The Human Calendar: Breaking World Records Using Mental Math ft. Yusnier Viera

The Human Calendar: Breaking World Records Using Mental Math ft. Yusnier Viera

Authored by Geoffrey Woo and Zhill Olonan • 
October 29, 2018
training

We always say here at HVMN that we take a systems approach to the human body, and mental math achieves exactly that: A systems approach within the brain.

Yusnier Viera is a real-life math wizard, known around the world as "The Human Calendar". Born and raised in Cuba, Yusnier holds the world record calculating calendar dates, using a mixture of flash math and training memorization.

Along with demonstrating his unique skill within the episode, Yusnier and Geoff discuss the following:

  • The importance of math for daily life and how he trains his brain
  • The future of education and what needs to change
  • What it was like growing up under the Cuban government and how his upbringing pushed him to become one of the best mental sports athletes today

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Transcription

Geoff: Yusnier, thanks for coming on the program today to chat.

Yusnier: Thank you for having me on the show, I appreciate it. So, I am Yusnier Viera, I have been called the Human Calendar because I have a world record doing calendar dates. Which is essentially a mental calculation, for example, if you tell me your birthday, I can tell you the day of the week. Maybe we can try that right now.

Geoff: Alright, December 27, 1988.

Yusnier: There was a Tuesday, and this year is going to be a Thursday.

Geoff: Okay, I think it is a Tuesday. I don't know if it's a Thursday this week but Zhill, we will double check your work there.

Yusnier: The reason I also know is because your birthday and my birthday. They fall on the same day of the week every year. For example, I was born April 26 and yours is December 27. Mine was a Thursday so I know for sure that yours is gonna be a Thursday, too.

Geoff: Because it's a multiple seven off.

Yusnier: Exactly, because there is a multiple seven in the difference of dates.

Geoff: Yeah, and I guess it's after the leap year date so it's consistent.

Yusnier: Exactly, but remember between April 26 and December 27 there is no February 29 in between.

Geoff: Right. So, zooming back and before you became known as a world calendar calculator. What was your history, what was your story. I mean, did you as a five year old realize you had a knack with calendars and dates, with memory? What were the inklings as you were growing up that, hey there's something interesting with my brain that other people don't have?

Yusnier: Since I remember, I was really good with numbers. But I was blessed too because I have two parents and they are both math professors. So essentially, that was my first inclination. I love math because both my parents were able to explain to me things that I didn't know when I was four or five years old and I was fascinated. So, I realize that I have this talent about mental math later on when I was in kindergarten or first grade. I was able to do the tables really fast and they came to me naturally. So I realized that I have a talent for that. But it wasn't till I was in college that I started doing calendar dates because I knew that I was good with numbers but I didn't know that I could solve calendar dates. Essentially what I do, when I solve calendar dates I am just doing mental math in my head really fast. I got interest in mental calculation after I found out that every other year, we have a competition. The Mental Calculation World Cup and I wanted to participate and I was living in Cuba. I was born and raised in Cuba, in Havana, Cuba. I didn't have any money to travel or anything.

I wanted to compete, I wanted to prove myself against the best in the world. The only way you can achieve that is by training very hard...that's what I did.

I am talking about when I was 22. A few months later, I was actually getting good scores in calendar dates. Back then, I think the record was 33 dates in one minute. So I was supposed to calculate 33 dates or more in one minute. Back in 2005, I was able to do 42 calendar dates and that's how I became for the first time the world record holder.

Geoff: So this is just on a piece of paper or is it done verbally?

Yusnier: In this case, it's actually a software that essentially I press start and a bunch of dates are going to appear in front of me and if I think the first date is a Monday I just press one on the keyboard, if I think it's a Tuesday I press two.

Geoff: Yeah, okay. Got it.

Yusnier: That way, it is faster because if not that would have slowed me down if I had to say Tuesday or Wednesday.

Geoff: So 33 was a world record at the time?

Yusnier: And I did 42 dates in one minute.

Geoff: So little bit over a second a date.

Yusnier: Yeah, yeah. It was back in 2005.

Geoff: That's pretty impressive. So did you have a photographic memory in terms of memory, is this more of a speed in terms of calculation? Is this a memory skill, a combination of both? How would you describe it to our listeners?

Yusnier: I would say it's a bunch of things. First of all, you need to have a good technique. For example, I have an algorithm that essentially I grab the last two numbers of the year and I add the number of February 29 which is essentially the year divided by 4. So, it's a formula that after I add a bunch of numbers. Let's say I have five or six additions. I just divide the result by seven. If I get a remainder of one, it's a Monday. If I get a remainder of two, it's a Tuesday and so on. Honestly, just to make a long story short. That's it. But honestly, when it comes to world record. It's a little more than that. I need to be good at fast reading, I have to train my speed reading. I have to be really fast at it because I am getting to a point that I am answering one date and I am already calculating the next one because that way I can be faster.

Geoff: Right. I see, so this is not a memory trick where we have had people that we've spoken to that are memory champions, are good at memorizing words or cards. This is less so of like a pure memorization. This is you with a very good algorithm to solving these divisions problems essentially and getting that remainder and modulus. And then having a really good technique and then obviously being really, really quick at doing this snap division problems in your head.

Yusnier: Yeah. Honestly, I would say a little memory is involved. Because for example, sometimes I see a date that I know I have seen it before and it comes to my mind really quick. So I know for example, the year 2018 is especial because this is a current year. So I know what to do right away. I take shortcuts if I found out that I have done that date before.

Geoff: Yeah. As a computer scientist it is interesting I guess. You have a cache essentially, you have a cache of answers and obviously if you have memorized and seen this dates before you can have a bigger cache and it's gonna be instant recall. But if you have to do a little bit of a calculation. You have really, really good technique to make the calculation.

Yusnier: Exactly.

Geoff: Interesting. I am sure that as you knew that you were good at doing these multiplication tables and starting to do these speed calculations. Why focus on calendar dates? Are there other calculations competitions that are popular-

Yusnier: Yes.

Geoff: Have you participated in those? Why did you focus on the calendar dates one? I would love to hear the level of decision and thinking process there.

