Author: DanielKilov

Gwendolen Noronha, A World Class Coach

This article was originally printed in Issue 443 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Gwendolen Noronha is one of the world’s leading mental sports coaches and a board member of the Mental Sports Olympic Federation. From 2006 to 2008 she organized Cambridge’s MaRRS International Spelling Bee, the first spelling competition in Asia for school students. She is a founding member of the Indian Cube Association. Busy as she is, Gwendolen found time to share some of the insights that have led her students to break 21 world records.

 

Daniel Kilov: Gwendolen, you’ve been involved in one way or another with just about every mental sport, from spelling bees to speed cubing to memory and mental calculation. Can you tell us a little about how you developed an interest in these competitions?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: As a young school girl, I was very competitive. I loved the whole feeling that a competition would bring—the challenges, the rush within to do something extraordinary and the self-motivation. I used to participate in a lot of competitions in school and that interest carried on. When I began working and established an educational firm, I decided that apart from providing quality education to students globally, I also wanted to give them a platform to showcase their talent. I wanted them to experience the thrill and enthusiasm a competition brings while simultaneously being able to promote the awareness of brain health. There needs to be a purpose to everything we do and that was mine. While I was working in the United States of America, I discovered my interest for the field of mental calculations and memory and took it up as a challenge to offer the subject knowledge to more people and to provide opportunities to more mental sports athletes.

 

It is hard to keep the interest as strong over the years but if today I still feel the same enthusiasm it is simply because there are millions of students by now who believe in what I have to offer and the sport is gradually growing with so many people in the fraternity doing so much good that it keeps me still very interested. I also have a constant push from my partner, Manuel Schneider, who doesn’t let me slow down and wants me to keep aspiring and offering the platform to all mental sports athletes. One needs such a back-up to be able to fulfil the responsibilities with the same interest.

 

Daniel Kilov: Aside from your role as an organizer, you are also an extremely accomplished coach. Your mental calculation students have set something like 18 world records, right? Can you share any stories about what that was like?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: It’s 21 world records now! I am still overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself. I debuted as a coach in the year 2012 and in just the very first year we had a total of nine world records. Honestly, I didn’t expect it. I worked hard behind my team of students and the students had the willpower to do their best which was very helpful as a coach. I knew we would make a mark but didn’t expect it to be so good in the very first year.

 

One incident that comes to my mind was during the Memoriad Mind Sports Olympics in 2012 in Antalya, Turkey where we were participating for the first time and no one knew us. I knew most of them because either they were all former world record holders or champions. However, the results of my team winning 33 medals out of the total of 42 left everybody flabbergasted. Overnight everyone got to know us and were busy congratulating us but there was one former world record holder for square roots from Turkey—Hakan Gurbuslar—who approached me and very courteously said, ‘Your team won the gold medal for square roots and that is amazing, but the score wasn’t worthy of a gold medal status. You have the potential so come back again and show it to the world that your team can break world records too’.  These words changed everything for me and eight months later we participated at the Turkey Open Memoriad Championship and broke the six-digit imperfect square roots world record, not once but five times in the span of two days.

 

Daniel Kilov: For those unfamiliar with mental sports, can you briefly explain the basic techniques used (i.e. the use of an imaginary abacus, etc.)?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: For mental calculations, we use a combination of the Japanese soroban and the ancient Vedic mathematics techniques.

 

Veda is the Sanskrit word for ‘Knowledge’. Vedic mathematics is an ancient collection of methods used to solve mathematical problems in an easy and faster way. It uses a lesser number of steps to get to the answer of the problem in comparison to the regular methods that are usually taught in schools. It consists of about 16 main formulas and 13 sub-formulas which can be used for problems related to arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus and conics.

 

While this helps calculate larger mathematical problems, it still isn’t as fast to beat the speed of calculations, therefore I came up with some of my own algorithms that help students calculate faster using the same method.

