Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Richard Feynman and advertising.

Of late I've been reading a brief little book of essays by Nobelist Richard Feynman called "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman." Nearly every anecdote relates some upsetting of the status quo, some insurrection, some new way of thinking about an old problem.

Last night I read a speech re-printed in the book called "Los Alamos from Below." Feynman relates that he was a young, unknown scientist without even an advanced degree and he was surrounded by some of the biggest and most notable minds of the 20th Century. Of all the scientists at Los Alamos, perhaps the most famous and the most intimidating was Niels Bohr. In Feynman's words, "Even to the big shot guys, Bohr was a great god."

One day after Bohr's arrival, his son called Feynman.

"My father and I would like to speak to you."

"Me? I'm Feynman, I'm just a---"

"That's right. Is eight o'clock OK?"

"So, at eight o'clock in the morning, before anybody's awake, I go down to the place. We go into an office in the technical area and he says, "We have been thinking about how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea."

"I say, 'No, it's not going to work. It's not efficient....Blah, blah, blah.'"

"This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing..."

"'Well,'" he said finally...'I guess we can call the big shots now.'"

"Then his son told me what happened. The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, 'Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He's the only guy who's not afraid of me, and will say when I've got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we're not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes Dr. Bohr. Go get that guy and we'll talk to him first.'"

So much shit is approved, processed and propagated in our business because people "know" who they're talking to. And they know they'll get schmised if they're thought of as being contrarian.

My greatest career success stems from an occasion where I was stunningly blunt with a powerful corporate big shot.

Of course, not every big shot is big enough to accept or welcome dissent.

Which, I suppose is why so much insipid crap survives.

Feynman puts it this way. I wish we could learn from him. "I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition...I've always lived that way. It's nice, it's pleasant--If you can do it. I'm lucky in my life that I can do this."

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