How to make sense of complex ideas

You know that feeling when someone is explaining an idea and you're struggling to make sense of it—like peering out into dense fog, hoping to glimpse the outline of an approaching ship? Maybe it's because they're using unfamiliar acronyms or taking leaps of logic, or maybe it's simply not something you have any personal experience with. The idea is obvious to them, but not to you.

In Richard Feynman's hilarious and incisive memoir, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the Nobel Laureate shares his personal method for cutting straight to the heart of seemingly complex ideas, even when speaking to experts in fields far beyond physics: “I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.” 

Whenever anything was vague or confusing, he would ask for a concrete example. Then, even as his interlocutor reverted to describing general theory, Feynman would follow the concrete example along in his mind—often noticing flaws or opportunities in the idea that weren't obvious in the abstract. Just as Theseus escaped the labyrinth by following Ariadne's string, so you can use real, physical examples to escape the labyrinth of abstract thought, and arrive at insight.

Writing fiction is often about reversing Feynman's scheme: making up compelling stories that provide concrete examples from which ideas can be derived, thereby illuminating them.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

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