 

The Japanese soroban uses a decimal system. The soroban helps in increasing the power of imagination wherein after a certain period, the person practising it doesn’t require the physical device anymore and can calculate by imagining the device in their minds. It sounds all so complex, but it is very easy. It just requires lots of dedication and continuity.

 

Daniel Kilov: Can you give an example of an algorithm that your athletes use and how they would use it?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: Once a student has learnt the basics and the advance level of a subject, let’s say, square roots, they will be capable to solve the given task mentally without the use of a calculator or notes. With regular practise this will help them to go faster and achieve greater accuracy with greater speed. However, when we talk about world records, one needs to be calculating at an astonishing speed to be able to solve an imperfect six-digit square root by presenting an answer of three digits and five decimal places in maximum two to three seconds per task. This speed can be achieved by certain algorithms and techniques of number identification and pattern recognition. At the initial stage, it may seem tough but once the student gets used to it, they do it almost subconsciously. Each number when appeared with a combination of another number, results in an answer that will have a range of numbers and as we keep calculating, the range reduces, getting us closer to the answer.

 

Daniel Kilov: Moving beyond the basics, what is it about your training methods that allows you to routinely produce competitors of such a high level? What do you do differently to everyone else?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: I feel I am more invested in what I do. Most people try to learn and practise the same methods, but they expect instant results which doesn’t help them. Training for mental calculations requires patience. There are many online platforms and brands that offer mental calculations training but the one thing they all lack is the algorithms. They all manage to understand the use of a soroban or abacus or even learn the methods of Vedic mathematics but that enables them to get only to a certain point and not beyond. I have tried offering my algorithms and training methods to others as well but somehow people don’t always understand everything. Over the years, I have just accepted it that this is one of those few things in the world that cannot be duplicated and needs to come directly from the source and not by passing on to others in the hierarchy. Hence, I am now launching our own online portal titled ‘Mepronto’ wherein I will reach out directly to everyone who wishes to learn.

 

I am here to spread the knowledge and awareness and not to keep it restricted to myself. I love what I do and have a purpose that doesn’t let me stop or take a break and I think that is why I manage producing champions. I do not do it for myself nor do I do it to make only money out of it. I do it because I feel the need to keep my brain active and to motivate others to focus on brain health. This ulterior motive makes me routinely give results.

 

Daniel Kilov: What led you to develop your method?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: While I was coaching my very first group of students, I realized that we could solve faster and there was a very good accuracy maintained. However the speed wasn’t fast enough to be able to not only break world records but also set new ones that would be difficult for anyone else to break. It was this need that helped me look deeper into the methods we mixed.

 

Daniel Kilov: What’s the most interesting or entertaining story you have from your time as a coach?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: Being interviewed by a German journalist at the Mental Calculations World Cup 2014 in Dresden and in the presence of my students I happened to say that I have always disliked mathematics. It was funny because we had just finished the award ceremony where I won the title of the ‘World’s Best Mind Sports Coach for Mental Calculations’.

 

It was awkward and chuckle-some at the same time during all my coaching classes that followed, because my students kept asking me how that was even possible.

 

All my years as a mental calculations coach, no one knew that I secretly hated number crunching. I kind of still do, because as a child I did suffer from math anxiety. However, once I learnt that about myself, and discovered that over 95% of students feel the same, I realized that I needed to make mathematics fun so that I can contribute to reducing the stress students face due to math anxiety.

 

Daniel Kilov: What do you think is the biggest gap in the mental sports world now? What should the community be talking about more?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: There are many of us who have almost the same objective but are working individually to reach the goal. I think unity provides strength and it is important for us across the world to unite under one common roof so that we can spread the awareness of brain health. We are gifted the power of showcasing the extraordinary performances of the human brain and it is necessary to use that to help everyone.

 

The community should be talking about increasing the number of events, not just championships but other events where we can interact with the public, the media and can educate the masses.

Master Your Memory in 30 Days || Max’s Monthly Challenge

I taught my friend Max how to memorise names and faces and random numbers for his YouTube channel. He used the techniques I taught him to go from mnemonic neophyte to memory master in 30 days.

