12 Problems

written by Kat Bair
11 · 16 · 23

Physicist, Nobel Prize winner, and notably multidisciplinary genius Richard Fenyman credited some of his brilliance to a strange habit of keeping a list of his “12 favorite problems”  – 12 open-ended, largely unsolvable problems that just simmered, unanswered, in his head at all times. In a paper, he said this,

“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!”1

One of the hallmarks of true genius is the ability to draw connections between seemingly completely unrelated ideas. Fenyman’s argument was simply to have a list of questions that you bounce every new thing you learn off of, because every once in a while, something will stick. 

It’s a way of making a stroke of genius almost statistically inevitable. 

As I was researching this concept, I saw all kinds of authors list up their own favorite problems, things like:

  • “How can I translate principles from the Theory of Constraints to modern knowledge work?”
  • “How can I cook healthy meals for my family every day that don’t take too much time and also taste good?”
  • “How do I support and contribute to the people I care about without interfering in their own learning and growth?” 2
  • “What is the right structure for our company to give everyone freedom and balance while also provoking personal growth and progress?”
  • “How do I deal with situations when great art is created by flawed artists?”
  • “How can music change people’s lives?”3

It occurred to me that these questions didn’t just open the door for a possible stroke of genius, but reframed the painful uncertainties of our world as great mysteries that we spent all of our lives wondering about, knowing that the pursuit is where the answer lies. 

I wondered if that was the real genius. We live in a world where we like to know everything. Where, because we have unlimited access to knowledge, we think we should be able to answer any question. We don’t have a ton of experience of sitting with the unknown. I remember when my father died, googling something like “death of a parent as an adult” because I felt so many complex and overwhelming feelings, and I somehow thought that the internet could offer me 3 tips to solve them. 

These questions, for me, things like, How can I parent conscientiously, but not anxiously? How do I balance grace and accountability, in my relationships, my community, my politics, and my beliefs? How can churches evolve without losing who they are? 

Thinking of those things as great wonderings, not as things I should have figured out by now, makes the pursuit seem joyful, energizing, and worthwhile, not just frantic work on a research paper that is already late. Questions like these have helped people filter and frame the onslaught of information that defines our modern life, and gave them agency in making our own meaning of it all. 

What questions shape your thinking? And what would it look like if you could embrace them as unanswerable, great mysteries, and not places of failure? What would it look like to invite your community to a similar kind of thinking?

In scripture, Jesus asks a lot more questions than he answers, and often, his teaching leaves people wondering about more than they were when they first approached him. As Christians and church leaders, we don’t need to have all the answers to lead well, and pursuing the most valuable questions might be the most faithful work we can do. 

When we consider the complexity of our lives a series of learnings towards complex, unanswerable questions, and forgo the illusion that we should have the answers to those already, it can provide us some peace, some perspective, some joy in learning, and, every once in a while, maybe even a stroke of genius. 

  1. https://www.ams.org/notices/199701/comm-rota.pdf ↩︎
  2. Source for first 4 questions: https://fortelabs.com/blog/how-to-generate-your-own-favorite-problems-a-4-step-guide/ ↩︎
  3. Source for last 2 questions: https://www.honest-broker.com/p/my-12-favorite-problems?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email ↩︎

Kat Bair

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