Many people can relate to struggling in school when they were younger. Sometimes, it might’ve felt so frustrating to academically lag behind peers that giving up seemed like a realistic option. This was the case for Jim Kwik when he was growing up.
School wasn’t simply hard for Kwik — it was so daunting and discouraging that he almost dropped out of college. He had an impossible time focusing and learning new information, and he couldn’t find any helpful options. So he took action.
In school, you learned things, but you were never taught how to actually learn. After 20 years of dissecting the science of learning and memory, Jim Kwik is now an internationally renowned master of memory, learning, speed reading and the brain.
How good is he, you ask? Kwik told Forbes:
“The average person reads 200-250 words-per-minute and spends 3 to 4 hours of their work day reading. That’s more than one-third of their time on the job. If that person makes $60,000 a year, then at least $20,000 of that money is paying for them to read. But proper training can easily double the average person’s reading speed (up to 400-450 w.p.m.). That cuts 3 to 4 hours down to 1 to 2. That’s a savings of over an hour a day. If you do that for 365 days a year, that’s 9 different 40 hour work weeks saved. That’s real time productivity. Imagine what you could do with all that extra time.”
A renowned speaker, Kwik has shown the ability to memorize the names of every person in a crowd. He can also recite long sequences of random numbers and has hundreds of phone numbers stored in his memory.
Kwik now runs Kwik Learning, his thriving business that teaches clients “memory improvement (Kwik Recall), speed-reading (Kwik Reading), and advanced thinking (Kwik Thinking) skills.” He’s had the pleasure sharing his knowledge with the likes of Elon Musk, Jim Carrey, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and the cast of the “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Warren Buffett, who once shared the stage with Kwik, said of Kwik’s skill:
“I’ve probably wasted 10 years reading slowly.”
Recently, Jim Kwik sat down with us to talk about his beginnings, his work with celebrities, and to teach us a few memory tricks that could be put to use right away (because we’re a forgetful bunch).
When was the last time you forgot something?
“(laughs) It’s actually been known to happen. I do not have photographic memory. […] Every so often … you know, I don’t remember! (laughs) I was actually trying to think of the time I forgot something, but it definitely has happened.”
When it come to those who have photographic memory, do you think they’re born with the skill?
“Right now they are saying that there’s not a lot of research to support photographic memories. You might get one or two isolated stories, but I believe that there is no such thing as a good or bad memory and that there is just a trained memory and an untrained memory. There is this condition called HSAM, highly superior autobiographical memory, where a handful of people around the world have the ability, if you tell them ‘May 21, 1983,’ they can tell you what day of the week it was, what they had for breakfast or what was going on in the news. But in terms of a trainable skill, it hasn’t shown to be possible yet.”
Tell us about your struggles in school when you were growing up
“I did. I struggled a lot personally. When you have learning challenges, you don’t really want to go out there and connect with people as much because you become very introverted and very shy because you feel like you don’t have a lot to be able to offer to other people. I always wanted to know what was wrong with me, and I didn’t understand why I had to work so much harder than everyone else around me. I felt like I was broken.
I recently did a training over at 20th Century Fox, and it was a corporate event for the chairman and his senior staff. It was one of our best trainings ever; everyone doubled their reading speed and had amazing focus and everything.
Afterwards, the chairman said ‘thank you,’ and he invited me to go to Comic-Con. I got on a plane the next morning, and there was the entire cast of ‘X-Men,’ which was so amazing. He didn’t know I was into superheros, but I was telling him that I grew up with learning challenges and my favorite heros growing up reading comic books were the X-Men, because they might not be the strongest but they were different and they didn’t really fit in, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. So one of the coolest things when I was 7, when I first learned how to read comic books, was I found out that the X-Men school was in Westchester, New York, which is in the suburb of New York City. That’s where I grew up. So every weekend I actually would ride my bike around the neighborhood trying to find this school because I wanted to run away. That’s how much of an outcast I felt like in school. I wanted to go to school with the X-Men.
I got to spend the entire day geeking out with them at Comic-Con. On the way back, [the chairman] said, ‘How was your day?’ and I said, ‘This was the best day ever! It was a dream come true.’ And he was like, ‘I have something else for you.’
