5 Pen Tricks from Japan — Uh oh…

If you don’t have OCD already, I apologize. This post will give it to you… and you’ll thank me for it.

When I was 15, I went to Japan for one year as an exchange student. I was the lone American in a school of 5,000 Japanese, and I quickly acquired one habit that has since driven every girlfriend and teacher of mine absolutely nuts: pen tricks.

The Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans — none of them can hold pens still for a second. Now you won’t be able to either.

Here are the different moves I’ll show (and name) here. The higher the number, the harder it is:

The Helicopter (2)

The Pincher (4)

The Wheel (1)

The Drummer (3)

The Flip (5)

After you’ve dropped your Bic for the 15,000th time and want to punch through a window, just remember: you can stop anytime you want. Riiiiiiight.


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The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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103 Replies to “5 Pen Tricks from Japan — Uh oh…”

  1. Man you look wasted. Too much of that Yerba Mate keeping you up. There is thin line between genius and mad man and you tread it so well…


  2. No wonder we need to get our working week down to four hours, we need the time to practice ‘friggin’ about with our pens.

    Ohh, crap, I’ve dropped it. Again.

    P.S. Number 1 son is now behind with his homework, but ahead of me with his “Penmanship.” Little show-off.

  3. The flip is a trick I learned back in high school debate. Re: driving teachers nuts – in college I actually had a prof pause during his lecture to ask me to stop because the habit was so distracting!

  4. Fascinating. I learned something new! This reminds me of my juggling phase; no matter how frustrated you get, you’re somehow completely addicted.

    I just started college, so thanks for giving me something to do in class. 😉

  5. Hi there Tim,

    Man, you’re crazy. I tried to do the first trick,

    and I failed. I know it takes months of practising

    just like online marketing and money-making.

    Nice entertaining video – keep them coming 🙂


    Codrut Turcanu.

  6. I loved it. I have never been able to get the helicopter, even though I’ve been shown fifty-billion times. Thanks for the others, they are much easier.

  7. Come on…. You only want me to answer my email 2 times a day to save time and then you want me to spend hours picking my pen up off the floor??? 🙂

  8. I love your blog, Tim. I read FHWW and started coming here for related information. Now I’m hooked on Yerba Mate, and am reading The Elements of Style. I’ve figured out your plan: All of this has just been a way to get everyone doing pen tricks.

  9. Nice overview. There *are* somewhat official names for the moves, as follows:

    The Helicopter = Thumb Around

    The Pincher = Sonic

    The Wheel = Finger Pass

    The Drummer = Charge

    The Flip = Finger Pass

    (Your Wheel and Flip are variants of the general Finger Pass)

    Search for ‘pen spinning’ or check out the pentrix.com site for more info and tutorials and such. There are a bunch of cool videos on youtube as well.

  10. I love that you took the time to post this. I will now be obsessed with this. I will be to preoccupied to ever actually write anything ever again. Thanks a bunch!


  11. Hey Tim,

    I too am addicted to pen flipping. I learned it in continuation high school from this thug Korean kid. We used to battle in class.

    Side note:

    3 days before your last trip to Costa Rica, I was in Samara hanging out with Peace Corps Volunteers. I was sitting in a hammock on the beach ( very much like the cover of the book ), with the 4hww in one hand ,explaining to these volunteers how they could apply your lessons ,in aiding the Ticos at the sites they were assigned to. By the time I arrived home , I had received emails thanking me for the advice given.

    I am 25 years young and live my version of the 4hww.I have passed your methods onto dozens ( all purchased books of course 🙂 ). Each soul, equally inspired. Thank you for contributing all that you have.

    Stay healthy,


    “Pura Vida”


    Hi Dave!

    Thanks so much for the wonderful story. I’d love more volunteer and development workers to embrace some of the 4HWW. They work so hard and get burned out quickly. I’m hoping to spread the word especially among Peace Corps and Grameen Bank-like entities, so we’re on the same page.

    Thanks again, and pura vida!


  12. Hey Tim!

    pen tricks were cool… but after that, what caught my attention was what was in your room. what two books did you have on your coffee table behind your laptop and in front of your tv? 🙂

    just nosey… i mean… curious!

    i don’t think i have the patience to learn the pen tricks tho. maybe after i master the 4hour work week i’ll have more time to try the tricks… or not. 🙂

    thanks for sharing as always!

    Professor X

  13. LMAO… Ok, thanks for making me laugh again. In exchange, I will vote for you at SxSw… BTW… where is a Portuguese edition of your book??? I would like to have 3 for my three nephews (27, 17, 12)… =>Brazilian Portuguese. Thanks. Loulou

  14. Tim:

    I also went to Japan for one year as a 15-year-old exchange student. And I always joke that the most wonderful thing I learned was pen tricks! In China, however, I learned some tricks with acupuncture needles.

