The Feynman Technique

“Do simple better.”

— Joe Maddon

Richard Feynman was one of the most accomplished theoretical physicists of the 20th century. He’s known for his work on the theories of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics. In 1965 Feynman (pronounced fainmen), along with Julian Schwinger and Sinchiro Tomonaga, received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Feynman was also part of the Manhattan Project during WWII and was appointed to the Rogers Commission in the 1980’s, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Feynman was especially gifted at popularizing physics in both his lectures and books including a three volume publication of his undergrad lectures at Cal Tech, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” Several of his lectures were filmed and can be viewed on YouTube. They’re well worth watching.

Richard also wrote two autobiographical books, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” No surprise that Feynman was also controversial, often going against the grain of the scientific community and even the government. Many quotes from his books, lectures, and interviews point to just that.

Here are a few of my favorites:

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

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” 

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” 

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” 

“The highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.” 

“Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” 

The Feynman Technique

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Feynman’s genius was his ability to take profoundly complex theories of physics and make them easily understandable by anyone. The aforementioned Cal Tech lectures are legendary for just this, not to mention his colorful personality, rasping voice, and Queens accent. In keeping with his overarching philosophy of making the complex easily understandable Feynman developed a simple technique that has been named after him. It can be applied to learning anything, especially wine theory for anyone on an exam track. There’s no better time to adopt it as a primary study strategy than right now. Here are the three steps to the Feynman Technique:

I. Be Able to Explain the Information It to Anyone

Take the subject matter you’re attempting to learn and write an explanation about it on paper. Write the information down as if you were explaining it to an eight-year-old kid. Keep the explanation—especially the terms–simple enough so anyone could understand what you’re talking about. This is because we so often use the nomenclature and terms of our field to mask fundamentals we don’t actually know.

II. Review

When writing out the explanation it’s inevitable that you’ll find gaps in your knowledge—details large and small that are lacking. Or perhaps you’ll forget an important concept that will help you connect the dots all the while keeping your eight-year-old audience in mind. This is when more actual studying is needed to fill in said gaps and make a complete explanation not only possible, but easy to do. Go do it.

III. Organize and Simplify

Here simplicity enters the picture yet again. Once you’ve finished your explanation you now have a set of notes that can be used for future review. The final step is to then arrange the notes in a narrative you can explain the subject at hand to the proverbial eight-year-old–much less anyone. Read your notes aloud as if you’re telling the story of biodynamics, the Gran Selezione in Chianti Classico, the VDP classification, or whatever the case may be. If the explanation isn’t simple or straightforward when reading it aloud, you don’t really know the information well enough. Stop! Go back to step two and plug in any information needed to make your narrative easy to remember—and easy to recite. 

*There’s an optional step four: actually find someone not in the industry and practice telling them about your topics du jour. You’ll find their feedback in the form of how they listen to you and respond to the information in the moment incredibly valuable.