30 Days to a Better Man Day 10: Memorize “If”

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 9, 2009 · 40 comments

in 30 Days to a Better Man

Before Google and the internet, people memorized stuff. When your grandpa went to school, memorization was the main method of learning, and he had to commit things like the Gettysburg Address and sonnets by William Shakespeare to memory. Decades ago, rote leaning went entirely out of fashion amongst educators, in favor of helping students think creatively and problem solve. Yet, the pendulum swung a bit too far, and the baby got chucked out with the bathwater. For in truth, there are many advantages to memorizing information. After all, while it’s important to be able to think and apply knowledge, if you don’t have any knowledge to apply, knowing how to apply it is pretty useless. This is where memorization comes in.

The ancient Greeks understood this. They began the schooling of their young men by having them memorize the poetry of Homer or the wise words of Solon, the founder of Athenian democracy. The Athenians believed that by memorizing great poetry they were helping their citizens develop a mastery of language that would serve them well in the halls of the Assembly. Moreover, memorization of noble poetry burned the ideals of Athenian society deep into the souls of its citizens.

The West’s most famous wordsmith, William Shakespeare, gained his education by memorizing the epic poetry of the classical world. Through this practice, the Bard developed an ear for the sophisticated rhythms and patterns of language, helping him churn out some of civilization’s most cherished pieces of literature. Moreover, by memorizing the myths and stories of the ancient world, Shakespeare had a fountain of creative resources to draw upon as he wrote his plays.

Almost the entirety of Abraham Lincoln’s education was self-directed. Lacking formal schooling, he consumed books with an insatiable desire, reading snatches of them whenever he could. He also committed to memory numerous passages from his favorite books. It enabled him to learn the musicality present in great writing. It’s no coincidence that the mind that produced the Gettysburg Address had at its immediate disposable snippets from the world’s finest authors.

These days, people have to google something if they want to remember the words to a poem or some other famous piece of literature. Heck, we even need Google to remember the capital of Vermont. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, one writer makes the case that Google is making us dumber. And he’s probably right.

So today, we’re going reverse the trend of having to depend on the Google crutch by memorizing Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. Let’s get started.

Why Memorize Things

There are countless benefits to memorizing great poems and passages. Here are a few for consideration:

Improved writing. As you memorize great poetry and other worthy pieces of literature, you’ll be begin to internalize the rhythm and structure employed by some of the world’s greatest writers. Etching these things into your brain allows some of that magic to make it’s way into your own writing. Benjamin Franklin was a believer. According to his autobiography, Franklin set out to improve his writing by memorizing the works of writers he admired.

Increased vocabulary. In the course of memorizing, you’ll undoubtedly encounter words you’ve never seen or don’t know the meaning of. By memorizing the word within the context of the poem, it will be easier to recall its meaning and use it later than if you had tried to memorize the word alone.

A more interesting personality. I’ve always been impressed by that very rare man who can weave a snippet of a great speech or poem into a conversation. Being able to throw some inspiration from Wordsworth or a bit of wit from Twain into your conversations can definitely distinguish  you as a gentleman of letters. The trick is to be discriminating when you start reciting stuff. If you do it too much or at the wrong times, you’ll just make yourself look like a pompous ass.

A strengthened backbone. The most important benefit of memorizing passages from great works is that you’ll be storing up a treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge that you can immediately access  when you need extra motivation to man up. Feeling a little nervous while you’re waiting in the lobby for a job interview? Recite Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” to yourself. Perhaps you’ve been put in a leadership position and need to get psyched up to lead your group to success. Mull over the words to the “St. Crispen’s Day” speech. There’s probably a poem or a great speech that can be used to motivate you for any facet of your life.

Tips on Memorizing

When I was in law school, I often had to memorize 40 pages of a class outline. So I was always looking for new ways to improve my ability to memorize.

I’m a big fan of the peg system, the link system, and mindmaps. Unfortunately, I found these techniques useless for memorizing 40 page law school outlines filled with abstract legal doctrine. So I came up with my own system, which I call “brute force memorization.” It ain’t pretty or efficient, but it gets the job done.

The Brute Force Memorization Process

While reading the sentence I want to memorize aloud,  I’ll type it into my computer. I repeat this process five times with each line of data I want to memorize. In this way, I get visual stimulation by reading and auditory stimulation from the reading aloud. And writing things down is one of the best ways to remember things. These three things done simultaneously produce a trifecta of memorizing power.

