The Feynman Technique
Today at a Glance
- The Learning Pyramid indicates that teaching is a much more effective driver of retention than reading or lecture. The goal should be to move rapidly to teaching in order to cement new learning.
- The Feynman Technique is a learning model that leverages teaching and prioritizes simplicity to help you develop a deep understanding of any topic.
- The four key steps of the Feynman Technique: (1) Set the Stage, (2) ELI5, (3) Assess & Study, and (4) Organize, Convey, & Review.
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One of the common lamentations of our education system is that it incentivizes short bursts of memory recall over deep, elegant understanding.
Thinking back to my own school days, I often forgot the subject matter shortly after the course had completed. My standard process—listening to lectures and reading textbooks to brute force as much information as possible into my brain—was not exactly designed for long-term knowledge accumulation.
In fact, the National Training Laboratories Institute developed a pyramid model to represent the retention rate of information from various activities.
While a variety of papers have questioned the specific percentages, the general ordering of the activities is rarely called into question.
The two key takeaways from the pyramid:
- Lecture and reading are not enough.
- Teaching is the most powerful form of learning.
In today's piece, I'd like to cover a simple model to leverage these takeaways to learn anything...
Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist born in 1918 in New York City.
Feynman was a very late talker—he didn’t utter a word until he was three—but it was clear from a young age that he was extremely observant and intelligent. His parents valued non-consensus thinking—they constantly encouraged young Richard to ask questions and think independently.
Feynman taught himself advanced mathematics in his teens and would go on to earn a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from Princeton University. He would then become famous for his work in quantum electrodynamics and receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his contributions to the field.
Richard Feynman was certainly intelligent. But there are a lot of intelligent people in the world. Feynman's true genius was noted as his ability to convey complex ideas in simple, elegant ways.
He observed that complexity and jargon are often used to mask a lack of deep understanding. Hence “The Feynman Razor” that I’ve written about: If someone uses a lot of complexity and jargon to explain something to you, they probably don’t understand it.
Richard Feynman adapted a learning model that enabled his success.
How to Use The Feynman Technique
The Feynman Technique is a learning model that leverages teaching and prioritizes simplicity to help you develop a deep understanding of any topic.
It involves four key steps:
- Set the Stage
- ELI5 (Explain It To Me Like I’m 5)
- Assess & Study
- Organize, Convey & Review
Let’s cover each step:
Step 1: Set the Stage
What’s the topic you want to learn?
Starting with a blank page, write the topic at the top and jot down everything you know about it.
Next, start at the top of the learning pyramid and progress down towards the base. Listen to lectures, read, watch, discuss with others. Start broad, then go deep.
As you do, add any new learnings or insights to your blank page.
Step 2: ELI5
Now you can progress to the base of the pyramid: Teaching.
Attempt to teach the topic to someone without a base understanding of it (i.e. a “5-year-old”). This can be a friend, partner, colleague, or classmate. The only requirement is that it is someone you would consider uninitiated in the topic.
This step requires that you distill and simplify the learnings for them to understand it. Avoid jargon and acronyms.
Note: If you don't have a person to teach it to, you can do this on another blank page. Write down everything you know about your topic—but pretend you are explaining it to a child. Use simple language.
Step 3: Assess & Study
Ask for feedback and reflect on your performance to form an honest assessment.
- How well were you able to explain the topic to the uninitiated person?
- What questions did the person ask?
- Where did you get frustrated?
- Where did you turn to jargon?
Your answers to these questions will highlight the gaps in your understanding.
Return to Step 1 and study more to fill them in.
Step 4: Organize, Convey, & Review
Organize your elegant, simple understanding of the topic into a clear, compelling story or narrative.
Convey it to a few others, then iterate and refine accordingly.
Review your new, deep understanding of the topic.
Simple is Beautiful
The Feynman Technique is a powerful framework for learning anything.
The best entrepreneurs, investors, and thinkers have leveraged this technique—whether they know it or not! Their common genius: the ability to abstract complexity and convey ideas in simple, digestible ways.
It's easy to overcomplicate and intimidate—we all know people who try to do this. But don't be fooled—complexity and jargon are often used to mask a lack of deep understanding.
Use the Feynman Technique: Find beauty in simplicity.