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How To have fun
by Steve Leveen

For successful people, recreation has an additional purpose. It helps them re-create their minds to accomplish what’s most important to them. Have you found your best ways to recreate?

Sometimes even brilliant people don’t discover their best recreations until later in life. Winston Churchill was 40 years old and at the lowest point in his career when he stumbled onto painting. He credited his later-life passion for painting with providing the essential counterbalance to his pressure-cooker career as a statesman. "hatever the worries of the hours," he wrote in Painting as a Pastime, "once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen."

After his critically important work on the atom bomb during World War II, the physicist Richard Feynman found himself totally burned out. A young professor at Cornell, he anguished that he had no more important research ideas, and asked himself why he used to enjoy physics. The reason, he realized, was that he used to play with it. He didn’t used to care whether it was important.

So he decided to forget about doing anything important. In his memoir, "Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character, he described what happened next: "Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling."

Feynman worked up the equations and figured out the curious forces in a fundamental way. From "piddling around with the wobbling plate," he did the work that won him the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Taking the right kinds of breaks throughout the day can help re-create your mind. As Sir Winston noted, a change can keep an active mind from wearing out like the elbows of an oft-worn coat.

In the mid-1800s, a mathematics professor at Oxford University named Charles Dodgson advised his students to take a five-minute break each hour when they were studying hard. They were "to throw the mind absolutely of gear’ for those five minutes, and to turn it entirely to other subjects. "It is astonishing what an amount of impetus and elasticity the mind recovers during those short periods of rest," he said. Dodgson took his own advice in the extreme. Under a different name, he wrote books entirely apart from his main subject area. The most famous described a girl named Alice in a place called Wonderland by a writer with the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll. 

Sometimes it is beneficial to take much longer breaks. The novelist Les Standiford generally writes a book a year but spends only six months or so doing it. In writing, he says, you turn yourself into a kind of bubbling spring. "All your experience is like rainwater falling on a plain. It comes up somewhere else, at some other time, in the form of a story."

But too much time can be a problem. Richard Feynman saw that at Princeton in the 1940s, at the Institute for Advanced Study. In his book, he recalled how scientists with great minds were given an opportunity to sit around and think, with no obligations to teach or do anything. "Poor bastards" is how he described them. They had no real activity or challenges. You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from students. "Nothing!" That’s why Feynman always took on teaching obligations. Sometimes we do our best work in between doing our work.