Are you smarter than a Nobel Prize winning physicist?
Probably not. But I bet you act like you are.
Richard Feynman won a Nobel prize in 1965 for “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.”
I don’t know exactly what that means, but you get the picture. Feynman was a pretty bright guy.
His secret? Writing. In public.
There are two pieces to this. 1) Writing; 2) Publishing that writing.
Let’s dig into these.
To Feynman, writing was thinking. He once had a visitor in his office, who saw Feynman’s notebooks and remarked how delighted he was to see such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.”
“No, no!” Feynman protested. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.” (As recounted in How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens)
Feynman knew that it’s not enough just to read, observe, and test. It’s only in writing -- the difficult act of translating what you think and know into legible, coherent words on a page -- that the real work happens. You notice gaps in your understanding. You struggle to express what you think in your own words. This is active learning that helps us cement and internalise what we’ve learned.
If you’re still not sold, consider the importance that two particular billionaires place on writing.
Warren Buffett, legendary investor, says that if you cannot write it down, you haven’t thought it through. Similarly Jeff Bezos created a culture of writing at Amazon. When ideas are rolling around in your head, it’s easy to convince yourself that you know what you’re talking about. From The Everything Store:
“PowerPoint decks or slide presentations are never used in meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six-page narratives laying out their points in prose, because Bezos believes doing so fosters critical thinking... Each meeting begins with everyone silently reading the document, and discussion commences afterward.”
Buffett and Bezos know that it’s only when you try to write things down that you realise the gaps in your thinking. You try to logically go from point to point, but suddenly realise you can’t. There’s a missing piece to the puzzle that you hadn’t considered. You’re forced to go back a couple of steps, do some difficult thinking, reading, researching, and then come back to the page.
Similarly Basecamp, the software firm, heavily favour writing over talking. In their guide to internal communication, they make it clear why:
Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it's important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don't chat it down.
Sonke Ahrens summarises it nicely:
If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense.
Hopefully you get the idea by now. Writing is thinking. Clear writing is clear thinking. That’s the first principle.
Of course, Feynman wasn’t just a smart guy in a lab somewhere. He was a scientist. An academic. A researcher.
As academics know well, thinking ideas in private and then not telling anyone about them is essentially useless. In Writing a Paper, George Whitesides said, “‘Interesting and unpublished’ is equivalent to ‘non-existent.’”
Thus the second principle: You must publish your writing.
Imagine if an Amazon exec wrote a 6 page memo, and then never showed it to anyone. Imagine an academic who conducted an experiment but never published the results.
Firstly, assume the written idea is in fact a poorly thought out or incorrect idea. Without being written down and published, it would never be challenged, stress-tested, or improved upon. As Cunningham’s Law states, "the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer."
Secondly, imagine if the written idea is in fact incredibly useful or well articulated. Without being written down and published, no one else benefits.
It’s only through writing publicly that useful knowledge and ideas and opinions and interesting thoughts spread. Each academic paper, blog post, book, or article is another small contribution to what Tim Urban calls The Human Colossus, the collective knowledge of humanity over time. It’s your duty to share your ideas with the world, so that we can all benefit.
I know that sounds lofty and idealistic -- so let’s bring it closer to home and consider the use in your company. Here’s a simple example, from Basecamp again:
Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn't make it, or future employees who join years from now.
Your writing -- made publicly available -- sits as a contribution that anyone in your business can benefit from, either now or at any point in the future. In the words of a former Stripe employee, “good writing scales.”
You should write. You should publish that writing.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing novels and publishing them on Amazon, or writing process notes and publishing them on your company’s network drive. Take the time to write out your ideas, and put them somewhere where others can read them.
You’ll benefit others, sure. You’ll reap huge rewards yourself too.