Yusnier: Let me tell you the long story then. First of all I wanted to do memory, because I believe in myself. What I believe about myself is that I am better at memory than mental math. So I tried to memorize numbers like decimals in one second. I remember the record back then belongs to a guy from Spain, Ramon Campayo. He was able to memorize like 15, 16 decimals in one second and I was very close to that. I remember one day, I memorized 16 I was so happy because finally I tied the world record. Then I found out later, he just had a new record of 18 and I gave up. I said, it's too much for me, 18 is too much. So I decided to switch from our task and that's how I found calendar dates. I was always amazed about how fast people could do it and I am like okay, are they involving memory or is it math. I realized this because I did my own formula that it was pretty much math. I did it and after a few weeks of practicing I realized that I could break the record. That's essentially how I start doing calendar dates because I knew I could be the best in the world.

Geoff: How old were you at this time?

Yusnier: I was 22.

Geoff: Okay. Obviously you had a lot of confidence in your mathematical ability. What was the first time that you realized that your classmates or peers weren't as mathematically in tune as you? Was this early realization where, I am just picking up math a lot faster than my classmates in math class? Or did you just assume that everyone was good at math? Curious to hear your growth story there.

Yusnier: Well, honestly, I thought everybody could do what I was able to do. To me that comes natural so I was like, okay, I think everybody is doing that. Later I realized that it was only me in the class that could do mental math. And that's how I knew I was especial in that sense. I thought I was normal, I don't see me doing anything special. I guess I just have a talent because I practice a lot I realized that talent could be ... I don't know, I just explode my talent.

Geoff: I'm curious to learn about your training philosophy on this. We talked to a lot of different athletes who are physical athletes.

In this case, we can consider you as a cognitive athlete, right? You're competing with your mind on a sport. This is like a game that you're competing in.

So when you think about training for an event, are you just training that specific task again, and again, and again? Or I'm trying to get an analogy to sports, there's like cross-training, you know? If you're a basketball player sometimes you do jujitsu or gymnastics to improve your flexibility. Is it that notion with cognitive sport?

Yusnier: Essentially in my case, when I go to competitions we compete in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, calendar dates, and some other that we call surprise task because we don't know what it's going to be. And what I do normally I focus on those tasks, in my case I do it that way. For example if I'm doing calendar dates, maybe instead of trying to calculate a date between 1600 and 2100 which is the correct format, I try something like a shorter range. So maybe I do 10 dates to see how long it takes me 10 days. So I break down the task a little bit, but I essentially practice for the task, that's essentially what I do.

Geoff: That makes sense in terms of my reading the literature in terms of this brain training games. There's been some software developed in Silicon Valley where you play some of these games and the idea is that it makes you smarter for other tasks. And maybe down the line it could be helpful for therapeutic case uses for people with cognitive impairment. What you're seeing in at least from a world championship level, you're not seeing a lot of value from a cross-training perspective. You might as well just train the activity of what you're competing in.

Yusnier: Yeah, honestly in my case, that's how I got the results, by just focusing on whatever I have to do, just that. The more I focus the better the result for me, at least for me.

Geoff: That makes sense, it's what I've seen as well. If you're playing tennis, you practice frigging tennis. Anything else that you're not training for is kind of a waste of energy-

Yusnier: Don't get me wrong, sometimes I need to some extra activities, something different to disconnect from that work of training. And I do exercises of course, but I do it more to just relax a little bit. Because after you train a lot your brain is ... it looks like it's going to blow and you need some relaxation time. You need to relax a little bit.

Geoff: Yeah, I think that's actually an interesting discussion topic, because again, one of the highest, most discussed topics recently in athletic performance is this notion of after a period of training and then recovery period. And that I think says more intuitive sense to people, because you know that when your muscles are sore, you can't lift any more weights. And I think we probably all have the equal intuition that if you a lot of hard reading or hard math problems your brain is tired. I guess that's a very similar analogy. Do you think about cycling your mental effort? Do you think about some of the techniques around cycling diet or sleep? Do you time some of these things out in terms of how you train for these events?

Yusnier: So, in my case actually I keep a regular routine that I do those days, yes. So, yeah I like to make it a cycle. Actually one of the things that I remember that I was doing the first time that I was breaking this record, back in Cuba. The first time that I did it when I lived here in the US, but before I was living in Cuba. One thing I remember telling my parents, in one hour I need you to help me to disconnect from here, because if you don't do it I'm going to be like doing it the whole time. So I need your help by telling me, "Okay, do something else." And I timed myself, I am going to spend on hour doing this, and then one hour doing this, and one hour doing ... Yeah, I do a cycle.

Geoff: That's actually helpful because I'm just thinking about when I was a student, your habit of learning ... I don't think that people are very thoughtful of how they learn. I think it's like, okay you have a class, do your homework, and kind of just like plow through a three or four hours. And get kind of distracted but just sit and finish your homework. Maybe people today are starting to think about their learning in a more formulaic or more just thoughtful approach. Do you think there's some notion to that? It sounds like when you train, you're learning in a very thoughtful way. And when professional athletes train for sport, their training in very, very thoughtful training blocks. And that's maybe the difference between a world champion and just a reasonably player. Can we see that happening in the cognitive sport world? And how ... do you think this has broader implications to how people should be thinking about learning as a student?

Yusnier: I think so. Honestly what I believe is like you need to know yourself better than anyone else. And the more you know yourself the more you know how much you can take it. Okay, I call it like that. Because let's be honest, it's starting sometimes is painful. Sometimes it's not so painful because if you see the reward you feel like, "Okay, I'm doing it because I want to." But let's say you wanted to study for something, make sure that you know yourself. Make sure that you're going to be focused for one hour, so just commit to that. Maybe after a while you realize one hour is too much, just do 12 minutes. Or maybe you think 12 is too little for you, because you can take it? Take it for two hours. I know there are some stories that suggest maybe 20 minutes, or one hour. I'm the kind of person that I think that depends on the specific individual. So it's only you who knows the answer to that question. So you need to pretty much practice to see how it goes.

Every time you get a good result...that's probably what you need to keep doing. You need to find your own system.

Geoff: That makes sense. And I think it's kind of funny that I'm like so focused on the physical side because that's kind of where my mind has been at. But yeah, I was a good student growing up. It makes sense that if you just get good at having focus at a particular time, your ability to focus for longer and longer periods of time improve. You can imagine that. Maybe you can only just focus and read for 20 minutes at a time and need a break. But as you build up mental resilience that you can absorb information, you can have that focus, you can extend that period out longer. And that might just bring up an interesting sort of side segue, does it feel like people's focus is less now because of social media? Because of all these notifications? Because we have little buzzing little things in our pocket all the time. I think that I was better able to focus as a kid. I was just like reading all the time. I was able to sit down and do math problems for a long time.