He goes through each of the techniques I taught him and the methods he used to practice them. There is heaps of practical stuff here so I encourage you to check it out.

WCA world cubing championships

I have successfully qualified for the WCA world cubing championships to be held in Melbourne this July!

I competed at my first speed cubing competition on the 13th of April. I was pretty nervous. But there was a real sense of comradery and even the really young competitors (who were all waaaay faster than I was) would introduce themselves and chat away while we were waiting for our turn to solve. So I relaxed pretty quickly. I also met some local competitors and will be catching up with them for cubing and coffee.

Rubik’s cube is among the most popular and enduring toys of all time. What accounts for it’s popularity? Here is an answer from Rubik himself (From Ian Scheffler’s excellent book ‘Cracking the Cube’):

The Cube relates to human universals in a very simple and immediate manner. It crosses all cultural or age barriers and disregards socio-economic differences. It is languageless: it never needed a users’ manual, anyone who touches it understands the challenge instantly. The Cube also embodies the tension of our most basic contradictions: simplicity and complexity, dynamism and stability, pleasure and frustration and so forth.

Well said, professor Rubik.
57343562_10161597257980156_1351634450093441024_o (1)

Ben Pridmore, 3x World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 440 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Ben_Pridmore.JPG

Daniel Kilov interviews Ben Pridmore. Pridmore, from Derby in the UK, is a three-time World Memory Champion winning the title 2004, 2008 and 2009.Pridmore achieved this by winning a 10-discipline competition, the World Memory Championship, which has taken place every year since 1991. He holds the prestigious title of Grand Master of Memory.

 

Daniel Kilov: Am I correct in saying that your first foray into the world of competitive memorizing was something of an accident? I’ve heard that you didn’t know about memory techniques and even trained yourself to memorize a deck of cards without any system. What led you to enter the memory championships, when you did discover the techniques, and what about them caught your imagination?

 

Ben Pridmore: Yes, it was a complete accident. I got into memory sports thanks to an event called the Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO), which started in 1997—a big gathering of all the ‘mind sports’ you can think of, including board and card games as well as more abstract things like the World Memory Championship (WMC). I went there for the ‘World Intelligence Championship’, which I’d read about in the Mensa magazine (this was during a brief period when I was a member of Mensa, just so that I could boast about it—I was very young at the time). The World Intelligence Championship, that first year, was five full days of doing IQ tests (literally six or seven hours each day), and there was also a one-day intelligence competition on the Saturday, so that took up most of my time (I think the first MSO was nine days in total). But I did notice some of the other competitions going on at the time, and took part in a couple of them, too. It was fun enough to make me resolve to go back the next year and take part in as many different events as I could—the whole thing was very friendly, with a real sense of community; that was what appealed to me more than anything else.

 

I don’t remember paying any attention to the World Memory Championship that first year, but when I came back to the MSO in 1998, two things caught my eye—first, an interview with MSO star Demis Hassabis in which he mentioned that he was planning to learn memory techniques of associating numbers and cards with mental images and visualising them on a journey (as far as I know he never actually followed up on that plan, and I dismissed the whole idea as something someone had made up to sell books, but it’s still significant as the first time I ever heard about memory systems!) which inspired me to buy a pack of cards and see how quickly I could memorise it. I did it by the simple technique of reading and repeating back to myself until I knew it by heart, and it took me 48 minutes. I was still quite impressed with myself—memorising a whole pack of cards is quite an achievement! Then at the MSO it was announced that Andi Bell had broken the world record and memorised a pack of cards in just over 34 seconds!

