Learn How To Learn With the Feynman Technique
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Learn How To Learn With the Feynman Technique
Why are we, as humans, so obsessed with sounding intelligent? The number of times I've clicked out of an article in frustration is countless. I can’t stand jargon. And yet, I catch myself using it when I want to sound smart.
In my newsletter, for instance, I'm sure you've caught me using words like “paradigm” and “heuristics” when I could have just said “technique.” We all give in to using more intimidating words when a few simple ones would do.
Why? In my experience, it's a crutch we cling to when our understanding of something isn't quite what it could be. Our knowledge is limited, and so we make up for it by using more sophisticated words than necessary.
Richard Feynman thought so, too.
The Ideas of Richard Feynman
“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
The physicists in the room will know all about Richard Feynman. Born in 1918, he was one of the most prominent scientists of his time. He won a Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).
But Feynman wasn't just an extraordinary physicist. He was also a brilliant teacher and communicator. Albert Einstein called him the 'greatest teacher I never had' after going to one of his many lectures.
See, what Feynman had that others lacked was a keen awareness that he didn't know everything. He famously said once, "I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.”
Of course, he wasn’t dumb – far from it. But he valued the learning process far more than any destination.
Richard's 'Feynman Technique'
I'm bringing Feynman into the conversation today because he, too, thought jargon was a silly way to gain and share knowledge. Instead of trying to sound overly smart in the knowledge he'd already acquired, Feynman chose to focus on what he still didn't know.
While he studied at Princeton, Feymman kept a journal of sorts. According to his biography, he called it 'Notebook of Things I Don't Know About.' Whenever there was a new concept to learn, he'd go through a five-step process to completely break down the material and understand it.
And he didn't just tackle totally new ideas. Feynman did this with everything he'd already studied, too, to solidify his understanding. We've since come to label and adopt this five-step process as the 'Feynman Technique.'
If you're someone who has to hide behind jargon – who leaves holes in their knowledge to be filled in later – who is constantly reinventing the wheel – keep reading. We're going to learn how to learn.
Step 1: Write What You Know
For the first part of his learning process, Feynman would take a page of his notebook and write down absolutely everything he knew about the topic at hand. His notebooks didn't usually have lines; he regurgitated thoughts, sketched rough diagrams, and doodled as he went.
This was an exercise in understanding what he already knew about the concept. It made him aware of any existing gaps in his knowledge, highlighted his misconceptions, and taught him how to organize thoughts into a coherent explanation.
I'm going to choose a random topic and actually do each of the steps as I go; feel free to choose your own and join me.
Here's my topic: 'What is a computer virus?'
Here's what I know:
It's a piece of code that can infect a computer
It replicates itself and spreads from one computer to the next
It's designed to cause damage or disrupt normal operations
It can be spread through downloads, emails, USBs, etc.
Step 2: Research & Take Notes
Next up was research. Feynman would take his already existing knowledge and dive deeper into what he didn't know. He'd consult other sources – books, lectures, online articles – anything that could help fill in the gaps in his understanding.
I love this quote of his: "I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned." He allowed his knowledge to be challenged. He did his research to question and solidify the information he'd already gathered.
After a quick Google search, I've found some additional information about computer viruses:
They work by inserting their own code into existing programs, which then executes when the program is run
Viruses are classified as either macroviruses (self-replicating code) or file infectors (attach themselves to files)
The first computer virus was called 'Brain', and it infected floppy disks in the year 1986
In 1971 'The Creeper' was created, another virus that would infect computers and write 'I'M THE CREEPER: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN' on the screen
Obviously this is a limited example; I'd be doing a lot more research in a real-world scenario. The idea is to fill all of your gaps in knowledge.
Step 3: Explain It Like You're Teaching a Child
This is the step I think Feynman really nailed. He said, “In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that’s all right. It’s a good idea to try to see the difference...to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself."
He believed that if you couldn't explain something to a six-year-old, you didn't truly understand it. And he was right; this is still one of the best ways to check whether or not your understanding is actually complete.
Feynman would take his notes and go through them again while pretending they belonged to someone else – say, a child – who knew nothing about the topic at hand. His goal was to break down each concept into its simplest form and make sure he was able to explain it in detail.
In all honesty, I'm a bit intimidated by this step. But here we go: computer viruses for six-year-olds.
A computer virus is like the sickness you catch during wintertime. It's a piece of code that sneaks into your computer and makes it do things you don't want it to. It spreads from one computer to the next, like when your friends come over and get sick too.
The way viruses often work is by changing the code in your computer. Code is like a list of instructions your computer needs to do different things. When the virus changes those instructions, it can make your computer do things like crash or delete files.
Phew, yes – that's harder than it looks. I recommend giving it a go!
Step 4: Speak It Out Loud
While researching Richard Feynman, it was interesting to find out that he relied heavily on dictation and storytelling. He learned best by speaking what he'd written.
(I'll hazard a guess that he was good at it, too; he's known as one of the most legendary lecturers of all time.)
There's something about translating your notes into a coherent explanation that solidifies understanding. And as an added bonus, you get to practice your speaking skills while doing it.
This is more of a personal step; I'm not going to share any specific notes here since everyone's process will be different. But if you want to really solidify what you've learned, find someone – a friend, colleague, six-year-old relative – and explain it to them. Ask them afterward, "Do you feel like you understand the concept?"
Here’s how Feynman explained scientific human existence in one sentence, to give you an idea of how powerful this strategy can be:
“All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”
Step 5: Review & Refine
Feynman's learning process finished with one last step – review and refine. He'd go through his notes again and make sure he understood everything perfectly. If not, he'd dive back into research mode to figure out where the gaps were.
There's a gaping difference between the Feynman Technique and the way we were taught to learn during our school years. For me, at least, I was taught to memorize and regurgitate. After that, I usually forgot what I'd learned and had no practical understanding of it.
I love the five-step approach. Not only do you have to recall and acquire knowledge, but you have to understand it well enough to use it. And that makes all the difference.
Feynman's Technique for Visual Learners
Now, I'd hate to get to the end of this article without acknowledging learning differences. We're not all note-takers or researchers; some of us are visual learners, who need to see something in order to understand it.
But rest assured that Feynman was no stranger to the scribbled diagram. In fact, he loved to use squiggly lines and haphazard labels to practically lay out problems. There's nothing stopping you from doing the same.
We've got an advantage over Feynman in that we exist in the digital age. Why not use YouTube to wrap your head around a concept, then sketch a diagram to solidify what you've just seen/heard? You're not only getting the benefit of visual learning, but also reinforcing what you've learned through note-taking.
I'm excited to start applying Feynman's incredible principles of learning.
One of the beautiful things about the human condition is that even after years of experience, there is never a point in which you’re “done”.
After years in business, I still have such a curiosity for the topics I'm immersed in every single day – and I know for a fact that there are knowledge gaps to fill.
This is one technique to help tackle this never-ending quest for knowledge accumulation… a little bit more efficiently.
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.
How do you learn?
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