A couple of years ago, as I was lunching with a friend, he asked me a simple question. If all life started with one simple organism, how did so many complex species evolve?
By this time, I had already begun studying Anthropology (my Optional subject), so he naturally assumed that I should be able to handle such basic questions on the topic. Infact, I thought the same. But, it’s only when I started explaining, that I noticed that I was wrong about how much I knew.
Instead of answering in simple and clear language, I stumbled and fumbled my way through using high-sounding terms such as ‘adaptation’, ‘hybridisation’, ‘natural selection’, and all the complex terminology associated with evolution.
Midway through the explanation, I noticed I wasn’t making much sense— either to him or myself. I was frustrated at this point and just wanted a dignified way out. I covered up my lack of knowledge by telling my friend that the topic is too complicated for him and that it requires prior knowledge to understand it clearly. We then moved on to discussing something else.
But, the nagging feeling that there were gaps in my understanding persisted. The more I thought about the experience, the more I realized that it was not so much my friends’ incompetence but my own shallow understanding of the concept that made it impossible for me to explain it clearly.
That was when it dawned on me that to know how well you understand a topic, try teaching it to someone who is not as well-versed with the subject. As you try making it simple and understandable, you are forced to drill down the concept to its fundamentals, and in the process, your own understanding becomes much clearer. Later that year, I discovered the Feynman technique, and it only solidified my belief that teaching is the best way to learn.
When you are learning a new concept, after every few paragraphs, take a pause and explain it to yourself in your own words. When you can do that convincingly, that’s when you have gained the conceptual understanding of the topic. Being able to explain a complex topic in the simplest of language is a sign of absolute mastery.
As Feynman once said, there is a difference between knowing the concept and knowing the name of the concept. Teaching it to yourself or someone else is the best way to find out which category you fall under.