And of course, repetition crams the info into your brain. If I’m having trouble memorizing a particular piece of information, I’ll keep repeating the process until I’ve got it down

I’ve been doing this for years and it has always helped me remember those pesky details I’ve needed to know for school or other things.

Caveat: I don’t completely abandon other memorizing techniques while doing this. I often incorporate them in the process when I see they would work. For example, something else I’ll do is a technique that was used by those memorization gurus, the ancient Greeks. The Greeks are the originators of mnemonic devices (from “mnemonikos” which is itself derived from Mnemosyne, the name of the Goddess of Memory). Orators faced the daunting task of memorizing long speeches and employed the “method of loci” in order to do so. They would picture a house and place “objects” (words they wanted to remember from the speech or poem) in different rooms in the imaginary house. Then, to remember the speech, they would “walk” through the house picking up each “object” as they went.

Today’s Task: Memorize If by Rudyard Kipling

Exercising your memorization muscles is clearly beneficial, but many men are totally out of practice or have never tried. So today we’re going to start working out those muscles, starting with one of the manliest poems ever written- If- by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a poem that every man should have thoroughly lodged in his head, ready to conjure up whenever he’s feeling down.

It’s not too short, but it’s not too long either. I think memorizing it is doable in the next day or two. Go to it!

Do you have any memorization tips? Have you memorized any passages or quotes in your life? Share with us in the Community page.


By: Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Cope June 9, 2009 at 6:52 pm

i love this idea. our rugby team in college modified Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” (dubbed “Rugby Game Day”) and a senior member (delegated yearly, so the person reciting it had that honor all year) would recite it just minutes before each match. i had the honor of reciting this amazing poem my last two years with the team. the previous guys would read it from a sheet of paper, but i insisted on memorizing it so that i could recite it with the utmost passion and intensity, and i’ll tell you what, to this day, nothing makes me more pumped up, thinking i can take on the world. and i’m pretty sure nothing motivated my team more either. i still recite bits and pieces of it in my head from time to time, and i still remember the whole thing. it will always be a part of my life.

and i’m hoping to do the same thing with “if”

2 Henry Kung June 9, 2009 at 7:38 pm

AoM always manages to speak to the truth that I know deep inside myself, but have difficulty expressing to myself. Awesome idea, and so very true. Thank you Brett and Kate, and keep up the great work!

3 Julian June 9, 2009 at 7:45 pm

This one hits particularly close to home for me. I still remember my father telling me about memorizing this poem and giving me a laminated copy of it that I’ve always kept in my desk and read from time to time. I did have it memorized for a while, but I don’t remember it so well. I’ll have to fix that! It was great to read this post. Thank you!

4 Joe June 9, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Completely agree. Memorizing information is very important.

5 Cutter June 9, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Great choice; Kipling is so unjustly forgotten now. (Reminds me of the very first greeting card ever marketed: a man sitting under a tree says to a girl: “Do you like Kipling?” To which she replies: “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled.” (http://jimsmuse.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/kipling.jpg))

Concerning your point about throwing a classical line into casual conversation… I gave up doing that. NO ONE gets the references anymore, and if they sense that it’s a quote, it breaks up the rhythm of the conversation while they ask and I explain. I was in a business meeting once where we discussed two possible choices from a vendor about whose whose motivations we were unsure. I said, “Huh, it’s the Lady or the Tiger.” Not one person in a room of 19 people got it. One guy thought it was an 80′s song reference. I’m not kidding.

A word to the wise on memorization: whatever you’ve memorized, brush it off every year or so and recite it. In the car or shower, while mowing, wherever. If you don’t, you may very well forget it completely in just a few years. I used to know all the presidents in order, poetry by Robert E Howard, works by the Founding Fathers, several national anthems, and even George Carlin’s ‘incomplete list of impolite words’. I’ve forgotten almost all of them now. I’ve forgotten much of my German vocabulary and virtually all of my Russian vocabulary as well, simply because I don’t flex those linguistic muscles periodically.

Heck, I even used to know “Gunga Din.” It’s gone now.

6 Simon June 9, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Well said. Totally agree. I lost count of how many grammatical constructs I borrowed from memorized texts during these years. (English isn’t my mother tongue)

Cutter (and others): Check this out:


SuperMemo is a software application which employs the scientifically-proven concept of “spaced repetition” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition) to achieve up to 99% retention of any information you put in. For life. (as long as you stick with the repetitions, of course..)