Yusnier: Yeah-

Geoff: Do you see that happening in your world, too?

Yusnier: Yeah, that is happening. That is happening everywhere. It happens to me, too. So it happens to almost everyone, probably every one. It happens to me, for me it's even more I cannot it's even more for me because I was living in Cuba when I was a kid. I didn't have internet, I didn't have anything. So it was pretty easy for me to just focus on one thing because that was probably the only thing I had to do. But now with so many options, the bad thing about that, the downside is that we have so many options that it's hard to focus on one thing. And the only truth is that sometimes we need to focus on things that we don't like that much. Because maybe we're not good at that. But this is what I discovered so far, I believe that if you are good at something, you will like it.

For example, I love training candidates, for me I can focus because it doesn't hurt me to train that because I love it. So what I'm trying to say is the following, if you actually have to focus on something on something that you love, it's going to be way easier for you. Maybe can spend one, two hours, you can focus more and you'll be fine. Now, if you're trying to do something that you don't like, let's say you have to pay the bills. I'm going to spend the next 20 minutes paying all my bills something like that. Then of course, it's going to be hard to focus. And you're going to be tending to just check out your Facebook account while you are on it.

Geoff: Right. Did you grow to love calendar dates because you were so good at it? Or was it something ... it's kind of silly to say but like I guess it wasn't people growing up saying, "I want to be a calendar world champion." That's what I presume, but it sounds like you really grew to love it because you've realized you were really good at it.

Yusnier: That's the way it was for me. That was the way it was for me because like I say I believe in like, I'm good at something, that's why I like it. The other way around, I'm not so believable, "Oh, I like it, that's why I'm good at it." No, no, you're good at it, that's why you like it. So, I believe in that philosophy.

Geoff: And it think it's kind of a chicken and an egg, I think these are virtuous cycle, because you like it or you're good at it and then you like it, and then you like it because your good at it. And then it's a positive feedback loop. But I think probably you're right, maybe that initial first step is like an introduction and you have some sort of natural knack for it, and it gets that flywheel going. 

Yusnier: It's just my opinion, I might be wrong, but I believe in that.

Geoff: Yeah, I think especially if you're a cognitive athlete here, then you're probably a lot more attuned to when you're distracted or not distracted. Would you say that's the case? Or would you say everyone kind of knows that they're distracted? Or is it because hey your mind is your edge? You are just a lot more self introspective than the normal person? Do you find that to be true?

Yusnier: You mean like to be true what exactly?

Geoff: That you think you're more introspective or more self aware? Because you could make the argument that a lot of people don't even think about their focus. I think people listening to this podcast I would say are on the upper echelon because the topics we cover in this podcast are introspective and their mental processes and how to improve themselves. Obviously otherwise if you just don't care about improvement you probably wouldn't be listening to this conversation right now. But I would imagine that you're even further attuned on that spectrum. Or is it you're a normal person with a normal amount of distraction and a normal amount of discipline but you happen to be really damn good and spend a lot of hours doing calendar dates?

Yusnier: I honestly believe in that. I believe hard work is the most important thing. You can be a better version of yourself, by just practicing like crazy. Seriously, and that's what I have found. I know people ... I consider myself a normal person. I have a life, I have a wife, a daughter. I do normal stuff, whatever normal is nowadays. So I think what makes me maybe a little different is the amount of hours that I put, the effort that I put, in order to be the Human Calendar. If I don't do the practice, even if I have the talent that I remember I have since I was four or five, I wouldn't be able to be today a world record holder. Because it's not only about your talent, actually your talent, I always say, is the least important thing. Why? Because your talent, whatever it is, you either have it or not. It doesn't matter, you not going to change it. But what you can change, what you can really change every single day of your life, is the effort that you put into making your talent the best version of it. So, in my case I think the most important thing is the practice. If you practice, practice, practice and you persist, you're going to become a better version of yourself, and that's what I do every single day.

Geoff: No, I think that's very humble and just practical advise for people. Clearly your talent level is high. You're not going to be the best in the world at something without some sort of base-level talent. But you put in your hours.

Yusnier: Like I say, it's not about being the best in the world, it's about being the best you can be. That's the most important thing. I actually have kids that I train and when they started with me, they were not good at math. And they can do calendar dates under two seconds. So it's possible to teach these skills, all you need to do is put the hours to it.

Geoff: You mentioned growing up in Cuba. I actually had the pleasure of visiting Havana and Cuba probably two, three years ago now. Which was a very interesting visit because I think being an American tourist, you go to Europe, you go to Asia, you see McDonald's, you see Starbucks. You see Western civilization everywhere. And Cuba was the first country where there's no Coke, there's no McDonald's. It's like whoa, there are weird Russian branded things everywhere. Right? I'm curious to dive into your personal story there. Moving off the calendar and diving into the youth in your story. What was it like living in Cuba, the whole communist thing? Maybe that's controversial, I'm just curious to hear your life story there.

Yusnier: Okay being a kid was not that bad honestly, but I remember growing up watching Russian cartoons, you know? Instead of Americans. So it's crazy that I have so much in common with people from the Eastern Europe or Russia in terms of cartoons.

Geoff: Do you speak Russia, was it in Russian?

Yusnier: No, I don't speak Russian but a lot of people in the '80s and the '70s, instead of English they learned Russian. So a lot of people in Cuba speak Russian, not me personally, but yeah, a lot of people in Cuba speak Russian. For me, when I was a kid it was fine because when you're a kid you don't care about anything except playing and going to school. And to be honest in Cuba a had a good education, the best I could have, honestly. No complaints about it, I learned a lot from my professors. Actually the man who I am today, I probably I would say it came more from Cuba than from any other part of all the world. So, what I learned from Math is from my Cuban professors. But it gets to a point in which you're not a kid anymore and you need to make a life. 

