Lessons from Richard Feynman: Truly Knowing Something
One of the big lessons I learned from Richard Feynman was from a simple story of a little brown bird and what it means to truly know something.
In an interview in 1981, Feynman talked about how his father would take him for walks when he was a child and talk about what they would see.
The next day at school after one of those walks a kid challenged Feynman, ‘See that bird, what kind of bird is it?’ and Feynman would answer that he didn’t have the slightest idea. The kid would then proudly claim that his father taught him ‘it’s a brown throated thrush’ and ‘your father doesn’t teach you anything’.
But Feynman’s father would tell him ‘you see that bird, that’s a brown throated thrush, but in Portuguese it’s a Hunto La Pero, in Italian a Chutto La Pittida in Chinese it’s a Chung Wong Tah.
“Now, you can learn the name of that bird in as many languages as you want, and even then, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird.”
Now I use this as an excuse for not remembering people’s names, but more importantly it highlights a big challenge to what we think we know.
In school we are taught names, labels and facts because it’s easy to teach and easy to test. If you can recall the right names or facts, you pass the test. School gives a false sense of mastery by teaching you to memorize facts. Knowing the name for a specific brown bird and getting it right on an exam may make you feel good about yourself, but you don’t actually learn anything. There’s a big difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
At it’s worst, memorizing labels, names and jargon can stop us from learning more about a topic. Let’s go through an example to find out why.
Think about the answer to this question: Is a dolphin a fish?
How well do you feel you know the answer?
If you ask a friend this question, you’re likely to be told “everybody knows that dolphins are mammals, don’t you know anything?!’
Most people see this as a pretty basic fact so they don’t bother to dig deeper.
But what does it mean when we say that a dolphin is a mammal and not a fish?
If you pull on that thread you’re likely to find that most people start out confident, then they get stuck pretty quickly and realize they don’t really know much about mammals.
If you ask what it means for something to be a mammal, you might get the response that they’re warm blooded animals because that’s a pretty easy fact to remember and sounds about right.
If you think that’s a good answer, it might surprise you that it’s not quite right. While mammals do have warmer blood than their environment, so do birds – and birds aren’t mammals.
If you keep pulling on this thread you might then ask why birds aren’t mammals. Then you can ask yourself what the differences are between mammals and birds.
We could keep pulling on that thread, but let’s go back to comparing mammals to fish. Let’s say your friend knows that mammals are vertebrates. Well, what does that mean? Pull on that thread and see how far it leads before you get stuck.
What about the other conditions for something to be a mammal? How far can you go before you slam against a wall?
You might be surprised with how easy it is to get stuck when you dig into a topic like this.
The lesson to take away from this example is that memorizing facts or jargon doesn’t really teach you anything. It might be enough to pass an exam or score points at trivia night, but it’s not the same as truly knowing something.
We start to develop true knowledge when we dig into the details and push past jargon, names and memorized facts. You might think you know what it means for something to be a vertebrate, but do you really? Or do you just know the word and have a rough sense of what it means? Could you explain it to a young child without using jargon?
What about fish? What does it mean for something to be a fish? How far in that direction can you go before you get stuck?
In this example a zoologist would be able to reach out incredibly far in any direction. A zoologist would have a solid understanding on why a dolphin is a mammal compared to a typical person.
The lesson here is that the real answer to the question ‘is a dolphin a fish’ requires you to know quite a bit about fish and mammals. Memorizing the fact that dolphins are mammals doesn’t mean anything unless you know what it means for something to be a mammal and how mammals are different to other animals such as fish.
Likewise, knowing the name of a type of bird doesn’t teach you anything about the bird. If that’s the only thing a person knows about the bird, the person doesn’t know anything about it.
The big lesson to take away here is that memorizing a bunch of facts about a topic doesn’t really teach you anything. Even worse, those facts could stop you from digging deeper and developing true understanding.
While you may have no interest in digging into the details of what makes a dolphin a mammal, it’s worth revisiting facts you are interested in.
A great way to do this is to take a notebook and write the fact, name or jargon down in the center of the page. Then dig into that fact and write down anything relevant to test your understanding out. Pull on each thread and see how far you can go.
Eventually you’ll get stuck on each thread. When you do get stuck, do some research to fill in the gaps in your understanding and continue to branch out. Every time you do this, you deepen your understanding of the topic.
I started doing this after I started to work on this video and I’ve already been surprised with what I’ve learned. Give it a go and let me know in the comments what interesting new things you’ve learned.
If you want to give this a go, here are some suggestions on topics to start with. Pick one of these and see how far you can flesh them out.
As a side note, if you’re in school, mapping out ideas like this is a fantastic way to study. Every time you can add a new branch to the page, it strengthens your understanding of the topic as well as reinforces your memory.
Keep Feynman’s story of the bird in mind next time you hear somebody tell you a fact, name or use jargon. Instead of stopping there, dig into it and you might be surprised with what you find. This is especially worthwhile when it comes to jargon – people sometimes use jargon to hide their lack of understanding. The next time you use some jargon, see if you can make that same point without the jargon. If you can’t do it, it’s worth revisiting the topic.
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Key Lessons to Remember
- Knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing something
- Trivia and memorized facts can trick us into thinking we know something
- Challenge yourself by seeing how far you can dig down into a topic before you get stuck
- Feynman knew how hard it was to truly know something – be skeptical of people who think they’ve got everything figured out