 

With the knowledge that that was possible, I spent the next couple of years practising memorising cards, still without using any system—I didn’t think the top competitors would be doing it in any kind of different way—and got my time down to 15 minutes. In 1999 at the MSO I entered the ‘Decamentathlon’ (classic Tony Buzan name for a competition involving written puzzles in ten mind sports) and memorised a pack of cards and a number in competition for the first time. I don’t remember how many I got, but it probably wasn’t more than ten. I did meet Tom Groves, a memory competitor, there, and he mentioned memory techniques, but I still didn’t really register it as anything that really existed…

 

In 2000, planning out my MSO schedule to fit as many different events in as possible, I opted for the World Memory Championship, which was a two-day thing back then. It turned out to be the last time the WMC was part of the MSO, so it’s lucky I didn’t leave it until the next year! It was while talking to the other competitors (particularly Graham Old, Rob Carder and Tom Groves) that I finally got the message that memory techniques really did work, and decided to try them for myself. I bought one of Tony Buzan’s books, read the chapters on numbers and cards, and that night made myself a list of 52 images for cards and 100 for numbers, using the Major system. I found that I could immediately memorise a pack of cards in seven minutes, which was a real revelation!

 

That’s what really hooked me from the start—knowing that as I kept on practising, my times for memorising a pack of cards would keep coming down. There’s always another target to aim for, after all—five minutes, two minutes, one minute…I don’t think I really had the notion at that point that I could come anywhere near the world record, but I was interested to see how fast I could get. Cards were definitely the discipline I cared about the most—numbers were a sort of sideline and the others I wasn’t really interested in at all.

 

Daniel Kilov:  You may know more about the history of memory competitions than anyone else still active in the sport today. In an interview with Nelson Dellis, you referred to memory competitions in the 2000s as ‘The golden age of memory’. Why?

 

Ben Pridmore: Well, I called it ‘the golden age’ because I was in it—I wasn’t being entirely serious. But it’s true that the 2000s was the era when international memory competitions really took off— in the 1990s they called it the ‘World Memory Championships’, but it was really just contested by a handful of British people, with a German or two to make up the numbers. But in the ‘noughties’, knowledge of the existence of memory championships gradually spread around the world (thanks to that wonderful thing we call the internet!) and there was a lot of growth in places like Germany, Malaysia, India, China and many more. If the nineties were the starting point, the noughties were when it became a real world championship.

 

Daniel Kilov: What were the most memorable moments of that era? How have things changed?

 

Ben Pridmore: How have things changed? The obvious answer is that the scores have got so much higher! If you look at the results in 2000 and compare them to 2009, everything’s improved by such leaps and bounds, it’s amazing. And the process is still going on, of course—look at the scores I got to win the world championship in 2008 and 2009, and you can see they wouldn’t scrape into the top twenty at a world championship nowadays…

 

The other major change, as I said above, is how much the sport expanded and grew. Before 2000, there were maybe three or four memory competitions a year in the whole world. No local smaller championships, the only one that really counted was the WMC. Over the decade, they introduced a more formal structure, bringing in the ‘millennium standard’ system and setting out the format of ‘world’, ‘international’ and ‘national’ standard competitions. There was also a real world ranking list for the first time, which helped fire up everybody’s interest!

 

There were a lot of highlights in the decade. We started out with things very much continuing the way they were before, with Dominic O’Brien by far and away the best in the world, but with the widespread belief that Andi Bell had the potential to do much better if he could just get it all together—he had a habit of getting huge scores in some disciplines, then trying for too much and getting near zero in others. Incidentally, I’m always going to admire Andi more than any of the other top competitors over the years just because of the way he introduced himself to me when we first met in 2000—’Hi, I’m Andi, I’m one of the other competitors.’ To really appreciate that, you have to understand my philosophy of life, which basically boils down to thinking that the worst thing anyone can possibly do is act like they think they’re better than other people. (That’s even worse, in my mind, than acting like you think I’M better than YOU, which I also find infuriating.) But there’s a lot of thinking-they’re-better in mind sports in general, and the upper echelons of memory sports certainly aren’t immune to it, so Andi’s modesty made a very favourable impression on me.

