Explaining the world one sketch at a time

The Feynman Learning Technique illustration: a flow diagram of picking a topic, writing about it to explain to someone until it's clear and then simplifying and adding analogies

The Feynman Learning Technique

Richard Feynman was one of the great scientists of the 20th century, making significant contributions to physics and other related fields. Part of what made him stand out was his gift for teaching. He had a remarkable knack for explaining some of the most complex things in ways anyone could understand. He was also a model of the desire to deeply understand how things worked, often deriving a result in several ways to be more confident he was right. The Feynman learning technique is typical of how he approached understanding something deeply and helps explain some of his teaching skills. Spend time writing about a topic as if explaining it to someone. Then practice explaining it, speaking and drawing as if you were a teacher at the front of the class. You may figure out some other aspect wasn't as clear as you thought and need to look into something. Refine any gaps you reveal until you can share the topic fluently and clearly. Then, simplify your language by replacing complex words and ideas with simpler ones and considering analogies to help people relate. Now, you can explain it because you deeply understand it, too. "You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird." — Feynman's father, from Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman? Learn more: I loved the Fun to Imagine interviews to experience some of Feynman's joy and skill for teaching. The sketch was inspired by this excellent animated video of the Feynman Learning Technique. Though he was primarily a theoretical physicist, Feynman also made lasting contributions to the field of computation. If you want to get into those, you might enjoy the Feynman Lectures on Computation from the last course he taught at Caltech, edited, no less, by my Dad.
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Anadiplosis illustration. Yoda speaks his famous lines: Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering—on a dusty desert planet with two moons


Writing has power. Power grows through repetition. And repetition, should you reuse the last words of a sentence at the start of the next, is called anadiplosis. Like the amazing addition of alliteration, anadiplosis is a simple device to give more oomph to your words. Words that are barely changed but pack a lot more punch. Even if you can't remember the specifics, there's something about Yoda's wisdom that make the logic sound impeccable and irresistible and the message deep. Deep, at least partly, from anadiplosis. "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." — I learned about anadiplosis—and pleonasm, and ordering adjectives—from the entertaining and educational, The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. Anadiplosis is from the ancient Greek ana meaning again, and diplous meaning double. The Greeks were fond of their techniques for persuasive speeches.
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The frog boil metaphor illustration: showing a frog put into cool water that is slowly raised not complaining until it's too late. Poor frog. Don't try this.

The frog boil metaphor

The frog boil metaphor illustrates how it's easy to miss small changes that build up over time until it's too late. The scenario, as told, is that of a poor frog who would leap away from hot water but, if put into cooler water that is gradually warmed, won't respond in time to getting boiled. As a metaphor, it describes a powerful and pernicious shortcoming in how we perceive the world. A student kitchen that gets messy mug-by-mug, a business with gradually slowing sales, a river that is slowly polluted, a road that gets busier each day, a bay that sees fewer fish each year, content that drifts, cancer that slowly spreads, a story or behaviour that becomes normal, a website that gets slower feature-by-feature, or a climate that slowly warms are all cases where we may not be happy where we end up, but we didn't notice how we got there. It's hard to respond to gradual change, especially when it spans generations. Jared Diamond called it out as a potential fate of the Easter Islanders and how they could have cut down the last tree. One barnacle is nothing, but many barnacles can cause significant headaches for big ships. Fortunately, there's a flip side. Many, many things are getting better without us realising. Small positive changes, such as in attitudes, education, or healthcare, add up over time—the Destiny Instinct can mislead us. Fast and slow layers make a system, like a forest, more robust. Getting one percent better each day leads to a 37x improvement in a year. And enough molehills can make a mountain. — What a frog does, in this case, is not, apparently, true—don't try it—it's much better as a metaphor, not an experiment. The frog is Ed Emberley style.
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Feedback fear illustration: A poor soul goes through all sorts of internal doubts about what they might have done wrong and how they might have failed when someone gives a friendly suggestion to ask what others think

