Why you should care
Because memory strength is tied to health, happiness and success.
OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals
In Los Angeles, everything needs a guru. Your abs need Cardio Barre, your soul needs kabbalah or perhaps Scientology, and your brain? Well, your brain is what Jim Kwik is after.
The 42-year-old seems like the world’s next great cult king when he says to me in a near whisper, “I want to reach 1 billion minds.” But of course he wouldn’t pitch it that way. Kwik is a popular new “memory coach” and the proprieter of Kwik Learning and SuperheroYou, companies that offer Web products, seminars and one-on-one coaching purporting to make you a better reader and to “improve your overall brain function.” Kwik’s corporate and personal clients use his techniques to improve reading speed and retention, handy skills when you’re memorizing scripts or building a space program. He has up to 150,000 subscribers a month, he says, through a combination of Web services, seminars and in-person coaching, and his company has grown into a multimillion-dollar operation with half a dozen full-time employees and several part-time consultants.
Customers using one of Kwik’s two-hour webinars surf through speed-reading exercises, learn how to use dreams to enhance the creative process through journaling, and practice visualization exercises designed to help them understand how they store memories. “Honestly, [I] didn’t know if this was going to be a waste of my time,” says Alana Gold, a marketing professional and mother of two who is cramming in extra hours of studying before heading to graduate school. “He has me doing things like juggling and tracing my fingers across my field of vision in a figure eight before studying.” (She claims it helps.) Kwik’s approach has won the endorsement of other brain gurus, including Dr. Daniel Amen, a favorite of pastor Rick Warren and a best-selling author.
It’s a ripe time for the Kwiks of the world to sell to the Golds of the world. Self-help is a $10 billion industry. People are hungry to form new habits; it’s the age of behavioral psychology meets the productivity zeitgeist, and whether your techniques are peer-reviewed or merely placebo, they’re certainly sellable. (Amen’s take on what counts as “tested”: “The best way to evaluate these techniques is to try simple things and measure where you notice improvement.”) Kwik often fields personal questions from his audiences, offering what he calls a “personal trainer for your brain.” Soft-spoken and geeky, he conducts his webinars in front of a giant Iron Man mural while wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a brain over the tagline, “There is no app for that.” His online classes and seminars run around $400; some clients pay upward of $10,000 per person for in-person coaching, either one-on-one or in small groups.
Kwik, like many of his brethren in the new generation of self-help, is no doctor. Rather, his stuff falls more in the realm of personal-management gurus like Tim Ferriss and Brendon Burchard, who themselves are modern-day versions of Tony Robbins. But he’s playing in a space full of people purporting to have real impact on your neurons: His competitors are companies like Lumosity, which provides brain games to keep you sharp, and which neuroscientists have spoken out against.
“It is 100 percent possible to use scientific methods to verify whether these programs improve memory and reading,” says Elliot Berkman, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the University of Oregon’s department of psychology. All Kwik or Lumosity would need to do is conduct a controlled experiment. “As far as I can tell,” Berkman says, “neither Kwik nor Lumosity has done this.” Kwik is used to the criticism and says that all of his techniques are based on pre-existing methods backed by scientific studies. He says his role is more messenger than creator.
Kwik’s backstory fits nicely alongside those of the comic book superheroes that inspired his own transformation. As a child, Kwik suffered a head trauma after falling down in kindergarten. When he regained consciousness, he was in the hospital. Afterward, Kwik says, he struggled mightily with memory retention and problem-solving skills. Growing up in Westchester, New York — the fictional home of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men comic book series — Kwik would ride his bike up and down the neighborhood streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the modern-day genetic gods that would free him from his troubles.
He was on the verge of dropping out of college his freshman year when his roommate invited him to California for a weekend family visit. There, his roommate’s dad had Kwik write down a bucket list of everything he hoped to accomplish. The dad looked over the ambitious to-do items and told Kwik, his outstretched hands encompassing the width of Kwik’s skull, “You’re actually only this far from achieving everything here.” Kwik went back to college and devoted himself to reading every self-improvement book he could find, particularly ones on memory and problem-solving — anything tied to the mind.
Over the next year, you can be sure you’ll see Kwik marching toward that 1-billion-minds goal. He’s entering the book world, as any good self-help guru must, to tell his personal story and show off the techniques that helped him move forward. For now, he’s got the kind of stump speech that might not outdo Deepak Chopra just yet, but certainly does have a nice ring to it: “After years of searching for my own superpower, I’ve come to realize that you are the superhero you’ve been waiting for.”