 

2002 gave us our first big memorable moment, when Andi did get it together and blew everyone away, Dominic included, with the kind of scores that were unthinkable at the time. It was at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand that year, a traditional home for memory in the olden days, but it was very much the start of a new age. It was also the last competition I went to before I grew a beard—I just thought I’d mention that, so everybody knows how far ahead of the trend I was with facial hair.

 

2003 was the world championship I always described as my favourite. Held outside London for the first time, we went to Kuala Lumpur, and I had a whale of a time! I just re-discovered an article I wrote about it in 2013: http://mt.artofmemory.com/article/the-world-memory-championship-2003-3885.html.

 

Daniel Kilov: In 2003, you developed the Ben system, which still stands as one of the most significant technical developments in memory sports. What led you to develop your system? How have your systems changed, if at all, since those days?

 

Ben Pridmore: The Ben system (I originally didn’t like that name, but I’ve got used to it by now and think it’s quite cool after all) came about just because I was thinking ‘I need something better…’.

 

I was using a basic system with two-digit or one-card images, and memorising ten packs in an hour meant seeing each of my images ten times. It really didn’t work at all, so I needed a way to have more images. The only way I could think of to do that was to have two cards making a single image.

 

The first innovation I tried was expanding from a two-digit-image system to three-digit-images—my two-digit system was just the standard Major system, but I didn’t want to use that for three digits, because it would lead to a lot of clunky multiple-syllable words, and I wanted a simple, short word for each image. So I used vowel sounds for the second digit, giving me a one-syllable sound (consonant-vowel-consonant) for each three-digit number.

 

With a three-digit system, you have 1,000 images, 10x10x10. The ‘eureka’ moment was realising that two cards could be represented as 16x13x13 (2,704 images) if the first ‘digit’ was the combination of suits, the second was the number of the first card, and the third was the number of the second. After that, it was simple. And a nice side-effect was that I could then use the same images for a binary system, giving me an image for each 10-digit binary number (splitting it into 4-3-3 digit chunks, 16x8x8, 1,024 images). It all worked very nicely. I think I was the first person to design a memory system for the specific purpose of memory competitions, which is probably why it stood out at the time as being extra special. By now, obviously, there have been many improvements to systems created by other people, but I still use the same system that I came up with in 2003. It works for me!

 

Daniel Kilov: You won the world memory championships in 2004, 2008 and 2009. What did your training look like in those days? Did you have specific drills or did you just practise the events?

 

Ben Pridmore: No, I ‘just’ practised the events. I’ve always felt that that was the best and cleverest way to go about training for a memory competition—re-create as exactly as possible the tasks you’re going to have to do in the championship itself. Back then, very few people ever practised the hour-long disciplines; they knew they’d have to do them in competition, but their training was focused entirely on the shorter, quick memory. I was the opposite way around; the hour-long marathons were always my main focus. I think that once you’ve done that, your scores in the five-minute disciplines will improve as well, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You need to get your mind accustomed to concentrating on one thing for three hours at a time. And I think the only way to do that is practise!

 

My most intense training era was 2003 – 2004, after I won the world championship the first time. I never quite regained the enthusiasm and commitment to it that I had back then. I did get back a certain amount of motivation in 2007 – 2008, and did manage to win the title again, improving my scores from the level they’d been at in 2004, but ever since then I haven’t really had the will to keep going full-steam. Back in the early days, what I considered an ‘ideal’ training schedule was to spend about an hour every weekday evening after work doing speed cards and speed numbers, and then at the weekend do hour cards, hour numbers and 30-minute binary.

 

Daniel Kilov: How many hours were you training per week? Did you have specific tricks for maintaining that intensity of focus?

 

Ben Pridmore: I think I’ve answered this one as part your earlier question about whether I had any specific drills—the only ‘trick’ I used to keep focus, was to keep doing it, over and over again. The more you do it, the longer you can keep it up without your mind starting to wander.

 

Daniel Kilov: Do you use your techniques outside of the competitive arena? How do you go about translating your competitive expertise into more practical learning challenges?