You need ... you have dreams that you want to fulfill. And in my case I wasn't able to fulfill them. Actually I graduated in 2005 from Computer Science at the University of Havana in Cuba and I remember I was a professor and I was making $20 one month, that was my salary. $20 one month. It's hard to believe but it's happening in Cuba. I think nowadays it's still 20, 25, 30, $40 a month. That's nothing. And I was a professor at the University of Havana, the most important university in the country. So I realized if I wanted just to go to Germany, for example, for the championship, I couldn't even afford to pay for my tickets to fly there.

Geoff: Yeah, no way, no way.

Yusnier: There is no way. I tried, I actually asked the governor for help but nobody cared. It's hard, it's always hard to ask for help and to receive help. So I realized that I had to do something different because if I actually wanted to escape-

Geoff: For clarity, and this is my understanding, they give you like food rations? So like you have your food and housing, it's not like you're living off $20 a month for all food and rent.

Yusnier: Exactly.

Geoff: So this is $20 of income on top of the standard ration. Just to clarify.

Yusnier: Yeah, in Cuba technically we don't have taxes, technically we don't have to pay for medical insurance. But guess what? It's only $20. You only save $20. Actually you don't save $20 because just the ration of food. They say they give you, because the government give you that, it's not enough. So you have to buy. Essentially in Cuba lot of people unfortunately have to steal from the government because that's the only way to survive. And the consequences of stealing, I know this sounds really hard, but is true in my opinion. It's sad, I didn't want to live that life. I didn't want to steal to survive, that's why I left Cuba when I was 25, ten years ago.

Essentially I tried to leave Cuba, I wanted to escape the communism system. Actually, it shouldn't be called communism because the people who are in command don't have the same necessities that the people in Cuba have.

So I think it's a fake communism, it's not even socialism or whatever they want to call it. It's not real, it's just the name, the label they put to seem nice, but it's not nice. That's my opinion about the Cuban government, and I love Cuba it's in my blood, it's my nature. But yeah, I don't like the Cuban government at all. So I wanted to escape the communism somehow. And by doing kind of things I found my way out of Cuba. I was able to go out to competitions in Germany. Actually I went to this competition back in 2006. And I was able to finish in fourth place overall. I'm talking about addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, calendar dates. I finished fourth in this competition. This is interesting, when I went to Germany I realized that everything that I had been told back in Cuba was a lie. And let me explain why, I'm sorry that it takes me so much time. 

Geoff: No this is interesting.

Yusnier: You brought me a few things to mind. When I was in Berlin, they have this museum next to Checkpoint Charlie. I forgot the name of the museum, I'm pretty sure we can go later. And in Cuba they told me that the East Germany was the good one and the West Germany was the bad one. You know? And I went to this museum that was telling me people were escaping from the good one to the bad one. And I say, how so? Are you kidding me? So believe it or not I had to wait until I was 24, when I found to Germany for the first time, to realize that I was brainwashed. And it's frigging hard that you're 24, and now you're realizing that you have been lied your whole life. I feel like I had been betrayed. That's the-

Geoff: Was it a pretty quick realization or was this-

Yusnier: Yeah.

Geoff: It was just like you saw these holes and this story doesn't make sense? Or was it just like-

Yusnier: I'm telling you it's like I was blind and now I can see. It was like instantly. I'm like, oh my god. It's not like I was afraid of the government I was just pretty much apolitical at that point. But at that point I'm like, "Okay, I have to be political, I have to be against that because that's wrong. And this is the truth because I'm seeing the truth in front of me." And if you go to Cuba you realize a family in Cuba they don't have commercial like Coco-Cola, they don't have corporations. Well, they do have commercials about, "Oh we are the best government in the world." So that's their way-

Geoff: Yeah you see a lot of Che Guevara signs, kind of the propaganda you see in TV shows.

Yusnier: Exactly.

Geoff: It is kind of like that, it's like, "Whoa!" It's kind of like hipster retro communism. But it's only hipster to America, because it's kind of like sexy. But in Cuba that was just the reality.

Yusnier: In America it is the opposite. In America we have so many options, there is too much. In Cuba we don't have an option. Actually in Cuba I would say more than 50% of the population, they haven't been out of Cuba. They have been living their whole life in Cuba. Prob 70% of the people. So we don't have that many information, especially if you see someone, if you know someone that has been outside of Cuba you would probably go to that person like, "Tell me, how was Germany? How was Berlin?" I had a lot of people ask me questions when I came back from Germany to Cuba, the first time I traveled out of Cuba. That's when I realized, okay, I need to leave this island. I can't live here. I was not brave enough to fight it, but I have only one life. I decided to live it differently.

So I was more like, my dream is to maybe create a system, or academy, or something that I can share my knowledge with the whole world. And in Cuba it was going to be impossible, actually I was invited to a competition in Mexico. Not to competition it was called the National Week of Mathematics in [inaudible 00:27:32] Mexico. And actually I finished my conference I never went back. I actually took north, and I came to America. That was in 2007, and back then we have this law in America that if you were Cuban you were allowed to stay in America. Because it's really hard for the Cubans to live that life of communism. And I had some trouble because I was speaking my mind before coming here. I'm like, "Okay, I need to either leave or I'm going to get into jail, because I'm not supposed to speak my mind in Cuba." 

Geoff: So there's kind of a political asylum for Cuban-

Yusnier: Yeah, political asylum that's what I applied to, and that's how I got into the US. And I'm an American citizen now.

Geoff: I think that's the beauty of America. You and I can be speaking towards each other, completely different parts of the world, but we're all Americans. It's like the magic of America. How did you get the initial funding out to get to Berlin? It sounded like you had $20 a month you're saving up. You probably need to use that money to like buy food. The government wasn't going to help you out. Did you get sponsored, how did that initial little spark happen?

Yusnier: Well, let me tell you I'm both resourceful and I proved myself there. One thing that I did, I had good friends. My best friend, she's just living in Germany. Right now she's a student there, but back then she was in Berlin. And she told me, you can stay in my home with no problem. You don't have to pay for anything. I will drive you, or we'll take the train whatever is necessary for the competition in Germany. So I knew that I had a place to stay with no problem. And also I got a sponsorship from the people that were organizing the event. And my friend helped them too, and between the two of them they paid for my flight ticket. And it was really intense, really hard. Actually there were moments that I thought I was not going to be able to do it because it was even hard for me to tell them please help me. Because I'm not the type of person that ... I like to be the one in control, and I wasn't the one in control. So thank god I had good friends, she's my best friend. So I love her. I believe you are listening to the podcast, of course you going to be listening because I'm telling you. So, thank you, thank you for what you did for me.

