Practicing the Impossible

Image courtesy of Shorpy

Image courtesy of Shorpy

"How much do they practice?" is a question I find myself asking after seeing something like the above image. Or the video on the right (just wait until about 1:40). Naturally, when we see something stunning like this we ask these types of questions purely out of knee-jerk astonishment. And since my job is inherently based in the realm of impossibility (note: you will never see me in a unitard), I too will occasionally hear this very same question. I believe though, it’s not exactly the question we really want an answer to. What we really want to know is not “How much do you practice?” but “How do you practice?”. We revel in the extraordinary accomplishments of our heroes, so much so that we put ourselves in their places and ask “how can I do that?” or at the very core, “how can I apply that same level of commitment to my practice?” So, how does one go about practicing a seemingly impossible skill? Or even a manageable one? Below are my thoughts on how learning to practice magic has informed my philosophy of practice in other areas of my life.

Having a practice

It helps to start by defining “practice.” For me, it helps to consider practice a full time job, much like a doctor or a lawyer has a practice. When I’m not in my version of the operating theater or courtroom, I’m studying how to be more proficient in all aspects of my profession. It's a 24/7 commitment. Practice, for me, is much more than the act of sitting down and working tirelessly on a specific thing. It's all encompassing. In my work I've found it boils down to three things:

1) DAILY MIndfulL practice

In order to master any skill you must perform the act everyday, but this ritual must be done so in a very specific way: mindfully. I’ll call this “repetition with awareness.” Since my profession concerns an audience's attention, I too must be hyper aware of my own (so that I may successfully pull the wool over their eyes). But this hyper-awareness also seeps into the act of practicing as well. They say, “practice makes perfect”, but unless your repetition includes mindful focus, you might be practicing imperfection. I refer to it as the “Rocking Horse Syndrome". Practicing can certainly move you about - but just because your moving doesn’t mean you’re going anywhere.

One of my favorite books on the subject of awareness is Ellen Langer's book appropriately titled Mindfullness. A helpful tactic suggested by Langer to engage in mindfulness is to visualize the ideal scenario. When I work on the mechanics of a sneaky demonstration with playing cards for instance, I visualize myself in a casino being watched, afraid that if I make even a small mistake I might be in danger. This way, when I perform for even the most astute audiences I know that (at least technically speaking) my subterfuge will survive scrutiny. You can bet that this was a tactic of a professional card cheat as well. A famous card mechanic by the name of S. W. Erdnase says in his book Expert at the Card Table, “Acquiring the art is in itself a most fascinating pastime, and the student will need no further incentive the moment the least progress is made.” And the least progress is made when the least attention is paid. 

2) Gather a brain trust

It's no question that by practicing mindfully and daily, more is revealed to you. But as satisfying as that is, there's only so far you can go by yourself. Another way to advance your practice is by gathering a brain trust. A close group of like minded friends that you can trust to help edit, improve, and refine your work. The constructive scrutiny of others can not only help motivate you but also help generate new ideas - synapses that would've never fired in your own brain. So whether it's a book you're writing or a triathlon you're hoping to win, gather a team to help make your goal. 

3) RISK

Mindful risk-taking is in my opinion the most precious catalyst for success, and it starts in practice. When you attempt something (say, in front of your brain trust) without worrying about the outcome you will find that you may make mistakes frequently. But through this chaos of uncertainty you'll discover things wouldn’t have ever uncovered if you didn’t take that risk in the first place. This might be an obvious lesson, but to me it’s the most valuable in my work.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.
— T.S. Eliot

These are just a few ways I've learned how to practice sleight of hand over the years - but can easily be applied to whatever it is you'd like to take on. For me, the answer to “How much” is very simple: always. But to simply answer the “How” is difficult. My practice isn’t easy. It’s a struggle every day. But just by asking “How” I’m immediately able to tune into the most important question of all: “Why?”