How to Study Effectively Using the Feynman Technique

In a 2007 graduation speech, Charlie Munger told an interesting, but fictional, story about two people: the great scientist Max Planck and his chauffeur.

Chauffeur (n): a person employed to drive a private or rented automobile

Max was, undoubtedly, a wise scientist. The people of Germany longed to hear him speak. He toured the country with his chauffeur giving talks about his work. Day after day, the chauffeur grew tired of hearing the same speech over and over again. Finally, he asked, “Max, can I try giving the speech this time? I’ve listened to it so many times. I have it memorized!” Max agreed to let the chauffeur give the speech. He took a seat at the front and put on the chauffeur's hat. The chauffeur pretended to be Max and played the part perfectly. The speech was a success. At the end, a small man rose and asked the chauffeur a question. His response? “That’s such a simple question, I’m surprised that you would ask it. I’ll let my chauffeur answer it.”

Charlie Munger told this story to highlight the difference between two kinds of knowledge: the deep knowledge that Max had and the shallow knowledge that the Chauffeur had.


Shallow Understanding


The world is overflowing with information. It’s impossible to learn deeply about everything. In fact, there are benefits to having a shallow understanding of ideas. For starters, it allows us to connect with other people in their area of expertise and have conversations with a wide variety of people. It also allows us to understand important things on the surface which may be better than not understanding at all. In the essence of time, sometimes we have to outsource our understanding to experts. But, in my opinion, it’s always best not to act on information we haven’t reviewed ourselves, if possible, because even experts can be wrong or misinformed.

There are dangers associated with obtaining shallow information as well. The biggest is that, like the chauffeur, we risk fooling ourselves into thinking we actually understand or know something that we don’t. Even worse, we risk taking action on misinformation or misunderstanding. As Richard Feynman famously said,

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
— Richard Feynman

How to use the Feynman Technique 


The best way to not be a fool is to think critically and learn deeply. One of the best ways to grasp a deeper understanding of an idea is to utilize the Feynman Technique. There are four simple steps:

Step 1: 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.

Step 2: Identify any gaps in your own understanding or points where you feel that you can’t explain an idea simply.

gaps in understanding

Step 3: Go back to the source material and study up on your weak points until you can use simple language to explain it.

study weak points

Step 4: Repeat the 3 steps above until you’ve mastered the topic.

mastery

There are two main goals to strive for when using the Feynman Technique: be simple and concise. See if you can explain the concept to a five year old.


Use Analogies to Explain Complex Concepts


If you can, try to come up with an original analogy to help explain the topic. Creating an analogy is a fantastic way to gain mastery over an idea and learn empathy. It forces you to meet the person at their level of understanding and teach them something new by relating it to an idea they are already familiar with.

Here’s an example of an analogy: the basic structure of a story can be thought of as a pyramid. Tension builds up to a maximum and then drops.

story analogy

Of course, there are many different ways to write a story and not all of them can be reduced to such a simple structure. But, the image of a pyramid conveys a lot of complex information to the student in a simple manner. They can relate the structure of a story to a shape they are familiar with and have an intuitive understanding of: the pyramid. It shows them that there must be tension in a good story. This is commonly referred to as the rising action. That tension must rise to a maximum point which is called the climax. At this point the tension must fall or be diffused. We refer to this as the falling action. Creating an analogy like this forces me to have a deep enough understanding of the topic to relate it to an idea the student is already familiar with.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.
— E.F Schumacher

When and Why Should I Use the Feynman Technique


So, when should we apply the Feynman Technique to learn more deeply? I'd argue that the two most important places to apply it is when we’re making a life changing decision or when we’re working on our craft. If you want to be an artist, you should apply it whenever you’re making art so that you can deliberately improve. If you’re an engineer, you might apply it when you're studying or working on a technical project.

The massive advantages of using the Feynman Technique are that:

  • it helps you develop a true understanding of whatever it is you’re learning

  • it allows you to make informed and intelligent decisions

  • applying your knowledge to real-world problems becomes much easier

  • your teaching skills improve

  • your capacity to think critically about a topic is increased

The only trade off is time and effort. Even then, the time you invest up front is more than returned later on.


The Secret of Richard Feynman


This technique was named after Richard Feynman: a Nobel Prize winning physicist. In his biography on Richard Feynman, James Gleick said that 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. Now that you know his secret, I’m excited for you to step into your own greatness.

 
 

Sources

1. Charlie Munger story

2. Richard Feynman quote

3. James Gleick on Richard Feynman

4. Definitions from Google top results.

5. E.F Schumacher quote.