Geoff: It's a wild journey, I mean, did you have any sense that these math calculations would have given you the opportunity to explore the world? Or at the time was it just an outlet for a bright, young college student, in terms of like having some talent and wanting to compete with the best?

Yusnier: At the beginning no. I didn't know that this was going to happen. When I say this, I mean this new life that opens to me after the records. No, I thought I was going to do that just because I wanted to be one of the best in the world. Actually I'm the kind of person, I believe, you don't have to look at the reward but you have to be more human in that sense. Meaning that for example, if you want to do something just do it because you want to, don't expect the result to come immediately. That will come eventually if it meaning to come to you. But don't do it for the results, do it because you want to. And that's how I did and I see the result now.

Geoff: I think that's the mindset of champions. Again, that's been a recurring theme in a lot of these conversations. Where if you're goal is to be number one, it's very hard to sustain because you're going to have setbacks. You're not instantly going to be number one. But if you enjoy the journey and you have pride in the ethic, the work.

You see those small incremental gains, day after day and hour after hour. That's what's going to sustain you to have enough quality hours in your craft to eventually be the world's best.

Yusnier: I agree. Honestly I haven't been the first every single time. This record of 42 that I did back in 2005, it was broken a few months later from the same guy in Germany. His name is Mathias, sorry about my German I don't know how to say it correctly. He did 45 and a few months later I said, "Okay, let me try really hard." And I got it to 56. It's been so back and forth. I got 59, then another guy from Germany he got 70. It's been, it's a long list. A guy from Cuba, actually I taught him how to do some stuff, he actually did 74 one time. He had the world record for a few months. And the German guy, he did 78. It's a lot. I did 93. Today, I can tell you that I'm actually the record right now, it's 140 days. And it's mine, thank god. 140 days, I was able to do that on January 27. But I'm sure, maybe in the near future, somebody else is going to break it. It's something I have realized about this, there is always going to be someone else that is going to come out of nowhere, or maybe out of somewhere, that is going to beat you. And I have to be okay with that. Thank god I still have it, but I'm ready to let it go.

Geoff: Wow, you're doing almost two and a third dates per second. That's like faster than most people can count. It's just like can you count to 140 in a minute. Maybe, you're very close, how fast can you just-

Yusnier: But remember, in my case I had an advantage, instead of saying the answer ... if I was speaking the answer ... I typed something. It's easier to move your finger than to just say Tuesday. Even me, I think in Spanish, so I don't think of Tuesday, I think of Martes, which means Tuesday in Spanish. So I just train my fingers to press either Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and so on.

Geoff: Just muscle memory, the finger. You guys are so tuned in at this point. Obviously your not full time just doing math computations all the time, you also continue to teach math, right? Is that part of the broader dream here? Is that .... You've obviously used mathematics and the calculations to create this new life and you want to share this with the people around you.

Yusnier: Yeah, actually I own a company. I'm one of the three co-founders of the company called Viera Academy. Viera is my last name, Yusnier Viera. The reason we have the name is because we're following the Viera Method that we have created in order to help students to get better at whatever they do. Honestly, in the case of the Viera Academy I would say our mission is to democratize the path to upper college. We're helping high school students mainly, in order to get to the best possible SAT scores, to get to the best possible college, whatever that means for you. And we help them get into college and to survive during college.

Geoff: Very cool. So what are sort of the key highlights in terms of what the Viera method is? What are the key levers here?

Yusnier: Essentially the Viera method combines mental math and really techniques in order to be fast when answering a question. As you know, because I know you almost got a perfect score, not a perfect score in the SAT, I know you're good at it.

Geoff: How'd you know that? Yeah, I was going to put my SAT score up.

Yusnier: I think I read that somewhere. So, as you know in the SAT score for example in the case of math I say that with your format you need to answer with total 58 math questions in 80 minutes, if you add the two math sections. So we're talking about one minute, 10 seconds plus some break in between in order to answer one question. So it's not only about knowing the math, it's to know how to do it under one minute, 10 seconds. So by knowing mental math, in my case I can do those 80 questions in around 10 minutes with a perfect score, the math section of course. And what I try to do, I try to teach the students how to do the same thing, even if they spend eight times more than me, that's still enough for the 80 minutes that are required in order to get a perfect score. So I just teach them one of the techniques, you can take for this specific problem and like I say it's pretty much based in mental math and reading techniques. Why are reading techniques important, because you need to read the question really fast. If you don't know how to read fast it's going to be really hard for you to just understand what the question is about. 

Geoff: I'm just thinking back to those days, I haven't thought about that in a long time. But yeah, a lot of them are word problems right, you've got to interpret. Like how do you take a piece of English prose into a math problem.

Yusnier: And if you study really hard, it gets to a point that after you read the question you're probably ... after you read the whole problem except the question you probably can guess what the question is going to ask you because you've already got it. You can do it in like 10 seconds average if you're extremely good at it.

Geoff: I think it's something just like the broader education if I'm thinking a little about in recent weeks. In the sense that I think there's a sub-segment of just the broader population that really, really cares about education. But this might be me over-reading into it, or being pessimistic about a certain segment of the population where education is like less interesting. Or less of a standard or less of a goal of certain demographics. Like to really be good at math, you can imagine that some segment of people are saying, "Oh, you don't really need math, you have a calculator. When are you going to solve a geometry question in the real world." What is your sense of that? To ease something like the social questions of the role of education and the standards of education for people.

Yusnier: Honestly into a certain point I understand that there are some math stuff that we don't use in our daily life, I understand that. However, and this is the funny part about math, I use math everywhere. And when I make a decision I think in terms of priority, to do this or do that? Not only that, math also helps you to organize your ideas in your brain. So it's not only about you not knowing geometry or anything. It's about knowing what is the algorithm to solve this type of problem. So knowing the steps, so any time you have a problem it might be something I haven't seen before, it's a math problem. It's not exactly a math problem, but I can solve it the way I solved this math problem.

