(Clip) Crowd: LA Rams! LA Rams! LA Rams!
Adam Grant: 2016 was supposed to be a good year in the NFL for the Rams. They were relocating back from Saint Louis to Los Angeles. A fresh start. A new home. But they only won four games, and lost 12. They stank. And they hadn't had a winning season in 14 years. But the next year, 2017, things were different.
(Clip) Man: When you find a way to come on the road, finish up your road record 7-1, and win a division, there's only one thing you can say:
(Multiple voices) Woo!
AG: The following season, the Rams win 13 out of 16 games, tying for the best record in football. They make it all the way to the Super Bowl. Their secret weapon? The Rams had hired a new head coach, Sean McVay. He was just 30 years old, the youngest NFL coach since 1938. His secret weapon? His memory.
(Clip) Reporter: We saw you on television and you remembered a ton of plays.
AG: Sean McVay can recall, on command, almost any moment he's ever seen on a football field. Listen to him being grilled by a couple sports reporters about completely random plays from past seasons.
(Clip) Reporter 1: Week 12, Saints at Rams, 4-29 in the second quarter, second-and-seven, on the Saints' seven. What happened?
Sean McVay: Oh, Josh Reynolds' touchdown off-scheduled play versus a three-man rush.
Reporter 1: You're absolutely right. You're unbelievable.
AG: You don't need to know the playbook or understand the lingo to hear that this is sort of crazy.
(Clip) Reporter 1: Now we are bringing it back to 2015, week seven. Bucks at Skins. Second-and-seven on the Tampa Bay 24, 58 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
SMV: Jamison Crowder wheel route down the right sideline.
Reporter 2: Jamison Crowder wheel route down the right sideline. How did that drive end?
SMV: Jordan Reed touchdown in a four-by-one individual iso slant.
Reporter 2: Check out the brain on Sean.
Reporter 1: You're amazing.
AG: He even remembers plays going back 16 years, when he was in the state semifinals in high school. This kind of recall gives him a big edge as a coach. When he needs to make a quick decision with the game on the line, he has an entire library of successes and mistakes at his fingertips. Sean McVay is clearly a savant. But memory is not just an innate talent. You can strengthen yours, like a muscle. Your team can use it to pump up creativity and boost sales. And just maybe we can all figure out exactly where we left our car keys.
I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: memory. How to make you own recall stronger and how to build your organization's memory too.
Thanks to Accenture for sponsoring this episode.
Through most of human history, the most valuable people to have in your tribe were the ones with great memories. Even in the era of cavemen, your life depended on that friend who remembered which mushroom was poisonous, or where to find water in a drought. As civilizations developed, you needed to remember which merchants were trustworthy and which guild were hostile. In Lincoln's era, a mark of a well-read person was the ability to quote at length from many sources. Now, you're probably in the habit of outsourcing your memory to electronic devices. But the ability to retain and recall information in your head is still crucial.
One: it helps you establish expertise under uncertainty. If a car salesperson knows safety specs off the top of her head, you'll assume she knows what she's talking about. Two: having a good memory is essential for making fast decisions. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest during a procedure, surgeons don't have time to run a Google search about what to do. And three: memory helps you build and maintain relationships. You expect a financial planner to remember your risk preferences. You want a therapist to recall how your worldview was shaped by your weird family. And before a performance review, you hope your boss hasn't forgotten all the good work you've done. As a professor, I've always encouraged my students to develop their memories. The problem was, when they'd ask how, I didn't really have a good answer. Then I came across this guy.
Joshua Foer: I've been to be, well, a little bit forgetful.
AG: Joshua Foer is a science journalist. For as long as he could remember, he'd had a terrible memory. What are the things that you've always had the hardest time remembering?
JF: (Laughs) Let's see. Like, why I just opened the refrigerator. To put the toilet seat back down. Just about every important anniversary and birthday of family members.
I think maybe I've forgotten some of the things that I've forgotten.
