Nobel Prize-winning physicist explains the secret to mastering any new subject in 3 simple steps

Have you ever read an interesting article that introduces a completely new idea to you, but when you try to share it with a friend later, it utterly escapes you? You start explaining and halfway through you realize that your retelling lacks something. You can see it on your friend’s face: she has no idea what you’re talking about.

This happens when we don’t really understand a subject.

How do you get a complete grasp on a subject? Is it possible to have a grasp of complex subjects?

Yes, it’s possible and there is a method you can follow to master any new subject.

First you must understand that there is a difference between knowing about something and knowing the name of it.

The famous Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something and it’s one of the most important reasons for his success.

Feynman developed a formula for learning that ensures you understand a subject in depth. His formula will help you learn pretty much anything, to understand concepts you don’t really get and to remember stuff you have already learnt.

But what does he mean by the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something?

Feynman explains:

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird.

Now if you really want to know something inside out, have a look at the Feynman Technique. It will help you to really get to grips with your subject and best of all, you won’t ever forget it.

There are four steps to the Feynman Technique.

Step 1: Teach it to a child

Take out a blank sheet of paper and write the subject you want to learn at the top. Proceed by writing down everything you know about the subject as if you are explaining it to an eight-year-old child.

You will soon discover that you must simplify your vocabulary. An eight-year-old is not going to understand jargon and complicated vocabulary.

In fact, jargon and complicated vocabulary often hide what we don’t understand and worst of all it simply doesn’t communicate anything.

Paring down your vocabulary will force you to think about the essence of the thing you’re trying to explain and in the process you will understand it at a deeper level yourself.

Where you get stuck, where you can’t use simple words to explain complex concepts, that’s where your understanding is lacking.

“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,” writes Parrish.

Step 2: Review

In step one, you have identified some gaps in your knowledge and understanding if you were not able to explain it so a child can understand it.

You need to go back to the source material and do some more study. Focus on the areas where you got stuck and try to understand it better so you can explain it in basic terms.

Step 3: Organize and simplify

Fill in the previous gaps now that you have a more complete understanding of the subject. Review your notes and organize them into something that tells a story. Remember to stick to simple words and eliminate any jargon.

What now? Read your notes out loud.

Reading something out loud is a sure way to pinpoint areas where things sound strange or don’t make sense. Note where you stumble over your words, that’s a sign that there’s something wrong with the flow of your logic.

Step 4 (optional): Transmit

Although this is an optional step, it’s the ultimate test. If you find you can explain the subject to someone – ideally someone who knows little about the subject, or an 8-year-old – you’ll know that you have succeeded in your mission to understand a new subject fully.


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