The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.
— Mortimer Adler, Philosopher
Feynman is known as “The Great Explainer.” Unlike most scientists, he did not prefer to communicate via paper. Instead, he used verbal dialogue as the basis for the majority of his published work. In fact, if you read Surely You’re Joking, My. Feynman, it would feel as if Feynman is telling you the story of his life in real time. That is why, the audiobook version is so delicious to listen to.
Apart from spoken communication, Feynman used cartoonish diagrams to explain highly scientific principles. He could easily tap into complex ideas using shapes, lines, and drawings. This method helped him strip away the confusing language, and permitted the power of storytelling to take precedence.
Feynman rejected rote memorisation. He believed that learning should be an active process of “trial and error, discovery, free inquiry.” He held that if you couldn’t explain something clearly in simple language, it was simply because you didn’t understand it well enough. He understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something, and it’s one of the most important reasons for his success.
Most of us focus on the wrong type of knowledge. We focus on knowing the name of something—what it’s called. The right type of knowledge focuses on actually knowing something—that is understanding something.
In Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, James Gleick writes:
“In preparing for his oral qualifying examination, a rite of passage for every graduate student, he chose not to study the outlines of known physics. Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About. For the first but not the last time he reorganised his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject. When he was done he had a notebook of which he was especially proud.”
Often, we don’t realise we don’t understand something until it’s too late. Only when we’re asked to explain something, our mind goes blank. It is when we’re asked to demonstrate our knowledge outside our own head, we realise we know a lot less than we thought.
What made Richard Feynman The Great Explainer wasn’t just his innate intelligence, but the systematic way in which he identified the things he didn’t know, and then threw himself into understanding them inside and out. Throughout his work and life, Feynman provided insights into his process for considering complex concepts in the world of physics and other subjects, and distilling knowledge and ideas with elegance and simplicity. His learning philosophy makes up The Feynman Technique.
It’s a learning concept you can use to understand just about anything. This technique doesn’t let us fool ourselves into thinking we’re masters of a subject when we’re really amateurs. Each step of the process forces us to confront what we don’t know, engage directly with the material, and clarify our understanding, and eventually build our circle of competence. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Choose a Concept to Learn
Selecting a concept to study compels you to be intentional about what you don’t know. It’s like opening up a notebook and writing down, Things I Don’t Know About—just like Feynman did. It’s advisable to write own exactly what you don’t know i.e., want to learn.
Try to keep it small so that when you explain it to yourself, it can fit into a page. Aiming to learn everything about “Geology” or “Machine Learning” is not practical. Instead focus on a smaller and more defined concept, for example, “Random forest.”
Step 2: Teach It To Yourself Or Someone Else
Write everything you know about a topic as if you were explaining it to yourself. Even better, actually teach it to someone else.
Reading about a concept in a book or an article is not equivalent to learning. Taking notes is helpful, but to be honest, it is still not equivalent to learning. True understanding involves teaching. Write a summary of what you’ve learnt in your own words—without looking at the source or your notes. Then explain it to others. When they critique your teaching or question your explanation, you’ll find loopholes in your learning. Most people don’t get it, but teaching is the best way to learn.
If you understand something very well, you can explain it forward and backwards, pointing out exceptions and spotting inconsistencies. It shows that you’ve got a solid foundation in learning. It also builds confidence and pushes you to tackle even more challenging subjects in the future.
Step 3: Return To The Source
You are bound to get stuck. Explaining a newly learned concept to somebody else, especially a child, is very unlikely to go smoothly. You’ll hit road bumps. You’ll discover that there are few things you aren’t sure about. It’s completely normal.
It’s a good time to go back to your notes, and fill the gaps in your understanding. It might require further research and reading as well—especially when the child asks trick questions that you didn’t even consider. Children are awesome that way.
Learning something challenging takes several attempts, therefore in the Feynman Technique, returning to the source material is an explicit part of the learning process. Rather than viewing learning as one time thing, this step gives you permission to continuously refresh your knowledge.
Also, the more you learn, the more your capacity to deepen your understanding in a subject increases. When I first got interested in studying psychology, I didn’t know where to begin, and it was really hard for me to grasp a lot of concepts because they were so new to me, and so counterintuitive. After having read a couple of books, and having written a lot of articles on them, even if I see a new terminology now I’ve got the confidence to fairly guess what it is. That’s the power of Feynman Technique—it builds your capacity to learn.
Step 4: Simplify Further (Optional)
Streamline your notes and explanation, further clarifying the topic until it seems obvious. Additionally, think of analogies that feel intuitive to make your explanations crystal clear.
Building analogies around the concept is usually a good rule of thumb to explain complex subjects. We all probably have “the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell” burned into our collective memories. Creating our own analogies whenever possible is not only a good way to learn, but a great way to teach as well.
It’s easy enough to commit terms to memory and then regurgitate them when prompted. But memorisation is not understanding. Knowing jargon is not knowing concepts. Jargon are used to hide incompetence and gaps in learning. We have to be able to distil what we truly know to its most basic form. This is where true understanding takes place.
The Feynman Technique is excellent to quickly learn new concepts, fill knowledge gaps, recall ideas, and study more efficiently. We can use this very method to grapple with tough subject matters, which is one of the great barriers to learning. Remember, Feynman used this very technique (albeit naturally) to both understand and explain complex concepts from physics and mathematics. I am willing to bet that most of the things we want to learn aren’t as complex as Feynman’s, so that’s good news.
Another beauty of Feynman's approach is that it intuitively believes that intelligence is a process of growth, and it can be inculcated in all of us. This very concept also fits nicely with Carol Dweck’s concepts of growth and fixed mindsets.