AG: Back in 2005, Josh got an odd reporting assignment.
JF: "Slate Magazine" sends me to go cover this wacky-sounding contest, called the United States Memory Championship.
AG: The USA Memory Championship. What Josh observed were these competitive memorizers who had remarkable abilities. They could see photos of 100 strangers and remember all their names 20 minutes later. They could commit hundreds of random numbers to memory in just 15 minutes. And they could repeat the sequence of a whole deck of shuffled playing cards after looking at it for only five minutes. How does a person do that?
JF: I figured these are going to be like, a bunch of freakish savants, "Rain Man," basically, who have these incredible memories. And what I discover is something totally different. They are just like normal people with normal memories, and that they've trained themselves, using a set of ancient techniques, to become these memory champions. And I wanted to find out whether I could do that too.
AG: So Josh, with his spotty memory, started training with a master of the sport, and eventually wrote a book about the experience, called "Moonwalking with Einstein."
JF: They weren't making this up. It is absolutely true that when you learn these memory techniques, you can perform astounding feats of memory. And this is verified not just by my own experience, but by, like, 2,500 years of history of people using these techniques, and by a whole bunch of science. Incredible memory capacities are latent inside of all of us, if we sort of use the right techniques to awaken them.
AG: So how do these champion memorizers "do" memory?
JF: A lot of the earliest accounts that we have of memory techniques come form books on oratory, on how to be a persuasive speaker. And you know, like, when Cicero was getting up in the Roman Senate to deliver his stem-winders, he was doing that from memory. If you want to memorize a speech, don't try and memorize it word for word, because that's going to make you sound robotic, you're going to forget the next word — that's not a good way to speak persuasively. What you should do is create an image of each of the topics that you want to talk about in your speech, put the images of those topics into a memory palace.
AG: A memory palace. Because abstract words, numbers and ideas get stickier when you connect them to a concrete image and a familiar place. So, pick a place that you know well, and mentally attach things you want to remember to vivid images inside the different rooms.
JF: You create a wild, crazy, funny, colorful, bizarre, grotesque image in your mind's eye of each word in a list of random words that you're trying to memorize. And you visualize that image in a different room of your house. And you walk through your house creating these images, and when it comes time to recall the information, you just walk back through your house and what you find is that the images are in the rooms where you left them. And I know that doesn't sound like it would work.
AG: Yeah, it sounds a little ridiculous.
JF: It didn't sound to me like it would work, the first time I heard about this, but it's remarkably effective. And what you find is that you can, like, almost immediately, after learning this trick, you can memorize really long strings of information. You know, memorizing 100 random words in perfect order is almost trivial, once you know this trick.
AG: The key is a sense of place. Place really matters in memory. In a classic experiment, psychologists recruited a bunch of scuba divers to learn a few dozen new words. The divers learned some words on dry land, and others under water. Twenty-four hours later, they were tested for recall. If divers had learned words underwater, they had a much harder time recalling them on dry land, and vice versa. They were able to remember 30 to 60 percent more of the words when they were in the setting where they had originally learned them. So being back in the place where you learned something is where you find cues to help you retrieve it. And you can simulate that effect with the memory palace. If you put something in a particular place in your mind, you can revisit that place mentally at any time. Josh's go-to memory palace is the home where he grew up in DC.
JF: I can walk in the door, I can see the black paint on the door, and the brass mail slot, and I open it and there's this walnut credenza and floor made out of stone. So when I create these visual images in that home, they are just, like ... sticky. They become attached to all of these other memories that I have about that house. And so what I do, if I'm, let's say, memorizing a shopping list, and I have to remember that the first item on the list is milk, say, I walk in that house and I would picture myself pouring a gallon of milk, maybe over my mother's head in that entryway of the house. And I'd picture the dairy dripping down her head, and what that would smell like, and how she would be really annoyed about it. The more emotion and color you can attach to that image, the more likely it is that when I walk back through that house again later, I will be like, "Oh, right, yes, in the foyer of the Foer house is my mother dripping with milk, I have to pick up milk from the grocery store."
