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Thanks to the internet, everything we ever want to know is just a tap away from the smartphone. This is great for those of us who constantly crave knowledge.
But there is a big gap between knowing something and understanding it. We all know someone who absolutely cleans up on quiz nights, but cannot easily work his way out of a paper bag. Perhaps no one has articulated this difference better than Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who explained it as follows:
“Do you see that bird? It's a Brown Thrush, but in Germany it's called Halsenflugel, and in Chinese it's called Chung Ling, and even if you know all those names for it, you still don't know about the bird – you only know about people; what they call this bird. "
Feynman, widely regarded as one of the greatest minds in modern history, had no use for clever-sounding rhetoric that meant nothing. Instead, he was steadfast in his willingness to face his own incomprehension: “When Feynman is faced with a problem, he is unusually good at being like a kid again and ignoring what everyone else is thinking … He was so stuck – when something was wrong. If it doesn't work, he would see it differently, ”said AI pioneer and Feynman's long-time friend Marvin Minsky.
Not everyone is going to become a leading thinker in quantum electrodynamics like Feynman, but we can borrow his technique to learn everything we want to know.
The importance of learning
Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, suggests that there are two types of mindset: growth and fixation. A growth philosophy is the idea that we can improve our brain's ability to learn and solve problems, while a solid mindset is the belief that our intelligence is static and immutable.
Related: 10 Proven Ways to Learn Faster
For entrepreneurs, success is not possible without a growth philosophy. Technology is advancing rapidly and our communication channels are constantly in flux. To keep up, a commitment to continuous learning is essential.
But it's not just that. In an article on Harvard Business Review, John Coleman wrote that we were all born with a natural curiosity, but the demands of work and life often reduce our time and will to nurture that natural curiosity. "The development of specific learning habits – consciously established and conscientiously cultivated – can be a way to achieve both professional relevance and deep personal happiness," he writes. In other words, taking the time to study will not only benefit your career, but you too.
The problem with "sounding smart"
In 2007, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet's billionaire business partner, told the USC senior class a story about physicist Max Planck. Planck toured Germany, lecturing on quantum mechanics, and giving the same speech so often that his chauffeur learned it by heart. In fact, the chauffeur had the feeling that he could deliver it just as well as Planck himself – and Planck decided to let him.
Related: 3 Reasons You Can't Study ASAP
The chauffeur recited the lecture flawlessly, at least up to the first question. In a moment of brilliance, the chauffeur replied: "I'm surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I'll ask my chauffeur to answer."
Munger's argument was that there are two types of knowledge: "Chauffeur knowledge", which superficially speaks the conversation, and "Planck knowledge", which is held by those who really know a topic very well.
Many of us fall into the trap of having chauffeur knowledge where we should have Planck knowledge – often without knowing it ourselves. When we use technical vocabulary to explain something in our own mind, we get the wrong impression that we understand what we are talking about. With this vocabulary we can overcome our gaps in understanding to such an extent that even we do not recognize what we are missing.
As Albert Einstein put it: “Any fool can know. It's about understanding. "
Feynman's work as a physicist may have been incredibly complex, but his learning technique was anything but. The premise is: explain in simple terms what you want to learn, then find the gaps in your knowledge. He divides it into four steps:
1. Select a topic
Identify a new topic or concept that you want to master and write it down on a blank piece of paper. Get to know the topic by reading books, articles, and listening to podcasts. Add to your page when you learn something new on the subject.
2. Teach someone else
Think of an explanation for the topic, so as to make it as clear and simple as possible. Imagine teaching it in a classroom full of sixth graders who have enough vocabulary and attention spans to understand basic concepts but would get lost resorting to jargon.
This step may be the essence of Feynamn's technique, but its effectiveness has been proven time and time again. In one experiment, the researchers recruited students to learn about sound waves and the Doppler effect, about which they previously had little understanding. At the end of their allotted study time, participants were randomly selected to give a lesson on the material with or without notes. They returned a week later and did a surprise test when they called back. Those without notes did better because describing the Doppler effect in their own words helped them really understand it.
Teaching someone else will help you learn, but the act of recalling it from your memory also cements what you already know. I learned that firsthand when I took three months off from my JotForm company after my wife gave birth to our second child. In order to delegate my tasks to my colleagues, I had to refresh and deepen my own knowledge about my job. For example, hiring new employees was my job as CEO. However, in delegating the task to our COO, I had to articulate what we are looking for in our attitudes, which helped me better understand them myself.
Review your notes to make sure they aren't jargon. Organize them into a simple narrative that is easy to share and keep studying it until you can explain your subject in basic terms.
Of course, some concepts will be more complex than others. To master these, break the topic down into smaller explanations rather than trying to put them all into one. Remember: simplicity is key.
4. Repeat the process
Even a really good explanation can be further simplified. Explain to someone else again, revisit your source material, and revise your explanation.
Ask others to do the same
If someone else explains something to you in a language you don't understand, ask them to explain things to you as if you were 12 years old.
If you have a conversation with someone and they start using words or concepts that you don't understand, ask them to explain it to you as if you were 12 years old. This will not only help you to actually understand the subject at hand, but also your own. The interlocutor will also benefit from a simplification. Don't worry about sounding smart As Feynman said, "I think it's much more interesting to live without knowledge than to have answers that might be wrong."
Related: Stop learning, learn smarter. A quick guide to agile learning.