The waste is what works


My favorite physicist (I hope you have one too), isn’t Einstein, Fermi, Heisenberg, or Hawking. He’s a bongo-drumming kook named Richard Feynman. Once while teaching at Cornell, Feynman found himself feeling palpable disinterest in what was supposed to be his passion. He was trapped in the throes of a feeling familar to many creatives: burnout.

And he sought a way out:

Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

Feynman’s enthusiasm for this wobble would lead to his Nobel Prize for physics in 1965.

Even uttering the word “play” will chill the veins of any middle-manager; they see messiness, play, and diversion as waste. They prefer the warm blanket of process, predictability, and measurable output. But what these bureaucrats fail to see is that the waste is what works.

You’ll never accurately measure the ROI of a memorable slogan. There’s no 137-step program that guarantees a sports championship. There’s no award-winning screenplay without a graveyard of drafts and ideas. These paths are non-linear and unpredictable.

All creation worth a damn disperses a miasma of mess. The energy that drives creatives (and scientists) to change the world is not found in a finely-tuned Gantt chart or JIRA board. What the corporate world calls “waste” is the main ingredient of genius.

Pay no attention to the priests lighting candles at the altar of perfection and process. If you want to make meaning, the waste is what works.