Learn Anything in 4 Steps

3 minute read

With the Feynman Technique, you can learn anything by teaching someone else a topic in simple terms. This will allow you to quickly pinpoint the holes in your knowledge. After following these four steps, you’ll be able to understand concepts more deeply and better retain the information.

Keep It Simple, Scientist

The Feynman Technique is a mental model that was coined by Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Known as the “Great Explainer,” Feynman was revered for his ability to clearly illustrate dense topics like quantum physics for virtually anybody. In “Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun,” David Goodstein writes that Feynman prided himself on being able to explain the most complex ideas in the simplest terms.

Goodstein once asked Feynman to explain why “spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac.” Feynman replied that he’d prepare a freshman lecture on it, but then he came back a few days later empty-handed. “I couldn’t reduce it to freshman level,” he admitted to Goodstein. “That means we don’t really understand it.”

That is to say, if Feynman couldn’t explain something in simple terms, there was a problem with the information, not with Feynman’s teaching ability.

The Feynman Technique

First Step: Write it out for a child

Take out a blank sheet of paper. At the top write the subject you want to learn. Now write out everything you know about the subject you want to understand as if you were teaching it to a child. Not your smart adult friend, but rather an 12-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.

It turns out that one of the ways we trick ourselves is that we use complicated vocabulary and jargon and it masks our lack of understanding.

When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas.

Some of this will be easy. These are the places where you have a clear understanding of the subject. At other points, you will struggle. These are the points where you have some gaps in your understanding.

Second Step: Review it

Only when you encounter gaps in your knowledge—where you’re forgetting something important, are not able to explain it, or simply have trouble thinking of how variables interact—can you really start learning.

Now that you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms. Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon and in simple terms can you demonstrate your understanding. This is the work required to learn and skipping it leads to the illusion of knowledge.

Identifying the boundaries of your understanding also limits the mistakes you’re liable to make and increases your chance of success when applying knowledge.

Third Step: Organize and Simplify

Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes. Review them to make sure you didn’t mistakenly borrow any of the jargon from the source material. Organize them into a simple narrative that you can tell. Read it out loud. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing that’s a good indication that your understanding in that area still needs some work.

If you follow this approach over and over you will end up with a binder full of pages on different subjects. If you take some time twice a year to go through this binder and update your knowledge you will keep your knowledge.

Fourth Step (Optional): Transmit

If you really want to be sure of your understanding, run it past someone (ideally who knows little of the subject –or find that 12-year-old!). The ultimate test of your knowledge will your capacity to convey it to another.

The Perks 😀

Not only is the Feynman Technique a wonderful recipe for learning, but it’s also a window into a different way of thinking that allows you to tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up.

When you’re having a conversation with someone and they start using words or relationships that you don’t understand, ask them to explain it to you like you’re 12. Not only will you supercharge your own learning, you’ll supercharge theirs. Importantly, approaching problems in this way allows you to understand when others don’t know what they are talking about.

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