4 Life Lessons I Learned From Performing Magic (Really)

As a magician of six years, here’s everything I’ve hidden up my sleeves

Photo: Hudzilla/Getty Images

If you’re an aimless 16-year-old, don’t tell your parents you’re going to become a magician. Save yourself the embarrassment. Tell them you crashed the car, maxed out their credit card, got your girlfriend pregnant — seriously, anything else. Trust me on this.

Magic is changing its image, but many still see it as outdated, geeky, and downright strange. It’s exactly why it became my passion in high school.

I discovered magic as a mixed African American kid. I felt like I had no place in suburbia. Then I saw my future magic partner, Giancarlo Paone, blow the minds of our entire class. He vanished a card behind his hand; before we could question it, he produced 10 more from his mouth. After that, I got hooked.

Paone and I became the “Ebony and Ivory” duo and started performing everywhere, from local kids’ birthday parties to Rutgers University for faculty. We made $200 a gig and continued to perform on and offstage throughout our college years.

Performing is like a drug, and it isn’t until you slow down from your stage high that you can reaccess your experiences. Here are four valuable life lessons I learned from performing magic for six years:

1. Master misdirection — and apply it to all your work.

Misdirection is the art of leading the audience’s attention to one place while sneaking an elephant through the back door.

You’d be surprised how much people miss. Even when a move happens right in front of my spectator’s eyes, they see nothing. I’m the only one who knows “the move,” so worrying that the spectator will see it is pointless. Check out the “Invisible Gorilla” study if you need extra convincing.

Masters of magic aren’t the only ones to use misdirection; artists employ the tool as well. In Stephen King’s On Writing, the author illuminates the importance of story description by painting a picture of a murderous ex-husband escaping from prison. King then points out the importance of a seemingly innocuous item in the scene, like a pot of boiling water on the stove.

The key to good misdirection is trusting yourself. Lead the audience to one place, and when the time is right, pull back the curtain and reveal your masterpiece. Once they realize it’s been in front of them the whole time, they’ll kick themselves for not seeing it earlier — and they’ll love you all the more.

2. You can’t impress everyone.

To some extent, all our work is to impress someone else. King writes for his wife, Tabitha. Paul McCartney wrote “Martha” for his sheepdog — she loved it! And I’m finishing up an e-book that I hope my parents enjoy.

There’s no shame in trying to impress someone, but don’t ever overdo it. Some people will never be worth the hard work. I performed for many who wouldn’t bat an eye even if I turned water into wine. It’s frustrating: You want to show them something cool and make them happy, but it’s not worth your sanity at times.

The simple answer would be to eliminate trying to impress anyone at all. Some will say you should do it for you and you alone.

I disagree. It’s fun to want to make someone smile and then actually pull it off or write a poem for a loved one and watch the tears roll down their face as they read it.

Don’t base the entirety of your work on impressing other people, but don’t write off the concept altogether. The only time you should? When you’re dealing with an asshole.

3. Embrace childlike wonder.

The worst people I’ve met while performing magic — the absolute worst — are people who don’t “believe in it.”

They’ll make comments like: “That’s fake! Tell me how you did it. I know it’s fake — so show me!” or “You’re not good, I know how you did that, you’re not slick.”

And my personal favorite: Patting me down after a trick to see if I have any gimmicks or tricks up my sleeve. (I guess I won’t have to worry about this anymore because of Covid-19.)

‘Practice until it feels like second nature. After that, practice some more.’

Some people like magic, and others don’t — you can’t impress everyone — but I can’t stand those who fight against having fun. They try to undermine something before giving it a fair chance or believe themselves to be above it.

And yes, even I have my moments. A few months ago, I had an “I’m too good for this” experience when I went to a local wrestling match with a friend.

“I hate crowds — and wrestling crowds are probably full of racists and weirdos,” I told myself. “No way this is going to be my kind of scene.”

After watching a grown man get suplexed into a pile of barbed wire and toasting beers with random strangers, I’m happy I was wrong.

4. Practice, practice, perform.

The number of hours I’ve spent practicing magic in front of the mirror is triple the amount of time I’ve spent performing. Think of practice as building your framework. The shakier the framework, the harder it’ll be to build anything on top of it.

A sturdy framework is why successful people master skills so fast. In a 2015 Reddit AMA, Elon Musk expanded on how he’s able to learn so much: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree,” he wrote. “Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Practice until it feels like second nature. After that, practice some more. When it comes to writing, make sure you’re doing it every day and read everything you can get your hands on.

Today it’s all too easy to see someone’s final, polished version and miss out on all the unglamorous practice and hard work they put in. Don’t get distracted with the final version of people; idolize their work ethic instead. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best. “With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be,” he wrote. “Instead, we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

Ultramarathoner, Comedian, Crypto Man. Also a diehard Trekkie 🖖🏾| You can catch me on my publication Yard Couch. mccallisaiah@gmail.com

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