You'd think being a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and one of the country's most celebrated scientific geniuses, would be enough for a guy. But Richard Feynman, legendarily, always wanted to know more, to learn more. Brain Pickings quotes his biographer James Gleich:
"He favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, ... considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules..."
Was all this learning just a product of Feynman's genius, his freakishly fast and inventive brain? If so, we'd all be left with nothing to do but marvel at his ability to master everything from the bongos to quantum mechanics. But thankfully, Feynman's gift for learning wasn't all about native ability. He also had a technique for learning new skills -- and even better, it's both simple and stealable by us non-geniuses.
Shane Parrish, the mind behind site Farnam Street, has helpfully outlined this "Feyman Technique" both on his own blog and in a recent article for Quartz. Here are the basics of the three-step process.
1. Teach a child.
Feynman was one of the great popular explainers of cutting-edge science, and he insisted that even the most difficult concepts could be put into words anyone could understand. (If you're not familiar with this near magical ability of his, check out the classic video below).
In fact, using fancy vocabulary is usually a sign you haven't fully understood a subject, he believed. That's why the first step of his "Feynman Technique" is to take out a piece of paper and explain in writing whatever you're trying to learn like you're talking to a not-particularly-gifted 8-year-old.
"When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand (tip: use only the most common words), you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good -- it heralds an opportunity to learn," explains Parrish.
2. Go back.
Initially, you'll struggle to convey your new subject in such simple terms. That's OK. Just consider every time things get complicated or unclear as a flag that you need to study that particular section again.
"For example, if you've got a biology test coming up and you're having problems explaining evolution in simple terms, open up the biology book and start re-reading the section on evolution. Now close the book, take out a new blank piece of paper and explain the sub-idea (in this case evolution) that you were having problems with," offers Parrish.
3. Review and simplify.
At this stage you should have comprehensive notes that convey whatever you're trying to learn in your own, stripped-down language. All that's left to do is review and consolidate that knowledge. "Read them out loud," suggests Parish. "If the explanation isn't simple or sounds confusing, that's a good indication that your understanding in that area needs some work."