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The Best Way to Learn Difficult Subjects (According to One of The Smartest People Who Ever Lived)

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Imagine being able to pick up a new subject in hours rather than weeks. How much time would that add to your typical day?

You’re probably dubious of study shortcuts. You might think they’re the educational equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes. And everybody knows where they lead. Hint: it’s not to the bank to cash a million-dollar cheque.

But suspend your doubt for a moment. Because this speed-learning technique comes from none other than Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman

Here’s a short outline: 

  1. Pick a subject you want to learn.  
  2. Explain it to an imaginary ten-year-old. 
  3. Whenever you start to struggle, conduct more research to fill in the gaps in your knowledge
  4. Re-explain it using your improved understanding. 

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at each step in a little more depth: 

1. Pick a Subject You Want to Learn More About

This is the easy part. Pick a subject that you want to understand. But before you jump in, ask what’s motivating you to learn it.

Research shows that “intrinsic motivation”, the desire to undertake a task because it’s naturally interesting and enjoyable is the best predictor of long-term adherence and success. 

Second, familiarize yourself with the basics. Spend a few hours studying the central and most important ideas. On a sheet of paper, write out the core concepts. You’re attempting to gain a birds-eye view of the subject, a framework onto which you can latch more ideas at a later stage. 

2. Explain It to an Imaginary Ten-Year-Old

Complete this stage out loud or, even better, write down your explanation on a piece of paper. 

You might be wondering, “Why a ten-year-old? Why not an adult?” There’s a simple reason. Explaining something to a child requires that you understand the concepts thoroughly. 

Einstein put it best when he said: “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

Feynman, who earned the nickname “the great explainer”, knew that the ability to simplify a complex topic was a mark of true understanding. This lesson is a good one to carry into everyday life and study: if you can’t break down a subject into digestible language, you probably don’t understand it. 

3. Whenever You Start to Struggle, Conduct More Research to Fill in the Gaps in Your Knowledge

This is the crucial stage. Whenever you start to flounder, identify the gap in your knowledge and note it down. But don’t stop. Carry on with your explanation. Once you’ve finished, you’ll have several areas that require further research. 

Phrase each “knowledge gap” as a question. This will speed up your study time because you’ll be looking for a specific answer. Sometimes, you’ll need to re-familiarize yourself with material you previously used. Other times, you’ll have to seek out new sources. 

4. Re-Explain the Subject Using Your Improved Understanding

Once you’ve filled in the gaps in your understanding, go back to step two and try again. Explain from the beginning (don’t just pick up where you started to struggle) to really “lock-in” your understanding. 

Always remember to make the language and vocabulary your own. This will ensure that you’re not directly regurgitating what you learned during the research phase. 

Here’s one final tip: leverage analogies, metaphors, and practical examples to add color to your exposition. Just like the skill of simplifying, the ability to cite concrete examples is only possible when you genuinely understand a topic. “For example…” is a valuable phrase. Use it. 

The Role of Advanced Study Skills in Business

Top business thinkers – entrepreneurs, managers, marketers, and others – can grasp new topics quickly. They’re able to interpret a fast-changing business landscape to guide their decisions. 

Richard Feynman didn’t just use his technique to pick up odd bits and pieces of knowledge, he applied this powerful habit throughout his career.

All of the programs at EU Business School cover learning strategies in depth – not just to aid you with your studies, but as real-world tools with practical uses. So why not follow in the footsteps of a Nobel Prize winner and place yourself firmly on the path to success?  

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