How Einstein made me a better communicator

I want to start this article off by saying, I promise this is not a lecture on physics or Einstein for that matter. I apologize for those (like me) who would have loved a discussion on quantum mechanics, but instead I want to share how I’ve been using the Feynman Technique (or at least the spirit of) throughout my career and daily interactions.

“What one fool can understand, another can.” — Feynman

Why are we talking about Einstein anyway?

One of the many things I like to nerd out on is physics…from quantum mechanics to general relativity. I’m that guy. That guy, who can spend a Saturday afternoon watching lectures on the Quantum Coupling or the Einstein Field Equations. I especially love the thought experiments that come from such ground breaking advances in sciences. (How can a cat be both dead and alive?? And why hasn’t anyone opened the box yet??) So before we move on I want to share one of my favorite thought experiments that arose from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity:

Imagine you have two identical twins. One of the twins, has decided to take a high speed rocket ship deep into outer space while the other has decided to stay home and binge watch Netflix. So the first twin departs on his journey, and some time later he returns back to home to find his brother has aged much more than him (and to learn how far behind he is on the new season of House of Cards.)

How can this be that the second twin has aged quicker than his identical twin? Hint: it’s not because of his Netflix binging habits. I will leave it as an exercise for you to find out how to make sense of this. The point I wanted to make here is Einstein’s Theory of Special and General Relativity have the consequence of turning all our daily understanding of the world on it’s head. To put it into perspective, imagine your 1st grade self trying to understand what a Google is. We are forced to think in dimensions that we physically cannot experience as humans here on earth. For me to even begin my quest on trying to understand what a tensor is and how space and time are not the same for all observers, I had to go back to elementary school and leave behind all my notions of what I think I understood.

Enter Feynman.

Richard Feynman was a famous physicist who had an incredible ability to explain complex subjects in terms that anyone could understand. One of my favorite stories about him involves an interaction with David Goodstein as he writes in the “Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun”:

[Goodstein] once asked, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

I feel this resonates with me all too often. I work in the tech world and frequently walk the line between talking to engineers and talking to the business. Further I am always changing gears from talking to the experts to mentoring the new talent out of c0llege. I find myself constantly in conversations where I am testing my own understanding of things based on how well I can explain it to someone else. This was especially the case when I was trying to explain what a tensor is to a fellow colleague only to find out half way through a white-boarding session that I myself needed to go back and solidify my own understanding.

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

Another story about me you ask…

I was recently on a date and found myself talking about the Theory of Relativity. This probably explains the lack of the second date, but I digress. Keep in mind I was talking with someone who had very little context on the ideas postulated by Einstein. Now I can’t speak for her, but given the dialog that proceeded, I am confident I did a good job of explaining the concept and was even able to steer the conversation towards music to get back on track agreeing how much better Kaskade is than the Chainsmokers. Now does this mean I’m ready to write my dissertation and finally become a Ph.D in Theoretical Physics? No. Not event close. But in that moment I knew that I had finally grasped the elementary idea of General Relativity.

Enough about me

Given the amount of content out there on the Feynman Technique, I will not go into great detail about it. But the fundamental ideas can be broken down like this:

  1. Choose your topic: What do you want to learn? This can be anything from something that you need to learn for work or school or something that has always interested you and just never knew how to go about it.
  2. Be the teacher: Try to separate yourself from…yourself? As you take notes, think about how you would go about teaching this to someone else. Even better, how would you explain this to a 5 year old?
  3. Go back when you get stuck: When you get stuck, go back go the books, the internet, or whatever your source is. Learn it all over again until you can explain it.
  4. Analogies: For me, this seems to be the most important and most useful. Create analogies to relate the topic to things you already know.

Tired of reading?

I think it should be a common practice in all our lives to evaluate what we think we know. Try to explain your job to someone who couldn’t be further from what you do. Try to explain the MapReduce model to someone in your marketing department. Explain to your mentee how and why you would design a microservice architecture. As a product manager, explain to your HR department how to run a productive A/B test. You may be surprised to find that you don’t know as much as you think. That’s a good thing! With this insight and self awareness, you can go back and solidify your own understanding and become closer to knowing more than everyone else.

More reference material:

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