 

Ben Pridmore: I don’t. I always get in trouble for saying this, but my techniques are designed for one specific purpose—winning the World Memory Championship. I just don’t have any interest in using them for any other reason. In everyday life, there’s no real need for memory techniques—you’re allowed to write things down! Or, as modern people would put it, you’re allowed to store things on your phone.

 

I don’t have any need for practical learning challenges. I’m not at school any more. I’ve long, long ago passed all the exams I’ll ever need to pass. I don’t need to improve myself (that sounds big-headed, I know!), because I’ve already got a job that pays me enough money to live on.

 

Daniel Kilov: How else, if at all, have your experiences in memory sports changed your daily life?

 

Ben Pridmore: Memory sports has completely and totally changed my life, just because it’s made me into some kind of semi-celebrity! And even apart from the added bonus of appearing on TV from time to time, memory competitions have given me an opportunity to travel all around the world (often for FREE!), meet a lot of amazing, wonderful people, and have a huge amount of fun! I will always feel vastly, enormously indebted to Tony Buzan for deciding that it would be a good idea to have competitions in memorising long numbers. If not for that, I dread to think what I would be. Well, I know what I would be—still an accountant, but without a weird and fascinating hobby. I’d be very boring and I wouldn’t be doing this interview…

 

Daniel Kilov: What do you think the future holds for memory sports? Do you have any theories about where the next technical innovations will come from and what they might look like? And what’s on the horizon for you, in terms of memory?

 

Ben Pridmore: The future will be… fast-paced. The big innovation of recent years is Memory League—head-to-head, quickfire, computer-based matches. So far removed from the original concept of the world memory championship that it doesn’t really count as the same thing, but it’s clearly got the mass appeal that the old-fashioned type of competition can never muster. I think it will almost certainly grow beyond its current small-scale set-up; my hope is just that it doesn’t totally eclipse those hour-long marathons. I’ve always tried to resist the gradual shortening of disciplines that has happened during my years as a memory competitor—you can admire somebody who can memorise a deck of cards very quickly, but to my mind it’s much more admirable to memorise thirty decks of cards in a one-hour period!

 

Interestingly, there hasn’t yet been any ‘specialisation’ of competitors—the best in the world at Memory League are also the best in the world at the traditional World Memory Championship disciplines. I would have expected it to be different, and just maybe, in the future, people will come along who only want to do one or the other. Then we might see some kind of interesting ‘schism’ which might sound the death-knell for Hour Numbers and the like. I very much hope not!

 

As for memory systems, I wonder how much ‘bigger’ they can get? One or two people are now using four-digit-image systems, with 10,000 possible combinations. A three-card-image system seems impossible, but I find it hard to believe we’ve reached a plateau. Scores will, of course, keep on getting higher—an interesting thing about memory competitions is that as soon as somebody’s set a score, other people can do it much more easily themselves. Then they set to work breaking the current record, and it just keeps progressing.

 

As for me, I don’t know. It’s been very nearly ten years now since I was at all fired-up about trying to be the best in the world. I’d like to recapture that enthusiasm, but I don’t really know how. I think what’s on the horizon for me, in the short term at least, is continuing to go to competitions because my friends are there. I’ll keep organising my own competitions (I’ve been doing that since 2006) and spreading the word about how much fun they are, so I’m not going to disappear. But I can’t see me winning anything again. Maybe I’m wrong…

 

Daniel Kilov: Is there anything you wish more people knew about memory, or the mind more generally?

 

Ben Pridmore: I wish more people knew there was such a thing as memory competitions. I wish more people knew how much fun they are. I wish more people knew how surprisingly easy it is to memorise a pack of cards or a 100-digit number. I wish the people who do know about memory competitions would separate them in their minds from the self-improvement concept that they’ve always been marketed as, and see them as a sport, specific and complete in itself. You wouldn’t ask Lionel Messi how people can use football-playing skills to help them pass exams or be a more effective businessman. Why do I always get asked how people can use my card-memorisation skills for that kind of thing?