  15. whoa,….cool.

    I only know one “pen trick”, I call it the Jelly Belly and I would give it the number 0.

    Thanks for sharing btw, I’m going to try these out.

  16. FYI, I think you’re referring to ADD.

    OCD is when you are freaked out about germs, or wash stuff over and over again, not when you can’t sit still.

    Regardless, this is a sweet video. I already knew how to do the helicopter, but the others are new to me.

  17. The signup to SXSW (and vote for Tim’s panel) it takes a looooonnng while by validating the email, the servers must be smoking by now… Make sure the email wasn’t caught in the spam folder or write the SXSW domain (*sxsw.com)or email (interpanels@sxsw.com) in your email white list.

    I do everything to get a Portuguese edition of 4HWW!

    :0) Loulou

  18. I lived in Hong Kong for a number of years and saw the locals performing numerous pen tricks without even a hint of actually concentrating (ie. pen tricks while walking, eating, talking on the phone…or doing all of the above at the same time). I tried it myself a few times but thought it best to stop after inadvertently launching a projectile that quite nearly hit a passerby in the eye.

    On a more serious note, Chapter 15 in your book on “Filling the Void” was, for me, perhaps the most important. Years ago, I owned a business that distributed a product line to retailers across the country. In 2000, I outsourced virtually all functions from warehousing, shipping, order taking, payment processing etc. Yippee! Or, at least I thought.

    True, I was no longer frantically busy. I sat (by myself) in a comfortable little home office. With very little that I had to do. Bliss? For awhile. Unfortunately, while I outsourced the mundane, I found I was completely, well, bored. The “important” stuff that I thought I would focus on didn’t really interest me. I rented an office downtown D.C. thinking the “energy” of being downtown would invigorate me. It did. For a month. Something else was missing.

    Back to 2007, I am somehow in the distribution business again. Warehousing, shipping, customer calls..yikes! After reading your book, I realize I am wasting my time (or avoiding the tough questions) with “busy work.” So, I will outsource the mundane once again. But this time, I hope to replace the freed up time with activities that inspire and excite me and, hopefully, allow me to contribute more to society.

    Tim, thanks.

  19. Cool Tricks. I’ve been living in Japan for 10 years now. I still can only do half of those tricks. Stubby fingers I guess. I got wind of your book from another friend recently. He told me about it, because he said he thought I would score well on your LQ test. I got a 13. That made me feel somewhat validated. I have ordered your book and others you have suggested. It’s hard to stay focused here in Japan, because a lot of foreign people living over seas aren’t very supportive, so figuring out ways to ignore them and focus on the plan is a job in itself. I have also done kendo training since I’ve been here. My training was born and bred here. I have very little experience in the States with kendo. I have my 5 dan test coming up in a few years, so training will have to step up. I will try to get my pen tricks up to par too. Thanks for being a focused soul and getting the message out there. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  20. Beat you to voting before this post. I figured that with your stellar performance at SWSX this year, that you’d likely be back to please the crowds.

    It looks like I’ll see you there… Nick from Treehugger asked me to join him on the panel on Web Tech for Good. 🙂

    More info on the panel… http://tinyurl.com/26vl99

  21. Hey Tim,

    Thank you for response. The Grameen Bank is a very wonderful organization. I have friends who are in the midsts of gathering like minded entrepreneur’s, to form a similar organization as Dr. Yunus heads.

    These same friends went on a low email diet after the first hour of reading the 4HWW. ( they too employee many in India. :))

    Next time you are in L.A. , we should grab a mojito or two.

    Thank you again!


  22. Ok, I thought I was the only gai-jin who loves doing the helicopter. How funny you were an exchange student – I knew there was something I liked about you! Me too, circa 1992, Rotary, lived in Hokkaido.


  23. It’s called Japanese pen spinning, and they DO all have names.. in fact there are hundreds of tricks and when you see a video of someone doing them really fast, it’s mind blowing!

    Videos and tutorials here:


  24. other than you, usually if you see a non-Asian American doing these, they were on the debate team. my debater friend taught me the helicopter thing, but he could also flip it back the other way *and* get it to spin multiple times with one flick. this in was Nashville, right around 1990. I was led here by Digg, btw.

  25. Wow you know a lot of pen tricks! I’m proud to say I know the ‘helicopter’ and on a good day can do it back and forth. Interesting though I hold the pen totally different… It’s fun to see new people try it out -hehe..

    I had a teacher in College who used to do this all the time and I was so bored I decided to learn too! lol

    Angela Wills 🙂

  26. Asian nerds were doing these tricks back in the early 90’s and they don’t all originate from Japan. Everyone one of the tricks shown here have extensions and reversals as well.


