Comparing the creative processes of Richard Feynman and Bruce Springsteen

This is an article that grew from a course exercise on cognition science in the open university that I took at the University of Helsinki in 2017. The topic of the course was ’Expertise and intuition in everyday life”. We were tasked with analyzing in which ways the musician Bruce Springsteen and the physicist Richard Feynman demonstrated expertise, and how each of them approached the topic. For background, we had watched a video interview with each gentlemen, respectively.

The concept of expertise

Bruce Springsteen and Richard Feynman are experts in their fields, yet what is it that makes an expert? Let’s briefly look into the definition of ‘expertise’.

The ‘power law of practice’ says we normally acquire everyday skills such as driving a car in more or less 50 hours of training, during which we advance from a beginner to someone who can perform at an average or ‘sufficient’ level.

‘Expertise’, on the other hand, is thought of resulting from what is called Deliberate Practice. It requires specific training, repetition, lots of motivation and effort, goal-orientation, and meaningful feedback.

Bruce Springsteen and Richard Feynman have undoubtedly experienced a great deal of each, so let’s compare how they go about creating songs and creating theories about physics, respectively.

Asymptotically approaching the truth

The most striking similarity in their approach in my view is the quest for ‘the truth’, which is like an asymptotic approach to ‘that something’ that always seems to escape just slightly. Feynman describes it as “hide and seek in science” where pattern recognition is one important thing but discovering new ideas also calls for the rejection of traditional methods and an active seek for new approaches.

Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, says he asks a question (about how people and the society work) and “introduces characters, makes them meet to not necessarily answer the question but to move it forward”.

“To move the question forward” is in my view something that also Feynman (or any scientist, really) does, in that expertise is something that accumulates not only in an individual’s head but over generations. Once experts know something for certain, they move forward on that, to dig deeper.

The roots

In empirical research, it’s been found that for many elite experts, the role of parents has been significant from early on. I think this holds true for both Springsteen and Feynman, perhaps in slightly different ways though. Whereas Feynman says his father had taught him the significance of effort, work, pushing the boundaries and not giving up, for Springsteen this role model was more likely his mother.

Yet Springsteen’s father played a major role in his future work in that your Bruce had seen it at close distance what unemployment does to the human mind. This gave Springsteen his inspiration to look for the realities of society at an individual’s level and beyond. (The role of work in an individual’s mental health and people’s sense of belonging to the society remains a timely topic today as we talk about asylum seekers, robotisation etc.)

Plain hard work, repetition, trying out novel approaches

“Writing is waiting”, says Bruce Springsteen. It comes through from the interview that he spends a lot of time thinking alone and talking to people, then writing songs based on what comes to his mind. It may require tens of songs to create one that really captures what he’s trying to convey.

Feynman, too, appreciates spending time both alone, thinking, and on the other hand having conversations with insightful individuals to bring in fresh viewpoints. Still, he says, it may take years of struggling to discover great ideas. “I struggled and struggled and then suddenly saw everything.”

Feynman also laughed at how discovering the ideal conditions under which we get good ideas would make us so much more productive. Unfortunately, the world is usually not that simple and instantly rewarding. Indeed Feynman also pointed out that “It’s not complicated. There’s just a lot of it.” Referring to the very amount of work that someone has to do if s/he’s after new good ideas.

Connecting the dots

Both gentlemen mention ‘connections’ many times; connections on a time continuum but also between domains and different people’s experiences. Feynman says “a good paleontologist is not just looking at a rock” but looks for its history, evolution and story.

Springsteen, too, is looking for stories, only human stories. He essentially also stressed the importance of making connections between complex topics by saying “I always fear people are trying to simplify what I’m saying”. Indeed Feynman, too said “names don’t constitute knowledge”. Just to be able to label something doesn’t mean you actually know a lot about it.

Staying curious

When asked how they manage to maintain their humbleness and endless curiosity in the midst of accumulating fame and even wealth (in which situation many people are tempted to loosen up and become overly satisfied with what they have achieved), both stressed maintaining an open mind and the willingness to learn.

I think this brings up back to the very definition of elite expertise; A true expert is always trying to look ahead through the next corner and anticipate what’s coming as next. Part of the definition of expertise is that with all you already have, you still strive to dig deeper and find the next level. Both Springsteen and Feynman were talking about this.

Science and arts – different or not?

Finally, it was interesting to hear, towards the end of Feynman’s interview, how he first claimed he’d had very little to talk about with, say, playwriters, “since they are so very different from us scientists who think originally and create ideas”…

I was really surprised and thought Feynman would probably have felt that they have nothing in common with Springsteen either! Until he said he’d take it all back and corrected that he’d appreciate anyone who took whatever they were working on to as far as they could possibly go. Which again brings us back to the definition of expertise.