12 Favorite Problems - A Tool for Systematic Curiosity


Curiosity is one of the most powerful skills you have to get and stay ahead.


When you were a child, curiosity likely fueled your daily pursuits. For most of us, our childhood was not guided by a calendar app and the constant ping of texts, Slacks, and other notifications telling us what fire we had to put out next.


Yet, today, I would imagine you rarely have time to let your curiosity guide you. More importantly, you likely don't make time to let your curiosity take over.


In this article, I'm going to provide some steps for you to build your curiosity skills using a great tool - 12 favorite problems. And if you don't like the word "problems" choose your own word - questions, challenges, opportunities, etc. Is 12 too many for you? That's fine - choose 10. I would encourage you to not let your number go much above 12 but fewer is okay if you want to focus a little more deeply.


Step 1: Identify your 12 favorite problems

Richard Feynman, together with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 for development in the field of quantum electrodynamics. Feynman became best known to the public when he served on the panel that investigated the devastating loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle. If you watched the television show The Big Bang Theory you likely also took note of the reverence the gang had for Feynman.


In his book, Indiscrete Thoughts, Feynman's colleague - mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota shared an essay which was a written version of a talk he gave at MIT's 1996 Rotafest. In this talk/essay, Rota shared the following lesson from Feynman:

“Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’”

So your first step - block out some time to figure out what your 12 favorite problems are. I find and others have reported that when first doing this exercise the first few questions come quickly but then you suffer from one of two extremes:

  • You're flooded with ideas

  • You suffer an idea drought


A few others have reported that they need two to three hours to truly refine their list of questions. I found 90 minutes felt good to me. So, block out an amount of time that feels appropriate to you and then add more if needed.


Need some examples? Here are a few good articles and podcasts on the topic - all of which include lists of 12 favorite problems.


Before I progress with next steps, I want to acknowledge that I have shared only men's perspectives here. I will keep searching for female voices and I will publish my own 12 favorite problems in a follow up post to get more female voices out there.


Step 2: Make Your 12 Favorite Problems Visible

I've found when first using my 12 favorite problems that I need to make them visible - both physically and mentally. This can mean a lot of things in your world. Here are a few things that work for me:

  • Add a recurring appointment with yourself every evening or every morning to read your problem list. I paste the problem list right in the recurring appointment so when the reminder pops up, I can just open it and read them. I prefer evening because it's usually a less busy time of day. I occasionally have some open time in the evening to pursue an idea that comes from re-reading the problems.

  • Make your 12 favorite problems visible where you do your work. I also like to keep a printed version of my problems posted on my bulletin board or written on my white board. When my work was more mobile I'd keep the list in the front of the notebook I always carried with me for note taking.

  • Use your 12 favorite problems as a filter. We are bombarded by information every day. Use your 12 favorite problems as a filter for what you choose to read/save/search for, etc. I am a big advocate of curating an information diet that is healthy for your and your 12 favorite problems can serve as a good tool for that.


Step 3: Review Your 12 Favorite Problems

I expect some of my favorite problems will remain on my list for the rest of my life. That said, some of them will change and some will either get solved to an acceptable level or become irrelevant.


To address this, I've incorporated reviewing my 12 favorite problems into my quarterly review. I can change my problems at any time, but I also acknowledge that I need to reserve some time dedicated to updating my problems. Once a quarter feels like the right frequency to me but you should set the time that works for you.


Conclusion

I'd love to know if this article leads you to take action. Please comment below with your 12 favorite problems, your experience with this type of exercise, or other ways you use to inspire your own curiosity.