 

Mensan Daniel Kilov is a Memory Athlete. He believes that we are all mental athletes; in a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.

For more, visit DanielKilov.com and follow Daniel on Twitter at @DanielKilov.

 

Anastasia Woolmer at TEDxDocklands

It’s always great to see exciting new ways of thinking about memory techniques. It’s even better when that material comes from a fellow Australian. Here is a recent TEDx talk by Anastasia Woolmer. She’s an incredible mnemonist but also an accomplished and skilled dancer. Here she shows off both sets of skills at once. Keep an eye out – we will be seeing more of Anastasia on this blog in the coming months.

If you can’t wait that long, you can check out her website here.

Uncommon Podcast ft. Daniel Kilov

Uncommon.png

More attentive readers may have noticed that I’ve fallen behind on my goal of providing new content every week. I’ve been pretty busy with some cool projects (including this interview) and can finally take some time to update you all. So you can expect a bunch of new posts over the next couple of weeks as I make up lost ground.

I was recently interviewed for the Uncommon Podcast. We covered heaps of stuff and it was really fun. Their summary of the episode, and the full interview, are below:

Daniel Kilov is an Australian Memory Athlete, Speaker, Writer and a Philosophy PhD student at The Australian National University (ANU).

Daniel is capable of memorising a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, over 100 random digits in five minutes and placed second at the Australian Memory Championships in 2011.

When I learnt about Daniel and his mentor Tansel Ali – through the best-selling book Deep Work by Cal Newport – I knew I had to get him on the podcast. The use of memory is probably one of the fundamental tools we have as humans, aside from communication through language. Yet we are in an age where we’re handballing a lot of former memory tasks to our smart devices – foregoing the classic techniques of mnemonics is becoming all too common. As Cal Newport says in his book, the “Art of Memory” is incredibly important to becoming a “Deep Worker” who can not only increase performance but also your attention through the process.

For those of you who would prefer it, you can find the audio version here:https://www.neuralle.com/podcast

Enjoy!

Jairam Hathwar, 2016 US Scripps National Spelling Bee

This article was originally printed in Issue 441 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Jairam.png

Jairam Hathwar won the 2016 US Scripps National Spelling Bee. As the younger brother of Sriram—the 2014 champion—13-year-old Jairam had a model for excellence as a mental athlete. He and his brother have even co-authored a book which they hope will inspire the next generation of competitive orthographers. In this interview, Jairam shared his stories and offers insights into the training regimen required that allowed him to dominate the world’s most competitive spelling bee.

 

Daniel Kilov: How did you develop your interest in competitive spelling?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Seeing my brother participating in many spelling competitions at a very young age, and him finally hoisting the national trophy was a huge inspiration for me to attempt competitive spelling. The perks of being a national champion were abundant, whether it was being on Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Kelly and Michael Show, ESPN,  etc. That made me want to follow in his footsteps and receive the recognition that he was given as well.

 

Daniel Kilov: Is it the sportive aspect that drives your interest or do you have a love of languages more generally?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Personally, I enjoy a friendly competition because it motivates me to succeed and makes we want to become better. It is definitely both aspects—I love being challenged, as well as learning language patterns, and how languages have evolved to what they are today.

 

Daniel Kilov: Did having a champion speller for an older sibling influence the way you related to the competition?

 

 

Jairam Hathwar: Having a sibling who had succeeded fruitfully most certainly influenced me to participate in a large-scale competition such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I would never have had the drive to do well in the spelling bee if it weren’t for my brother having taken part in it. There was obviously some sibling rivalry along the way, but that just fuelled my will to achieve even more.

 

Daniel Kilov: What are the key skills you had to acquire to become an elite speller?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Some skills that one learns in the process of preparing and competing in the spelling bee are dedication, perseverance, humiliation, grace, etc. Those skills are crucial when attempting such a difficult endeavour as the spelling bee. If one facet of those is missing, then that could determine who the champion will be. It is important not to forget about grace because if they wanted to just get the best speller, then they would just give a 100+ word spelling test, and whoever got the most right would win. Obviously, that isn’t the way that it is, and luck plays a large role, when so many people have put the required time and effort into studying and preparing.