    Hey Reuben,

    Easy, easy! I never said these all originated in Japan; it’s just where I learned them in 1992… early 90’s 😉 My thumbs are too wonky to do most of the reversals.

    Pura vida,


  27. As a relentless “helicopter and back, lefty or righty, multiple spins at a time” addict since my junior year in high school (sorry Ms. Knight for dropping my pen on the floor 17 million times during 3rd period English class in 1992), I worry that you aren’t warning people enough about the dangers of pursuing these tricks.

    I’m now 32 and am no closer to defeating my pen flipping demons than I was 15 years ago. It’s a crushingly mindless habit that will consume any and all takers.

    That said, chicks totally dig it.

  28. haha. cheers for reminding me of this. Lived 6 years in Taiwan and went to high school there… every kid at that time could do this!

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  30. In the late 70s there were about 40 Hong Kong and mainland China kids in my class at Westmount High in Montreal (maybe some from Taiwan, I didn’t know politics). I learned “the helicopter” but invented a variation: a continuous clockwise cycle with the right hand. I saw one or two of the other moves but I imagined them to be easier than they are and never bothered to investigate them.

    One thing that struck me. I guess the helicopter took me about 300 hours to master with my right hand (I am right handed, and I think I spent a year practicing it every day while I was studying) but unexpectedly, I went on to learn it left handed successfully (though less “dexterously” haha) in about 5 minutes.

    I imagine that I am very special and that most of you can’t transfer a skill from one hand to the other.

  31. For the sake of correct information, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder) is the right term jokingly used by Tim.

    ADD (Attention-Deficit-Disorder), as mentioned before for information (meaning correction), it has in fact very few with the ability of “flipping” a pen between fingers, on the contrary, “flip-trix” requires focus, and “lots” of attention to what you’re doing… the pen can become a nice “projectile” as well mentioned before.

    Now saying that OCD is “when you are freaked out about germs, or wash stuff over and over again, not when you can’t sit still”, I guess you meant Germ phobia, and it is a typical obsession with the fear=phobia of Germs involving compulsive action like cleaning and washing hands. FYI, Germ phobia is among others just one kind of OCD.

    I just obsessed over correcting this information and compulsively quoted it again. Enough OCD!


    “Beleza Pura”

  32. Not to be a jerk, but he is correct in calling it OCD. OCD stands for obsessive compulsive disorder, and I would say that (being a pen spinner myself since early high school) this is definitely an obsessive compulsion.

    There are varying levels of OCD, of course.

    Also, ADD is a myth, I don’t believe ADD exists. ADHD on the other hand, is obvious, but ADD is just a reason for teachers to drug kids.

    Finally, on topic! Great video Tim, I have seen 1 or maybe 2 kids in high school do some of the other tricks, but I never picked them up. I have been doing the helicopter for years but never been inventive enough to create my own trick, but now I can at least add some diversity to my pen spinning portfolio, thanks!

  33. Ever wondered what it looks like when someone tries to sign language one-handed with a hand that is full of glue?

    Look no further!

    A hearfelt “thank you” for providing me with my daily dose of laughter at myself (as usual)!

  34. You know this is where celebrity status really shines. If we were to spot some half-wasted crack-head doing pen tricks, we would just shake our head and wonder why this fella has nothing productive to do with his free time …

    Yet when Tim does pen tricks (looking just as wasted as mr crackhead), we pound our clubs on the ground and scream like cavemen did when fire was first discovered….

    Hey .. I am no exception either … now my index finger won’t stop twitching.

    damn you – ferriss


    Hi T,

    I look like a crackhead? Sweeeeeet! 😉


  35. Yo i lived in Turkey for 3 years, and they do the exact same pen tricks there, with little variations (Like the flip Turks literally throw it in the air). Craziness i know.

  36. En Costa Rica aprendi un par de trucos con lapices y manos, muy diferentes a los que se ven en el video.

    Los de el video son nuevos para mi.

    Soy originario de Costa Rica y estoy planeando volver a mi tierra. Tengo 54 años y 22 años viviendo en San Francisco, California. Me canse de este pais voy de regreso a mi bello pais.

    Viva Costa Rica.

  37. My favorite part; Gosh, what are those TWO books on the coffee table… he he. Nothing better then shameless self promotion. Love it….

  38. I’m so jealous – I tried learning pen tricks for hours and couldn’t get anything down except for the occasional spin around the thumb. Inspiration: some crazy korean internet video…one guy in the vid did a trick where he bounced the pen off a wall and kept spinning away.

  39. Dang. You make me sick. First the four hour work week and now THIS 😛 I saw someone on a plane doing this with ease about a year ago and I tried it hundreds of times with not a single success.

    Now I’m determined.

