Using the Feynman method to learn, create content or products, and become an expert

Do a quick Google of “The Feynman Technique” and you’ll come upon a plethora of results explaining how Dr. Richard Feynman became such a celebrated physicist and professor (aside from having a charismatic personality that still captures people’s imaginations).

In a nutshell, the Feynman technique (or method, rather; a technique generally uses a tool!) is what the character Niels Bohr, in Michael Freyn’s play Copenhagen, repeatedly exhorts Werner Heisenberg to do: explain things in such a way that Margrethe, Bohr’s wife, would understand. If you hang out with physicists, you’re going to understand a thing or two, but unless you’re a physicist yourself, you won’t understand everything – and it doesn’t help when you’re talked down to (or not at all).

  1. Choose anything you want to know. Write it on paper.
  2. Teach it to a child, from start to finish.
  3. Circle the gaps of things you can’t explain, don’t know, or questions that arise. Go to the source material and find an explanation. Create a new page for them.
  4. Review the subject and simplify it.

It makes so much sense that within two weeks of finding out about it, I published my first Feynman project. It’s on a topic I knew well from a past life; having done an Amazon search for available books on the topic, I thought it worthy to share my thoughts and experience.

You can see the first article in the public series and the resulting series for mobile phones here. It isn’t a treatise on ecology (a subject dear to me!) or about pineapples. It’s on how to start up and run an animal rescue.

I no longer do this, but I support those who do. These people are underappreciated heroes and heroines and you should throw some money at them. And offer to help them with cleaning. Seriously. Go get the rubber boots and gloves.

A real-life example

Around the same time (2016), I also found (and fortunately printed out) an article written by the video artist Adam Westbrook: “My free degree.*” He wrote (in 2013) about how whenever he learns something new, he’s compelled to pass it on to others. Experimental, experiential learning combined with teaching is a great way to hack deep education, and it can help others at the same time. All the better if you’re doing it on a topic that hasn’t been studied extensively! This turns it into real research. So Westbrook produced an unofficial Masters (or at least half-Masters) — a 40,000 word dissertation, he said — on an understudied subject: story design.

In essence, teaching others what you’ve learned, especially while you’re learning it, is a great motivator to keep at it — and narrow your focus into the most productive line of enquiry.

Perhaps that was the unconscious, underlying reason I applied for and enrolled in my Certificate program later that same year: though I needed more degrees like I need a hole in my head, school does provide a tidy sandbox, a network, and a group of resources by which you can focus on a question or a project and get it done.

By the time I knew I was accepted into the program, I thought the article was intentional enough for me to consider for as a model for my upcoming studies. Westbrook wrote about “the importance of being intentional…. A key part of hacking your own education is the intentionality of it. I drew up lists of questions to be answered, and made it my business to solve them.…” He underscored the importance of making it a project to focus your attention and curiosity, and finally making it public, because “the potential and energy comes from the fact you share your learning journey.”

Despite being a filmmaker, Westbrook’s media of choice was a book and a series of magazines (which also brought in money!) on different aspects of storytelling. In the process of writing on the topic, he learned how to publish, build an audience, and improve his web design skills. This, as I’ve found from my own experiences here, made him a better writer and designer.

His article concluded with the importance of taking your own education seriously, and all that’s required is independence, energy, a willingness to share, and curiosity.

* Unfortunately, I can’t share the article with you – that’s the ethics of re-publishing an article by an author who’s removed it from publication (although obtaining permission would suffice). If you’d like to reach the author, visit his website.

Don’t stop yourself from starting; do this

Publish your learning efforts. Create yourself a space off of Facebook and maybe even Medium, a space of your own, and keep track of what you talk about and share elsewhere. Turn it into a pedagogy of sorts. Find an audience on a platform elsewhere to interact with, that you can share to. Take a risk and share your passion not with your friends, but with others who might find it for their own good.

Few of us are ready to engage in a self-exposing project such as holding formal discourse on topics we’re interested in, until it actually is our job to do so. Sometimes we’ll gesticulate in that direction by posting a thought and soliciting others to discuss it. Then, if successful, we’ll have created a noisy environment where the bravest thinkers venture into causes and solutions, while most people glance off it with an anecdote of personal experience.

In a simplistic Twitter world where people assume a lot out of 280 characters if they’re being dismissive, enthusiastic and knowledgable amateurs can easily find themselves on the short end of an interaction – often with the first plank in a position laid down against their efforts. People in the academic world can be particularly bad about this, as it’s a little too insular, competitive, and political.

And honestly, major curiosities are topics that are so well-covered, YouTube is what it is today, repackaging written words for the animation-and-video quick take. Here’s one of many YouTube videos explaining the Feynman Technique. If your interest is well-covered, unless you love translating ideas into video — and there is a market or at least a reward for that! —  you might not have a lot of impetus to put your own views forward.

Hmmmm, she thinks: Playing it safe, are we?

New interests are emerging all the time, so there’s always room to come to the table. We do so when we strike upon a passion that’s either controversy-neutral (by which I mean if there’s any controversy to it, it’s about things, not people) or else so darn helpful to its followers, different takes are highly productive. Those who your blog/content/product doesn’t serve won’t find it interest-worthy at all. That way, you’re pretty much guaranteed that if anyone’s throwing you shade about publishing your learnings, they are … umm… cranio-rectally inverted.

This is not to be confused with critics who want your work to improve. Learning how to suggest ways of improvement and, of course, pointing out actual mistakes is an important social skill and service. Learn how to do it, and learn how to take it. Words are words on a page, be kind in delivering them by speaking plainly and without sarcasm; likewise, don’t infer any invective that isn’t there. Turning feedback into a “personal attack” is not a competent way to approach things.

Fear of this kind of criticism kept me small during some otherwise highly thoughtful and curious and hypothesis-driven years. That energy was limited just to my reading and private writing, and therefore mostly wasted. Like virtue, an idea never tested is no idea at all.

So I tore a practical page from Westbrook’s article. I chose something that I’d already done a deep dive on: confronting my inability to make big decisions and act on them in ways that produced results. What do other people get out of life planning and planning goals? How they do it, what pitfalls do they encounter, and why do they procrastinate? I learned from other people’s research, but rather than filling in the gaps at the time – turning it into further original research – I turned it into practices to try, reject, and refine, and asked people about their habits and what worked for them. Although I went into my certificate program with a couple of bigger ideas, this was the project I chose to work on by bringing down the focus to something manageable and strategic.

Evan Williams, the guy who started Blogger, Twitter, and now Medium, said that if you want a startup that draws people in, you have to find something that a lot of people want to do, something they do anyway – and make it as easy as possible for them to do it.

When I read that, it was the confirmation I needed that my life planner/agenda project — an unexciting prospect by most startup metrics — was good enough to begin. It jives with Effectuation. And the procrastination ebook I was procrastinating on publishing was relevant enough to incorporate into the program, too.

In conclusion: if you intend and have a purpose to develop a topic by teaching about it, you can build up skills by doing so, and hopefully find and create an audience for bigger things. That’s reason enough to make a choice and start putting organizational structures around yourself. Generally those structures comprise a project: a guiding hypothesis, a task list, a small budget, a schedule, logistic support, and a hoped-for outcome.

More to come…

One more article will come in this “series” about my training in the Feynman method, but as I don’t want to exhaust you with too many words, I saved it for later. I’ll end this with a concluding passage that I hope I’ll have many opportunities to restate:

I hope you’ll find inspiration in the Feynman method itself and the variations here, and apply them towards your own public-facing project. If you don’t have one yet, I hope it’ll inspire you to create one.


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