After only reading the list once, I was able to remember and recite every digit of every phone number that all 30 of my sniper students gave me before I taught them how to do the same. It would seem like I must have had a photographic memory, though, if that were the case, it wouldn’t explain how I was able to teach others to produce similar results.
To be perfectly candid I’m crap at remembering technical data, as well as a variety of other things, but skilled in figuring out how to master things and teach others to do the same. I’ll show you what I mean.
This is what happened
Prior to 9/11, I was on my first SEAL deployment to Kuwait and things were slow. For whatever serendipitous reason, I got a wild hair and decided I was going to learn how to get good at getting good at anything. So I took myself over to the PX (that’s Army talk for what I assume to mean a place to buy Copenhagen and magazines) and started browsing through the book section. There it was. A book claiming to give you a near photographic memory. Since I had already forgotten why the hell I was there, I figured getting good at remembering things would be a good place to start.
A day later I had memorized all of our presidents, a deck of cards, in order, and the periodic table. I didn’t have a photographic memory, but like they said, it was damn close. Well, they didn’t say, “Damn Close” but it was… Damn close.
At the time, I didn’t realize how that single book would change my life forever.
Remembering to Remember
Years went by and I kind of became known by some people for my ability to remember long lists of items and phone numbers. One guy, who is now commonly known as Senior Chief Otto from the movie Act of Valor, would stop me in the hall and gather others around me for an impromptu street magician-esque memory demonstration. Though I was getting pretty good at it, I really didn’t do or use my new memory for anything particularly useful. That is until I went to Sniper School.
There’s a game that snipers have played for a very long time called “Kim’s games.” These games are designed to develop a sniper’s ability to both remember and observe a variety of objects, the idea being that the better your ability to remember things, the better your ability to see more things. In a simplistic way it made sense, and it was effective.
Basically, they would lay out 10 objects, give you a couple of minutes to observe them, and then test your ability to recall them. Since we were graded, the name “Kim’s games” is a bit of a misnomer. They were more like ‘Kim’s tests,’ but with the memory trick I had learned in Kuwait, I was able to ace every one of them. Several years later I would learn about the biological mechanisms at work that would make this drill more than just a game.
I valued these techniques more and more as I developed additional uses for them, but when I took over teaching memory as a sniper instructor, things got more interesting.
After issuing every student the book I had read years prior in Kuwait, I would teach classes reinforcing and expanding the techniques taught in the book. From there, I began to make small cheat sheets to accelerate their learning. Often, former students from years past would pull one of these cheat sheets from their wallets to show me they still had it.
Quickly, traditional Kim’s games were no longer a challenge for our students, so we did what SEALs do – take things beyond perceivable limits.
First, we turned up the heat. Noises, flashbangs, live gun fire and even dirty movies playing in the background to distract the students. Still they would pass with flying colors. From there we had no choice but to put some distance between the drill and the test. We started showing them the items days and even weeks before we would test them. Still unstoppable.
This was one of my first experiences of quickly transferring a seemingly impossible skill to a large group of others. This was an important moment for me, as it gave me the confidence to continue to push the boundaries of training in all domains.
While still teaching Sniper school, the Navy started preparing me for my next assignment, and began sending me to advanced intelligence and surveillance schools. Knowing that I would be in situations where it would be my job to collect massive amounts of information without the use of detectable technology, I went to work.
With a solid understanding of the underlying principles of both memory and human performance, I designed and built what I thought of as a memory-based piece of technology. A technology that would allow me to walk a city block once, and then later, from a safe place, be able to describe and sketch it from memory.
I created similar technologies that would allow me to remember pertinent information about people when I met them. Height, weight, color, name on their security badges, employee identification numbers… You name it. It was all just a matter of creating memory-based framework that would allow me to sort of “hang” things on for later, kind of like having a place in your house to hang your keys. Once you build the habit of tossing the keys on the hook, you’ll never lose them again.