  40. Thanks for the pen tricks but the family is tired of hearing pens fall on the floor all day. Quickly approaching OCD status 🙂

    Couldn’t but help notice the laptop screen … inquiring minds want to know … what does Tim Ferris listen to on Pandora?


    Hi B,

    Nice catch! My two stations are “Three Days Grace” and “Sevendust” at the moment. I really dig the general riffs and vocals of the first and the acoustic virtuosity of the latter. Hope that lends an idea 😉

    Have an awesome weekend,


  41. Hi Tim,

    Cool stuff, I can’t wait to get me some bic pens and annoy my co-workers. Ha!

    By the way, I noticed you listen to Pandora? There is a certain beauty in randomness – be in music or life.

    Looking forward to reading your book.



  42. Tim, you bastard. I was happily studying until 5 minutes ago. Now I can’t stop doing the helicopter. Actually I’m spending most of my time chasing a frickin’ pen around the room. Not happy Jan!

  43. Tim,

    Sometimes I wonder at your post subjects. When you posted on pen flourishes I must admit that although neat tricks, I could not connect the dots with the 4HWW. I have been interested in conjuring and street magic for quite some time. I thought I would try to pick up at least one move for my routine so I decided on the Helicopter (aka the Thumb Around) move. On Thursday I practiced most of the day off and on. By day’s end I was shooting about 2 for 100 after close to what seemed like 2000 tries. Friday came and I actually succeeded almost 20 times for the approximately the same 2000 tries. I got up Saturday morning and realized after dropping my “Bic� umpteen times why, in my opinion, this was posted. Success always comes from trial and error, never from trial and success! My first muse just went online in the middle of August and although I have gotten several hits no orders to date. I know that “my muse� just like the pen flourish will take some time and constant practice. Thanks again for your encouragement and, by the way, today I am 5 for 20 so far!

    Ken Duncan

  44. Tim, you rock. Just read your book in the last few hours (speed reading since 12yrs old). I live in Barbados for 6 months of the year and Toronto for the other 6. I am 33 years old and have my own consulting business. I have been following your same rhythm for a long time now and was amazed by how much more I could learn. Merci.

    Anytime you are on the island, give me a holla. -Y-

  45. What are you doing out in Japan, Josh? Come work on my campaign!

    Have you considered spin-offs for your book? “The Four Hour Work for Parents” or “The Four Hour Work Week Congressional Candidates” would be great. You would be like the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” guy.

  46. Hi Tim,

    Hey this is Cal from the Blendz inside Classic Car Wash… you just stopped in and gave me the link to your blog a short while ago. I read it and will read more in depth when I get home. Thanks, it’s a wealth of information!

    I just realized I went to school with your friend Noah. I don’t remember if it was Lynbrook or Cupertino since I went to both but I remember him!

    Well, thanks for the information and I will definitely check out your book!


  47. http://www.asianoffbeat.com/default.asp?Display=848

    You will not believe the pen-spinning virtuosity on display in these embedded YouTube clips. The second clip, in particular, will dizzily spin your conceptual pen-spinning foundations. Apparently boys in Thailand have taken up pen-spinning as the new craze. The first clip is a shakycam recording of what appears to be an English-language Asian news channel. It reports that the community site ThaiSpinner.com has 10,000 members.

  48. i got the helicopter down, almost got the pincer down. all in the first 20mins, no practice, don’t kno how lol. but yea, u got any other kewl ones?

  49. I waste hours printing large documents for work. Yes, i am an employee, but one, who after reading your book is hell bent on automating & outsourcing all that I can. Is there software or some website out there that will automatically download documents from the web and my computer while I sleep? I’ve found a bunch of software, but I’d like to know what you recommend. I truly appreciate any ideas you have.

    many thanks – M

  50. i will try it wiht a slim jim @ school today (the helicopter) and let you know how it went on here tonight. wish me luck

  51. ok, i tested the slim jim, after weeks of practice.. it works somewhat but is kinda hard.. (and greasy) it would work alot better if the end of it was weighted, but u have to spin it really off center. worked for me in the end, goodluck to you

  52. Tim

    I would just like to say thank you for you instruction video. My frustration has been born more out of lack of instruction rather than difficulties in practice. I have been teaching in South Korea for the better part of two years now and my kids are always doing these tricks. I wanted to learn and now you have given me the starting point.



    P.S. – If you are on facebook feel free to add me.

  53. the pen tricks are great

    have you got any easier ones?

    … i tried for months

    its driven everyone nuts

    ….i still cant do them

  54. More awesomeness from Tim as always!

    Check this video out for an example of putting the tricks into a flow – WOW!

  55. hahahahaha im 12 years old and i can do all the helicopter….its pretty simple..(took me 2 days) lol now i’m bragging…

    1. these tricks are not hard to learn .. If you try and you can spin for like 2 3 hours a day alone it will take like a week to get them all..