Have you ever sat down to take an exam thinking you’ve studied hard and put in the work but then, when you read the questions and start the test, you realise you didn’t know as much as you thought?
Maybe you’ve been to a job interview where you’ve prepared for the questions you might expect, but once the interview begins you find yourself unable to answer the interviewer’s questions properly?
Both of these scenarios have happened to me in the past but I can now avoid these situations occurring in the future with the help of the wisdom of physicist Richard Feynman.
Previously, my preparation consisted of cramming in as much information as possible in the days and hours before the test or interview. I had memorised dates, statistics and other facts but this is shallow knowledge that’s only surface-deep. Deep knowledge can only be mastered by having a thorough understanding of the subject you’re studying.
There is a huge difference between shallow and deep knowledge and it is something Richard Feynman was acutely aware of. Back when he was a child, he discovered the difference between knowing the name of something compared to really knowing something.
Feynman’s “Knowing” anecdote
When being interviewed later in his life, Feynman recalled a story from when he was playing in a field as a child. Another boy asked him, “do you know the name of that bird?”. Feynman said he didn’t have the slightest idea. The boy told him “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything”. However, Feynman’s father had already taught his son the names of birds, in fact he taught him the name of the brown-throated thrush in multiple languages. But Feynman’s father explained that even if you know the name of the bird in every language, you still know absolutely nothing about the bird.
Richard Feynman had been taught a valuable lesson by his father. Names do not constitute knowledge.
So how do you acquire deep knowledge? That’s where the Feynman technique comes in.
The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is a mental model that involves a simple but powerful 4-step process. Before his ground-breaking research, pioneering work and eventual Nobel prize, Feynman used this technique as a method of study at Princeton University.
The very first step is to simply write down the name of the subject you want to study at the top of a piece of paper.
Step two is to write down your explanation of the subject but to do it in a way as if you were teaching the concept to a child who is unfamiliar with it. This forces you to use simple language without any jargon, to make sure that it makes sense at their level of understanding. Also, bear in mind that children have a shorter attention span than adults, so the aim should be to explain the concept as briefly as possible, too. If you struggle at any point in jotting down your explanation, it shows you have room to improve.
Step three is to identify the gaps you have in the topic. After explaining the subject on paper, you should be able to realise specific parts that you don’t fully understand yourself. You may be able to spot these areas by noticing when you start to ramble at certain points in the explanation, or not being able to use simple language to explain specific concepts, because you don’t have the knowledge or understanding to do so.
Strengthen your weak areas. Go back to your sources of information and dive into these specific parts of the subject. Attempt to increase your knowledge in these particular areas.
The final step – step four – is to repeat steps 1-3 until you have mastered the subject. Make sure you’ve simplified complicated parts as much as possible. You can further cement your knowledge by formalising your notes into a script and reading them out loud as if you were presenting to an audience.
Why does this technique work so well? One reason is because teaching is a mutually beneficial process. You are not only educating those you are teaching. By explaining what you’ve learnt, you are partaking in one of the highest forms of learning yourself.
You can use the Feynman technique on whatever you’re currently learning. It’s an easy way to discover if you just know a definition or fully understand an idea. It allows you to quickly identify your weak areas and by focusing only on those specific points, it makes the whole process extremely efficient. If you can successfully use analogies and simple language that a 5 year old can understand to explain a subject, it is a good indicator that you have a deep understanding of the topic.