 

Daniel Kilov: Something I’m particularly interested in is the recent string of ties in the competition. The consensus seems to be that the events are getting harder. However, the last three years have seen competitors work their way through every word on the competition list without error. What do you make of this?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Unlike many other competitions, like the National Geographic Bee, MATHCOUNTS, etc., the spelling bee is from a curriculum: the dictionary. If one memorises the entire dictionary, without a doubt, that person would be the champion. In this case, the participants are becoming smarter and smarter, and no matter how hard the people at Scripps try, the spelling bee will always be from a database, and whoever knows the most of it, will win. There are rule changes that Scripps has tried to incorporate, and will most likely to continue to, that will sometime sooner or later result with a single winner. I expect that Scripps will somehow figure out a way where one winner will be declared, whether it be spelling all the words in the dictionary, or having a written test.

 

Daniel Kilov: Have your experiences as a mental athlete influenced any other areas of your life?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Certainly I have become more popular at school and at social gatherings, but having to spend hours upon hours a day studying, has given me an advantage over others when preparing for a test or quiz because of the practice I’ve put into becoming an efficient learner. I have also learned to become a better critical thinker, and have broadened my knowledge of many subjects by studying for the spelling bee, which has possibly given me a slight edge over others.

 

Daniel Kilov: What is your fondest, funniest or quirkiest memory from the spelling bee circuit?

 

Jairam Hathwar: The first year I advanced to compete for the national spelling bee was a very unique experience. Because my brother had just won the previous year, I had a lot of pressure put on me to do well. After the first written test I thought that I had only gotten around three to four wrong, which most likely meant that I would advance to the semi-finals the next day. As I was consulting my brother on many that I was unsure about, I realized that I had gotten eight wrong, which most likely meant I wouldn’t make it to the semi-finals the following day. All of a sudden, my mother had gotten an email announcing that one of the questions I had answered was an alternative answer, so I had only gotten seven wrong, still very shaky that I would advance.

 

The next day, when they announced the semi-finalists, they stated that you could get seven wrong and advance, which made me just elated, that I had made it. Soon after, we had to take the semi-finalists’ written test, and I had gotten the best score out of everyone there, only missing two questions, which was phenomenal for such a difficult test. That meant that if I spelled my two words right the next day, I would advance to the finals. Fast forward to the next day, and I already spelled one of my words right, and I was thinking to myself what a comeback story it would be if I were to get my next word right and make it to the championship finals. I had gotten my word, ‘riegel’, and I completely blanked out on the proper spelling, even though I’d studied the word multiple times. I ended up misspelling and being eliminated from the competition, which only gave me a drive to do better the next year, which was when I won. That story was definitely a very odd experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

 

Daniel Kilov: What, if anything, do you wish people knew or appreciated about orthography? Further, what practices, techniques or habits would you recommend people adopt in their day-to-day lives?

 

Jairam Hathwar: I’d just want people to appreciate the time that competitors in the spelling bee put in, and understand how much some have sacrificed to be where they are. They have developed great study habits, and dedication that words can’t even begin to explain (and I’m a spelling champ!). Those lessons are important for the rest of their lives, and they should never forget them.

 

Daniel Kilov: How do you relate to the world of competitive spelling now that you’ve won? What’s next for you?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Spelling will still be very important to me, even though I’m not a participant in it anymore. I hope that more and more people give the spelling bee a try, and I hope to see them succeed, and more co-champions to be declared, which shows that people want to succeed, and that is a good thing. I hope that I can contribute to help organize spelling bees, and help people learn the many quirks of the English language. My brother and myself have co-authored a book entitled, Words From the Champs that is on Amazon, that describes both of our stories to become national champions, as well as more than 10,000 words, definitions, etymologies, part of speech, etc.  n