Shortly after I left the SEAL teams, I quickly found myself in the world of business, where I would continue working to repurpose the leadership, training and developmental strategies I learned as a SEAL instructor, and repurposing the memory techniques that I learned and developed on my own were no exception.
Though it’s incredibly valuable to remember things such as names, special dates, powerful narratives and sales pitches, I’ve found that in business, and in life, the most valuable things you can remember are the purposes of others.
For no particular reason besides Twitter telling me I should, I follow Deepak Chopra on my Twitter account. The other day he sent out a tweet that said something like, “Great leaders always know their purpose and never forget it.” A great quote, but I felt compelled to help him finish it. I politely responded. “Mr. Chopra, this is a good start, but I might add something. ‘Great leaders also always remember the purposes of those they lead.'” A minor addition with incredible implications.
Leadership is all about serving others in a way that brings them to the places they could never go without you. If you did nothing else as a leader besides remembering and reminding others of their purpose, you will have made a huge impact. But I must warn you, and I’ve learned this the hard way. Most people speak a very different purpose than the one they are actually committed to. I’ve seen men and women do and say disgusting things to get themselves as far away from the most powerful thing memory produces.
How it Works
By now I’m sure you’re dying to know the name of the book. I would love to tell you, but the irony of it all is that I don’t remember.
There were two primary… Okay, I was just kidding. The name of the book is The Memory Book, by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. Below is an example of how their techniques work. We’re just barely scratching the surface here, but it’ll give you a good idea of how effective the book is.
There are two primary techniques taught in the book that, once understood, would give any reader a quick and incredible advantage over others. Linking and Pegging. I’m going to quickly demonstrate linking here.
Linking is what we do when we combine two items automatically. So if I say Walt Disney, most of you would automatically say Mickey Mouse, unless you were in the Army, and then you might say Donald Duck, but you get my point.
I call this accidental or circumstantial linking. It just happened. Intentional linking is when you take the same technique and intentionally deploy it to recall your desired list. Here’s how it goes.
Start with a list of 10 things. To keep things short I’m going to use 5.
** Random Note ** It was not my intention to use the list above, but as soon as I began to write it, the very same list I used over 8 years ago to teach with immediately came back to me.
Now link them together with outrageous connections. Getting started is the hardest part, but eventually the creation of the outrageous connections becomes a skill, as well as the secret to repurposing the techniques.
Picture your bedroom, but replace it with a large, house-sized chair. Put a door between the legs and imagine yourself walking in. Light the chair on fire if you must. Just make sure it’s weird.
Now when you think of a room, the image of a chair will automatically pop into your head. If it doesn’t work, it’s because you suck at make-believe, and you need to create a crazier image. That line was actually in the powerpoint from which I taught this method.
Now think about the giant chair being made of gum. Watch it as the afternoon sun hits it and the gum begins to get sticky and the chair begins to droop.
Now that you’re thinking about gum, imagine a huge, thick rope, like the ones they use to tie ships up to the dock. Imagine that rope has been made from strands of “Big League Chew” bubble gum. Now chew it and taste what you thought was gum turn into tiny strands of rope.
By now, when you read the word “Room,” you should already begin to see how it links to “Chair” and then to “Gum” and then into “Rope.” You continue the process and you’ll quickly have all 10 items perfectly memorized in order. It it’s not working for you, go buy the book. You may just need a little more background.
As for my earlier comment, “It would be several years, and many hours of study, before I would learn the biological mechanisms that were occurring that would make this drill more than just a game.” I’ll have to save that for another post. It’s some deep “Special Forces meets philosophy, psychology, biology and business guru” stuff that will take more time to unpack.
If there’s enough interest amongst the SOFREP readers, I’d be glad to use this topic as a kickoff for a “Human Performance” series of posts. I consider myself very lucky to have learned the things I did from the Special Operations community, and equally as lucky to have been taught by some of the finest business minds on the planet, to repurpose these principles for everyday life. It would be my honor to continue to share it.
I look forward to your questions and comments, and don’t forget to let us know if you would like to see more performance stuff.