It's official: Post-pandemic America is incredibly burned out. "According to Google Trends, which since 2004 has collected data on what the world is searching for, queries for 'burnout' --from work, life, and school--are at an all-time high in the US," Quartz recently reported.
Which means there are a whole lot of entrepreneurs out there looking for ways to recover from exhaustion and lack of motivation after two years of Covid craziness. Psychologists have offered plenty of advice, but so too have geniuses.
In his 1985 book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman recounted his own case of burnout and explained what worked to cure him (hat tip to Kottke). His prescription is a whole lot more pleasant than a lot of advice you'll get about rejiggering your work responsibilities or schedule: Play more.
How goofing off at lunch led to a Nobel prize
"Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics," recalls Feynman in the book about one low point in his career. That can't have been a pleasant feeling, but Feynman was clearly a guy who excelled at looking at reality from fresh perspectives. Eventually he started to see an upside to his burnout.
"I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever," he recalls.
He started making seemingly trivial but fascinating observations about the world around him -- say, the specific way a plate wobbled when a student goofing around in the cafeteria spun it in the air -- and began noodling around with physics and math to explain them.
"I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate," he remembers. When a colleague asked him about the importance of the work, he responded, "There's no importance whatsoever. I'm just doing it for the fun of it." But even though the work seemed trivial at first, Feynman found it soon led him down paths that weren't trivial at all.
"I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there's the Dirac equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics," he writes.
"It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate," he says.
Science (and Einstein) agree.
Certainly the rest of us non-geniuses are unlikely to unlock the secrets of quantum mechanics just by goofing around at lunch. But that doesn't mean Feynman's experience holds no lessons for everyday entrepreneurs.
A large body of research shows playing more can help beat stress, build up resilience, and unlock new creative possibilities. And coaches and recovering burnout sufferers alike suggest that reconnecting with things you do just for fun is one of the best ways to rekindle your excitement for life and work.
Even Feynman's fellow genius Albert Einstein advised his young son, who was struggling with his piano lessons, to "mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those," because "that is the way to learn the most." When we enjoy what we do, we want to do more of it, and lo and behold, we end up accomplishing more.
As we've all been reminded over the past two years, there are times when you just have to white knuckle your way through challenges, but too much of that approach saps energy and motivation. The way back from burnout is personal and complex, but Feynman (and science and Einstein) reminds us that it generally involves re-energizing yourself with things you do for sheer joy. So if you desperately need to recharge your batteries, try following in the footsteps of geniuses and give yourself permission to play more.