221b: Unlocking Success


While Richard Feynman was working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, every now and then, a lieutenant from the Army would come down and check on his team’s work. Feynman’s boss told him that since he was a civilian section, the lieutenant ranked higher than any of them. “Don’t tell the lieutenant anything,” his boss ordered. “Once he begins to think he knows what we’re doing, he’ll be giving us all kinds of orders and screwing everything up.”

This story has two applications: 1) Be careful who you share information with. Once they know something, they can “help out.” 2) If someone isn’t telling you something, you may be the lieutenant.


Leslie Groves, the Army liaison who ran point on the Manhattan project, picked J. Robert Oppenheimer for the head scientist of the project, but he faced a good deal of opposition due to Oppie’s background with communist party members. When he proposed Oppenheimer’s name to the Military Policy Committee, he said, “I asked each member to give me the name of a man who would be a better choice. In a few weeks it became clear that we were not going to find a better man.” Groves could have debated back and forth with the committee for weeks drumming up other suggestions, but he didn’t. “Okay,” he said, “If you don’t like my choice, give me another.” When they couldn’t, the decision became obvious and Groves got what he wanted. Sometimes problem-solving is as simple as seeking a better solution. If you don’t find one, go with what you have.


Peter Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer’s son, had an electrical toy, “a square box filled with various lights, buzzers, fuses, and switches.” He called this toy his “gimmick.” Two years after he got this toy, David Lilienthal, an attorney for the Atomic Energy Commission, was visiting the Oppenheimers. While there, Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife, was trying to fix the “gimmick.” After fiddling with it for over an hour but to no avail, she stopped to cook dinner. Robert took Kitty’s spot and began working on the “gimmick.” As Robert sat on the floor, the author writes in American Prometheus, “Peter ran to the kitchen and whispered loudly to Kitty, ‘Mama, is it all right to let Daddy work with the gimmick?’ Everyone laughed at the notion that the man who directed the construction of the ultimate ‘gimmick’ might not be qualified to fiddle with his child’s electrical toy.” Despite being a brilliant scientist, Robert Oppenheimer is still seen as a father and, in his son’s eyes, may or may not possess the skills to fix his toy. Your kids, likely, aren’t impressed by your accomplishments or paychecks. At the end of the day, all they want to know is if you can fix their toy.


In the span of nearly a decade, Cillian Murphy has been in five of Christopher Nolan’s films. In each movie, he plays a supporting role of some sort, but the next one, he is the main character. Coming out in July, Murphy will play the lead role of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In an interview together, Nolan and Murphy talked about the benefits of “re-collaboration.” “I think the best thing that happens from re-collaboration is that you get this level of trust,” Murphy said. “I think that's allowed us to continue to make interesting work. To me, that's the most important thing. If you trust the director, you can really go out on a limb, and be vulnerable, and expose yourself emotionally.” Nolan agreed, saying, “Trust is creatively freeing, because you feel like you can try things, and there are no wrong answers, nobody's going to chastise you, or laugh at you. It's like, okay, let's just try a few different things, and then trust on the fundamental level of, okay, we're going to take you on a boat, and we're going to sit you on top of an overturned hull, and on a cue, you're going to jump off into the sea. [Laughs]” When you work with people you trust, you’re not afraid to fail because you have nothing to prove. You’re likely to take more risks, knowing that if it fails, that’s okay because these people know how good you are. Likewise, if they fail, they know how good you think they are, so they can try different things. It’s difficult to do something great with people you don’t trust.


“All success is a lagging indicator,” Ryan Holiday writes. 99% of Warren Buffett’s net-worth was accumulated after his sixtieth birthday. The success he’s had is a lagging indicator of the discipline and consistency of being an investing-fiend while in his teens and twenties. The book that debuts on the bestseller list is a lagging indicator of the years of research, writing, and editing an author has dedicated. A good physique is a lagging indicator of the consistent days spent in the gym sustained over a long period of time. All success is a lagging indicator; if you’re not seeing success yet, keep going. You may have years to work until the payoff arrives.