Want to get smarter about getting smart? In his very entertaining “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” author and Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman, shares a revealing story that can help us do just that. It happened back when he was part of a team of scientists working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear bomb.
Famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr was visiting the lab to present ideas to the team of scientists. A future Nobel Prize winner himself, Bohr was revered and highly respected by the leading physicists of the day. On the morning of presentation, Bohr’s son surprised Feynman with a call, asking him to meet with his father before the presentation.
In a small office, Bohr began to lay out the ideas that he planned to present, and asked Feynman what he thought of them. Feynman, in his matter-of-fact style, told him which ones he agreed with, and where he thought there were errors or inefficiencies with others. After arguing back and forth for two hours refining the ideas, Bohr was satisfied, saying, “I guess we can call in the big shots now.”
Later, Feynman asked the son what his father had meant by that comment. The son told him that Bohr had remembered Feynman from a previous visit as the only person who did not appear to be afraid of him, and was willing to tell him if one of his ideas was crazy. Bohr gave his son these instructions:
“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. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”
This is a great example of how one of the smartest men of the day got that way. Certainly, he had a brilliant mind, but he was also smart enough to recognize that he was fallible. And despite any temptations to think more highly of himself or think less of others, he intentionally sought out people who were willing to challenge his thinking.
Like a wise leader, he had the confidence to know that under close scrutiny, even his ideas could be improved. And if it turned out that they were not good ideas, he wanted to know as soon as possible.
If we find ourselves surrounded by people who always seem to be saying, “yes, yes, Dr. Bohr” it can be tempting to want to believe them. The smart leader recognizes that as the time to find someone willing to disagree.
“Get that guy.” We’ll all be better off for it.