Simplicity Is The Ultimate Sophistication

This statement has been attributed variously to Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and Clare Boothe Luce among others.  Whoever said it originally, Richard Feynman (1918-1988) lived it.

Richard Feynman-Wikipedia Public Domain

Feynman was a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of  Technology (Caltech).  He was a leading proponent in the field of quantum electrodynamics (QED).

  • QED describes how light and matter interact.
    • It is the first theory to achieve complete agreement between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Richard Feynman was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize For Physics in 1965.  In part, his award was in recognition of what looked like a series of doodles he drew that became Feynman_Diagram_of_Electron-Positron_Annihilation_v2_GNU License_Free_CC3.0known as Feynman Diagrams. (Here illustrating an electron-positron annihilation.)

He used these to visualize the behavior of sub-atomic particles.  The diagrams are a simplified representation of what otherwise could be expressed only in a highly complex, abstract formula that is difficult to understand and to apply.

Although “simplified,” the diagrams have become a standard tool of physicists for calculating probability amplitudes in theoretical particle physics, exemplifying the power of simplicity.

Simplicity is the essence of the insight we addressed in Not All Wandering Minds Are Lost.

The Great Explainer

Feynman was no ivory tower intellectual.  He would mix it up with nearly anyone.  It was common to see him wandering around the floors of other departments avidly engaged with students or other professors concerning their fields of study. One of his favorite pastimes was challenging colleagues to explain any idea they were working on or teaching, whatever it happened to be, using only simple terminology that could be understood by a novice.

He was known “The Great Explainer” for his uncanny ability to articulate even the most complex ideas, such as quantum physics, in a clear, straightforward way that nearly anyone could comprehend.

The Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman created the mental model that came to be known as the Feynman Technique.  It is an effective tool to improve your grasp of current information, to learn new information, to retain information, or to study for a test.  Beyond that, the technique

is helpful in identifying gaps in your knowledge or comprehension.  It is also useful if you are teaching yourself a subject or pondering a topic that is complex or highly nuanced.

The Four Steps Of The Feynman Technique

  • #1 Identify A Topic & Begin Studying It
    • Write down what you know about your topic.
    • Add new information as you learn about it.
  • #2 Simulate Teaching Your Topic To A Classroom Of Childrenmegan-soule-250672
    • Prepare your lesson plan with the substance and order of what you will teach.
    • Deliver your lesson observing the following standards:
      • Use plain, simple language…no jargon.
      • Make what you say brief and to the point.
      • Accompany your content with context, so it is both meaningful and memorable.
  • #3 Identify The Gaps In Your Knowledge
    • Discover what you don’t know, a crucial step toward true learning & retention.
      • Look for the logical gaps and missing details in your lesson plan.
      • Identify anything that is vague or could be subject to more than one interpretation.
    • Go back to your source material to review, re-learn, or research further, as necessary to fill in the gaps.
    • Repeat #2 and #3 until the gaps are eliminated, and then move on to #4.
  • #4 Reorganize & Simplify Your Presentation Further
    • Purge wordy or confusing language, no paraphrasing source materials…use your original language to convey the lesson plan.
    • Use analogies to tell a story.
    • Prioritize the items of information you present with an eye toward maximizing both the attention and the comprehension of your audience.
    • Practice your delivery until it flows naturally.

If you would like a brief refresher on the Feynman Technique, from time to time, check out this video.


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