So you can relate it into other things. That's the beautiful thing about math. That essentially helps you to organize ideas in your head. In the case of algebra for example, you have to find X. X is the unknown. You need to know how to solve linear equations otherwise you're going to be like ... I don't know you're going to be like guessing the answer. It's not a big deal. By knowing algebra, that helps you to organize ideas and to figure out things that otherwise would be impossible. And people have some ... and I say people in general, sometimes we think we don't need math in order to be successful. Yeah, maybe not exactly the math you did in school, but believe it or not we are all doing math every time. Because like I say, when you're taking a decision you need to take a decision based on what is better for you. But you need to put some weight into that decision. Okay, this weights for me this number. The only way you can represent that weight is with numbers, and that's where math comes. Actually we're doing more mental math than we realize.

Geoff: I think that's a great way to articulate that. And I think having that formal mathematics training just gives you a better framework to make decisions. I think that's exactly the way to put it. If you don't understand the probability of something being four times more likely than another outcome than how do you think about it? Do you just guess? Do you just make random decisions? Obviously you would want, hopefully, that I think most people would agree that more accurate decision making probably leads to a more "happy" or more optimal life. Because you're seeing life more clearly and therefore making decisions more clearly based on the facts that one can observe. And that is a very mathematical rigorous approach decision making versus all right, I'm going to flip some coins and kind of randomly make decisions.

Yusnier: I agree, yeah.

Geoff: I think one thing that's very cool about what you're doing is that you're setting a standard or being a role model for intellectual pursuit. And I think that one of the things that I feel is missing in today's society is a lack of clear standards for people. I think one of the beauties of America as we talked about before, is that there's a lot of freedom. And I think sometimes the downside is there's just too much options, where there's no relative better goal for people. If it's just equally as beneficial to be smart as stupid, or mathematically good or mathematically bad, I think that's overly politically correct. I think there should be, hey, all things equal you should be better at math. You shouldn't be necessarily prideful that your not good at math.

It's like okay, if you're not good at math, that's fine. We should help you get better. But that's a worth goal. I think that's the problem where people say okay, you're bad at math but you're still great, don't worry about it. You're great. I think that's a disservice to people, I think that's really a disservice where you're almost by not trying to hurt their feelings you're allowing them to not be a better version of themselves. And I hope that through these conversations and the work that you're doing through your academy inspire people to be like, it's okay to not be good at it, not today. But it's not okay if you don't try to improve yourself. And hopefully that's a message that we can try to spread to the world.

Yusnier: And let me tell you one more thing about Viera Academy.

What we're trying to do is essentially to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Why? Because honestly right now, if you have money, or if you can afford a tutor, and that will give you an advantage.

So we're trying to make this system that works independently and is very cheap, honestly we only charge almost nothing, like $5 a month. And you have this system that can help you all the way into the SATs. Normally this type of system it costs thousands of dollars. We want to close that gap. Again, from Cuba as a country, I hate the government, of course I love the people. But I love something about Cuba I know what I love for example, I had the same chance. As long as you're not against politics, if you're rich or poor nobody's ahead of the other. You all have the opportunity to get into college as long as you practice. But in America with so many options and with the money, you can afford to have a tutor and that will give you an edge. It's okay, I'm not against rich people, I want to be rich, too, don't get me wrong. I'm all into that. But at the same time I want to help the people who normally can't afford those offers, those tutors. They need something like Viera Academy.

Geoff: It sounds like an incredible price point, that's like super affordable, $5 a month, yeah okay. That's like an app download or a coffee. If you can get your kid a step up in the math game, that sounds well worth it. And I think that's something that I would say, America is still like figuring out now. I don't think that's an answered problem in America or around the globe. I think there's a lot of debate currently around affirmative action. How do we balance the education gap between the rich and the poor. I think we could probably all agree that we should give everyone an equal opportunity to achieve. And clearly there's different opportunity levels given your social economic position. So services that help people that have less access to something that is quite affordable. That sounds like a very worthy goal to maximum the talent of every worthy individual, which would be good for the country aside from the individual. If every single American and every single politician could be best possible version of themselves, I think we'd be living on a much more enlightened, productive, and happy society where people are feeling that their innate talents are being utilized properly right? You can see a world where you weren't able to pursue your mathematical talent to the extent that you have. And you'd probably, I don't know, still making $20 a month in Cuba.

Yusnier: I'm living the American dream, believe it or not. For me this is the American dream.

Geoff: I also know that you were on a TV show, Super Human show. We've done quite a bit of media. I'm curious to be here a little bit about the behind-the-scenes experience. Was it weird? Always I think talking a little bit from my experience, you're always putting on a little bit of a show. I'm curious to hear your experience and thoughts on it.

Yusnier: Honestly what you see on the show is not exactly what you see behind the scenes. At least in my experience. It was great behind the scenes don't get me wrong but it's totally different. In that show I can remember saying hi to Mike Tyson, "Hey, hi." That wasn't on the show but for me it was great experience. Because I admired the guy as a boxer, even when I was in Cuba I heard about him. So for me having that interaction with someone was great. Being on the show was a great opportunity for me, especially because I was one of only 12 people that were selected in the country in order to compete for the super human title. And that's an honor for me because I'm telling you a few years ago I was in Cuba with only $20 a month, now I'm on Fox, on this show. It's like I couldn't imagine that 10 years ago. That actually opens my door of opportunities. I don't know what's going to happen to me in 10 years, so to be part of this show is very inspiring for me.

Geoff: So for folks who haven't tune in, what's the basic premise? What's the idea behind the Super Human show?

Yusnier: The Super Human show is essentially like 12 people in the country and we all have our own talents. And we need to perform to show the talents. And the people in the audience will vote for who they think is a super human. Whoever wins gets $100,000. I didn't win, I didn't win, I wish I could.

Geoff: Spoiler alert.

Yusnier: That's fine. Oh, I'm sorry, spoiler alert. That's right. But it was a great experience, I'm telling you being in the show with that exposure. That helps me to build my path. Right now I'm with Viera Academy and how that media exposure helps me to promote what I think is important in my life.

Geoff: Absolutely, for me, having been on some TV shows, Shark Tank, etc. The weirdest thing is that you tape so much, and what's actually shown on TV is like a very, very small slice of it. Which is like try, right? Like you were on doing whatever you were doing, but it's a very interesting snapshot of what was reality.

Yusnier: It's like, "Are you kidding me? They cut that part. I love that part." 

