Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Learn Faster Using First Principles and the Feynman Technique - Tip #177

When Elon Musk and his team were in the process of estimating the cost of SpaceX rockets, they didn’t look at the products on the market. Instead, they identified the necessary parts and the cost of those parts’ raw materials. This unconventional way of thinking resulted in a rocket that cost only 2% of the typical price.

When you have a problem or want to learn something, how do you go about it? Research? Memorization? Or something else?

First Principles Learning

Elon Musk has a different way of looking at issues and learning. He follows a mode of inquiry he calls “first principles thinking.” In first principles thinking, you go to the foundation or root of a problem. As applied to learning, this means returning to the fundamental principles.

He is quoted as saying in Reddit: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

The Feynman Technique

There’s another method that’s very similar to Elon Musk’s first principles. It’s called the Feynman Technique, and it helps learners thoroughly learn concepts. The technique eschews memorization. Rather, it advocates that learners explain a subject as simply as possible, which is the measure of whether learning actually occurred or not.

The Feynman Technique has four steps. It’s explained in detail here, but here are the basics:
  1. Upon deciding on a subject you’d like to learn, take a blank sheet of paper and write the subject at the top.
  2. Then write what you know about the subject as simply as possible (simple enough to be understood by an 8 year old). This entails using common words to explain and simplify relationships and connections between ideas.
  3. Next, you’ll want to identify gaps in your knowledge about the subject and go back to the source material to re-learn it.
  4. Review your notes to make sure there are no jargons copied from the source material and then organize your notes into “a simple story that flows.” Anything that sounds confusing is an area that you still need to work on.
  5. (This step is optional but it’s the ultimate test of whether you understand the subject or not.) Transmit your learning to someone who has little knowledge about the subject.

Both Elon Musk’s first principles and the Feynman Technique will give learners a deeper understanding of any subject. They’ll really learn at a faster pace by deconstructing and then reconstructing ideas and concepts.


Drake Baer. Elon Musk Uses This Ancient Critical-Thinking Strategy To Outsmart Everybody Else. Business Insider, January 5, 2015
Quora. Elon Musk's Surprising Strategy for Thinking About Everything. Inc., February 7, 2017
Farnam Street The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything
Tip #82 - Role of Stories in Learning - A Map

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"


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