‘Oh no, no, what can I do for you?’ because it was amazing, and I really wanted to serve.
‘Well, the cast really loved you. Do you want to go on a set?’
I was like, ‘What do you mean?’
‘We have another month of shooting ‘X-Men.’ Would you like to go on a film set?’
‘Oh my god, I’ve never been on a film set before,’ so I was like, ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Help them speed read their script and memorize their lines and focus.’
‘Oh I can totally do that.’
So the next morning, we are on the jet from L.A. to Montreal, and I spent the entire week with them. The 7-year-old kid inside of me got to see his superheroes come to life. I get goosebumps — I call them ‘truth bumps’ — just thinking about it. But the coolest part when I got home, there was a package waiting for me. It’s wrapped, so I unwrap it, and it’s this photograph of me and the entire cast of the ‘X-Men.’ And there was a note in there, and it says, ‘Jim, thank you so much for sharing your superpowers with us. I know you’ve been looking for your school. Here’s your class photo.’ “
Why do you love superheroes so much?
“So I love superheroes, and I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people. So, when I got the chance to meet Stan Lee, the godfather of superheroes who’s a creator of Spiderman, X-Men, Avengers and the Fantastic 4, I was just in awe.
I had an opportunity of introducing Stan Lee to Richard Branson over dinner. So when I go to pick up Stan, I’m just there in L.A. traffic, so the 10-minute ride ends up taking like an hour, which was the best thing ever. So I’m talking to Stan and asking all the questions, like, ‘Who’s your favorite superhero?’ and he tells me Iron Man. He asks me who my favorite hero is, and I say Spiderman. And when I say Spiderman, he says, ‘With great power comes with great responsibility,’ this phrase that we’ve heard throughout the beginning of time. Then I also thought that the opposite is also true — with great responsibility comes great power. It made me think about why I love entrepreneurs and people who are stepping up and watching this kind of content, is because they are taking responsibility, because they have the ability to respond, and that gives them power to make changes.”
You’ve worked with some big names. What’s your secret to making such valuable connections with people?
“When it comes to making connections with people, it’s about remembering them — it starts with remembering things like their names. At the very base, the first thing you do with somebody is, if you don’t remember their names, what does it communicate? It communicates that we don’t care or we are not interested or they are not important, and after that it doesn’t matter what you say to somebody. We know that when we remember someone’s name, it’s the sweetest sound to the person’s ear. That’s why it’s so important to be able to do that.
I think there are three keys to remembering names or remembering or being better connectors or being better networkers. It doesn’t matter if you are at a networking event, business conference or wedding. I call it ‘MOM,’ M-O-M. And just really quickly, ‘M’ stands for motivation. So the motivation is, why do you want to remember the person’s name? Because if you can’t come up with one reason, you won’t remember the person’s name. It’s so funny though, people who say that they are terrible with names. I can have a suitcase here with $100,000 and say, ‘Remember the next person you meet’ — every single person will remember it just to get the $100,000 from your favorite charity. So the memory expert has nothing to do with potential — it has to do with capability, it has everything to do with whether they want to do it or not. Think about the names that we tend to remember: people that we are attracted to, people that we want to close business with. So have that kind of emotional connection with everybody and be interested, and that will really show up.
The ‘O’ in MOM stands for observation, observation. I talk about the first time I met President Clinton. A lot of people know him as an incredible leader — he has incredible charisma, connector, communicator — but a lot of people don’t know that he has an incredible memory. Everytime I see him, he remembers my name and can pick up from our last conversation. It’s because he’s a leader — leaders are leaders, and leaders have amazing memories because they care. I remember asking him a number of times, ‘Wow, do you remember people’s names?’ and what memory tricks to use, and he doesn’t use any memory trick. He tells me a story about his grandfather, [who] would tell these stories in Arkansas with the children, and he would quiz them and you would really have to listen.
