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The Feynman Notebook Method

November 25th, 2015 · 33 comments

Notebook Picture - 625px

Feynman’s Exams

After his second year of graduate school at Princeton, Richard Feynman faced his oral examinations. Feynman was not yet the famous physicist he would soon become (as his biographer James Gleick put it, “His Feynman aura…was still strictly local”), so he took his preparation seriously.

Feynman drove up to MIT, a campus familiar from his undergraduate years, and a place “where he could be alone.” It’s what he did next that I find interesting.

As Gleick explains:

“[He] opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.”

I might not have worked with any future Feynmans during my time at MIT, but I certainly had the privilege to watch the ascent of at least two or three future stars in the world of science. And one thing they all seemed to share with Feyman was his hunger to understand what he didn’t know.

If someone published something good, they wanted to understand it. If this good thing used some mathematical technique they didn’t know, they’d drop off the radar until they learned it. If you published an interesting result, they’d soon learn every detail and be able to replicate it easier than you could manage.

Their proverbial notebooks of things they don’t know where always growing, and as a result, they thrived.

The Feynman Notebook Method

I think there’s a general method lurking here. People resist learning hard things — be it a graduate student mastering fundamental physics or an online marketer taming a new digital analytics tool — because learning is hard and requires significant amounts of deep work.

Dedicating a notebook to a new learning task, however, can provide concrete cues that help you stick with this hard process.

At first, the notebook pages are empty, but as they fill with careful notes, your knowledge also grows. The drive to fill more pages keeps your motivation stoked.

(To see this Feynman Notebook Method in action, consider the image at the top of this post, which shows a page from the notes I took as part of my effort to learn the basics of information theory during a recent trip to San Sebastian, Spain.)

It’s a simple idea: translate your growing knowledge of something hard into a concrete form and you’re more likely to keep investing the mental energy needed to keep learning. But sometimes a simple idea is all it takes to unlock a new level of potential.

“When [Feynman] was done,” Gleick reports, “he had a notebook of which he was especially proud.”

You should seek that same pride in your own quest to become too good to be ignored.

33 thoughts on “The Feynman Notebook Method

  1. Wonderful post Cal. This last year I have made it my mission to transfer my accounting & tax knowledge (I’m a CPA) into Microsoft Onenote. Then I am forcing myself to organize and review it – not just let it sit in a notebook.

    Like you say Cal, it is hard work; but it has been very helpful this last year on multiple occasions. Furthermore, I feel like I am actually progressing in knowledge and understanding.

    Great notes reviewed often are the key!

  2. Cal,

    Long time reader – first time commenter…

    This is all things awesome! I teach 7th and 8th grade English and am going to start this type of notebook with my students second semester (beginning of January 2016)…

    Love this use of a notebook! Thanks for posting!

    Btw, what’s in your glass/cup right now? 🙂

    1. Jenni says:

      I second this thought – I homeschool my kids, and I think this idea is translatable to kids as well – what a great habit it would be to keep a notebook on things you don’t know about, want to understand more, etc.

  3. Stef says:

    Things I’m grateful for:

    1. Cal Newport

  4. Daniel says:

    Another method at work here is that of thinking on paper. That allows for a greater objectivity about what you know (or don’t know) and allows you to focus more intensely on whatever mental work needs to be done.

  5. A.I. says:

    I’m confused, as Gleick’s passage contains too much bla bla.

    For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge.

    What exactly was the method about? Keeping a list of topics that Feynman didn’t yet fully understand?

    And then work towards clearing the white spots on the map?

    Or was it “re-organizing knowledge”, writing down things he knew. Then why call the notebook “Things I don’t know about”?

    In any case, it seems like a good idea to keep a list of open questions on paper, rather than just thinking in the back of your head “I didn’t fully understand this” about a certain topic, and then work systematically towards clarification of the open questions.

    Sometimes, understanding what exactly you don’t understand can be tricky enough.

    Keeping a written record of a mathematical derivation that was difficult – well duh.

    1. Duncan Smith says:

      Scott Young calls this the Feynman Technique (http://www.google.com/search?q=feynman+technique).

      Here’s the main idea: if you try to explain a concept in very simple terms, like you’re teaching it to a beginner, you’ll force yourself to understand it from the ground up. It’s a way of identifying the gaps in your knowledge of a topic, and then filling them.

      1. Elissandro Mendes says:

        WOW, amazing definition!!!

  6. Precious says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read. Thanks!

  7. I find this information to be extremely helpful. Personally, during my own college career, I have had several topics that have been very difficult to correctly break down, analyze, and understand. To be honest, I follow human nature to exactness and have avoided difficult concepts like the plague. Obviously, it’s all come back to bite me and I need to make a change. THIS will be my change.

  8. There are other ways to force yourself to learn something hard. When I was studying engineering, I often used the questions in Schaum’s outlines to push me on. There are hundreds of those books, many with thousands of questions and linked to explanatory videos.

    https://www.mhprofessional.com/category/?cat=3959

    No connection to the publisher. Just a satisfied user.

  9. Jim Hatton says:

    There are hundreds (thousands?) of interesting papers with ideas and techniques I would love to learn. It would require, at least for me, deep work to understand them at a useful level of detail. So how does one manage the trade-off: Deep learning of potentially but not immediately useful ideas versus deep creativity directly associated with one’s goals?

    1. Aaron says:

      Neuroscience grad guy here: In my estimation, immersion always pays off and often in ways that you don’t think it will. Recently, I discovered that my understanding of the molecular intricacies of neuroscience left something to be desired and I’d resolved to make that part of my knowledge base deeper. While I haven’t used the notebook method (yet), I decided to read at least an hour a day of molecular fundamentals, monday through friday. It was just the basics, stuff I should’ve picked up in my undergrad. I’ve found just going back to all this stuff and really trying to engrain it into my mind has expanded my thinking about many related subjects like chemistry and biology, and how all of these interplay in the brain.

  10. Sidd says:

    Strange coincidence, I was a bit under confident when I entered into college. And before every exam I made a list of things I didn’t know. It worked wonders for me and is paying me compounded interest till today.

  11. Lisa McFadden says:

    People will pay money for what sort of advice? Keeping a notebook or working without distractions for periods of time, called ….deep work….?? Hahahahah. What a racket!!

  12. Ariel says:

    It would be really fantastic if you could elaborate upon this method. Maybe if you could provide an example, I understand that deep work is a big part of it but also there is something to it that probably doesn’t have to do with time so much as the way one would start the deconstruction of a problem in their head? Is it essentially a notebook of “but how?”‘s or what. I guess I just feel that practically speaking I’m having a bit of trouble conceptualizing this. I guess I could put it in a notebook…

    1. Steven Ford says:

      I agree with Ariel. I would love to understand a bit more how this is supposed to work. When I start the notebook, what would be an example first entry? What would I then do when I learn more about it? Cross it off the list? Update the page with information on what it is, proving I now know?

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