Mike Byster is a genius. He is known as a human calculator with “one of the fastest mathematical brains in the world.” Spoiler alert: He won the title of “Superhuman” on the FOX TV show because of his incredible brain power. I’m fortunate enough to call Mike a friend, and you will never meet someone kinder and more passionate about helping kids succeed than Mike Byster. He’s here to help us through the quarantine and to teach us how to get smarter.
Interview with Mike Byster
Ali Wenzke: Hi, Mike Byster! Thank you for joining me today. Many people know you from the FOX TV show “Superhuman,” but here in Chicago everyone knows you as the genius math guy who inspires schoolchildren to love math. How do you inspire the kids?
Mike Byster: Thanks, Ali. One of the most important things I do is make sure everyone has fun at my school visits. Some kids love math, some hate math. It’s so important that at any age, at any level, kids learn not to hate math or be scared of numbers.
I start my school visits by giving an example of what my brain can do. It gives me credibility with the kids. The kids set up the problems ahead of time in their classrooms. Then, when I’m in the school auditorium, they throw the numbers at me and I solve the problem in a few seconds. Even with a calculator, it would take the kids several minutes to solve it. The kids know this is real because they did the work. I start with that.
Then, I teach them things so when they go home to show their parents, their parents will be absolutely amazed. One of my favorite letters I have received (and I’ve received this letter a lot) is: “For the first time, my dad called me smart. He even wanted me to show his friends what I learned.”
Every kid walks out of my school visits with a different attitude towards numbers and learning in general. In my opinion, confidence is 90% of learning. Once you believe you can learn and feel smart, it will all take off from there.
AW: Many parents are struggling with e-learning right now during the pandemic. What advice would you give to parents to help their kids with math?
MB: When my son, Josh, was younger, he would bring home things that I didn’t understand. As good as I am in some areas, when he started geometry, I was in big trouble. So, this is what I did and what I recommend to parents.
I would take the lessons away from Josh, and I would go and try to do them on my own. A couple times I had to go online and learn things. Don’t sit down with your child cold and make them feel like it’s impossible. When your child asks for help, don’t say, “I don’t know. This is frustrating.” How can you expect your kid to feel confident about math when you say that yourself? Parents have to give themselves time to learn the math on their own.
When your child is asleep, look at the information ahead of time. Go over the lessons alone and try to learn them well, so you can instill confidence in your child. Make it fun for your kid. Throw in an ice cream sundae, if you want. Anything to keep that positive attitude. The best teachers in the world are the ones who believe in the children. I have met with so many parents, and the most important thing is the attitude of the parents when they are working with their children.
AW: You’ve been so kind to create short videos for kids to watch during the stay-at-home orders. What is the best way for families to get the most out of your videos?
MB: Kids should watch the videos on their own, practice a few times, then show it off to Mom or Dad. Then, the kids should Skype with Grandma or Grandpa to share what they’ve learned. I want the kids to build up confidence and to “put on a show for people.” I want the kids to go back to school liking math a lot more. If they’ve changed their attitude toward math for the better and their confidence is higher, then I’ve done my job.
Every video that I will release are things that adults don’t know. The adults will be shocked. I switch off between math shortcuts, card tricks, memory tricks, and games.
I’ve gotten letters from parents who have three kids and the kids plan to take turns watching my videos. One kid will learn a math shortcut or card game and then teach it to the other siblings. When you learn something and you amaze someone, it’s good to teach what you’ve learned because you learn more that way. You have power with knowledge, because you know something that other people don’t. Share that power.
AW: What is a common mistake parents make when teaching their kids math?
MB: Something I see all the time is that too many parents try to teach their kids math by doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Math is everywhere. I try to make sure that kids don’t look at numbers as just a way to do a subtraction problem.
As a kid, my dad and I played card games, so I loved numbers. We played “War” and “Go Fish” and card tricks that included adding up numbers. We would add up the serial numbers on a dollar bill or rearrange numbers on license plates during drives.
When I was on 20/20, I received emails from so many parents who said they were petrified to teach math to their kids because they hated math their whole life. A teacher made them stand at a board until they figured out a problem and they still remembered that embarrassment. It’s important to me to show kids (and parents) that numbers and math are everywhere and it’s fun. Numbers are about more than taking a test or doing a worksheet. It’s a game and a fun one.
AW: What games can parents play with their kids to make numbers fun?
MB: Play cards. A lot of kids don’t play card games these days. We did, because we didn’t have the internet. “Crazy Eights” is a fun one. When I used to play “War” with my dad, we used to play it where we would turn over five cards instead of one at a time. As we got better, we tried to play the game faster and faster.
Another game I like is “Concentration”. You place all 52 cards face down and you pick two cards. If the cards match, you keep them. However, let’s say it’s an “8” and a “3”. You flip those cards back over. Then, your opponent needs to remember where that first “8” was when he picks up another “8”. It’s great for memorizing and playing with numbers. Memory is such an important thing because it’s not taught in school. Yet, memory is definitely something that can be taught.
AW: So, I just have to ask. Were you born a genius, Mike Byster?
MB: No. I train my brain to do what it does. When I was on the TV show “Superhuman”, we had the 40 smartest people competing against each other. Every single person trained their brain. No one is born with a brain like I have now or like the other memory people on the show. We all work at it. Memory and strengthening your brain can be learned. So, if you think your child has a weak memory, please watch my videos.
AW: What do you do to keep your mind sharp?
MB: I’m lucky because I’m always getting emails from people all over the world with math problems. I speak in front of kids every day, so I solve numerous puzzles with them. I’ll also do stuff like Sporcle, test-taking games and memory quizzes. I like crossword puzzles. I have no shortage of ways to keep my mind sharp.
AW: What can adults do to keep their minds healthy during the quarantine? In other words, how can we get smarter while we’re stuck at home?
MB: My favorite mental exercise is to play a game where you take a word that is 7 or 8 letters long and then try to alphabetize it. For example, my name “Michael” would be “A-C-E-H-I-L-M”. Why is this important? When you take information and switch it around in your head, you can see things in different combinations. I’ve done a lot of things to keep my brain sharp and nothing keeps your mind sharper than this.
When you really push your brain, you will feel the exercise. Once you can accomplish rearranging letters, it will stay with you. When you are at work, you will take information, rearrange it, and find ways to do something more efficiently. It becomes a natural thing.
You can also play this with your family. Give each person a 6-letter word, then a 7-letter, then 8 and so on. A lot of kids and parents don’t realize that strengthening your brain is within your control. If you look at learning as fun, you will be more successful in every aspect of your life. This is especially true for seniors. My brain is sharper now than it was in my 20s.
Everyone should believe in themselves. The example that parents set is so important for their children.
AW: Thank you, Mike Byster, for all that you do to help children love math and for helping families through this difficult time. Where can people find you?
Mike Byster’s mission in life is to positively impact the minds and lives of all students. Even for students with test anxiety and learning disabilities, Mike’s approach to learning takes the pressure off, making the process of learning a positive experience. Mike Byster is the author of The Power of Forgetting: Six Essential Skills to Clear Out Brain Clutter and Become the Sharpest, Smartest You. Mike is also the creator of the Brainetics learning system.