Richard Feynman’s “Notebook Technique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Richard Feyn­man knew his stuff. Had he not, he prob­a­bly would­n’t have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, let alone his var­i­ous oth­er pres­ti­gious sci­en­tif­ic awards. But his rep­u­ta­tion for learn­ing all his life long with a spe­cial depth and rig­or sur­vives him, and in a sense accounts for his fame — of a degree that ensures his stern yet play­ful face will gaze out from dorm-room posters for gen­er­a­tions to come — even more than does his “real” work. Many stu­dents of physics still, under­stand­ably, want to be like Feyn­man, but every­one else, even those of us with no inter­est in physics what­so­ev­er, could also do well to learn from him: not from what he thought about, but from how he thought about it.

On his Study Hacks Blog, com­put­er sci­ence pro­fes­sor Cal New­port explains what he calls “the Feyn­man note­book tech­nique,” where­by “ded­i­cat­ing a note­book to a new learn­ing task” can pro­vide “con­crete cues” to help mit­i­gate the dif­fi­cul­ty of start­ing out toward the mas­tery of a sub­ject.

Feyn­man did it him­self at least since his grad­u­ate-school days at Prince­ton when, accord­ing to biog­ra­ph­er James Gle­ick, he once pre­pared for his oral exam­i­na­tions by open­ing a fresh note­book titled “NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT.” In it “he reor­ga­nized 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.”

“At first, the note­book pages are emp­ty,” writes New­port, “but as they fill with care­ful notes, your knowl­edge also grows. The dri­ve to fill more pages keeps your moti­va­tion stoked.” In oth­er, more gen­er­al terms: “Trans­late your grow­ing knowl­edge of some­thing hard into a con­crete form and you’re more like­ly to keep invest­ing the men­tal ener­gy need­ed to keep learn­ing.” But how sure can you feel of your new­ly acquired knowl­edge if you don’t reg­u­lar­ly test it? Feyn­man had to go face-to-face with the elders of the Prince­ton physics depart­ment, but if you don’t ben­e­fit from that kind of insti­tu­tion­al threat, you might con­sid­er putting into prac­tice anoth­er Feyn­man tech­nique: “teach­ing” what you’ve learned to some­one else.

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In addi­tion to being a great sci­en­tist, explains study-skills vlog­ger Thomas Frank, Feyn­man “was also a great teacher and a great explain­er,” owing to his abil­i­ty to “boil down incred­i­bly com­plex con­cepts and put them in sim­ple lan­guage that oth­er peo­ple could under­stand.” Only when Feyn­man could do that did he know he tru­ly under­stood a con­cept him­self — be it a con­cept in physics, safe­crack­ing, or bon­go-play­ing. As Frank explains, “if you’re shaky on a con­cept and you want to quick­ly improve your under­stand­ing,” try your hand at pro­duc­ing a Feyn­manesque sim­ple expla­na­tion, which will “test your under­stand­ing and chal­lenge your assump­tions.” Just make sure to bear in mind one of Feyn­man’s most quotable quotes: “The first prin­ci­ple is that you must not fool your­self — and you are the eas­i­est per­son to fool.” And if you find that you have indeed fooled your­self, head right back to the draw­ing board — or rather, to the note­book.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Richard Feyn­man Cre­ates a Sim­ple Method for Telling Sci­ence From Pseu­do­science (1966)

Richard Feyn­man Presents Quan­tum Elec­tro­dy­nam­ics for the Non­Sci­en­tist

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

The Draw­ings & Paint­ings of Richard Feyn­man: Art Express­es a Dra­mat­ic “Feel­ing of Awe”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Mary Angela Douglas says:

    It is a won­der­ful coin­ci­dence to find this today! This after­noon I was think­ing how dif­fer­ent would my mind have been if I had ever tak­en physics or trigonom­e­try and if I even knew what those sub­jects defined. So I looked physics up on of course Wikipedia and was innun­dat­ed with relat­ed terms elec­tro­mag­net­ism, nuclear fusion all kinds of appli­ca­tions and branch­es of that tree and mat­ter and ener­gy and space and time and I actu­al­ly thought I will get a note­book and I will write down each term and define it and the gen­er­al def­i­n­i­tion of physics and then at least when peo­ple utter the word physics or I read that word I will have some­thing in my head behind that door. And that was just ear­li­er in the day. And then to find this post­ed here just a few min­utes ago was such a hap­py coin­ci­dence and val­i­da­tion. Serendip­i­ty as we used to say too long ago to men­tion. Thank You Open Cul­ture for this.

  • I want to learn how to cre­ate web sites using Richard Feyn­man’s note book tech­niques, as well your sug­ges­tions.

  • Mark Walker says:

    25+9=36? Should have used 3–4‑5.

  • Hansi says:

    Could you please tell me in which book or arti­cle Feyn­man explains his method? It is so inter­est­ing that I like to study it in his own words. Thank you in advance.

  • Erlis vathi says:

    The cor­rect num­ber is 34

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