How to use this simple principle for you.
Books give you access to the smartest brains on our planet. And learning from the greatest thinkers and doers is your fast track to health, wealth, and wisdom.
Yet, reading per se doesn’t elevate your life. You can read 52 books a year without changing at all.
Social climber Dale Carnegie used to say knowledge isn’t power until it’s applied. And to apply what you read, you must first remember what you learned.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988) was an expert for remembering what he learned. Bill Gates was so inspired by his pedagogy that he named Feynman, “the greatest teacher I never had.”
Why Most People Forget What They Read
Most people confuse consumption with learning. They think reading, watching, or hearing information will make the information stick with them.
Unless you’ve got a photographic memory, no idea could be further from the truth.
To protect ourselves from overstimulation, our brains filter and forget most of what we consume. If we remembered everything we absorb, we wouldn’t be able to operate in our world.
But most people act like their brains would keep everything. They focus on reading a specific number of books a year. By focusing on quantity, instead of learning, they forget anything they read. Ultimately, for them, reading is mere entertainment.
It was Schopenhauer who already stated in the 1850s, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” So to learn, we need to think by ourselves.
A person who reads without pausing to think and reflect won’t remember nor apply anything they read.
You can spot these people easily. For example, they say they’ve read a book, but lack the words to explain their takeaways. Likely, they haven’t learned a thing from reading it.
Mortimer Adler put it best when he wrote: “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
Luckily, there’s a way out of it. We can indeed learn from what we read. And we’ve known so for a long time.
How You Can Remember What You Read
Teaching is the most effective way to embed information in your mind. Plus, it’s an easy way to check whether you’ve remembered what you read. Because before you teach, you have to take several steps: filter relevant information, organize this information, and articulate them using your own vocabulary.
Feynman mastered this process like no other. The people of his time knew him for being able to explain the most complex processes in the simplest language. They nicknamed Feynman “The Great Explainer.”
If you’re after a way to supercharge your learning and become smarter, The Feynman Technique might just be the best way to learn absolutely anything. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning.
The Feynman Technique is one method to make us remember what we read by using elaboration and association concepts. It’s a tool for remembering what you read by explaining it in plain, simple language.
Not only is the Feynman Technique a wonderful recipe for learning, but it’s also a window into a different way of thinking that allows you to tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up.
What I love about this concept is that the approach intuitively believes that intelligence is a process of growth, which dovetails nicely with the work of Carol Dweck, who beautifully describes the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. Here’s how it works.
The 4 Steps You Need To Take
In essence, the Feynman technique consists of four steps: identify the subject, explain the content, identify your knowledge gaps, simplify your explanation. Here’s how it works for any book you read:
#1 Choose the book you want to remember
After you’ve finished a book worth remembering, take out a blank sheet. Title it with the book’s name.
Then, mentally recall all principles and main points you want to keep in mind. Here, many people make the mistake to simply copy the table of content or their highlights. By not recalling the information, they skip the learning part.
What you want to do instead, is to retrieve the concepts and ideas from your own memory. Yes, this requires your brainpower. But by thinking about the concepts, you’re creating an effective learning experience.
While writing your key points, try to use the simplest language you can. Often, we use complicated jargon to mask our unknowingness. Big words and fluffy “expert words” stop us from getting to the point.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
— Albert Einstein
#2 Pretend you are explaining the content to a 12-year old
This sounds simpler than it is. In fact, explaining a concept as plain as possible requires deep understanding.
Because when you explain an idea from start to finish to a 12-year old, you force yourself to simplify relationships and connections between concepts.
If you don’t have a 12-year old around, find an interested friend, record a voice message for a mastermind group, or write down your explanation as a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or Quora.
#3 Identify your knowledge gaps and reread
Explaining a book’s key points helps you find out what you didn’t understand. There will be passages you’re crystal clear about. At other points, you will struggle. These are the valuable hints to dig deeper.
Only when you find knowledge gaps — where you omit an important aspect, search for words, or have trouble linking ideas to each other — can you really start learning.
When you know where you’re stuck go back to your book and re-read the passage until you can explain it in your own simple language.
Filling your knowledge gaps is the extra step required to really remember what you read and skipping it leads to an illusion of knowledge.
#4 Simplify Your Explanation (optional)
Depending on a book’s complexity, you might be able to explain and remember the ideas after the previous. If you feel unsure, however, you can add an additional simplification layer.
Read your notes out loud and organize them into the simplest narrative possible. Once the explanation sounds simple, it’s a great indicator that you’ve done the proper work.
It’s only when you can explain in plain language what you read that you’ll know you truly understood the content.
We all know from our own experiences that knowledge is useless unless applied. But by forgetting what we read, there’s no way to apply it to our lives.
Montaigne pointed to this fact in one of his Essays where he wrote:
We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?
The Feynman Technique is an excellent way to make the wisdom from books your own. It’s a way to tear ideas apart and rebuild them from the ground up.
Here are the four steps you want to remember:
- choose a book, get a blank page and title it
- teach it to a 12-year old in plain, simple language
- identify knowledge gaps and reread what you forgot
- review and simplify your explanation (optional)
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