AG: So, does that mean you spend a few weeks a year just wandering through buildings, until you know them like the house you grew up in?
JF: So there was a time, especially during this year when I was training my memory, where I was basically a collector of architecture, so that I would have this whole city of memory palaces available to me in the competition.
AG: Nice. And so in a year of practicing that, you went from a journalist with a bad memory, to what?
JF: Well ... So, the punchline of the story is I became United States memory champion.
AG: So, if you're interested in improving your memory, there's no one better to learn from than the forgetful guy who became the American memory champ in a year. Say you want to remember someone's name. What should you do?
JF: Come up with some sort of an association between the sound of a person's name and some aspect of their physical being. So what you're doing when you meet somebody is you're looking at them and saying, like, "What's distinct about this person's physical presence? Something about their hair, something about their eyebrows, something about their ears. The truth is, you're looking for ""What is weird abut this person?" which means that to do this well, you have to be a kind of judgmental schmuck.
AG: Pop quiz: do you remember Josh's last name? I said it a few minutes ago, when I introduced him. But in case you need a refresher, here's how Josh approaches it.
JF: If I wanted to remember my last name, Foer, well, it sounds an awful lot like the number four, I would look at myself and say, "I'm going to carve a number four into his head with a little butcher knife and I'm going to picture the blood, dripping down his face." Again, the more color I can put into this image, the more likely it is I'm going to remember it later. And what I've done is I just created an association between this name, which otherwise wouldn't mean anything to me, and this guy's face. And that's not a guarantee that I'm going to remember that name later on, but what it's done, it's given me just, like, a little hook that makes it that much more likely that when I run into this person at a later date, I'm going to be able to fish their name back out.
AG: It's obviously a fun parlor trick, but have you used this in your job at all, to remember people's names or anything about their families or any arcane details like that?
JF: Yeah, I certainly try to. There have been a few really delightful moments when I have remembered not just somebody's name, but like, the name of their kid or some esoteric detail that they had dropped into conversation, where I can give myself a big pat on the back. You know, the truth is, when you remember something about somebody, you are demonstrating to them that you care.
AG: Think about your favorite teachers. They're usually the ones who remember not only your name, but your interests and talents. I bet they also had a wealth of information at their fingertips. They could answer seemingly any question by reciting a compelling idea, quote or data point from memory.
JF: One of the things that is true about memory is we develop great memories for domains in which we have a rich knowledge base. So it's not a coincidence that, you know, if you are an American history professor, you're going to have a great memory for facts about American history. And you're going to be able to integrate new facts that you learn about American history into your memory much more easily, because you can make more associations.
AG: You can see this in studies of chess players. Researchers position chess pieces around the board, and ask both chess masters and amateurs to study the board for five seconds. Then they ask both groups to recall the positions of the pieces from memory. The beginners made tons of mistakes, only correctly remembering the locations of a few pieces. Chess masters were able to do it with stunning accuracy. They could perfectly recall the positions of more than 20 pieces. The logical conclusion: having a great memory makes you a better chess player. Just like Sean McVay in football. You have immediate access to a personal library of past games to guide your current decisions. But what happened when researchers scrambled the board, putting the pieces in places where they'd never land in a real game? Suddenly, the experts were no better than the beginners. It turns out that experts don't necessarily have superior memories, overall. They build up memories of specific patterns from years of experience.
JF: Everybody has a great memory for something, and it is usually the thing that you care the most about, that you're most interested in, that you've got the richest knowledge base for.
AG: For me in second grade, that was baseball. I remember my teacher being surprised that I could recall not only the names, but also the batting averages of every player on the Detroit Tigers. My friends made fun of me for it. They called me Mr. Facts. Apparently, it was annoying then. But it comes in handy now, because my job is to be Mr. Facts. And the interest I have today in remembering psychology studies is pretty similar to how I felt as a kid about baseball stats.
