“A Disrespect for Certain Kinds of Things”

When Richard Feynman was a boy, his dad would take him on nature walks through the woods near his home. His father would point out a bird and say “there’s a Spencer’s Warbler” and explain to him how at that very second it was eating the lice that ate the proteins off its feathers because everything is a source of food for something else.

It turns out that only half of what he told him was true. The important half. The part about why the bird acted the way that it did, what it was doing, or what it meant. The name was mostly just jibberish.

To Richard Feynman, this was an important theme for the rest of his life. When he taught in Brazil, he realized that although the students often studied physics, they rarely understood it. To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy. What people forget, he felt, was that the words themselves are relatively worthless. Their meaning is what has value.

I saw that Fred Wilson gave a speech a few weeks ago on what he called “earned media.” It’s very likely that this will be one of the next big internet phrases. And as usual, people will miss the operative word: earn. They’ll miss that the concept is both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts. That “earned media” communicates both a literal definition (hard work) as well as an idea (genuine vs paid media). They’ll be too busy “using” the word to really understand it. I’m sure only few of them will stop to think about how strange it is that the concept is also known as “free media.”

What made Feynman so special, at least to me, was that he only cared about what things meant. His father taught him that there was an enormous difference in knowing about a bird and knowing what other people call birds. One is harder to test, it doesn’t fit as well into textbooks, and like earned media takes time to accumulate.

Deciding to live that way is difficult but admirable decision. People who are self-taught know how embarrassing it is to try to use a word you’ve seen but never actually heard before – how quickly someone will jump in to correct you. But which side of the table do you want to be on? The side doing the correcting or the doing? Correct in detail or in principle?

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.