This article was originally printed in Issue 417 (May/June) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Tansel Ali is Australia’s most successful memory athlete. He is three-time Australian memory champion and holds a handful of Australian records. He is also the author of The Yellow Elephant and is famous for having memorised 2 Yellow Pages phone books in only 24 days. His work has been featured on a variety of media including the award-winning ABC TV documentary ‘Redesign My Brain’ with Todd Sampson. Tansel is also a dear friend and coach – It was he who first taught me the techniques I used in the 2011 Australian Memory Championships. I caught up with him recently at the Creativity and Innovation Conference in Melbourne and scheduled an interview. Fortunately, we remembered.
Daniel Kilov: Aside from being the 3x Australian Memory Champion, you are probably best known for memorizing the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in only three weeks. How did this opportunity come about? How did you learn such a huge volume in such a short time?
Tansel Ali: A PR company contacted me wanting me to memorise the Yellow Pages as marketing for their display advertising. Initially I thought it was a crazy idea, however after some basic calculations I decided I could be up for the challenge. Once I accepted to do the memory feat I was informed that I only had 24 days to memorise everything. After 24 days I was flown to Sydney and tested at a large convention as well as several live TV and radio interviews. In order to learn such a huge volume in the time that I had, I had to develop a thorough plan and analysis of the feat. This included finding out how many ads to memorise, which techniques to use, duration of memorisation, the number of times for review, recall period, as well as the type of sacrifices I had to make like taking time off work, finding quiet memorisation spots, and so on. Once the plan was developed then I had to make sure I executed it accordingly.
Daniel Kilov: The title of your first book on memory, The Yellow Elephant is definitely evocative of the Yellow Pages. Is there a link there?
Tansel Ali: The yellow represents the yellow from the Yellow Pages and elephant symbolising memory. It is also the term I used to form my own memory concept, which is to take abstract data and encode it into meaningful information. By naming something that is visual, it helps the person remember the book title, rather than a bunch of words that may not make sense. It is very much like an icon. As they say, a picture is a thousand words.
Daniel Kilov: You’ve been involved in competitive memory sports for over ten years now. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sport?
Tansel Ali: There are many more people around the world that are involved in memory sports today, and it is much more competitive. When I first started, the world championships used to have 20 odd competitors. Last year saw 169 compete in China. Records have been consistently broken and it is a lot tougher to crack the top 20 than ever before. The interest has definitely grown over the years and it will only be a matter of time until we have full-time memory athletes vying for prestigious titles and huge prize money. Not only are we seeing a growth in memory competitors, but also memory coaches training the next lot of superstars. I still find it very interesting what the human mind can do and believe we still haven’t reached anywhere near our capability in memory competitions.
Daniel Kilov: What’s been the most memorable experience of either the Australian or World Memory Championships for you?
Tansel Ali: I’ve been fortunate to have competed in a number of Australian and World memory championships since 2002. The first ever memory championship will stand in my mind the most. My friend Metin and I were so excited about our new discovery and we would train until 4am at his place, often not really remembering much and mucking around most of the time. Come competition time, we ended up breaking a number of memory records together and coming second and third in Australia. My first world memory championships were in Malaysia in 2003. Training once again with Metin we both ventured into Kuala Lumpur for the first time and had an unbelievable experience. We met our memory heroes and hung out until very late with the world’s best memorisers. I went for the experience, however found myself in 13th position overall having broken 5 Australian memory records for a total of 6.
Daniel Kilov: You’ve recently begun exploring all kinds of new uses for memory techniques outside of the competition room. What are the most surprising and successful uses you’ve found for your memory techniques?
Tansel Ali: Memory techniques are extremely versatile. The more you delve into it, the more you learn from it, the more you can play with it to suit your lifestyle. Initially my interest was using memory for enhancing learning. Speed reading, which is also in the class of memory techniques, was a revelation for me as I was never a big reader and it gave me the confidence and ability to read like I’ve never been able to before. As I read more, I discovered that memorisation is a type of narrative visualisation. You make up stories with your imagination. The same can be used for meditation. Hence, memorisation can be used as a meditative tool. I’ve used it to manage extreme pain and things like stress. If you can visualise well and have a great imagination, then I believe you can untap amazing potential in yourself, and others as well. Getting your own visualisation out externally into the real world can also be called a ‘vision’. If you are good at memory, then you will have the ability to understand how to communicate better with others and relay your vision. Hence, memory is a great leadership skill to have.
Daniel Kilov: In line with your call for memory techniques to be put to practical uses you’ve recently masterminded and run the first School Mind Games event. Could you tell us a little about what this event involved? What are your plans for this event?
Tansel Ali: Usually when seminars and training are run in schools, it’s great on the day. However as time passes, usually the next day, students and teachers have forgotten the skills and generally go back to their usual ways of learning. I wanted to create something that engaged the students’ new skills throughout the year. I wanted students to not just learn memory skills, but apply them regularly so that it became strong studying habits. Along with the help of a young leader Raquel Woods, we spent almost a year planning and preparing our event. We trained three schools in memory, speed reading and Mind Mapping skills. By the end of the year, these students came together in the school mind games event and competed in the three skills they were taught. The first was to speed read a 200-page book, which they all did collectively in 15 minutes. They then created a large Mind Map on a wall of the whole book and presented that back with great detail. And finally, memorise your 11 minute TEDxManly talk almost word-for-word. It was an incredible display by everyday students. The event proved that grades do not matter and that anyone can utilise the skills and perform exceptionally. There are plans to make it even bigger this year with more schools competing. I’m looking forward to it.