How Richard Feynman Learned to Loosen Up

“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.”― Margaret Mitchell

Herbert Lui
5 min readNov 21, 2020

Image: Katie Barrett/Unsplash

In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recalls an art class when he was told, repeatedly to “loosen up.” He writes, “I figured that made no more sense than telling someone who’s just learning to drive to ‘loosen up’ at the wheel. It isn’t going to work… I resisted this perennial loosen-up stuff.”

Feynman was then instructed to draw without looking at the paper. He kept his eyes on the model, not looking at what he was doing with the pencil. The first time he did it, his pencil broke at the very beginning and he had nothing but impressions in his paper. The second time he did it, he was impressed with the results, noticing a “funny, semi-Picasso like strength” in his work.

Something clicked. Feynman realized that he knew that it would be impossible to draw well without looking at the paper, so he didn’t consciously try. He writes, “I had thought that ‘loosen up’ meant ‘make sloppy drawings,’ but it really meant to relax and not worry about how the drawing is going to come out.”

Image: Blind contour drawing by Richard Feynman/Museum Syndicate

When expectations get in the way of results

Every day, we’re trained to do the opposite — to tighten up and control the results, like Feynman first tried to do. It’s got to have a performance indicator, or at least some indirect benefit to us in the future. We conduct our time transactionally, only putting some in if we’ll get something out. We need to re-learn how to do things without expecting results.

Of course results matter — they put food on the table. And so, we set goals and create plans to get results. But here’s something we don’t often consider:

When we set goals, we also create expectations that get in the way of results.

Sometimes, we produce the best results when we remove the expectation of any outcome. Our conscious mind lets our unconscious mind take over. Think of the time you get a job offer after doing an interview…

Herbert Lui

Covering the psychology of creative work for content creators, professionals, hobbyists, and independents. Author of Creative Doing: