How to get better at remembering names

Daria looked at me as if I just pulled a rabbit out of a hat or a coin from behind her ear. “How did you do that?!”  It was no trick, however. All I did was remember her name. But to her it was remarkable.

We were in Germany at a conference, and though we had never met before, her face was familiar. Then, in a flash of recognition, I exclaimed, “I know you!” and mentioned her last name that I remembered from Twitter. It was a bit unusual, so I spelled it out too, to make sure I got it right. 

That moment reminded me how, for most of my life, I told myself, “I’m no good at remembering names.” I figured that, like my bad eyesight or bald head, my poor nominative recall was a genetically-dictated trait.

But then I changed.

A little bit of magic? - Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

A little bit of magic? - Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

You are not good at remembering names…yet!

What opened my mind to change even being a possibility was a book called Moonwalking with Einstein. The author, Joshua Foer, is a journalist who became interested memory tournaments, where people compete for prizes based on remembering an extraordinary number of digits or the exact sequence of a randomly shuffled deck of cards. 

Some of the feats seem impossible, until Foer learns a few techniques and begins practicing. He ultimately decides to participate in the USA Memory Championship and (spoiler alert) … wins. Aha! I realized: my memory can be trained.

The Best Tip for Remembering Names

There’s a lot of good advice available for remembering names. The best tip for remembering them is the same tip as for holding a good conversation: pay attention

The biggest problem that most people have, including me, is that in the moment when you meet someone (in person or, as with Daria, online), you are paying attention to so many other things - what you might say, what they might be think of you - that you never really process their name in the first place. 

Dale Carnegie said, “A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Eighty years later, the Washington Post’s business section cited that quote, and explained why it’s so important to use people’s names. 

“A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.

It is the one way we can easily get someone’s attention. It is a sign of courtesy and a way of recognizing them. When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important. It makes a positive and lasting impression on us. To not remember a name, especially when someone has had to repeat it several times, is to make that person feel slighted.”

How to Pay Attention

When I meet someone now, I make it a habit to ask their name, and repeat it. If I haven’t heard properly, or I’m not sure how to pronounce it, I may ask them to spell it. For names that are foreign to me, I may ask if it has a certain meaning. Recently, a woman named Chungfeng explained her name meant “Spring breeze” and that people often call her Breeze. How could I ever forget that, or her?

After the initial contact, I’ll pay further attention by using their name whenever I can. Whether it’s in email and social media or in person, instead of “Thanks!” or “Hello!” I’ll say, “Thank you, Sabine” or “Hello, Martin.” It’s such a small thing, and yet that simple act helps me remember their name and further personalizes my communications. 

It’s not fake or a trick. I practice remembering names not to be clever or to get something from the other person. Rather, I view it as a form of respect, a way to say “I see you and care enough to pay attention.” That’s a good basis for any relationship. 


Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

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What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.

How this one simple act gives you access to new possibilities

Last Saturday, I wrote about how a simple choice I made (buying a book from a certain author), shaped my attention and made me aware of things I would have been blind to otherwise. The effect extends to other choices we make, including the first steps in working out loud.

“Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.”

Seeing thing differently

Seeing thing differently

Your first relationship list

After you choose a goal (like finding a new job, getter better at a skill, or exploring an idea you have), the next thing you do is list people who could help you with that goal.

And for people on that list who don’t know you, your initial contribution is to offer a universal gift: recognition. If they have a Twitter account, for example, you’ll follow them. If they have a blog or have published something online, you’ll subscribe or hit a Like button.

What happens next

The first simple act - writing down a list of people who might help you with your goal - shifts your attention. And your initial contributions help you listen. You become increasingly aware of their work, their thinking, and the feedback from others.

Now that you’re paying attention, you notice people and ideas you hadn’t seen before. You make connections you hadn’t thought of. You start to think differently about your goal.

In Working Out Loud circles, people see the difference in their first week.

“After just one WOL Circle meeting, I was already feeling more connected with my colleagues and more encouraged about my career.”

It’s no magic technique. It’s much more powerful than that. It’s a shift in attention toward a goal you care about, a shift that empowers you to see things in a new light.

Why is Italo Calvino stalking me?

