14 min read
Jim Kwik knows how you think.
He knows that, as an entrepreneur, you’re trying to shove as much information into your brain as you can, and to do it as fast as possible. He knows that is frustrating, especially in our current moment of great change, because you can never move as fast as the things that come at you: Emails pile up, reports go unread, people are waiting for you, your industry is evolving, your world is shifting, and all the while you’re bombarded with noise and distractions and Slack pings and it’s why you’re waking up early and grabbing your phone and responding to everyone right away, as if that’ll actually stem the tide, which it will not.
He’s seen this play out infinitely. As the world’s top brain-performance coach, and the author of the best-selling book Limitless, he’s worked with teams at Google, Nike, SpaceX, Virgin, Facebook, and Zappos. He’s seen what overload looks like at the highest levels. He knows that you’ve felt on the verge of burning out, particularly during the past year, when everything you knew had to be thrown in the garbage, and he knows it’s a complicated feeling. “A lot of times,” he says, “entrepreneurs are burnt out not because they’re doing too much but because they’re doing too little of the things they really value.”
He knows you’re hungry for methods — because who doesn’t love methods? Concrete steps, as straightforward as a cake recipe, to do better. It’s why he makes online videos full of brain-boosting tactics, and why they’ve drawn more than 100 million views. But he also knows that methods by themselves are pointless — like giving someone that cake recipe but locking them out of the kitchen — because before you can use methods, you need tools that enable you to make use of methods.
And if you think that sounds confusing, Kwik knows that, too.
“Entrepreneurs have to constantly study,” he says. “They want to be an expert in their field, but if they feel overwhelmed, sometimes it’s because they’re trying to connect something they don’t know to something they don’t know.” Our brains don’t work like that. Why did you just read that interesting article about black holes in another galaxy, and then not retain a single damn piece of it afterward? Because you never studied the foundational information about astronomy, which means you have no knowledge base to connect this new information to. “All of learning is connecting something you don’t know to something you do know,” he says. We have to start somewhere.
Which is why, when Kwik meets with entrepreneurs, he likes starting with metaphors and stories. Here’s a quick metaphor he often tells his clients. Then a quick story.
The metaphor: A little boy watches a caterpillar build its cocoon. He waits and waits for it to emerge transformed, but eventually he gets impatient and cuts the cocoon open himself to see the butterfly. Instead, he’s horrified to find a swollen, mangled bug. He runs to his mother, who explains, “What happens in the cocoon isn’t pretty, but it is also necessary, and it cannot be interrupted.”
Now the story: Back in 2015, Kwik’s friend Sylvester Stallone called him to ask, “Want to join me and Arnold Schwarzenegger to watch Floyd Mayweather, Jr., fight Manny Pacquiao?” Of course Kwik wanted to do this. He went. When the (overhyped!) match was over, Kwik asked these two legends, “What does it take to be a champion?” Schwarzenegger replied, “The difference between an amateur and a champion is that a champion is willing to push past the pain.”
What do we learn from these tales?
The past year in particular has been a strain unlike any other, and now that the pandemic is coming to a close, it’s replacing one kind of uncertainty with another. What will the world be like now? What will people need, and what do they no longer want, and how can entrepreneurs stay atop it all? There is a massive amount of information to ingest and decide on, and it can be overwhelming. Entrepreneurs want strategies to help with this — but strategies alone will not help, as we now know, because our brains first need something more fundamental.
What is the fundamental thing, then? What’s the foundation to build upon — the thing to know first, which more knowledge can be built upon, and that we need now more than ever as we emerge from a pandemic and into…whatever comes next?
“The number one skill set,” Kwik says, “is to learn how to learn.”
He had to teach this to himself. Because at first, Kwik didn’t know how to learn. He was just, as one of his grade-school teachers called him, “the boy with the broken brain.”
Image Credit: Amy Lombard
Jim Kwik suffered his first head injury at the age of 5. He had two more by the age of 12. As a result, basic cognitive functions became difficult. He struggled to focus, to read, to remember. His school grades were terrible. His self-esteem was shattered. He pushed himself and was accepted into a local state university, but the work was so difficult, and Kwik felt so overwhelmed, that he considered dropping out his freshman year. That’s when a friend intervened. “Before you tell your parents you’re going to quit school,” the friend said, “I’m going to see my family. Why don’t you come with me and just get some space?”
Kwik said yes. The trip would change his life.
Before dinner one night, the friend’s father invited Kwik for a walk around their property. “How’s school?” the father asked, and Kwik broke down crying. Then the father asked, “Jim, why are you in school? What do you want to be?”
Kwik didn’t know how to answer; nobody had asked him that before. The father grabbed a journal, tore out a few sheets of paper, and asked Kwik to write down his goals and dreams. Kwik did, and then started to fold up the paper and put it in his pocket—but the father grabbed the paper and started reading. “I’m freaking out,” Kwik recalls, “because I’ve never shared this with anyone.” The list contained the normal dreams of an 18-year-old: finding success, making his parents proud. Then the father held up two index fingers, about a foot apart, and said, “You’re this close to achieving everything on that list.”
“I’m like, No way — give me 10 lifetimes and I’m not going to crack that list,” Kwik says. “And then he takes his index fingers and puts them on the sides of my head.” Your brain, the father was saying, has the power to make these goals possible. Then he took Kwik into his library, with a wall full of books, and instructed Kwik to read one book a week. Kwik said it was impossible; he was a slow reader, and anyway, he had midterms coming up. The father said it didn’t matter. Figure out a way. Then, to hammer home the point, he pulled out Kwik’s list of goals and started reading them aloud.