Your team or company has lots of people with deep memories of what's worked and what hasn't, all working under one roof. It's a huge pool of information potentially at your fingertips. And it's the raw material from which creative ideas can emerge. If you can figure out how to access it. More on that after the break.
OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today we're going inside the workplace at Accenture.
Research shows that when people have to put up a facade at work, they're more likely to feel emotionally exhausted and burned out. But when they have the freedom to express their values, they feel energized.
Asma Shahsamand: That five, ten minutes that I go pray and I come back, I'm recharged all over again.
AG: That's Asma Shahsamand. She's a devout Muslim.
AS: I use religion not as just an institutionalized mechanism, but more as a way of living, because I think that in all religions, the core is to be a good person. You know, to treat others with love and kindness and compassion.
AG: Asma immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. She was a small child. Her parents were fleeing a war.
AS: I was actually born in Afghanistan, in Kabul.
AG: Do you remember anything about your time in Afghanistan?
AS: I do remember one vivid memory I have, which is we were in these trucks, trying to escape, and they were hiding people under blankets and whatnot, because there were war zone areas.
AG: Wow, gosh, I'm sorry you had to go through that.
AS: Thank you.
AG: Her father eventually became an entrepreneur and her mother studied engineering. Asma followed in their footsteps. She worked in tech and start-ups for years, and was always weary of big companies.
AS: I had assumptions when I came in, and I was very hesitant, I have to say to you, because I was like, I'm not going to feel I could fit in.
AG: But Asma was intrigued by Accenture's newly formed Canada Innovation Hub. She reached out to the head of technology there, who invited her to Accenture's office in downtown Toronto.
AS: When I came in, I was so delighted to see the amount of diverse backgrounds. You know, they were wearing hijab, they were different skin colors, and it was nice to see them around the table in an open space, talking.
AG: And after those exploratory meetings —
AS: The girl that was working at reception that day, she told me in my language, "I hope that you join this firm, it's a good place to work." She said it to me in Farsi.
AG: Asma eventually got a job at Accenture, as a digital transformation manager. On her first day, she asked a coworker whether there was a place she could pray.
AS: I thought she was going to take me to a small little cubicle. She took me to a room, then I looked inside, and we had an ablution area.
AG: Asma was taken aback by the level of care Accenture had put into getting the prayer room right. They didn't just have a place where Muslims could wash up before a prayer. They also had prayer mats and dividers for people to pray separately.
AS: And I took a picture and I sent it to my mom, and it really reiterated my decision that I made a good decision. It's one thing to say that we're diverse. It's another thing to do it. Bringing your whole self to work is like you're flying, because you are not only productive, you're happier, and you're engaged in the work that you do, because you now feel like you don't have to worry about those things that are so close and dear to you, you don't have to hold them so close and dear to you anymore that you have to protect them, you can now share them with people around you.
AG: Accenture is working to become one of the most truly human companies in the digital age. Learn more at accenture.com/careers.
A great memory is a strong advantage in any workplace. But even stronger is a group with a great memory. Group memory is a road map to learning from the past. It helps you access good ideas that might have been forgotten. And avoid repeating strategies that have already tanked.
Andrew Hargadon: There are a lot of efforts to create, sort of, knowledge repositories or databases of past solutions.
AG: Andrew Hargadon is a technology management expert at UC Davis. He studies how organizations create and use knowledge.
AH: Consulting firms will have large databases of every presentation they've ever given to a client. And what was interesting about those was often how little people used them. If at all, they used them as, essentially, a glorified Yellow Pages, to figure out who had done something related, and then they would immediately call those people.
AG: But people change jobs. They change firms, they retire. What do you do when there's no one left to call? You need systems for storing and retrieving this kind of information so it's not lost when the person who knows it is lost. You need an organizational memory. Organizational memory is the collection of every product and campaign and strategy that a company has tried. As you can probably guess, a collection like that gets messy, fast.