I remember when I went to a charity event, I was the first one to sit down at this charity event. It was actually after I got to spend time with the X-Men — that was the only reason why I left the filming. When I was sitting there — I was the first one there — there was 2,000 people, and then Forrest Whitaker sits down right next to me, and wow, that’s really neat, and after that, Richard Branson sits right next to him, and, wow, because I had an opportunity to spend time with both of them. Then Ashton Kutcher and his twin brother sit down, and Clinton sits right down next to me, and I was like, wow, this is really interesting — why am I at this table? But I was talking to President Clinton, and we are talking about memories, and I noticed something interesting. He has this powerful presence that everyone knows that he has, but when you are talking to him — there are a lot more important people in the room, especially at the table that I am at — but when he’s talking to you, he’s laser focused on you. He’s not looking over your shoulder — you can tell that he’s not talking to himself, which we do a lot in networking if we are honest about it. A lot of times, we have this ADD where we’re seeing who else is in this room and who might be important. If we are not externally distracting ourselves, we are internally distracting ourselves, we are talking to ourselves. We are actually not listening; we are thinking how we are going to respond. That’s where our focus is, and it’s no wonder why we are not connecting with people really well. So I think memory is important when you are making new connections and networking, but also really being present. […] [President Clinton’s] powerful presence comes from being powerfully present. He’s in there in the moment; he’s not in the future, he’s not in the past, he’s right there with you.
Finally, the other ‘M’ in MOM stands for mechanics. Tools, tips, techniques and things that we teach — how to learn foreign languages, how to remember names, how to give speech without notes, how to pin number the pass code and what have you. But if you don’t have motivation to remember something, or if you don’t pay attention to observation, mechanics are not going to help.”
Would you say that what you teach is applicable to any form of success?
“In order for your business to grow, you have to grow. So it’s based on personal growth. I think the mother and father of personal growth is learning, because the faster you can learn, the faster you can earn. Because in the day and age that we live in right now, nobody who’s watching this is paid for their brute strength — you are paid for your brain strength. It’s not muscle power, it’s mind power. The challenge is your brain doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. They say that we use only 10 percent of our brain’s potential. I think it’s all our brain. But in terms of its potential, my work is about helping people light up that other area.
If you are struggling with something, here’s the thing: It’s not your fault, because we were taught this lie, this lie that our memory and our intelligence to learn is fixed like your shoe size. That’s absolutely not true. We know that through the latest science — we discovered more about our brains in the past 15 years than the previous 1,500 years. We know it’s dynamic and it’s alive. Neurogenesis says that we can create more brain cells as we grow older, so even if you are in your 20s and you have senior moments, you can actually fix that. Neuroplasticity says that you can make new connections, that your brain is like a plastic. But the key is making new thoughts and making new things. That’s the challenge that a lot of people don’t do, and that’s why I value people that are watching this, because they are kindred spirits and on the path for new learning and lifelong learning, because that’s the key to success. Who wants to go to a bed and put their head on a pillow in the same way it was before they woke up before that? So what I’m doing is putting up rituals for people. So people come here because they want to read faster and save an hour or two a day.
By the way, the biggest time waster for people is usually reading in terms of processing information. They say that the average person has to read about four hours a day just to keep up. How many emails, journals and books do people have on their shelf that they haven’t even read yet? What I love about reading is that somebody who has decades of experience, Warren Buffet or whoever, and they put that into a book, decades of trial errors and learnings and lessons, if you can sit down an afternoon or for a couple of days and you can read that book, you can literally download decades into days. I mean, that’s unbelievable. You think about, why don’t they teach us that in school? School is a wonderful place to learn what to learn — math, history, science, Spanish, but there are very few classes on how to learn, how to focus, how to concentrate, how to be creative, how to solve problems, how to think for yourself, how to read faster, how to remember. I always thought that it should’ve been the fourth ‘R’ — reading, writing, arithmetic, retention, remembering, recall — there is no learning without remembering, and Socrates said that.”
What are some things millennials who come to you constantly struggle with?
“The big challenges that millennials come to me for is that overload and overwhelm, and that’s a big one because the amount of information is doubling, and the half-life for information people have gone to school for marketing, business, or what have you, is just a few years. The amount of information is doubling, but how we are learning the information is exactly the same, so that gap creates a lot of stress. A lot of people come from being overwhelmed. The other reason people come to me is because they want the edge, they want the advantage, they know that learning is power. If you can read more, absorb more and apply more, that’s going to give them more focus and results in terms of execution, really move the needle.”
Check out Jim Kwik’s learning programs at kwiklearning.com.
Photography by Melly Lee