Jim Kwik

Jim Kwik joined James Altucher to talk about how he learned things the hard way and ways he teaches people to learn things the easy way.  Kwik runs Kwik Learning whose mission is “to help you learn faster, master information overload and unlock your inner genius.” His YouTube channel is full of instructional videos like one on speed reading and “memory makes money.” Kwik is on Twitter, @JimKwik.

As the interview begins, Altucher says that past guest Steven Kotler refers to Kwich as a “superhero.” That’s not quite right, says Kwick, he’s more like a mechanic. Imagine your brain came with an owners manual, he tells James. He’s just the one who read the manual and knows which buttons to push and knobs to turn.

Kwik learned all this organically, and mostly the hard way. A lot of the lessons here come from doing things the hard way. Jairek Robbins told James that a number of his mistakes were ones where his dad – Tony – could have stopped. He didn’t, Jairek says, because the true lesson was in the mistake, not its explanation.


These moments can serve to catalyze us. Tony Robbins grew up without a lot of food and that motivates him to use his current success to feed people. Andy Weir failed to become an author after three years of full time focus. Later he began writing again and eventually he succeed. Lewis Howes couldn’t read well as a kid and self-identified as a jock to find success. Now Howes not only reads, but runs a seven figure business.

Kwik – and many other people – have withstood professional pressure to turn their experiences from coal to diamonds.  Kwik and Howes have a parallel story. As kids both were taught that their mental abilities set. Like the a regulator slows down go-karts at the local track, they believed they could only learn or read so much.

They aren’t the only ones.  Many people view intelligence as fixed. You’re smart or not. You’re a math person or not. You’re a label #1 or label #2. There are some ways labels like this can help us with the many decisions in daily life. This is not one. Your intelligence is not capped, but if you believe it the effects are real.

When college students were reminded of a negative stereotype (their race/sex/age/religion is less smart) before an exam, they did poorer than those students who weren’t reminded of anything. But, when students were told those negative stereotypes were straw men, and that intelligence is malleable like clay, those student did even better than the group that was told nothing.

Kwik’s experience – and fixed mindset – were compounded by a head injury when he was a kid. His memory problems – and perception – got worse. One day in class, he lied and said he hadn’t read a book rather than present his report to the class.

Part of the way Kwik got over this hurdles was by monitoring his self talk. Other guests here have shared their own tactics for monitoring self talk.

  • Michael Singer advises people to lean back and let the negative thoughts pass you down your stream of consciousness.
  • T. Harv Eker says to himself “thank you for sharing when a negative thought goes through his head.
  • Tony Robbins writes, “Know that it’s your decisions, and not your conditions, that determine your destiny.”

For Kwik, the key was to think of himself either as a thermostat or thermometer. A thermometer is reactive to the conditions while a thermostat sets the conditions. This is a big different he tells James. Once he acted more like the latter, he noticed that things began to change.

A pivotal moment in his life came when Kwik spent a school break with a friend’s family. His friend’s father was on a walk with Kwik, when the man asked how school was, “and I broke down and cried,” Kwik says. School was not well.

Then the man asked Kwik to write down everything he wanted to do in life. His wishes. His dreams. His hopes. Then he looked at the list and told Kwik he was this close, holding his fingers ten inches apart. That distance represented the space between Kwik’s ears.

“Don’t let school get in the way of your education,” the man told him.

Whether the man knew it or not, the act of writing things down matters quite a bit. When we write something down it creates a commitment of action. When we do that we redefine part of who we are to be part of that thing. It’s why salespeople have clients fill out paperwork or write down their goals for the month. A written commitment creates a emotional pull.

Thanks to the man’s book suggestions (Napoleon Hill type books) and another fall which landed him in the hospital, Kwik started to read more. Not only that, he started to learn. There was no class at college on how to learn he said, so he began there. Now there is exactly that class, Barbara Oakley’s course and book are both great resources to begin with.

Kwik made the best of his situation even though he was laid up. He could have moped around and felt sorry for himself. That wouldn’t have been helpful. Nicholas Megalis did the same thing, using a hospital bed as a springboard to exploring new social media apps. Neither man needed a new computer, time, or health. They just needed a moment to act.

While in the hospital Kwik learned the value of reading and tells James:

“The intelligent person learns from their own experience but the wise person learns from the experience of other people.”

We can, “download decades of experience in days,” he said. This is not a new idea. Two thousand years ago Roman Philosopher Seneca wrote the same thing:

SenecaOpenBookKwik was able to find his footing and began to seek books that were “force multipliers.” There are some books, he tells James, that can amp up other areas of your life. Speed reading books are a good example of force multipliers. I would suggest Antifragile, Influence, and The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking as books with high per page returns.

As he learned more, Kwik distilled ten areas to focus on to be a superhero mentally.

  1. Eat well. “We are what we eat,” Kwik tells James.
  2. Kill ANTs. (Automatic Negative Thoughts)
  3. Be physically healthy. It’s amazing the number of great thinkers that took daily walks. Beethoven, Twain, and Darwin among others. Ryan Holiday also confesses to physical activity as a mental stimulus.
  4. Brain Nutrients. There are certain foods that help your brain function. Rather than prescribing something, Kwik suggests self-experimentation. Steven Kotler suggested similar things. Peter Diamandis and Tim Ferriss are two names that come up often.
  5. Have a positive peer group. It wasn’t until Jay Jay French found a group of guys who really wanted to make great music that his band finally took off. It only took him until the 11th try.
  6. Have a clean environment. Gretchen Rubin wrote that she cleans her desk on Friday afternoons as a way to bookend the workweek and get started right on Monday.
  7. Sleep. It’s more than rest, it’s like preparing the kitchen. Imagine how messy a busy kitchen is after a night of diners. What would happen if the food wasn’t refrigerated, the knives weren’t washed, and the floor wasn’t mopped? There’s no way that kitchen could open the next night. That’s what sleep does for our brains.
  8. Brain protection. Wear a helmet.
  9. Learn new things. “The brain thrives on novelty,” Kwik tells James.
  10. Stress management. See the advice about about how we monitor our thoughts.

But don’t try to do all of these things, Kwik says. Instead, aim for to improve one or two for now, then move through the list.

A big chunk of the interview is Kwik walking James through the loci method of memory. It’s one of the best instructions and examples of the method that I’ve heard. The technique has been around a long time, but the book that popularized it is Moonwalking with Einstein. If you enjoyed this part of the interview, or want to dive into memory, or learn how to memorize a deck of cards, get the book.

If the loci method isn’t exactly what you want, Kwik gives a FAST way to learn.

Forget. Forget what you know or don’t know or don’t know you know about something he tells James. Instead, focus on what’s going around you situationally. We have a limited number of short term memory slots, try to forget about everything except what you are aiming to learn.

Active. As Michael Mauboussin said, “when I need to write about it or speak about it, I tend to know the material reasonably well.” Maria Popova added, “learning to read well and to write well is really learning to think well.”

State. Emotions are associated with learning, Kwik says, and if you control them you can better create the right mood.

Teaching. “When you teaching something,” Kwick says, “you get to learn it twice.”

For even more Jim Kwik here’s a three-hour hangout he did for Google.

If you liked what Jim had to say, go ahead and thank him on Twitter. One of my favorite things about the podcast is the ability to learn big things in a condensed fashion. Just Kwik’s idea about “killing ants” is one I can put into practice right away. James Altucher’s email list is another one that works well for me. Even though not every single email is spot on for me, there’s always something each week that helps my thinking. Sign up for James’ condensed big ideas.

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