Learning To Learn Faster: The One Superpower Everyone Needs
I have a new book coming out early next year, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. As the title suggests, my subject matter is the outer limits of human potential and the question of what might actually be possible for our species.
During the course of writing this book, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of amazing people interested in this very same question. This is a story about one of them, a really nice guy named Jim Kwik. It’s also a story about learning and education, innovation and entrepreneurship, and, well, superheroes. Actually, mostly, it’s a story about superheroes.
Of course, since I’m telling you this is a story about superheroes, I now have to satisfy two additional requirements. There has to be a superpower; there has to be an origin story. Let’s take them one at a time.
Jim Kwik’s superpower is learning. He’s the CEO of Kwik Learning for a reason. Kwik is really, really quick. He can learn faster than mere mortals.
A lot faster.
As learning requires reading, well, Kwik can read alright. Most folks put away text between 200-250 words-per-minute (wpm). Kwik fires through heavy technical tomes at about 500 wpm; he devours light fiction at upwards of 1300 wpm. And he can remember what he reads.
Actually, he can remember a lot more than that. If you’ve ever seen Kwik on stage or attended one of his seminars, then you’ve seen him memorize the names of every face in the crowd. Or long strings of random numbers. Most people struggle to remember all seven digits of a phone number. Kwik can remember phone numbers all day long. Hundreds of them. And this isn’t a parlor trick: as was mentioned before, Kwik also remembers what he reads.
Consider what this really means. Books are the best way to store and transport knowledge we have ever developed. Years and years of back-breaking research go into books. And we can access that research in hours? How crazy is that.
It’s also for this reason that leaders are readers. This is true for American Presidents (JFK, Carter, Clinton, etc.) and American business leaders. In fact, Bill Gates—also a voracious reader—was once asked what superpower he most wanted. What did he choose? “Being able to read superfast.”
Warren Buffett, who was sharing the stage with him at the time, agreed, saying: “I’ve probably wasted ten years reading slowly.”
Now, for those of us raised on Shazam and the Wonder Twins, fast reading and better recall may not seem like true superpowers, but that’s only because we haven’t done the math.
Kwik did the math:
“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.”
But you can do more than imagine. Because there’s another side to superherodom that’s relevant here—Kwik’s origin story.
Jim Kwik wasn’t always a great learner. In fact, just the opposite. At the age of 5, he suffered a head trauma and afterwards felt broken. Like his brain was broken. Like he could never keep up.
And, truthfully, he never could keep up. Growing up in Westchester, New York, he was exceptionally challenged in school. His friends seemed to excel effortlessly, while Kwik had to struggle privately just stay in the game. Worse, this led him to be painfully shy. The combination almost proved his undoing.
Kwik was temporarily relieved by the chance to go college. “It was supposed to be great,” he recounts. “College was a place where no one knew me. They didn’t know I had trouble learning. They knew nothing about me. I thought I could be anyone—even a smart guy.”
On his way towards smart, Kwik overloaded himself with classes. Once again, very quickly, the burden proved too much to bear. Unwilling to let himself slip behind, Kwik sacrificed everything at the alter of study. He stopped eating, stopped sleeping, stopped exercising. The neglect took its toll.
One day, Kwik passed out at the public library. He fell down a flight of stairs and woke up in the hospital. He was battered and bruised, dehydrated and exhausted. A nurse brought him a cup of tea. There was an Albert Einstein quote printed on the side: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
Old Al was singing his song.
The quote got Kwik thinking. Instead of thinking about what he was failing to learn, he started thinking about learning itself. The brain was supposed to be this supercomputer, right? So why did his supercomputer keep malfunctioning? Why couldn’t he focus? Why couldn’t he remember what he read? Why did he keep losing his damn keys?
And the longer he thought about it, the more he came to one conclusion: School—this place he had spent all these years trying to get smarter—is a great place to learn what to learn. But it’s not necessarily a great place to learn how to learn.
“If Rip Van Winkle woke up today,” says Kwik, “the only thing he would recognize is our education system. It was created for 18th century needs, to train people to work in factories or the farm. Today, we’re paid by what’s between our ears. We’re knowledge workers. We’re paid for our ability to learn. Yet we have an educational system that doesn’t teach people how to learn. How to focus, listen, innovate, think, remember, problem solve. Why do most people have poor reading skills? One reason is that the last time most people took a class called “reading” they were probably five years old.”
So, Kwik made the art of studying his study. He started pouring through tomes on neuroscience, adult development, and meta-learning—which is the science of how we learn. He discovered there was a lot to learn.
He also applied this knowledge. To his incredible surprise, progress came quickly. After spending less than 30 days working on new learning habits, Kwik could focus better, read faster, retain more. After 60 days, he was getting better grades and in far less time. His self-image started to change. His confidence started to soar. Hell, before long, he barely recognized himself.
For the sheer joy of sharing, Kwik started tutoring others in what he learned about learning. One of his first students was a young woman desperate to read more quickly.
