My Two Biggest Memorization Mistakes & Why One of them “Works”

mistakes with memory techniques feature imageI’m often asked about mistakes that I’ve made when using a Memory Palace Network for language learning.

The simplest answer is that my entire journey into coupling mnemonics with vocabulary was born from a mistake.

I had already known about mnemonics for years and thoroughly researched many of the classic and contemporary books on mnemonics and Memory Palaces.

But despite what I knew about mnemonics, I still made the mistake of trying to memorize vocabulary by rote.

Even in my German language classes in both New York and Berlin, I would turn my attention from the lesson to repetitively write out a word I had just learned.

Sometimes I would fill up to four pages as though rote learning were some form of alchemy that would lodge the material in my mind forever.

You know what was even stranger than rote learning?

My teacher praised me for doing this!

Instead of suggesting that I pay more attention to the lessons, he thought I was the most industrious student in the class (and also often commented on how I brought the biggest dictionary he had ever seen to class every day).

But my habit of writing out the words I wanted to memorize was not only regressive because it didn’t actually work.

It was regressive because it was work.

Let me repeat that:

Rote learning didn’t work largely because it was work.

And this is perhaps where my biggest memorization mistake comes in.

(The other biggest mistake is in not completing these sensory memory exercises, which are fun and easy to do.)

I kicked the rote learning habit when I pieced together the classic mnemonic ideas with the core principles of the Magnetic Memory Method.

(In it, each letter gets one or more dedicated Memory Palaces. I also use the principle of word division, the principle of not crossing one’s own path and not trapping oneself. Relaxation through meditation for concentration and memory plays a role too).

But the biggest memorization mistake I made was to use the term “work” in my books.

Of course, in this context I use “memory work” in a positive sense and I think I’m probably influenced by how my Systema instructor (Russian Martial Arts) often talks about “soft work,” exercises which involve deep states of relaxation during confrontation with an attacker.

It’s wrong to use the word “mistake” in the context of memorization, however.


Because the Magnetic Memory Method is about playful experimentation and developing personalized approaches (personalization is a big part of the science of active recall).

You need experimentation because you’re basically housing the words you want to memorize permanently in your mind. And you’re doing this based on the understanding that permanence requires rehearsal of the mnemonics and/or use of the memorized vocabulary.

The key point here is play. I believe that playing with concepts and techniques is what distinguishes those who succeed from those who don’t. It’s the path to becoming a human mnemonics dictionary.

I don’t play video games myself unless they are tiny little apps on my iPhone. Only rarely, even then.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that some people are utterly obsessed with games.

They play them with passion. They know them inside out. And their obsession with the game makes them successful players of the game.

In other words, playing the game is never work. They never call it “game work.” It’s always “playing a game.”

Christian Fitzharris and I talk about this in our interview on Brain Games if you want more info on turning effort into endless fun.

Video games aside, although I feel rather badly about associating the Magnetic Memory Method with “work,” there’s an ironic paradox at play here:

Without the desire to work at something, nothing truly great ever happens.

Without work, it’s unlikely that one would ever trigger the desire to improve because there would be no discovery of how and why what is working works so powerfully.

Thus, it seems to me that the key behind memorization is to take one’s target language and “work” it only for so long. Work it until it becomes a passion.

Next, allow that passion to grow. Perhaps with this:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course


Maybe it’s like a flower for you, or maybe it’s like a fire. Whatever your passion is like, let it fuel your “memory work” and increase your passion for more results based on exactly what’s “working” for you.

Before I go, I’ve got to give a link to this related video I really enjoyed. It’s an interview with the musician Steve Vai. He talks about his “10 hour guitar workout” and why he practices and remembers music in this way.

Here’s what I want you to notice:

He doesn’t spend oodles of time practicing guitar because he has some desire to be known around the world and revered by fans of music and other musicians. That might have been a result of his hard “work,” but it was certainly not the goal.

No, Vai uses 10 hour guitar “workouts” because he’s obsessed with the guitar and the great feelings that playing it bring him. I’ll bet he knows those guitar strings inside and out by now!

In other words, the amount of “work” he does amounts to null.

If you can do zero work as you approach your memorization goals…

If you can devour the vocabulary of a language or the terminology of a profession because you’re passionate about it…

And you allow the Magnetic Memory Method to help you…

Then I won’t feel to terrible about the term “memory work” as I use it in my books and memory courses.

I just wanted you to know that that are several subtleties and paradoxes behind the term and that passion, not labor, is the true intent behind my use of “memory work.”

Here’s the video:

In the very first few minutes he says something key:

“I loved the idea of picking up the instrument and not being able to play something and then working on it and then of all a sudden being able to do it.”

He uses the word “work” when he’s really talking about “passion.”

So, build your Memory Palaces, pick up your dictionary and get to it.

If you need help, I’ve got a bundle of memory courses that will make your mind truly Magnetic. You can find them in the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass.

2 Responses

    1. Yes, and I think it’s one of those rare tautologies that makes sense. Things do just keep getting better and better the more we use memory techniques because:

      1) We get better at using memory techniques

      2) The more we know, the more we can know. This is because when we use memory techniques, we’re always associating what we already know with what we want to learn. The more we increase the body of our knowledge, the larger the pool of images and concepts we have to draw upon when learning new things.

      It’s really the closest thing to magic that exists. 🙂

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

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