Feedback fear

Feedback is how we get better. It's how we find out what we couldn't see ourselves. But there are many reasons why it's more challenging to gather than we might hope. You might have a design prototype, a book or article draft, a new practice you want your team to adopt, or a project you've been working on. Feedback will make it better, but it's easy to feel anxious. You might want to avoid having to talk to people. Maybe you're worried about what others think—perhaps they won't like it. Maybe you'll have to start over. Maybe you'll hear what you know deep down. Maybe you might see that others could do it better than you, that it shouldn't be you that's doing it. Maybe you'll find out that you're a failure. If we care about achieving the best outcome, we can dispel most of these fears with a few moments of reflection—of course, I'm not a failure for trying!—but it doesn't mean they feel any less real at the time. As is often the case, action can be the solution, and gathering feedback is, in my experience, usually energising and confidence-building—now you can see what will make your project fly. Jane Austen was known to read her novels aloud to her family for both evening entertainment (pre-Netflix) and to help revise and hone her writing. Some strategies to get past these fears: Remember, the first draft is always perfect. Don't take things personally or yourself too seriously. Don't get attached to one option—attach yourself instead to a great outcome. To avoid sunk costs clouding your judgment, seek feedback before you're too invested. Stay fuelled and energised. Share multiple options when you can. It makes it easier for others to give comparative feedback and reduces the chances of taking it personally. Remember how valuable good feedback has been in the past. Consider who to gather feedback from. Sometimes complete strangers can help (who cares if they don't like it?), and other times a friendly face can ease you into it. Remember the spectrum policy to focus on the good in an idea. Try rubberducking. Be open to be changed. Try the six thinking hats.
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The tomato slicing test to see if you need to sharpen your knife. A knife running over the surface of a tomato followed by a disaster needing sharpening or some perfect precise slices

The tomato test

The tomato test, or tomato slicing test, is a handy way to see if your knives could do with sharpening. The idea is that a properly sharpened blade should slice through the taut skin of a tomato with minimal pressure. Somewhat counterintuitively, most cooks seem to agree that sharp knives reduce the risk of accidents as you don't have to push down as hard as with blunt knives. To do the tomato slicing test: Place a tomato on a board and gently run the knife over the top surface. A sharp blade will glide through the tomato skin, cutting it precisely all the way down. You shouldn't need to apply any pressure if the knife has weight. If you need to push down to pierce the skin, it could be time to sharpen. Cutting the top off the tomato first allows it to sit stably on its end, so you don't have to hold it. Alternatively, you could use a serrated knife which is handy for foods with a hard outside and a soft inside. The sharper the knife, the less mess you'll make and the easier you can ghost cook. Also see the egg float test
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Collective effervescence illustration: two people hold their phones up as lights with 1000s of others in a stadium concert at night

Collective effervescence

Collective effervescence is an eye-catching name for the magic of shared experience and moving in unison. As described by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, it picks out those times when people come together in synchrony for an experience that's different and often greater than those you can have alone. It might be gathering and singing at a music festival, swaying to the music as one being at a concert, experiencing the wonder of nature together, when the crowd erupts together as a goal goes in and hugging the person next to you, taking a yoga or spinning class, worshipping together, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or that magical Shawshank Redemption moment listening to the duet from The Marriage of Figaro as one. Despite my feeble clarinet skills, I remember a brief goosebump feeling when the school orchestra played it all correctly. And I remember my hair standing up when Twickenham Stadium carried Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in unison. Collective effervescence is something we missed during the pandemic. It was identified in Dacher Keltner's book Awe as one of the 8 Wonders of Life. Also see: forest bathing, notice when you're happy, 5 ways to wellbeing
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Temptation bundling illustration: examples of running on a treadmill to watch your favourite shows or ordering your favourite in a cafe only while working

Temptation bundling

Temptation bundling is a self-enforced technique that combines something you want to do with something you find hard to do. If you find it hard to work out at the gym, you can make it more appealing by only watching your favourite shows when you're there. If you struggle to get down to working on a project, combine it with the only time you order your favourite drink. The hope is that the treat is enough to get you stuck into the hard task. Temptation bundling is a kind of commitment device like that used by Odysseus. Temptation bundling is from Katy Milkman, who also taught me about the Fresh start effect, and has a book called How to Change. It's also one of the techniques discussed in James Clear's Atomic Habits. For a study evaluating temptation bundling, see: Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, Milkman et al., Management Science, 2014
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Hotel HQ: using a folded flannel on a desk as a base for important bits like room keys and wallet

Hotel HQ

Stay organised in your hotel room with this one weird tip. When arriving at a hotel room clear the desk and fold a bathroom towel or flannel to make a little square space and use it as a store for all your useful stuff. OK, so it actually does seem a little unusual, but having tested it on all hotel stays over the last few years I can say that it genuinely helps me not lose key things, like room keys, around my hotel room. It also reduces the chances that I'll leave without something important like a passport. Maybe give it a try. This tip I learned from Dan Pink's Pinkcast episode where he calls it his hotel inbox — the place to leave everything when he walks into the room.
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