The “Feynman Technique” for Studying Effectively: An Animated Primer

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Richard Feynman’s Tech­nique for Learn­ing Some­thing New: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

The Cor­nell Note-Tak­ing Sys­tem: Learn the Method Stu­dents Have Used to Enhance Their Learn­ing Since the 1940s

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.

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