Geoff: Which I guess kind of relates back into this creating a narrative around in Cuba there's like this narrative around you. This brainwash, this propaganda. But I think it's important to note that whatever media we're getting I think that's like the rise of the podcast. We can have a long-form discussion. We're going to be talking for an hour as opposed to getting two minutes on Fox News. I think that's why you see these formats increasing in popularity. I think people realize that their information sources in America, obviously a lot more accessibility but I think again, there is a limited amount of time. And we need to be just vigilant in making sure we get the full complete picture on any story. I think there's too much nuance in this world, it's complicated. It's not like a talking head on ABC has like the one true truth. And I think that's why you're seeing the political landscape debating what are facts? Alternative facts, what's the difference right? It's kind of a wild territory that we're in.

Yusnier: One thing that has helped me in the past in order to know who to follow, is to travel. If you travel a lot, you will learn from different cultures. You will learn other experiences, and you can actually have an opinion of your own with no problem, without checking if it's true or not. I think probably it's another way to actually gather truthful information.

Geoff: Yeah, break the context of what you're in. Have you spent a lot of time traveling much more now that you're settled? Is there something that you're just doubling down into?

Yusnier: Yeah, not right now because I have a daughter, she's just one year. So I actually kind of settled down a little bit, but before, yeah. We were traveling a lot and I love it. It's one of my passions. 

Geoff: One thing that I wanted to touch upon was the rise of video game sports. Obviously you're a real champion in a very similarly related a mental sport, these calculations. Do you see this space growing? You could imagine that maybe in decade, two decades, can you imagine a world where these mental sports, these cognitive sports, is as popular as a physical sport? Is that too crazy?

Yusnier: Honestly no. Let me tell you a long story. Me, personally, I don't do video games. Because I was born in Cuba and we didn't have that many video games. So I'm not an addict to video games but I can see that it's actually a sport that is growing a lot. Especially with so many social networks and everything, I think it's going to happen in the near future we're going to have sports people playing video games. That's going to be one of the most important sports. I can see that. I think that its' going to happen, it will happen.

Geoff: How about the calculation stuff/ How about calendar dates? Is that just not visual enough. Me as an observer, I say okay you watch it a video game, it's much more visual just like watching a football game or a basketball, very visual. I presume that when you're doing a world record you're just like on a computer, like blasting out with your fingers.

Yusnier: Exactly yeah. Honestly, when we do the mental math, it's not as fun as it is for video games. That's one of the reasons probably it's not so popular, most people haven't heard about the Mental Calculation World Cup and most people know about the Soccer World Cup. Or at least heard about it. I think I mentioned though, we do have ... when I say we I mean the community of mental calculators What we need to do is make the sport more likable. Actually I'm one of the ones working on that. In that sense I created like a game that is called Hectoc a few years ago. 

Geoff: What is that? Hagtuck?

Yusnier: Hectoc, H-E-C-T-O-C.

Geoff: Hectoc okay.

Yusnier: Hectoc.org. Actually if you have an iPhone, Android, you can download the app and essentially this game ... Let me explain how it is because it combines everything addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. It's actually given like six digits numbers from one to nine, no zeros. Lets say you have number one, two, three, four, five, six, just to give you an example. You need to add operators, like addition, subtraction, multiplication, division in between in parentheses and also exponents that's the other one I forgot to mention, and you need to make the expression equal to 100.

Geoff: That's a fun little puzzle.

Yusnier: And the funny thing about that is I discovered that when I was in college at the University of Havana in Cuba in the early 2000s. I was riding a bus to get to the university, I'm telling you in Cuba just one way was taking me like two hours to get to the university, it was really hard for me. It's not only that I was poor, I was also doing a lot of sacrifices to get into college. So I had like two hours to kill and I didn't know what to do. What I did was grabbed the ticket that they give you when you take the bus. Sometimes they give you a ticket here, sometimes they don't. The fact they do I got the tickets. The tickets is essentially like a six digit number, six digits like one, two, three, four, five, six. 

I'm like, okay what can I do with this that can kill the time from now on. I realize, oh, what if I get 100? The funny thing is after two, three, four days, right? I was always getting an answer. I'm like, "Oh my god, I think it's possible to do with every single combination." And I started asking someone else, their ticket. Give me your ticket please so I can check something. And I realized that I could do it. So I did my own program except for around 200 combinations, the others can be solved. So we're talking about 1/2 million combinations, most of them, 99% of them can be solved with no problem. And it's very funny because they had a game like that in Germany, I forgot the name because the name was in German and I forgot. 

What they did, they played Hectoc on the show. There was this kid that loaded the app a few months ago, and the people on the show liked the app. They were like, "Okay, let's have that on the show." And this kid was against a guy that I know him because I met him in the last Mental Calculation World Cup. So he's an expert in mental math. Guess what? This kid, he beats the guy because he practice Hectoc so much that he gots really good at it. He could even be an expert. It was great for me to see the kind of impact that I could have to anyone, especially to a kid. And people in Germany went crazy, and I'm telling you they love the show, and we're getting a lot of feedback after the show. It's been great. And that's what fulfills me because I wanted to create something where for the people to use, for the people to train their brain. And for the first time, I found something that people likes a lot.

Because it's really hard to make math sexy, or cool, or whatever you want to call it. And I think we found a way, so that gives me the inspiration to find other ways.

Geoff: It makes sense, because I think it's very understandable for most people. You have six digits how to make this into 100. Anyone with some notion of numbers understands what that means. I think as you get into more and more advanced math, like linear algebra, different sorts of equations. At some point you're talking about doing mathematical proofs. It's like, I don't even know what you're talking about now. So I think this, in terms of a math, is very, very approachable. It almost reminds me of ... I presume when you were doing your math degree did you end up just like writing a proof just like, "Okay, can you generalize this problem out?" For certain types of patterns, certain types of digits you can always get some sort of sum.

Yusnier: The approach that I used was computer science. I tried all the combinations, I tried to solve them, with a computer program. Because mathematically speaking it was really hard to prove that almost every combination I had it had a chance. It was easy for me to just try to [crosstalk 00:52:09]. There's only 1/2 a million combinations, so it's doable with a computer.

Geoff: So it's like a combination right? They have six digits and there's this bunch of repeats. 

Yusnier: So we have nine to power of 6 combinations, which is essentially a little more than 1/2 million combinations.

Geoff: And I guess you don't count zeros?

