,“, also on CNN Money: “It’s a domino effect. People lose their jobs, they quit spending money. That affects other businesses.”

How about the deceptions we all tell ourselves in our day-to-day lives?

In his article “9 Subtle Lies We All Tell Ourselves,Mark Manson observes: “By lying to ourselves we mortgage our long-term needs in order to fulfill our short-term desires. Therefore, one could say personal growth is merely the process of learning to lie to oneself less.” Mark is on track here. But I don’t think that this is always the way that personal growth occurs… perhaps “merely” should be replaced with “often.”

Do any of these sound familiar: I don’t want to believe the problems my business is having aren’t solvable. I don’t want to believe I could lose my job or my job could become obsolete someday. I don’t want to believe an economic downturn/global warming/an out of control national debt/religious terrorism or any of a thousand other things could possibly derail my dreams for me and my family. Yeah, I’ve been there.

Each of these things might or might not be true. We have a tendency to stick our heads in the sand and believe what we want to believe, or we sometimes feel that we need to believe something in order to maintain our sanity, rather than dig deeply enough to really figure it out and know.

We always have choices. It’s easy to blame others, or fate, for our outcomes, and there are indeed truly some things in life which are completely outside of our control. Yet even those things which are outside of our control can often be anticipated, contingency plans can be made, and actions can be taken to minimize risks or even turn the risk into opportunities.

In “The 9 Most Damaging Lies We Tell Ourselves Daily,” Lolly Daskal astutely wrote that “Accepting responsibility for yourself and your actions is an essential part of your humanity.

It is also a key part of what The Domino Principle is all about.

–Cliff

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Cliff Kurtzman

Described as "pragmatically reckless with a high tolerance for ambiguity," Dr. Cliff Kurtzman is the founder of The Domino Principle. He is also an award winning entrepreneur, speaker, trend forecaster, and M.I.T.-trained rocket-scientist. Over the past 25 years, Cliff has launched several highly successful ventures by seeing technology trends in the world before they became widely realized, figuring out how they would impact our lives and then creating businesses that leveraged those trends ahead of many others. His bio is at http://www.kurtzman.biz.
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