Yanjaa Wintersoul is a triple world record holding memory champion and entertainer. In this interview she shares her perspective on growing up around the world from Mongolia to Sweden to Kenya, finding joy in entertaining others during her school years, and engaging in work in order to learn more about herself and empathize with others.
What do you do?
Memory champion is what I usually say, but it can sound like you can't make money that way. What pays the bills is memory-related entertainment, mostly speaking and coaching.
You're established as a memory expert. How did you start off in that?
While trying to finish business school as fast as possible, I found Moonwalking with Einstein, a book on memory techniques. After reading it I thought, this American writer [who became a memory champion] probably only speaks one language and hasn't had to deal with as much of a learning curve as I have. Though I'm not from privilege, I thought I definitely could compete.
I had so much free time after learning the memory techniques and acing my tests that I tried out memory competitions. At my first competition I was 18th place out of 20 people overall, but I got first place in the Names and Faces category. At the time I had only trained for three days, but I medaled in a category and tied with the world record holder at the time. So I believed that if I trained three days and already tied with somebody who was the best, I could continue doing well.
Is training solitary, or do you work with someone?
Training has to be super solitary. I'll wear really expensive in-ear earplugs and noise-cancelling earmuffs on top, the ones you see out on the tarmac. I usually have to wear a hat so I don't get distracted. I used to discuss how to finesse memory techniques with peers. Now I don’t discuss with people as much because a lot of the advice I used to get was false. It's hard to know in the beginning.
How long did it take from when you first read Moonwalking with Einstein to the first competition?
I think it took six months. I didn't train for those six months and was more so scoping the scene, wondering if I should do it. If I like something, I go for it full throttle, full-heartedly—fool-heartedly, even. I knew that if I enjoyed it, I would give it my all.
After reading Moonwalking with Einstein, I emailed the author [Joshua Foer] and said, "My life is going to be different. There will be distinct life stages, before reading your book and after reading your book." He replied, "Good luck with that!" and I thought, you have no idea.
I’m in that early exploratory stage with comedy as well. I've pushed off pursuing comedy for six years. Now I'm meeting my comedy idols and they tell me, "You're funny and we can't give you any more advice; you should just try it."
Anyway, for six months I procrastinated, signed up for a competition, forgot that I hadn't trained, started training while flying to that city and in the hotel room. Then I came in nearly last place.
You do speaking engagements and coaching related to memory now. Would you say those are the upper limits of a career path in this arena?
Definitely not. It's complicated—there's the person who is good in the field, and then there's the person who's good at selling themselves. I know several people who make so much money doing this because they're coaching and signing books and selling vitamins and all that.
So it can be a jumping point for those people to become an influencer.
Yeah, exactly. But some of them don't even compete while they sell out arenas for speaking engagements. It's a weird thing. We live in a fun time of perception vs. reality. I know several people who make 5 to 10 million dollars a year doing this. So yeah, there's more to do than just speaking engagements, but that's what I think is fun.
Do you think you'll enter more competitions in the future?
I don’t plan on it. Last year I was supposed to win this big competition and there was [a situation where people were] trying to make me lose. If I wanted to I could start competing again, but I need to have that emotional wound heal. Competing is so much fun, even if it looks super boring, but the politics are complicated.
You had brought up that you're currently exploring comedy. Where did that interest come from?
When I was a kid I wanted to be funny and entertaining. In theater class I would purposely mess up my lines during the show. At classical ballet or hip hop classes, I would make my dancing funny so I could get a laugh out of the audience instead of doing the performance.
It seems like there's been a general gravitation towards performing arts.
Definitely. I love structures and systems as well. For example I could be selling vitamins and coaching more people, but coaching is not as performative. We'll see, I have decades left so I could focus on performance now and pursue other things later.
You've lived in several different places growing up, from Mongolia to Sweden to Kenya. How did those changes in environments come about?
My parents got divorced in Mongolia when the economy was doing really poorly. My dad took a job in Japan and my mom moved to Sweden where my aunt lived. I lived in Sweden and went to Tokyo every once in a while to hang out with my dad.
Kenya happened because I was tired of Sweden and wanted to see what else was out there. I went to a Swedish boarding school in Kenya because there happened to be one there, and I wouldn't lose any credits or have to take a gap year. At that point my grades were so terrible I didn't even care; I just wanted to go somewhere and explore the culture in a confined setting. It was great.
I often felt a standoffish weirdness living in Sweden. I had a feeling that the way people made me feel while living there wasn't 100% related to me. When I went to Kenya and was welcomed by kids [who grew up all over the world], I realized this was how human interaction should be.
How do you think those environments shaped who you’ve become?
Kenya definitely influenced how I should be treated versus how I was being treated. It helped me be very quick at recognizing microaggressions. The main thing is being aware while collaborating with others without overreacting. I'm in a weird headspace around that, having worked within a lot of monocultures. On one project, I'm the only non-black person on the team. On another, I'm the only non-white person. It's a lot of context switching.
Growing up, what did success mean for you? How did your parents or friends define success?
Sweden has a good social welfare system. Friends there wanted to do the bare minimum. If they were super ambitious they would go into engineering or medical school or law school, but a lot of my close friends still don't have an undergraduate degree. They say it’s fine and that they can go to undergrad in their 30s. You would never hear that in New York.
