Interview with a Memory Expert: Livan Grijalva

I’ve been hoping to chat with some of the world’s best memory gurus, so let’s kick things off with Livan Grijalva, a friend and a fierce memory athlete! Livan burst onto the American memory scene in 2014, placing 4th at his first-ever USA Memory Championship. After a now infamous clerical error wrongly excluded him from the 2015 finals, he stayed strong to secure the 4th best American finish at the US Memory Open and an overall victory at the Canadian MC. The 31-year-old Queens resident specializes in digits and cards, with personal bests of 300 digits in 5 minutes and a deck of cards in 36 seconds. I got in touch with Livan to talk memory, magic, and his advice for aspiring memory athletes. Hope you enjoy.

How did you first get started with memory sports?

I first became aware of memory sports through Joshua Foer's TED talk based off his book Moonwalking with Einstein. His talk had such an impact on me that I immediately sought out as many books on memory techniques as I could find. At first I thought it was simply fun and never considered competing in any competitions, but as I progressed I found that I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to see how I measured up against others. That is when I decided to enter the 2014 US Memory Championships and I trained for 7 months.  

 Tell me about the systems you use. How did you decide?

When I first started I was exposed to the systems Dominic O'Brien teaches in his memory books. And since my personality is one of sticking with what I think works best for me I have not upgraded my systems as so many other memory athletes have into 3 digit number and 2 card systems. Instead I use PA for memorizing playing cards and PA for pairs of digits. I have found that I can constantly improve using these systems so there has not been a need to change systems.

What’s your daily practice regimen like?

When training for a competition I try to cover as many disciplines during a single day instead of spending a day on one in particular discipline. After memorizing and recalling for a particular discipline I spend a few hours running through drills. These drills consist of using a metronome to create images for digits and cards faster. I have also found that doing these drills closer to bedtime helps me improve faster. Often times due to work obligations I am unable to practice as much as I would like to, in those instances I try to scatter my memory drills during my commute to work and home as well as after eating meals.

I think a lot of people know that you’re a magician as well. What’s your involvement with magic like? How has it influenced your memory training?

I have always had a fascination for playing cards growing up. This interest in them led me to card magic and then to other types of magic. Magic got me very used to an attitude of "practice makes consistent". That helped in my memory training, not only because after 10+ years of doing magic I have gotten used to handling cards, but also because it taught me how to get better at a particular task. One thing magic has definitely helped me with is building confidence in front of crowds and strangers. Being able to perform magic and entertain complete strangers made it easy for me to demo my memory feats to those same people. Normally my natural introversion would make that impossible.

Tell me about your plans for the future (both in and out of memory sports). What are you looking forward to?

This is a very difficult question to answer. For so long I have lived for myself, my passions reflect that, however as of very recently I have begun to feel a desire to help people using my skills. While memorizing playing cards, digits, binary, abstract images is amazing and so much fun, I have begun to feel that perhaps it could be put to much more practical use. This is almost entirely due to my best friend and wisest person I know Leor who has really opened up my eyes. I still wish to compete in memory sports and currently my goal is to become ranked top 50 in the world, but I am beginning to explore how I can use these techniques to help people remember important information, for school and life.

What advice would you give to an American just starting out with memory sports?

The advice I would give someone just starting out in memory sports is, have fun and don't get discouraged. I would also say that if you can find someone who knows more than you, who is willing to guide you, it is an invaluable resource. When I was starting out, I had no one to guide me and I encountered so many dead ends and even though navigating those situations has made me better, it has taken me longer to arrive at where I am. To be able to learn from the mistakes of others is ideal.

Do you use mnemonics in daily life at all?

I travel a lot for my job in advertising so I use my memory techniques to remember all my flight, hotel, and work schedule information. I also use it day to day at the office and during meetings, I'm lazy and don't like to write everything down so whenever possible I try to use the rooms I am having meetings in as a palace for storing key points from the meeting.

Do you have any other cool interests?

I love film. I fancy myself a bit of a cinephile, I find film takes the best of every single art form and combines it to create the ultimate form of self expression. I have a huge wall of films and if I could spend all day watching them I would, but much like my other passions it's a bit of a solitary one.

You’ve competed in 2 types of memory competitions at this point. Which is your favorite?

I like the diversity of both types. I like the idea of competing in front of a crowd as is the case in the US Memory Championship, but I also like the amount of events in the ones organized by the World Memory Council. It's this diversity that keeps me interested in this sport.