“I don’t know what it was,” Kwik says, “but something about hearing your deepest desires in somebody else’s voice, incanted into the universe, just messed with my mind and my spirit.” Kwik agreed: He’d read a book a week.
But he didn’t know how. Back at school, he pushed himself to do it — barely sleeping, barely eating. He withered down to 117 pounds, and one morning, at 2 a.m., he fell down a flight of stairs at the school library and smashed his head. He woke up in a hospital, malnourished and dehydrated, thinking he’d died. Then a nurse entered with a mug that had Albert Einstein’s face on it. Kwik took it as a sign—he’d once done a book report on Einstein in high school, but he was so insecure that he threw it out rather than hand it to his teacher. Now Einstein stared at him, along with a quote printed on the mug: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
Something clicked for Kwik. He understood his problem.
“It’s not how smart you are — it’s How are you smart?” he says now. Kwik loves speaking like this, shifting words around to invert a phrase’s meaning. “I thought that I was failing school, but in a way, school was failing me, because sometimes the way a teacher prefers to teach is different than a student’s way of learning.” People learn in different ways, he realized — and just because he learned differently than his peers didn’t mean he was unable to learn. He simply needed to figure out what worked for him.
That’s what he set about doing. Once he’d figured it out, he began tutoring other students to do the same. Then he began tutoring those students’ parents, who passed him along to their friends and colleagues, and soon Kwik was training the greatest minds in the world.
Now he is in demand by major companies, entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers, and he travels the globe speaking to crowds of thousands. Kwik says he is torn about this success. “I didn’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be known for this work,” he says. “I’m very introverted and very shy.” He doesn’t hide this, either. In conversation, he speaks in a serious, subdued tone, looking off to the side every so often as if needing to recharge. But he feels compelled to keep teaching, reaching the maximum number of people he can, because he knows how transformative it is to learn how to learn.
“Shame on me,” he says, “if somebody is struggling and suffering the way I did for so long, and I don’t help that person.
Image Credit: Amy Lombard
So how do you learn how to learn? This is big and complicated, and when Kwik explains it, his words form a kind of abstract Russian nesting doll — one category of thought, which opens up to reveal another category, which opens to reveal another, and so on.
But in short, we can start with what not to do, because it’s the first thing people tell Kwik.
“People come to me all the time and they’re like, ‘Jim, I can’t do this; I’m not good at this.’ And I say, ‘Stop. If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them,’ ” he says. “People in our society are constantly talking about all the things they can’t do.”
Does he hear this from billionaire CEOs at top-tier companies, too? “Oh, goodness!” Kwik replies. “I can’t tell you how many high-profile individuals struggle with self-esteem issues.” The way he sees it, all behavior is driven by beliefs — and if someone believes they cannot do something, then they won’t be able to, no matter their level of accomplishment. “Your brain is a supercomputer, and an entrepreneur’s self-talk is the program that will run,” he says.
To create a winning mindset, then, people can’t just focus on what they want to do. They have to identify their limiting beliefs and then, he says, systematically “un-limit” them.
Kwik believes our mindsets have been destroyed by many lies (or rather, L.I.E.s — limited ideas entertained; he also loves acronyms). Among the biggest lies: Intelligence is fixed, mistakes are failures, genius is born, learning new things is hard, and knowledge is power. That last one may sound like a mistake — how can knowledge not be power? But Kwik points out that knowledge alone isn’t power. “Entrepreneurs feel like just buying a book is good enough, or just listening to a podcast or going on Clubhouse is enough for them to have some power,” he says. But when entrepreneurs learn something, he says, they must filter it through three questions: How can I use this? Why must I use this? And when will I use this? Without those answers, knowledge is wasted.
That’s mindset, in brief: Un-limit your beliefs, and actively turn knowledge into power. Remember earlier, when Kwik said that you need the right mindset before you can truly make use of good methods? Well, are we there yet? No. Because if you combine a great mindset with powerful methods, you don’t actually have learning. Instead, what you have is ideation.
“A lot of entrepreneurs suffer from ideation,” he says. “They believe everything is possible and they have all these great ideas, but they’re not doing anything because they’re not motivated.”
That’s the final piece of the puzzle. If you want to learn how to learn, you must combine mindset, methods, and finally, motivation. (Kwik also loves alliteration.)
“The evidence that somebody is motivated — an entrepreneur or their team or customers — is that they consistently take action,” Kwik says. “I think 90 percent of entrepreneurs would say, ‘Yes, I have an issue staying motivated to consistently do the things I don’t want to do.’ ”
Kwik has come up with a formula to fix this, which he says goes like this: P x E x S3.
P is purpose: “A passion, for entrepreneurs, is what lights you up — and I think purpose is how you use that passion to light other people up,” he says. E is energy: It’s about managing your energy like you manage your time, so that you have enough of it when you need it. And S3 is small, simple steps — breaking things down into manageable tasks. “What keeps people from acting is either they’re intimidated or they’re confused,” Kwik says. “So ask, What is the tiniest action I can take right now that will give me progress toward this goal?”
Combine all this together and you’ve built true, action-oriented motivation. Now you’re ready to really learn — to absorb the methods you find in books and podcasts (and in this magazine!), and to expand your potential. Because above all, as Kwik transformed himself from a stunted learner into a world-renowned brain coach, he is convinced of this: We contain more potential than we know.
“This is not about being perfect,” he says. “This is about advancing and progressing beyond what we believe is possible. We live in a world where we’re outsourcing jobs to Asia, to automation, to artificial intelligence. What’s not going to be easily sent to a machine? What are the things that are truly limitless? There’s no limit to our creativity. There’s no limit to our imagination. There’s no limit to our ability to solve problems.”
The most limitless thing in the world, in other words, is us.