For my mom, success was making money while being ethical. For my dad it was mostly about being someone of importance. For me, I think success means having as much fun as possible or making a lot of money. It's what I'm doing now, but not consistently.
In second grade, our class had to write what we wanted to do when we grew up. Kids in Sweden don't write astronaut; they're really reasonable children. They're like, “yes, I want to become a hematologist like my mom.” I wrote, “I'm going to travel the world and entertain people and somehow make money and speak lots of languages.” My teacher said that wasn’t not a job, and I remember being so angry at the time. Now I'm kind of living that dream, so it feels pretty good.
Making connections is how I learn. I think that’s why I learn better now, after understanding how human memory works. I'm always trying to subconsciously connect the dots.
You've studied Swahili, art history, and business. What do you think drives your fascination with these disparate areas of knowledge?
Everything is connected. A close friend of mine is a good lawyer who mostly does pro bono work, but now she wants to be a film director. She was worried about having wasted so much money and time. I told her that wasn’t true because of cross-pollination and overlap. There are always things that you learn from everything that can be applied to anything.
Everything can be an analogy for everything else if you’re looking for it. I did improv in Austin for months and it was like an analogy for human relationships. Art was an analogy for war.
Can you make those connections while you're learning, or do they come to you afterwards?
Making connections is how I learn. I think that’s why I learn better now, after understanding how human memory works. I'm always trying to subconsciously connect the dots. I didn't mean to memorize your number today, but I saw it when you texted me and also got an email alert. It's an automatic process now. If somebody says my last name is Franklin, I have all these associations that I remember—I live close to Franklin, Aretha Franklin, Ben Franklin. It's really fun.
How do you attempt to solve your career dilemmas?
I definitely overthink my career. I like to reach out to people in the industry, which is how I got in contact with movie directors, screenwriters, and comedians. I'll DM them and say I'm feeling super lost and that I want to do comedy. They surprisingly reply and agree to chat. Maybe I have a friendly face.
It's nice to know that when you reach out to people, you usually get much better responses than you would imagine.
I know! Especially if you're not a creep or overwhelming about it. Sometimes it's hard when you don't know what you're asking. But yeah, I try to talk to people who are already doing what I want to do. After I've wallowed and thought about doing something for months, or years with comedy, I just pull the trigger and then it's too late to go back.
I'm good at dealing with pain. I've bombed on stage when it comes to performances. I’ve made jokes in my lectures that I thought would be great but everyone just blankly stared at me. It's pretty scary to have 2,000 people look at each other and you can see that they're talking to each other about how awful you are.
My comedy friends are weirded out that I don't care. I've failed in front of a million and a half people in Sweden on live television, and everyone came up to me after saying, "Are you okay, do you need a hug?" But I was okay—I knew it was just a show and that I would move on. I don't know, maybe that's the secret.
Have you always had that resilience?
I think existing in Sweden as a non-Swede makes it feel like you're bombing all the time. Sometimes there's that group mentality where you're trying to get into the conversation but everyone's denying you entry, even if you have relevant knowledge. As a kid, I felt super excluded. I used to have a lot of social FOMO, but now it doesn’t faze me.
Do you think you thrive from having multiple different projects?
No, 2-3 projects at a time is usually better. I think it's good to have different areas of your life that you value and are proud of, but I don't think it's so good to be scatterbrained. Right now, it feels like there are so many projects that are in different stages of development. Sometimes I'll get an email and be like...who are you?
I'm currently looking into pursuing software development, and [there is appeal in] getting back to doing one thing at a time. Knowing how memory works I want to do just one thing at a time, but it's hard when you're collaborating with people and things are in flux.
If you had five different lives and could do one thing per life, how would you fill them up?
Live in a cabin in the woods, but I already do that somewhat. I just disappear for a while to read and write.
In another life I'm a little shorter and really talented at ballet or gymnastics or figure skating. Then I use my clout as a figure skater or gymnast to deal with the creepiness in those industries.
I really wanted to be a mathematician for a while, but my mom said most mathematicians do their best work in their twenties.
A poker player. It can be so competitive though.
I would take all my money and travel the world and eat and learn, without documenting it. There is a problem with the performative nature of everyone's life now. It's messing with people's mental health that most people are thinking of their personal narratives above how they're actually feeling.
Do you have fantasies of not working another day in your life?
No, I don't harbor those fantasies. I have done that in the past, where I would use the student grant the government gives every month and travel, since in Europe you can fly really cheap. Since yesterday 9 PM to 1 PM today, I did nothing, and at 2 AM I panicked about whether to pursue humor writing or standup comedy to my partner. I started going crazy after five hours of doing nothing. I'm very bad at not doing work.
What do you think work provides you in contrast to doing nothing?
Fulfillment, forward motion, and learning about yourself in the context of the world. You're learning about yourself, and by doing so you're learning about everybody else. In the beginning, the first thought is that nobody has ever had this thought before. You think you are the only person going through your situation. Then you Google it and there are Wikihows about starting a girls' soccer club in Nairobi. And you're like, really? This is a Wikihow?
I don't reach empathy unless I work on something. When I'm just in my head, I think "it's really sad to be me" or "I am the only one."
Do you ever think you work too much?
No, I think I work too little. Most of my work week is spent taking care of myself. I was working so hard in my early twenties, but now I just say no.