The woman struggled with the technique. Speed reading isn’t skimming and it isn’t scanning. Done properly, and augmented with memory work, it’s very high comprehension and high retention. And not easy to learn
But this woman was incredibly determined. She kept at it. Eventually, something clicked. And it kept clicking. She read 30 books in 30 days—an absolutely amazing total. So amazing, that Kwik had to ask the purpose. Why 30 in 30? What could possibly be the hurry?
Her mother was the hurry. She was in the hospital dying of cancer. Doctors had given her 60 days to live. Kwik’s student was speed reading books on health and wellness. It was a last ditch effort to save her mother’s life.
Kwik was 19 years old at the time and this was not the kind of answer he was expecting.
“I didn’t even know what to say to that,” he recounts. “I also didn’t think it would ever work.
Six months later, Kwik got a call from the woman. Her mother had survived the cancer. “It was a miracle,” says Kwik. “The doctors had no idea what was keeping her alive. But her mother believes she’s alive because of all the great advice she got from her daughter when she was sick. The same advice, her daughter had gotten reading 30 books in 30 days.”
That was when it all came together for him. “If knowledge is power,” he says, “that was the moment I realized that learning is a superpower.”
More importantly, as Kwik himself points out, “I’m not special. I didn’t naturally have these superpowers. They were learned. And if I can learn them, anyone can learn them—regardless of age, background or education.”
A School for Superheroes
After college, Kwik kept on teaching people to harness this superpower. He started Kwik Learning, has trained students at over 30 institutions (Harvard etc.), and worked with companies like Nike, Virgin and Zappos. Along the way, he also started to realize that having a superpower meant using that power for good. It might sound corny. Kwik was serious.
Education and the environment were his core issues, so he and his wife, Alexis, started saving the rainforest; they built schools in places like Guatemala. It was a significant (and ongoing) effort, but, for Kwik, not nearly enough. But what would be enough?
This was about the time Kwik started thinking about building a school for superheroes.
His thinking was straightforward. Every animal has been optimized by evolution; thus every animal has a superpower—that thing they do best in the world. Birds fly. Fish swim. Spider’s weave. So what can humans do? Well, studies show that human’s have a near-infinite capacity to learn—it’s what neuroplasticity really means. In Scientific American, Northwestern psychologist Paul Reber explains it like this:The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.
In other words, Kwik wasn’t wrong: learning really is our superpower.
He also figured, to effect real change in the world—the kind that might be enough—the easiest way was teach everyone in the world how to develop their superpower. Simple really. Make the planet smarter.
And, seriously, why not? Why not build a school that teaches all how-to-learn stuff not taught in school. A school that shows us how to optimize brain performance, mental math, rapid recall, that heighten problem-solving, elevates creativity, enhances flow, increases innovation, this list goes on and on.
Of course, this school should also be free; and available online.
The Largest Citizen Science Project In History.
Superhero You has since grown into a community over 100,000 strong. It is a collection of free videos. It is an ongoing series of live events. It is an eclectic assembly of top experts in all things brain optimization. Sir Ken Robinson on creativity; Dr. Peter Diamandis on innovation; Dr. Daniel Amen on brain health. My organization, the Flow Genome Project, has also been involved since nearly the beginning.
At the heart of this community are a trio of important ideas. The first is straight-forward: the ability to learn quickly is a distinct and powerful competitive advantage in business. It enables all success in a fast paced, fast changing world.
The second should also be clear by now: human performance is hackable. Learning is hackable. The brain is hackable. Literally.
The term “hacker” originally described someone interested in tinkering with technology in an attempt to improve performance. Our biology no different. When Kwik teaches memory he tells people to exaggerate the things they are trying to remember. Why? Because the brain craves novelty. If you are trying to remember where you put your car keys, having an image of them 60 feet tall and dressed in drag helps. Exaggeration, then, is a simple memory hack.
But exaggeration is also one of the keys to building memory palaces which is one of the keys to remembering everything you read. It’s what the road to mastery looks like from the inside.
More importantly, exaggeration only one example. There are millions more. Honestly, barring violations of the laws of physics, just about whatever superpower you desire, someone out there has figured out how to hack it. My organization, in fact, the Flow Genome Project is dedicated to hacking flow states—check us out here.
And that brings us to the third idea at the heart of Kwik’s message—we can teach each other these hacks. We can build schools for it. We can have conferences. But most importantly, we can do it online—which means we can do it at scale.
The Internet gives us the ability to open source ultimate human performance. We can turn hacking our better selves into the largest citizen science project in history. We can, collectively, try to figure out how to become superheroes.
Stay Tuned: Superhero You just teamed up with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s downtown Vegas Project to put on a super-learning super-summit.
Steven Kotler is an author, journalist and Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to decoding the science of ultimate human performance. His books include “Abundance,” “A Small Furry Prayer,” “West of Jesus,. and "The Angle Quickest For Flight." His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Wired, Forbes, GQ, National Geographic, Popular Science, and Discover. He has a deep interest in the intersection of science, technology, and culture, with specific focus on the extreme edges of the discussion—both larger philosophical implications and completely personal applications.