After winning the Nobel Prize, physicist Max Planck “went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, ‘Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?’ Planck said, ‘Why not?’ And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, ‘Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.'”
That this intellectual switcheroo never actually happened didn’t stop Charlie Munger from using it as an opener for a commencement speech to USC’s Law School. But when a successful billionaire investor finds value even in an admittedly “apocryphal story,” most of us will find value in it as well. It illustrates, according to the Freedom in Thought video above, the difference between “two kinds of knowledge: the deep knowledge that Max had, and the shallow knowledge that the chauffeur had.” Both forms of knowledge have their advantages, especially since none of us have lifetime enough to understand everything deeply. But we get in trouble when we can’t tell them apart: “We risk fooling ourselves into thinking we actually understand or know something when we don’t. Even worse, we risk taking action on misinformation or misunderstanding.”
Even if you put little stock into a made-up anecdote about one Nobel-winning physicist, surely you’ll believe the documented words of another. Richard Feynman once articulated a first principle of knowing as follows: “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” This principle underlies a practical process of learning that consists of four steps. First, “explain the topic out loud to a peer who is unfamiliar with the topic. Meet them at their level of understanding and use the simplest language you can.” Second, “identify any gaps in your own understanding, or points where you feel that you can’t explain an idea simply.” Third, “go back to the source material and study up on your weak points until you can use simple language to explain it.” Finally, “repeat the three steps above until you’ve mastered the topic.”
We’ve featured the so-called “Feynman technique” once or twice before here on Open Culture, but its emphasis on simplicity and concision always bears repeating — in, of course, as simple and concise a manner as possible each time. Its origins lie in not just Fenyman’s first principle of knowledge but his intellectual habits. This video’s narrator cites James Gleick’s biography Genius, which tells of how “Richard would create a journal for the things he did not know. His discipline in challenging his own understanding made him a genius and a brilliant scientist.” Like all of us, Feynman was ignorant all his life of vastly more subjects than he had mastered. But unlike many of us, his desire to know burned so furiously that it propelled him into perpetual confrontation with his own ignorance. We can’t learn what we want to know, after all, unless we acknowledge how much we don’t know.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.