Memory champion Yanjaa Wintersoul on why mindfulness and representation matters
The memory keeper
"If she can do it, maybe I can do it too" — Yanjaa Wintersoul, IKEA's Human Catalogue talks about recognising your potential in important representations in media and advertising
The arrival of the IKEA Catalogue every year is something the masses look forward to... even if you think you've upgraded and sworn off mass-produced furniture. It's unsurprising, seeing how IKEA's probably been there for you at the pivotal stages of your life: Your first paycheck, your first sheets that you could pick out without your parents' all-seeing eye, and beginner pieces for your first rental or home. Year after year, the catalogue's mood boards, cut-outs of creative influences and creatures of comfort indulge those who aspire to exist in that stylish space with a Nordic nod.
Enter Yanjaa Wintersoul, IKEA's Human Catalogue who's made the browsing experience a tad more interesting. The 23-year-old Texas-based Mongolian was scouted by BBH Singapore, the ad agency responsible for creating IKEA's viral campaign. Her claim to fame? She's now the number one highest-ranked Female Memory World Champion who's also memorised the entire IKEA catalogue in just a week. While the initial idea was to have her memorise just 2,000 products, Wintersoul (whose real name is Yanjindulam Altansuh) realised that it was easier to memorise the entire catalogue.
This excellent memory isn't a skill she was born with. When she wanted to graduate in half the time it took to get a Bachelor's degree in business school, she picked up a book about memory techniques where a journalist decided to be a memory champion. Wintersoul explained, "I thought if some random guy in the USA can do it, so can I!" The following week, she used the memory techniques and passed her exams. Within a year and a half of training, she won the gold medal for Sweden — where she was based at the time — at the World Memory Championships in 2014. In 2015, she received the world record for remembering the most names and faces in 15 minutes at the Asian Open. Apart from that, Wintersoul's also a polyglot — she speaks fluent Mongolian, Swedish and English, and was also fluent in Swahili and Spanish in high school. She's what you'd call a global citizen, having grown up in Mongolia, Stockholm, Kenya and Tokyo, bringing this wealth of diversity and perspective to each facet of her life.
Currently, Wintersoul's shooting a documentary with Emmy Award-winning director Janet Tobias, which will feature the World Memory Championships in Jakarta in December. Before her return to Singapore for the Singapore Memory Championships later on 30 September, we find out from the wunderkind on how mindfulness has enriched her life and the importance of representation in media and advertising.
As a memory champion, we have to ask: What is your earliest memory? I'm sitting with my mom and she's teaching me the Mongolian alphabet, she tells me the letter B is for ball and asks me if I can imagine the B bouncing up and down the page like a ball. I remember feeling like what she was teaching me, reading, was just like magic.
When did you first discover you had this gift? First time I had to push myself was moving from Mongolia to Sweden. Cultural norms, language and everything were very different and I was old enough to understand that and be aware of it and be shocked by it. So it took some getting used to, I wouldn't say it was a gift but rather a necessity as an immigrant to adapt to society.
You've mentioned how the Harry Potter book series has changed your life. How so? I think growing up and not seeing anyone who looks like you anywhere is a hindrance. Seeing is believing and representation matters. For example, is South Korea dominating women's golf because they have a biological knack for golf? Do women have better golf-genes in South Korea? Probably not, it's more likely the fact that one South Korean woman, Pak Se-Ri, inspired a generation of young girls and women to believe they could achieve great things in golf by being visible and representing them.
When I was a child growing up in Sweden, most of my heroes — fictional or not — were white men (James Bond, Bill Gates, etc). So when I saw this girl, Hermione Granger, slightly older than me with frizzy hair like me who deals with a lot of bullying because of her heritage — I felt I could relate. I found myself finding reading about what great thinkers thought about being an outsider and what great thinkers thought about life. So I was emulating her behavior and found myself spending a lot of time increasing my knowledge about the world, because I knew I would never be considered pretty by society (since no one on the cover of magazines ever looked like me). And so far — at the time — media images had a tendency to tell women they can be pretty or smart, but not both.
How important is mindfulness to you and is this something you incorporate in your life? Do you meditate? I make room for meditation and mindfulness every single day. Most importantly, I say thank you when I'm alone and feel gratitude for life. But even during busier times, being in the present moment is an act of meditation. Listening to people, listening for what they mean rather than what they are saying is mindfulness. Smiling at someone is mindfulness. Appreciating the food in front of you is mindfulness. Thinking about what you're about to say or write before you write it is mindfulness. Mindfulness is saying, "I'm grateful that this moment is happening" by being in the moment. I think life appreciates that you take the time to appreciate it.
Why do you think people have responded so favourably to this IKEA campaign — what do you think makes it tick? Partly because it seems impossible, partly because I'm just some random girl with purple hair who can do it and not a nerdy hermit guy, so it shows a thought seed of "if she can do it, maybe I can do it too."
Were you a fan of IKEA before this campaign? Of course, when my mom and I had made it in Sweden and bought our first home, we decorated it with IKEA furniture that we "hacked" by using office chairs as dining room chairs and kitchen cabinets as DVD-boxes. It became a hobby to see how creative we could get with our furniture.
This isn't the first time you've been asked to work on a brand campaign, but it's the first time you said yes. What made you say yes to IKEA? I've been asked to do more than a dozen advertising campaigns since I started memory in 2014, but it's never been the right fit. I'm very aware of different brands and companies' social responsibility and sustainability goals as well as achievements. I believe in IKEA (we even studied the founder's biography at business school) and it just felt right as the campaign started falling into place.
If I do something similar, it has to be for a cause or company that has an equally strong social initiative and environmental plan. But as I said, I say no to a lot of things simply because it doesn't feel morally right even though I could've made a lot more money by now.
You're opening the Wintersoul Academy with an introductory course on memory for children. How else do you wish to use your talent to — put it simply — change the world? I dream of a world where children love school and where adults see learning as part of their ongoing lives — not something that just exists in the classroom. I wish to help create the tools and the systems needed to create a fun and effective learning environment.
Could you tell us more about the book you're currently writing, What Is Memory? When is it out and what can people expect? The subhead line is "and 100 other very important questions" which is all of the most frequently asked questions about memory answered in a short and simple way (with footnotes and references to research that back up the claims, for those who are interested). On top of that, some of the more unusual facts about memory that people don't even know to ask about. Hopefully it's out just before Christmas! It's the book I would've wanted for Christmas as a kid, because it would have saved me a lot of hours studying inefficiently...
Lastly, is there anything you wish you'd forget? Sometimes I wish I could forget about social injustice, because I realise it makes me a more boring person at times. And it does get tiring to be a whistleblower or a person who points out racist or sexist remarks, even though I think it's for a greater cause — sometimes I wish I could just forget about it.