The website is jampacked with articles explaining in detail the nuts and bolts of the process and defending the importance of memorizing.

(for example: http://www.supermemo.com/articles/useless.htm)

Yes, it is a commercial application – but very cheap. And no, I’m not paid nor work for the company. I am just an enthusiastic user since 2006.

Besides, there are free alternatives too like Mnemosyne (http://www.mnemosyne-proj.org) which uses an outdated (but still useful) version of the SuperMemo algorithm.

7 Matt SF June 10, 2009 at 3:01 am

Well that got me fired up early in the AM!

I might have to go with the old school Shakespeare with Henry V and the “band of brothers” speech.

Perhaps go with classic Dylan Thomas and “Do not go gentle into that goodnight”

8 Jim June 10, 2009 at 3:34 am

great site…love the “30 days” exercise. thank you for sharing this

9 Adam Preset June 10, 2009 at 4:07 am

I had literally had this poem on my old website (http://www.swarthmore.edu/~apreset1/docs/if.html — still up!) for *years* and was always happy to hear from others who read it, were moved by it, and used it as either:

1) a model for living, or
2) a way to keep their perspective and calm when things get stressful

I’ve copied the poem to our new site (http://www.adamandtiffy.com/blog/if-by-rudyard-kipling) and still have a printed copy hanging near my desk at work. I don’t need it, though. I remember it so well.

10 Ethan June 10, 2009 at 4:26 am

This is such a great article. Children in the early days of American schooling had to memorize, not just read, all their lessons of math, history, geography, etc. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be. But that system is what gave America so many great writers.

I would add another book to memorize; the King James version of the Bible is an excellent source of literary beauty. Just look at Psalm 23 to experience the rhythm and cadences of it poetry. Other great passages in addition to Psalm 23 are Psalm 100 and I Corinthians 13.

11 Jesse June 10, 2009 at 5:37 am

I will have this memorized by Friday.

12 Jason Y June 10, 2009 at 6:02 am

Indeed, I need to get on the ball with memorization myself.

I find _what_ we memorize to be a crucial choice. Personally, I find it best to only bother with things that are applicable every day, like Bible passages, vocabulary, or multiplication tables. Personally, I think schools today still focus too much on memorization of facts, not enough on understanding concepts. However, more memorization of things like foreign language vocabulary would be good.

To balance the OP’s critique of the use of Google. I _do_ find that those who are comfortable with Google are more willing to learn what they do no know than many older individuals who ask the techie or software developer (e.g. me) everything, at which point he (me) looks it up on Google. We don’t use the “I don’t know how to do that!” excuse as often. Just my observation of people whom I know.

13 dsu June 10, 2009 at 6:16 am

My grandfather know exactly one poem and it’s “If.” He (unknowingly) does various things to keep himself sharp and active at 96, and reciting this poem at family dinners is an important one. I should memorize it myself as well.
Thanks for the post.

14 H man June 10, 2009 at 6:24 am

Here is another memorzation technique from Productivity 501.


15 David June 10, 2009 at 6:30 am

I love poem – somehow I had never come across it before. I find that it helps me to memorize by becoming “immersed” in what I’m trying to memorize. For example, reading it over and over, thinking about the “big picture” meaning, thinking about what individual lines mean, etc.

16 Thomas June 10, 2009 at 7:40 am

The technique I had for memorization in law school and for the bar was very effective. I took my class notes/outline and tried to compress it, in very small handwriting, onto a single page. Consequently, I was forced to synthesize the information, decide what was important, and try to say it in as few words as possible. When I was done, I had one sheet that had everything I needed to know for the exam. Usually, I could visualize where on the sheet I put down, say, the elements of a cause of action. And, for whatever reason, thinking where they were helped me remember what I had written down. The best thing about this method was having a one-page sheet I could look at the morning before an exam.

I’ve never known of anyone who studied a similar way, but it worked for me.

17 Andy June 10, 2009 at 8:12 am

Good post. As a recent high school graduate, I am a complete stranger to memorization. In English class, no attention is placed to language or literature at all; all we ever do is read politically correct feminist books and talk about how books can reflect what is wrong with society. In history class we make video documentaries instead of spending time memorizing things like the Gettysburg address.

In an age where both politics and technology have combined to dumb down learning, I will repeat my compliment: Good post. I will try.

