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. If you liked this video and want to hear more
lessons from interesting people like Richard Feynman, let me know by giving this video
a like and subscribing.

Leave a Reply