Learning analytics from the best

There may have been no one better at thinking rigorously and communicating his insights elegantly than Richard Feynman, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist.

Daniel Hillis describes how Richard Feynman helped build the first massively parallel computer, The Connection Machine. Feynman was a physicist and thought the project a bit looney. Nonetheless, he enthusiatically joined the project and solved a number of tough problems in novel ways.

For Richard, figuring out these problems was a kind of a game. He always started by asking very basic questions like, "What is the simplest example?" or "How can you tell if the answer is right?" He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work, scribbling on a pad of paper and staring at the results. While he was in the middle of this kind of puzzle solving he was impossible to interrupt. "Don’t bug me. I’m busy," he would say without even looking up. Eventually he would either decide the problem was too hard (in which case he lost interest), or he would find a solution (in which case he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened). In this way he worked on problems in database searches, geophysical modeling, protein folding, analyzing images, and reading insurance forms.

Let me discuss a few points about Feynman’s approach and discuss how they could apply to your analytical work.

"What is the simplest example?" and "How can you tell if the answer is right?": These are touchstones for any analytics project. Start in the simplest way possible, by exploring the workings of a single customer or transaction.

"Don’t bug me. I’m busy": Analytical exploration is complex work. Offices today are less welcoming to concentration than in Feynman’s time. E-mail, instant messaging, listening to co-worker’s stories, helping others, receiving mandatory training, weekly meetings; every one of these distractions prevents you from putting your head down and cracking the nut of a problem that’s been bugging you.

Shut down your email. Turn off your IM. Find a quiet place, don’t attend a meeting. Beg off. Life will go on without you. Personally, I do some of my best work in the 10pm-2am shift.

Resources like Lifehacker and 43folders can help if "Don’t bug me. I’m busy" won’t work for you.

"he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened": Richard Feynman had a gift for explaining difficult concepts in ways that were easy to understand. Insight and communication need to be tied together. If you have the most brilliant insight about how your business could work better but you can’t convince others, then you will never see change. Start with simple analogies that your audience can relate to. Once you’ve lost your audience in a thicket of detail, you can’t get them back. You can always provide more detail to those who are interested. Here’s how Hillis described Feynman’s approach to explaining a complex topic:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

"We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids."

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We are sometimes asked, "How do I learn analytics?" Analytics is like writing, or art. There isn’t a single "analytics" to learn; rather, it’s a state of mind paired with a set of skills. You need to love exploration and discovery, solving puzzles, shaping data like clay, proving yourself wrong.

An artist may draw inspiration from Michelangelo; a writer may read Mark Twain for enjoyment. Analytics needs its pantheon, too. Feynman was a man of great intellectual honesty who enjoyed sharing his deeper view of how the world worked with all of us. That’s a great place to start.