18 Tony June 10, 2009 at 8:20 am

I am loving this project !
I particularly liked the gratitude project , and talked at lenght with my wife about it leading me to express my gratitude to her which ,although it may sound corny, was actaully really really nice.

The only poem I can recite on cue is Leisure by W.H. Davies, but this is because I was always a bit of a hippy as a kid and since then it’s rung true to me as the pace of life inexorably sped up (I work in IT Sales now – yes, sell out :) ).

I’ve always meant to memorise this poem and have only got snatches of it to hand, but I am totally on for this!
Thanks again,
And keep up the ..frankly FANTASTIC posts.

19 Julie June 10, 2009 at 1:57 pm

I do a lot of bardic — singing and storytelling — in a Medieval reenactment group I’m part of. Because my songbook is very heavy, I generally only carry around a single sheet of paper that has the names of the songs, stories, and poems I’ve memorized on it. That list is now around 50 items, and always growing. I know from experience that I can get a standard piece (approx 20-30 lines) from “never heard it before” to “ready to perform in front of an audience” in only a few days.

I wrote out my method for memorizing on my livejournal at: http://eveglass.livejournal.com/544803.html

Frankly, I find that there’s absolutely no comparison between reading and performing something you’ve memorized. The connection you can make with your audience when you stare them in the eyes is so much deeper than you’ll ever get with reading.


20 LA June 10, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I often refer to Google as my second brain. I can feel the creeping effects on my thinking of no longer really needing to store information – my writing is also starting to suffer. So I’ll certainly be taking on this challenge.

‘If’ is already one of my favourite poems so it’s a great place to start.

Thanks for the inspiration!

21 Edgar June 10, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Jason Y,

Memorizing foreign language vocabulary, while an important part of language learning, is not enough: you have to know grammar, too.

Memorization is an essential part of learning a foreign language, but for all those memorized words to be of any use, you have to be able to put them together–which you get from studying–and using–grammar. Making sentences in a foreign language is a “doing” skill, kind of like playing the piano: you can only get better at it by doing it.

Having said that, I’ve already gotten started on memorizing “If.” I like the suggestions for passages from the Bible, too.

22 Kly-Max June 11, 2009 at 9:29 am

Hey All!

Just subscribed yesterday! Yeah me!

My $0.02…

A great way to help memorize something, especially something bad-ass like this poem is to do so emotionally. If you really dig into the emotion of what ol’ Rud, for example was tapping into (pride, humility, etc.) than the words will stick better. Once I find the emotional core of a piece, and truly embrace it, the memorizing seems to be almost effortless.

I think it’s because I’m totally channelling the author, like in a different realm of reality, dude….yeah. :)

It would be cool to start a list of Manly Memorizers. I’m sure a Shakespeare sonnet would be in there, as well as the Bible, Koran, Bhagvad Gita (sp?).

From the looks of the comments, we already have a pretty good start!

23 Fraz June 12, 2009 at 3:29 am

@Thomas – I actually do (did) the same thing when I was studying. To make it an extra challenge, I would go for either (a) one-sided, or (b) a 4×6 index card…and yes, it helped enormously. While not giving away my age, in high school I would also record notes to “tape” (see note) and play them back while I was walking around, during lunch, or riding the bus. I’m a very “audio” person and remember what I hear almost as well as remembering what I write…which I guess plays nicely to the rote memorization method which for me always means remembering “times tables.”

NOTE, for the young ‘uns: a tape was like having an iPod that could store only 90 minutes of music, or about a 1/2 megabyte of data that required “turning over,” like a double-sided CD inside an audio device that was sometimes called a “boom box” to enjoy the full 90 minutes of music. Occasionally, or often at the time, home entertainment systems would include a pair of “cassette decks” that would allow people to either (a) copy music from one tape to another, or (b) play BOTH tapes, back to back allowing one to enjoy a party of 3 hours without repeating music or needing to change the “LP,” which is really too complicated to describe here.

:-) for the humor challenged.

24 Andrew Barbour June 14, 2009 at 5:54 pm

You can download audio files of “If” (for free!) at librivox.org:


The version read by “Chip” is good.

25 Julian June 22, 2009 at 6:38 pm

@Andrew Barbour – Thanks for that, listening right now!

26 Alex Chebykin July 18, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I memorized the entire poem and it feels great to recite these brave words to myself whenever I am in doubt or say them over again and again, along with the A man in the arena quote from Theodore Roosevelt, in the shower instead.

