A Different Box of Tools

Richard Feynman was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.”

His other claim to fame was writing a classic, beautiful, and engaging autobiography, bringing to life and making accessible one of the brightest minds in science.

One of the great stories in the book is how Feynman tended to find and use a ‘different box of tools’ – and how this strategy paid off for his career in Physics.

The story started in high school. The Young Feynman (being an intelligent and precocious kid) was restless in class. His teacher recognised the problem:

One day he told me to stay after class.”Feynman,” he said, “you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You’re bored. So I’m going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that’s in this book, you can talk again.”
So every physics class, I paid no attention to what was going on with Pascal’s Law or whatever they were doing. I was up in the back with this book: Advanced Calculus, by Woods. [He] knew I had studied Calculus for the Practical Man a little bit, so he gave me the real works – it was for a junior or senior course in college. It had Fourier series, Bessel functions, determinants, elliptic functions – all kinds of wonderful stuff I didn’t know anything about.
That book also showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign – it’s a certain operation. It turns out that’s not taught much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals.
The result was, when the guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school. If it was contour integration, they would have found it; if it was a simple series expansion, they would have found it. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.

Of course, Feynman’s ‘different box of tools’ wasn’t limited to just using different mathematical techniques than other people. As demonstrated in his autobiography, Feynman demonstrated a capacity to think fundamentally differently, applying techniques including using visual imagery to make abstract concepts tangible and concrete, and his own approaches for harnessing and applying creativity to physics problems.

To me, Feynman raises a fundamental point with his discussion of a ‘different box of tools.’ If we approach everything with just the same tools that everyone else is using – and we are roughly as good at using the same tools as they are using or a little better – we will get similar results. We are then competing in a commodity space – how to use the standard tools. But if we have some additional, different tools in our toolkit, we can differentiate ourselves by getting superior results on problems their toolkit can’t solve – or can’t solve readily.

And this, it seems to me, is the message behind many leading books on Management Theory. Books such as Tom Davenport’s Competing on Analytics and Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy are making precisely this point: to compete on a different basis than your competitors, you should consider using a different box of tools.

3 Responses to A Different Box of Tools
  1. JFly
    May 6, 2007 | 9:56 PM

    Thank you for bringing this example to my attention. It shows the fundamental challenge of most organizations – filled with MBAs from the same universities, being taught the same curriculum, feeding into the same training programs. I love the idea that "thinking differently" and using a different set of tools can open our lives and workplaces up to new solutions. I'll definitely be reading more about Feynman's approach to visualization.


  2. Kyaw Kyaw Naing / George
    March 1, 2011 | 5:00 AM

    I like this. I also did a post here on similar ideas.



  3. Dr. Lauchlan A. K. Mackinnon
    March 1, 2011 | 7:20 AM

    Thanks Kyaw

    Your link didn't work for me, but I think the article you meant is currently on the home page.

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