How to Learn Anything — the Feynman Technique

Returning from Afghanistan

When I returned from leading a Troop of Marines in Afghanistan, the majority of my Officer peers returned to Lympstone to take new recruits through training. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, the senior leaders in the Royal Marines wanted to create the opportunity for the lessons learnt in Afghanistan to be used to improve and develop training at Lympstone. Secondly, teaching someone how to do something cements your knowledge. By getting the Officers to return to the Commando Training Centre and teach new recruits, the organisation was following the development path of ‘learn — do — teach’.

Most people learn how to do something and then do it. But it is only when you are forced to teach something do you have to learn it on a whole new level. Questions highlight gaps in your knowledge or weaknesses in your ability to explain something. The experience of teaching forces you to see the world from a different perspective and learn to communicate your messages appropriately.

The career path of surgeons in the NHS follows a similar pattern. Learn — Do — Teach. It is only once you have taught a subject that you achieve mastery in it.

Learn — Do — Teach

The approach of Learn — Do — Teach is based on a technique developed by the nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Known as the ‘Great Explainer’ for his ability explain the most complex topics in simple terms, Feynman used a simple system to help himself learn.

He first used this approach when studying for his exams at Princeton. Opening a fresh notebook, he wrote on the title page, ‘Notebook of things I don’t know about’. He took apart each branch of physics explaining them in simple terms looking for inconsistencies and gaps in his knowledge. He was searching for fundamental principles that sat behind each branch of the subject.

It’s a bit like taking apart the engine of your car and rebuilding it so that you can understand how it works.

The Feynman Technique

  1. Pick a topic. It could be something that you don’t fully understand or something that you want to learn more about. It could be something that you know a lot about, this process will assess your level of understanding. Write down everything you know about that subject. When you learn something new, add to it. Look for gaps in your knowledge and inconsistencies. Are there any themes or principles that act as foundations for the subject? What are the rules or laws that apply in all circumstances?
  2. Pretend to teach the topic to a group of 8–10 year olds. How and where would you start? How would explain it in simple terms?
  3. When you discover a gap in your knowledge, return to the research phase until you have filled the gap and can explain the subject completely.
  4. Simplify, again and again. Use analogies and metaphors where appropriate. Repeat the process connecting the facts and themes. Try and find facts that undermine your principles. This is the process of testing them, making sure that they can stand up to scrutiny. Repeat until you find clarity.

I followed this process in my search for the Principles of Leadership. When researching leadership, I found that the majority of people were taking their experience and using it to create a simple recipe card for leadership. Whilst that’s helpful, unfortunately it is limited by the experience of one individual and what they perceive to be good leadership.

This is one of the reasons I write blogs. It forces me to think about an issue or a problem and relay a solution that hopefully people will find helpful. The value for me is that this helps me learn.

Leadership is all about Behaviour — Not Tools

I believe that leadership is fundamentally about behaviour. You lead by example, it’s up to you whether or not is a good one. The management vs leadership conversation is pointless because ultimately you’re trying to break two circles that overlap each other. Great managers have elements of strong leadership and great leaders are often strong managers. Who cares where you draw the line?

This approach will help you learn new ideas or develop your understanding of something you already know a fair bit about.

What do you consider yourself an expert in? Can you teach it in simple terms? That’s the test of an expert.