Yusnier: You don't count zeros. The reason I don't use zeros is sometimes you can't find an answer. And we would like to avoid that, we want to find the answer as much as we can.

Geoff: So basically it would be a search by exhaustion. Okay, let's have combinations and permutations between operators and see if it ... That would be like a fun homework problem for your computer students or something.

Yusnier: We can try one right now. If you tell me six numbers, maybe we can try to solve one.

Geoff: Sure, I'll throw out some numbers for you. 

Yusnier: You can repeat these if you want, you could, whatever you want.

Geoff: Okay. What was your birthday 0, 4, 26.

Yusnier: Let's go four because the zero doesn't count. 4, 2, 6, 8, 2 and you have to tell me one more digit because I have five.

Geoff: Nine.

Yusnier: Nine, okay. Essentially this one isn't really tough. What I would do here, I got it. Let me show you, let me just write it down really quick, so I can show you.

Geoff: I was going to say, did I just choose one of the ones that couldn't be solved.

Yusnier: Okay, check this out. Yeah, you're not that lucky. Check this out. All I did was took the number 426829, the one you told me. I made this expression. Four times all this, what is all this? This is 26, minus 8, that would be 18 minus 2 that will be 16 plus 9 that will be 25 right? 

Geoff: 25 times 4.

Yusnier: Four times 25 that's 100 right there.

Geoff: Nice. Double check, it is correct. That is 100.

Yusnier: So essentially I just solved a Hectoc problem. If you don't load the app, just for an example, we start by level one, level one is just as simple as just writing I would say one operator that would make the expression equal to 100. So we start with level one because it's really hard to get to this level because you need a lot of practice. And I have solved maybe 1/2 million of this for sure.

Geoff: I remember as a kid playing with this type of mental calculation type stuff. At a certain point it's an intuition right, it sounds like you have just some good patterns of feeling kind of like where numbers would fit together. I think there's some intuition that you have, like, "Okay this feels kind of right. This kind of structure feels kind of right here." Would that be a good way to describe how you see a problem?

Yusnier: I started doing let's say Hectoc based on intuition and to do it really fast. Then I tried to put the intuition into an algorithm. And this is what I came up. For example, if you want to think 100 one is the nicest way to think 100? Maybe 4 times 25. That's one way. Then I see a four at that beginning, I probably try four times 25. Like I did with you. If I see a two at the beginning maybe I try two times 50. But if I see a 10, for example a four and a six, that would give me a 10 then I try to get a two later, so 10 to the power of two that will be 100. So by knowing the factors of 100 or the ways you can get 100, that gives you an advantage of what to do.

Geoff: I see, I think this kind of reminds me of how very, very good chess players aren't just blindly searching all possible combinations. They know there's certain patterns they want to match towards. And it sounds like you want to go to the multiples, like okay 10 by 10, four by 25, what are all the permutations here and just kind of jam them together. These are the things you're searching for, which makes sense.

Yusnier: Yep, that makes total sense, that's actually the way I do it.

Geoff: Cool. One last question here. One of the things that is important for physical athletes are their sleep, their nutrition. They're measuring their biomarkers, whether that's blood lipids, cholesterol, testosterone, etc. I imagine that might be premature in the cognitive space. I think there is some early conversation with video game teams exploring these concepts. Have you personally explored some of these concepts? Have people in the mental athlete game tried interesting diets? Like ketogenic diets are something that's popular around energy levels. Have you tried fasting? Have you tried some type of diets? Do you do weird sleep patterns? What are your thoughts there?

Yusnier: In my case, I consider that I know a lot of people that actually ... for example, Nelson Lewis he has his own diet. In my case, for example, I always take care of my sleep. I make sure that I sleep at least seven hours. I know it's hard to do it when you have a daughter, like me, but I always try to do my best in that sense. Because I feel more energetic when I am rested. In terms of exercises, sometimes I do exercises, but mostly I don't do it. It's actually my fault. It's because with so many things that I want in my life, I just focus on what I think I have to spend a lot of time in the company, so it's really hard. But I'm always willing to explore new ways. So actually this is my way of saying that I'm willing to try-

Geoff: Yeah, Zhill will send out some product. I think the ketones and the neurotropic, I'm curious to get your thoughts. 

Yusnier: I'll check it out, those are one of the things I would like to try.

Geoff: Cool. Happy to coordinate that, and we'll get your feedback there. I think that's interesting where with physical sports there's just a lot more eyeballs, which means a lot more money, so there's a lot more work and focus and clinical science on how to optimize an athlete. But I think there's a really strong argument that mental athletes like yourself are going to be more akin to what creates more economical value for more people right? Like the average worker is probably going to look more like you than Tom Brady who's throwing a leather ball for a living. So it would be interesting to see if there's a point where cognitive athletes, or e-Sports athletes, have the biomarker tracking, the cycling of training, the cycling of nutrition just like athletes do. I wonder when that will get into the world of cognitive sports?

Yusnier: I have no doubt in my mind that having a good diet and a good sleep is super important not only for physical athletes, also for mental athletes or mathletes we call ourselves. So definitely that's the way it should go in the near future for me. 

Geoff: Cool. So thanks for coming on. Where do people find you, obviously you've got the Viera Academy, you've got Hectoc the game. What are you looking forward to for the rest of the year.

Yusnier: For my case I might be on a show later this year. Can't disclose exactly what the name is or anything. But essentially I'm going to be working on Viera Academy. That's my full-time job. I have more than one full-time job but this is my first, besides my daughter and my family, this is one of the most important things in my life, Viera Academy. In which we want to expand all the knowledge that we have to offer to everyone in the world. Again, I'm going to be pretty much making sure that they company goes well, and that's essentially going to be my focus from today until the end of the year.

Geoff: Any competitions coming up?

Yusnier: There is one right now at the end of this month. But I don't think I'm going to be able to make it, because the TV show that I was telling you before for the next year, for sure we'll be the company.

Geoff: Awesome. Well good luck on the competitions. And then if people want to stay in touch, do you have different social platforms? Are you on Twitter, etc.?

Yusnier: I'm on Twitter, Mental Calendar, I'm on Facebook my name, but I think it's a personal page, so I think I wouldn't with 5,000 friends, I'll have to create a new page I guess, for Facebook.

Geoff: All right, Yusnier, thanks so much, it was a great conversation.

Yusnier: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

Geoff: All right, cheers.

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