One of the most prevalent human frailties — one that begins in childhood and stays with us the rest of our lives — is a concern about what other people think of us. To a 10-year-old, it might be what the other kids will think of her new tennis shoes. To a teenage boy, it might be what the girls think of his moves on the dance floor. To an adult, it might be what his peers think of his work, or what her boss thinks of her leadership potential.
At any age, an unhealthy concern about what others think about you can stifle your creativity, sap your energy, and keep you from doing what’s really important. That’s a lesson Richard Feynman learned while standing at his wife’s hospital bed.
Feynman was a Nobel Prize–winning physicist known in scientific circles almost as much for his sarcastic wit and bongo playing as for his brilliant science. Publically, he was a bold character remembered for his defining role in the investigation of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Characteristic of Feynman, he refused to go along with the prescribed inquiry arranged for him and the other 11 congressionally appointed investigators. His unapproved conversations with NASA engineers led to the correct conclusion that the cause of the shuttle disaster was the rubber O-ring on the fuel line.
During the congressional panel—unannounced—Feynman flamboyantly illustrated his theory by pulling a sample of the O-ring material out of his glass of ice water and throwing it on the dais, shattering it in front of hundreds of journalists and television cameras. Apparently, the temperature on the morning of takeoff was well below that of any previous shuttle launch. Too cold, in fact, for the rubber O-ring to maintain its flexibility, causing it to shatter under pressure.
Was Feynman just born a brave soul? Probably. But there was at least one defining moment that shaped his life and his science by building on an already courageous character. In the early 1940s, Feynman was working at Los Alamos National Labs on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government effort to build the atomic bomb. Feynman’s young wife, Arlene, was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in nearby Albuquerque, New Mexico. Feynman would hitchhike to the hospital on weekends to visit her.
Arlene knew Richard was frustrated at his own inability to comfort her or heal her terminal illness. So one weekend when he arrived, she presented him with an 18-inch charcoal grill she’d ordered through the mail. She desperately wanted a home-cooked meal instead of the hospital fare. So she asked him to cook her a steak.
Always the pragmatist, Feynman protested, “How the hell can we use it in the room, here, with all the smoke and everything?”
Arlene suggested he just take it out on the lawn in front of the hospital. But the hospital was located right on Route 66, one of the busiest highways in the country at the time. Richard again protested that with all the automobile and pedestrian traffic, he couldn’t just fire up a grill and start cooking steaks. People would think he was crazy!
So Arlene said, “What do you care what other people think?” And that turned out to be exactly the right thing to say.
Those words struck a profound chord with Richard. Not only did he cook Arlene the steak she asked for, he did so every weekend thereafter. Feynman must have realized the wisdom in her words. Why should he care what other people think? He cared about Arlene! Her comfort and happiness was more important that what people might think of him.
Being overly concerned about what other people think can distract you from your primary objectives and paralyze you with indecision. Decide what your primary objectives are in your work and in your life. Pursue those, instead of constantly managing what other people think of you. Ironically, you’ll end up being more successful at both. His wife’s words helped Richard Feynman realize that. Telling his story can help you and the ones you tell let go of the confining anxiety over what other people think.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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