AH: When we talk about organizations' memory, we think of it like a computer, where there's a file stored somewhere and we just need to track it down. But in terms, particularly, of smaller groups and teams, collective memory is more like a human memory. It's not always that simple to retrieve the right memory at the right time.
AG: It gets even harder as your organization gets older. The store of past knowledge is richer, and the people who created it are long gone. So what does the organizational memory of a century-old company look like?
Amy Auscherman: It looks like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Indiana Jones style, thousands of boxes, hundreds of thousands of photographic prints, thousands of material samples. Probably almost 100 pieces of furniture.
AG: We're in southwest Michigan, at a furniture company called Herman Miller. They produced some of the most iconic pieces of furniture for work and home in the 20th century: the Aeron chair, the Noguchi table, the Eames Lounge, and — love it or hate it — the office cubicle. Amy Auscherman is their corporate archivist. She took us on a tour of Herman Miller's memory.
AA: Firesafe drawer. We have every ad that Herman Miller has produced, starting from 1931 to now. So here's an advertisement from the October 8, 1949 issue of the "New Yorker." "America's foremost collection of modern furniture, sculpture and wood and glass." So that's cool.
AG: Herman Miller is 114 years old. Its organizational memory is all the information and knowledge that's built up in that time. Amy's job is to make sense out of all of it.
AA: I sometimes call myself the fancy dumpster, because people will find old product and recognize that it's old, thankfully, and say, "Ah, it should go to Amy."
AG: There are drawers full of old templates, shelves full of old pieces of furniture, but there are also the stories that people tell about the place. And the histories of various collaborations that resulted in products and ads. And all of that past can be drawn on when inventing the company's future.
AA: Should we go in the vault? Chairs everywhere.
AG: Many of the company's most popular pieces were first designed after World War II.
AA: This is, like, kind of, the furniture hall of fame in here. Eames Wire Chairs up top. Oh, 1922. Oh, it smells like vinegar, so that's probably not a good thing. This chair was designed for the very top of the Time-Life Building in New York.
AG: The engineers and designers at Herman Miller have to evolve their products to suit changes in taste and newer forms of production and marketing, all while staying consistent with their historic look and feel. And to do all those things, they head for the archives. The role of an archivist becomes important for collecting the ideas of the past, adding the ideas of the present and finding creative ways of combining the two.
Ben Watson: It's hard for me to imagine a week that goes by that I don't have some kind of conversation with Amy in our archives.
AG: Ben Watson is the chief creative officer at Herman Miller.
BW: About a product that hasn't seen the light of day for decades or a part of the organization that no longer exists.
AG: A few years ago, the company relaunched the Herman Miller collection of home and office furniture. It was based on the modern-looking pieces that had originally made Herman Miller a big name in the '50s. So the design team looked back to its origins.
BW: By opening the archive, which included not only catalogs from every year, actual sketches and diagrams of designs that were never produced, variants of designs that were long since forgotten, we uncovered all kinds of solutions that so-called experts didn't know anything about. And many of those discoveries led us to produce new ideas that became part of the collection, which today is a growing and thriving part of our business, with significant amount of revenue. We found a lot of products that had a lot of resonance for today that we'd all forgotten about.
AG: Your workplace probably doesn't have an archivist. But you can play that role in your team, especially if you're doing creative work. Because, although innovation can seem like a bolt from the blue, it's often the result of remembering ideas from one setting and applying them to another.
AH: Most innovations aren't novel ideas, they're simply ideas that a new audience hasn't heard yet.
AG: Andrew Hargadon has found that it's critical to organize and access memories of what's worked and what hasn't.
AH: People who study organizations recognize, obviously, that organizations do things over and over, and may often get good at things and they keep the good things and they embed them somehow in the organization. They set up standard operating procedures, they set up routines.