27 Alex Chebykin July 18, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Forgot to thank this website for showing me this amazing poem.

28 Norm September 21, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Beautiful and timeless it is and couldn’t be more relevant to what President Barack Obama is experiencing at this time. This is philosophy at its finest.

29 Jon Hachey October 8, 2009 at 3:14 pm

I have the ending of Rambo:First Blood Part II stuck in my head forever, probably because I watched 5000 times growing up. But whenever someone asks me what I want, I say in my best Sly Stallone voice, “I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That’s what I want!”
Trautman: How will you live, John?
Rambo: Day by day
I guess Kipling might be a little more difficult.

30 Cassidy November 1, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Thank-you so much.! I have to have this memorized by Tuesday (today being Sunday.) I’m in festival this year but we just got our poems! I was drawn to this poem and immediately thought “I have to do this” But I’ve had a hard time memorizing it.! Thanks! This helped~

31 Kenneth B March 23, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Amazing poem, and although I’ve forgotten most of it (which I will remedy!) I don’t regret memorizing it one bit.

Although, with regards to memorizing in general, I believe that there is a time for it and a time for it not. Great works of poetry, vocabulary and so on, I can imagine memorization is a great idea — all the points you rose were great. When it comes to deriving knowledge, like math, I think it’s more important to practice the derivations or the relationships between equations than simply just memorizing them and plugging in numbers — that way, no matter how tough it is, you’d eventually understand the way certain equations came to be (physics is one of my favorite subjects, so bear with me…)

Also, it’s one thing to recite facts, and another to critically analyze them. I could memorize all these speeches and historical dates but not be able to weigh their origin, value, or purpose in a critical manner.

32 ari-free April 14, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Quintillian: However, if anyone asks me what is the one supreme method of memory, I shall reply, practice and industry. The most important thing is to learn much by heart and to think much, and, if possible, to do this daily, since there is nothing that is more increased by practice or impaired by neglect than memory. Therefore boys should, as I have already urged, learn as much as possible by heart at the earliest stage, while all who, whatever their age, desire to cultivate the power of memory, should endeavour to swallow the initial tedium of reading and re-reading what they have written or read, a process which we may compare to chewing the cud. This task will be rendered less tiresome if we begin by confining ourselves to learning only a little at a time, in amounts not sufficient to create disgust: we may then proceed to increase the amount by a line a day, an addition which will not sensibly increase the labour of learning, until at last the amount we can attack will know no limits. We should begin with poetry and then go on to oratory, while finally we may attempt passages still freer in rhythm and less akin to ordinary speech, such, for example, as passages from legal writers. For passages intended as an exercise should be somewhat difficult in character if they are to make it easy to achieve the end for which the exercise is designed; just as athletes train the muscles of their hands by carrying weights of lead, although in the actual contests their hands will be empty and free.


33 Eric October 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm
34 Mike May 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm

The St. Cripsens Day link is broken.

35 Alan June 6, 2013 at 1:29 pm

I’ve been memorizing for performances and presentations for years, and generally incorporate at least two of these techniques:

1) Copying it out on paper by hand. This is very effective, even though it’s time-consuming, and can give you a wicked case of writer’s cramp if you try to do too much at one time. The reason it’s so effective, for me anyway, is that it uses visual stimulus (reading the original), and physical stimulus (writing it down). Then I’ll read my copy several times. Once I have it pretty much memorized, if I have a slip-up, I can mentally picture the location of the words on the page.

2) Typing out a copy. This works for the same reasons as writing it by hand, but not as effective. For me, it’s mainly a supplement to the first technique.

3) Memorize it “backwards.” No, really. This is especially useful for memorizing long passages. Here’s what I mean.

Suppose you want to memorize ten long, compound sentences. Or ten (or 40) pages of text. Memorize the last sentence. Break it down into sentence fragments if you have to. Once you’ve got it cold, then memorize the previous sentence, continuing on to the already learned final sentence. Then learn the third-to-last sentence, and so on.

This way, as your memorized passage gets longer, you’re finishing strong, because the stuff at the end has been repeated pretty much every time. All you have to do is add something else to the beginning. I’ve memorized parts in operas, plays, instrumental music, and sales presentations using this technique. It works for me every time.

36 Scott Wolfertz July 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Commander’s part of THE ORDER OF THE TEMPLE

37 Graciela December 7, 2013 at 4:17 am

Thanks a lot! This is an astonishing web site.

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