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Minted CEO Mariam Naficy On The Lost Art Of Memorization

Want your next brainstorming session to be more creative and efficient? Try memorizing a couple of poems.

Minted CEO Mariam Naficy On The Lost Art Of Memorization
[Photo: Flickr user Damianos Chronakis]

Mariam Naficy remembers enough to know how little she remembers. The CEO of Minted remembers growing up in Iran, and then (after the revolution) in a number of other countries. She remembers that she was a quite serious piano player–but she can’t quite remember if she memorized all of Beethoven’s “Pathétique,” or just some of the sonata’s movements. She remembers that she used to know by heart the phone numbers of many friends–maybe it was 20 of them, maybe it was 25. What she became sure of, a few years ago, as she began to raise her second child, was that her memory was not as sharp as it used to be. “I started noticing I was really falling off,” she says.

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Mariam Naficy

Around this time she talked to a former business school mentor, who mentioned reading that the American POWs who endured captivity during the Korean War had stayed sane by using their memory. They’d had either an old prayer they’d memorized, or a song, or a poem, that they returned to over the months or years to center themselves. Naficy didn’t plan on becoming a POW anytime soon, but she admits to having a “bit of the immigrant’s paranoia,” a heightened awareness that “sudden unexpected trauma” can strike at any point in life. She began to wonder whether by strengthening her children’s memories, she might make them more resilient.

In the spring of 2012, when her kids were five and eight years old, she decided to try something. She told her kids that the next time the family went to their vacation home, a six-acre ranch in Calistoga, they would plan to recite from memory little poems around the campfire. “My husband and I just decided to try to make it fun,” she says with a laugh. “We didn’t talk about Korean POWs with them!”

The evening arrived, and everyone was nervous. But then they gathered around the campfire, and it went off without a hitch. Her son recited “Paul Revere’s Ride,” while her daughter recited “Two Mice in a Boat.” Naficy’s husband recited Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Naficy herself went last, reciting Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” (“It’s famous for a reason,” she says.)

“It was over so quickly,” she says. “We wanted it to continue.”

So they decided to try to make it a tradition. On the next visit to the vacation home, they performed another round of memorized verse. Again, it was a hit. On the following visit, they invited guests–friends of their children, along with their parents. Naficy broached the topic “gingerly,” she said, saying there was a “little bit of a requirement…”

“I think they were kind of freaked out, to be honest,” she says. She told them to just relax and do whatever they wanted. When the time came, one of the previously nervous guests rattled off a motivational speech from Miracle, a Kurt Russell movie about a famed Cold War hockey match. “He was really passionate about it,” she says. “For someone who initially thought this was not gonna work, he got pretty animated.”

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The tradition became established. Over the ensuing months, other friends and family have gathered around the campfire to share songs, dances, Shakespeare soliloquies–anything, so long as it’s committed to memory. Across the board, everyone reports how enjoyable it is–how unusual, how analog, how seemingly of a different time. They say it excites something old in their brains, that it’s a good mind-stretcher, and that it’s fun.

For Naficy herself, the tradition has also been “sobering,” because she’s grown to understood how much her memory has changed. “It made me think about ways to keep my brain active and fit,” she says. “When your brain does change, you’re not necessarily aware of it. Can this organ be aware of itself?” But the memorization tasks offer a useful benchmark. For an upcoming Thanksgiving piano recital, Naficy has set herself the challenge of memorizing roughly half of Mozart’s “Twelve Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,’” (the theme we associate with the much simpler “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). She’s struggling through committing the 15 minutes of music to memory. “In the old days, it would have taken me a quarter of the time to memorize it,” she says.

Naficy believes, too, that the lessons she’s learning on memorization apply to business. We are constantly trumpeting the value of creativity in business, she says, but we may be undervaluing the importance of brute memorization, too. “I think I’m good at that,” she says of creativity. “I have to invent new products all the time. But I don’t want to lose the discipline and focus, the ability to will my mind to do certain things at a certain time. You can end up being too undisciplined and unstructured in your creative process if you don’t have the ability to focus and constrain yourself, too.”

More concretely: if she can remember precise, crucial figures–Etsy’s market share versus Minted’s, or the median age of her wedding customers–then those facts are at hand, ready to be deployed during the creative strategy meetings. “If I can remember these things when I’m in meetings, it makes the discussion a lot richer.” For this reason, she’s considering asking her senior management team to do something akin to the memorization exercise at Minted’s next offsite, in January.

“I think keeping your brain agile on many fronts adds to your ability to think creatively–and helps you retain facts for immediate, efficient use,” she says. Plus, she gets to pick up the piano again.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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