AG: Apparently, at one car supplier, engineers spent almost a third of their time solving issues that had already been solved elsewhere in their company. A good memory system can prevent that, by making it easy for people to access existing solutions.
AH: But the challenge comes in when we need to distinguish between doing the same thing over and over and doing different things. And memory plays a key role in both of those. If we did something right and we want to keep doing it, we want to support that behavior, we want to encode it, sort of record it and play it back again. But we also want to misremember them when we start to come up with or start to look for new solutions. And that's where memory can play the second role, which is give us that big grab bag of things we've seen in the past that could be used in a different way again later.
AG: To understand how organizations draw on the memories of old products to solve new problems, Andrew studied the creative firm Design Continuum. A medical company had tasked them with designing something called a pulsed lavage.
AH: Pulsed lavage. It's an emergency-room tool that creates a high-pressured pulsive saline solution. And it's used when you have a motorcycle accident or a bike accident and somebody's got a lot of gravel or dirt in a wound, and you need to clean that wound out effectively.
AG: It needed to be safe, cheap and disposable. Others had struggled to crack it. But the designers figured it out in just a few days, thanks to a little trip down organizational memory lane. Years earlier, their company had developed a totally different product that could solve the problem. They've even tested it on their kids.
AH: They developed Super Soakers, those high-pressure squirt guns.
AG: So they took that knowledge out of organizational memory and applied it to hospitals.
AH: They designed a Super Soaker for an emergency room. And lo and behold, it ended up working out really well. You know, they had to change the type of plastic and some of the design for medical product guidelines. But in all other ways, it was basically just a slightly more expensive Super Soaker.
AG: Those who can't remember the past are doomed to miss opportunity.
AH: When we think about memory, we think about it as knowledge, as bits of knowledge. We don't think about remembering and the role that remembering plays in making a new sense of that knowledge. Most of the value of our memories really comes out in finding new uses for them.
AG: To find new uses for old ideas, you need a way to remember them. You might not have access to a rich archive of squirt guns. You probably haven't mastered the memory palace yet, either. If you want to remember something right away, you can start with three steps. One: take a break. In one experiment, taking a 10-minute break after learning something improved recall for students by 10 to 30 percent. And even more for stroke and Alzheimer's patients. Two: quiz yourself. There's a wealth of evidence that studying, rereading and highlighting are inferior to just taking practice tests. By retrieving information from your memory, you make it easier to find again. Three: tell someone else about it. New research reveals that the best way to learn something really is to teach it. Not just because you understand it better when you explain it, but also because you remember it better after you recall it. So, if you want to commit anything in this episode to memory, go to a dark, quiet room and do nothing for 10 minutes. Then quiz yourself on the material, and share a summary of your key takeaways with somebody else.
WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Jessica Glazer, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Media. Special thanks to our sponsors: Accenture, Bonobos, Hilton and JPMorgan Chase.
Next time on WorkLife.
Woman: You know when your boss and your boss's boss and HR are sitting in the room that it's not going to be good.
AG: Facing rejection and bouncing back.
The experiment with scuba divers was done by Duncan Godden and Alan Baddeley. The classic studies of chess players were by Adriaan de Groot, William Chase and Herb Simon. Appreciation to the late Dan Wegner for his seminal work on transactive memory. And a shout-out to Neil Macrae and colleagues on source memory. Thanks to Christian Jarrett, Ulrich Boser and David Robson for writing great summaries of the research on encoding learning through teaching, testing and relaxing. To Deborah Ancona and Jim Walsh for their scholarship on innovation and organizational memory. And to Patricia Hewlin on facades of conformity. Finally, thanks to "Bleacher Report" for the Sean McVay audio.
I don't know if you've seen the research on what's sometimes called kleptoamnesia, where you misremember other people's ideas as your own.
JF: Did you say kleptonesia?
JF: I love it, OK.
AG: Do you have any advice on how to avoid those kinds of errors?
JF: How to be less of a thief of other people's ideas? I've got to give that some thought.