100 Cups of Coffee: Dave Farrow On Memory, Entrepreneurship & Starting Young

100 Cups of Coffee, A La Skype With Dave

100 Cups of Coffee, A La Skype With Dave

Dave Farrow is another one of the awesome TEDxUW speakers I met a few weeks ago at TEDx. Good things come from going places.

Dave is a two-time Guiness World Record-Holder for best memory (see his Global News interview). To prove it he memorized, by only looking at them once, 59 decks of playing cards. In order. [Side note: Daniel and I tried that during our trip to Cuba this summer and only managed half a deck.] And not only is he a memory expert, Dave teaches memory techniques to people all over the world, runs a PR company, is involved with nanotechnology, and a bunch more. Fun fact, when we Skype-interviewed, Dave showed me his latest project: robotic mannequins. So that store displays can be interactive – how futuristic is that?

Anyway, Dave’s talk was awesome and funny and really helpful. He taught us how to remember long lists of things (hello exams!), the trick being to associate pictures with word transitions. So if, for example, you have the word house followed by pillow, you could picture in your mind a really fluffy house to help yourself remember what comes next.

The topic of todays’ 100 Cups of Coffee, though, isn’t really about memory because he’s done thousands of interviews on it. It’s about Dave’s insane ambition, and how capitalism can be a good thing. And how starting out small is perfectly ok.

Guys, don't kill me but I forgot to move the cursor.

Very Insta-blogger of you, Dana, taking a picture of your desk and laptop. Funny, right?

DI: Dave, tell us a bit about yourself!

DF: I’m a really creative type, and I love entrepreneurship. I even say I love capitalism, but that’s not popular. I am however a strong supporter of charities. I sit on the board of directors for a charity called Keys for Kids. They take broken and used keys, melt them down, and turn those into funds for programs in classrooms.

I really struggled with academia growing up. I love learning, and I’m passionate about education, but I experienced difficulty in the classroom. I was very sick as a child and spent a lot of time going in and out of the school. You would think my absences would make me fall behind but I actually did my best learning when I was out of the classroom…. I just found it incredibly hard to pay attention and keep up when sitting at a desk. So because of this I was never labeled “The smart one” at school.  I embraced self-directed learning, before the internet. I was the only person I knew who taught himself stuff…I figured out methods to take in information and new ideas. Then, through the joys of free-market capitalism, I got to teach other people things. It was amazing! I realized the struggles I had weren’t unique. Hundreds of thousands of products for memory improvement exist today, because there’s a huge need for it. There’s an understanding of unused brain capacity, and the desire to unlock how the brain works.

In the 90s brain training was a controversial topic and I was an outsider. Science said I was a fraud… There is a lot of peer review and bureaucracy in academia so new ideas can take longer to be accepted. Brain plasticity was accepted in the 2000s and today it is main stream.

I would say after going to Guinness I had something unique. People couldn’t ignore it anymore, because they saw that someone with ADHD could achieve what I did. That left me a small opening to do seminars and business. Twenty years later there’s a study at McGill on double-blind neuroscience and my brain training methods.

When did you realize you didn’t want to work for someone else?

DF: I had a lot of conflicts with my dad growing up – it all goes back to your parents. He and I would have battles over who was in charge. I was smarter than the average kid so I thought I knew it all, and in some cases I was right. But I shouldn’t have acted like a know-it-all. We have a fantastic relationship now, but I took a different path than him.

He wanted me to work at a factory, in a union, do what he did. I on the other hand, had a deep passion for entrepreneurism. I wouldn’t make a very good employee, but I’m fantastic at being self-employed. The way I like to put it is: if I weren’t self-employed, I would be unemployed.” I would be a slacker. If I work for myself though, I’ll be up till 4 AM putting the finishing touches on a project. It’s just a different mentally when you’re working for yourself. I would say, at some point in your life, try to run your own business.

What’s a misconception about capitalism that people have?

DF: We all love capitalism when a new movie comes out or football is on. But when it comes to earning a living we all have an inferiority complex, we think that we don’t deserve the money. The “I’m not in it for the money” justification comes out. From experience, every time I’ve been just trying to pay the bills, I look back on those times and realize, I’ve helped other people the most. There are people who went to med school who tell me they wouldn’t have been able to pass without my book.

I’ve had girlfriends and other close friends say to me, why are you being so selfish? Why are you so into making money?” Steve Harvey once said that wealth doesn’t change you, it just makes you more you. The moral of the story is, that pursuing my passion ended up helping other people. You can’t exclusively help others or yourself, you can’t do one without the other.

What was your first taste at entrepreneurship?

DF: Junior high, grade seven. I was in a Home Ec class, and the Home Ec room had an oven in it. People were complaining about not having good food at school. So I went to the local convenience store, bought little frozen pizzas for $3 or $4 per box, and started using the school facilities and serving food. Pretty quickly the school administration shut me down. In that one experience I saw opportunity, created on-demand pricing, took full advantage of unused resources, and got a full taste of what government regulations feel like. I was always looking for a deal to be made. To help others, and myself.

When did you get good at entrepreneurship?

DF: I went through a lot of failures first. My first seminar, nobody showed up. I traveled to a talk that made no money, and I was out travel expenses. I had no money to my name, so I worked at Subway. That was my last official job before I became the Memory Guy. One thing that did work, though, was I got on television in the Kitchener CTV, and after that interview, I had a real estate office call me. Erb Real Estate, but I believe now they’re ReMax. The boss of the office called and said I saw you on TV, could you come to our office and do a presentation? So I said, “Sure, I do these things all the time – what’s the presentation?”

I was raised by a factory worker. Nobody in my family was a successful entrepreneur. And the only books I read were from the fifties and sixties. I didn’t know speakers made money back then. I thought I was only making money on seminars and selling tickets. I didn’t know there were places where people would give you money to speak with lined up attendees. So I went up to the office. I did a little demo, it took me about a half hour. The boss asked if we could do a seminar. Sure, absolutely. He asked how much it would cost, so I said $40/person.  Little did I know there were people going around charging $500/person.  Everybody signed up in the office, and I made more in one day than I made in two weeks at my part time job.

What does success mean to you?

DF: My definition of success is still the same as it was when I was fifteen years old:  Success is being yourself and being happy with the person you are.  To me, being “yourself” doesn’t just mean having strong unique opinions and dressing goofy on a Saturday night, it’s about self-actualization. If you see yourself as an intellectual thought leader, but others don’t see you that way, then you’re not successful. Money comes into it, product sales come into it, but it’s all a matter of making my life fit what my sense of self is. Who I really think I am. It’s not for anybody else, but I want my outside life to match my inner view of myself. Then I’ll be happy. I’ll be honest, I get very upset – miserable, even – when it doesn’t happen. But it makes me work hard. If you’re not pissed then how much do you really care about it, you know? If you don’t have a full spectrum of emotions, what’s the point of life? Do you really care a lot if you don’t care all the time?

There you have it folks, another coffee down (funnily enough, Dave had a cup of coffee with him that looked a lot like Tim Horton’s which is awesome because he’s in the US) and a bunch more to go. I hope you learned something. And to Dave, thanks for being awesome.

All the best,


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