I had never heard of Italo Calvino before, and now he’s everywhere. It’s starting to make me suspicious. Why is he following me?

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Our first meeting

I’m in my favorite bookstore on Bleecker Street, bookbook. It’s the one with a table outside offering engineered serendipity at a discount. Inside, asking for a book recommendation from the person behind the register can be like asking the sommelier about a wine. “I like Borges. Do you have anything like that?”

“Try this,” he said, and handed me If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

At lunch

I’m heading out to meet my daughter for lunch at Buvette on Grove St. I’m late and have to pick a book to throw into my backpack. (“Always bring a book” is a rule of mine.) I consider a few options and bring the Calvino since it’s compact.

The place is crowded so we eat at the bar, and before the food comes the person next to me places a book on the counter. I do a cartoonish double-take. It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I notice it’s a much older edition, meaning she probably didn’t get it from the same bookstore.

I can’t help but mention the coincidence to her. Like a good New Yorker, she’s unimpressed. “I couldn’t get into it,” she says, “so I’m giving it to my friend.”

On Twitter

Now I must read the book, and I find it is indeed like Borges. “Not one novel, but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense…a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct.”

A few days go by. As I scan my Twitter feed, I see Italo Calvino is there too.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

And again a few days later.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

Surely, the universe is telling me something. The next time I am at the book store, I buy two more of his books, a collection of stories titled Cosmicomics and a novel, The Baron in the Trees.

In the car

When I’m driving by myself, I usually listen to TED talks or simply try to be quiet and enjoy the drive. This time, for some reason, I switched on the radio. Selected Shorts was playing on National Public Radio, a show where they read short stories aloud in front of a live audience.

“Our first story tonight is Italo Calvino's “The Distance of the Moon” read by Liev Schreiber." My mouth drops. I listen to the story in full, hanging on each word. It is in the collection of stories that I just bought.

A conspiracy of attention

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the author is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity 30 years after his death. Or perhaps the universe is trying to introduce me to Italian fiction.

More likely, though, is that I’m simply tuned in to what has always been there. Maybe my one choice in the bookstore that day simply made me aware of things I was blind to before.

Of the eleven million data points our brains can take in at any moment, we’re conscious of only forty. But which forty? Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.

Ten posts on the way to the best years of my life

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images The scarcest resource we have isn’t money or time or some precious metal. It’s attention.

In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. Only forty!

That one statistic captures why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time. Since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

One way I help myself to pay attention, to be more mindful and aware of something, is to write about it. A few hours of writing and the feedback over time helps make the ideas stick.

Here, in order, are the ten posts I’ve written that have helped me pay more attention to things that matter, things that make for a better life. Each heading is a link. I hope that some of them might help you too.

1. “Do you think today is just another day in your life?”

The one video I link to in the post has help me reframe each day and increase my chances of appreciating it.

2. Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

I taped the three quotes in this post to a cabinet in my office. They remind me to control my reactions and help me maintain a more balanced perspective.

3. When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back

This was one of my favorite posts to write, particularly citing the story of M. Deschamps and connecting it to quantum physics and social networks. It  made me more mindful of the often unwitting, unintended influence I have on others and that they have on me.

4. Taming the hamsters in my head

Writing this helped me tune into my inner critic and learn how to cut him off before he does too much damage.

5. Changing the habit of hurrying

Learning to be present is by far the most difficult thing I’m trying to do. This post reminded me of how everyday moments can be opportunities to practice.

6. The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” It seemed ludicrous at first and yet now I often repeat it to myself as a way to channel the energy of worrying into action.

7. A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace

This post helped me be aware that once-in-a-lifetime, wondrous moments can be experienced on any given day.

8. The prisons I build myself

I was uncomfortable writing this. It made me starkly aware of the limitations I place on myself and how that affects others too.

9. Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

It's taken me a long time to understand that happiness isn’t something that happens to you but something you must actively cultivate.

10. When are the best years of your life?

I think of this post often. As a result of writing it, I know the answer is hidden in all of the other posts I’ve listed above. The best years won’t be when I make the most money or have the best vacation or reach a big milestone. The best years will be when I’m more mindful, more generous, and more connected. This post helped me know that the it's up to me. The best years of my life could start right now.