Take My Advice

Some magicians keep their distance from the magic community because of bad advice. Be it unwelcome, unwarranted, or unfounded there seems to be no shortage of shaky advice being thrown around. In this episode Ryan looks at the wisdom of advice, how it comes to be, and how it gets passed along.

It's not all bad, though. There is a more productive way to work together and offer guidance.

Episode Transcript

There are certain bits of magical wisdom which border on commandments. Advice repeated so often it has become foundational rules for would-be wizards.

  • You should never repeat a trick for the same audience.
  • Your show must have variety, you can’t do all card tricks.
  • You must never reveal how a trick is done.

You know it, you’ve heard it, and you might be inclined to nod in general agreement. Yet, these rules are all broken every single day by magicians with very successful careers.

Which makes me wonder, why do these rules continue to be passed along as critical advice for new magicians? Does it help or hinder their magic development?

If someone came to me seeking wisdom along their path as a magician, I would, first and foremost, have one piece of advice; Don’t listen to advice.

I’m Ryan Pilling, and this is Theory & Thoughts for Magicians, and if you ask me, you really should listen to what I’m about to tell you.

Advice is everywhere in magic. In books, on videos, and my oh my is it ever easy to find on the internet.

You should, you must, you ought to, you need to! My way is the right way.

Magic is half art and half engineering. That combination has us seeking the objectively correct answer to our problems, believing that there IS a right way, yet having to sort through the wide open opinions of artistic interpretation.

Thus, we ask questions like “what’s the best opening trick for a restaurant?” And people push to the front of the line to shout out their answer. The one seeking answers now has dozens to choose from, each equally confident in their verdict.

The overwhelming variety and contradictions in so-called “right” answers is strong evidence that magical advice is not worth its weight in “what’s the best salt pour gimmick?”

Any advice has two critical flaws.

First, the desire to give advice is usually stronger than the desire to be helpful. I want to shout out my answer because I want everyone to know that I am smart enough to have a good answer.

I cannot make that statement without acknowledging my own involvement. Here we are, in the middle of a podcast which is, more or less, me shouting my advice about advice to anyone within earshot in the hopes that you may think well of me.

The hierarchy of the magic community is absolutely based on perceived wisdom. We are seekers and holders of secrets. Those who seem to hold more secrets, whether they have a depth of experience, or are particularly well read, are held in higher esteem. Thus, the opportunity to give advice is a sort of social climbing, and having people nod in agreement, or click “like” on our comment, is acknowledgment from our peers.

We answer questions on public forums not to help the questioner, but to help our own ego.

Why else would a straightforward question, like “how do I stop my rope ends from fraying?” attract 62 comments.

So take all those responses with a grain of “popcorn salt is the best salt for a salt pour.”

The second major flaw of advice is that it is all biased towards the advisor.

I can only imagine the frustration of women who read a magic book advising to “simply switch decks while dropping the marker into your right jacket pocket.”

Advice is only as good as its source, and particularly the similarity between their situation and yours. It would be ideal if you could find a mentor from the same area as you, with the same background, the same life challenges, and so on.

However, even if I find somebody who started from the same spot as me I still won’t be able to follow their “royal road” to guaranteed success, because the universe is random.

I could follow your advice to a T. Do everything you did, just the way you did it, and still not achieve the same result. Just because I dress up in tinfoil does not mean I’ll get hit by lightning.

Humans generally downplay the influence of happenstance in their life.

Your career may have had a big growth spurt because the right person, with the right connections, just happened to be in the audience one day which led to your big break. No amount of advice can lead me to the same result.

Your advice is just, like, your opinion, man.

And opinions are like… brass bowls. Every magician’s got one and they are all tarnished.

But hang on Ryan, if all advice is junk, then how are we supposed to learn from the experience and wisdom of others? I’m glad you hypothetically asked!

C.H. Carlton offered his advice in the pages of the Magic Wand, September 1919:

In connection with the rolling up of the sleeves, why suggest to the audience that the sleeves can be introduced as an aid to your power? If you roll up your sleeves you might as well undress and appear in a bathing suit.

That may have been good advice a century ago, although Houdini both rolled up his sleeves and appeared in a bathing suit, and things seemed to work out alright for him.

The student… and I hope we all remain students no matter how long we’re involved in magic… the student must be selective as to which advice they allow to enter their minds. Seek to understand the big picture and draw your own conclusions.

Advice is often phrased strongly and succinctly: “You should do this and not that.”

Unfortunately, this leaves out many of the most important parts of the story, and if you take it at face value, you’ve swallowed a whole lot of assumptions.

Before accepting advice, you need to uncover the experience in which that advice was forged.

For example, how about this advice shared between to young magicians at a club meeting: “10 inch Linking Rings are the best size for performing on stage.”

If you were to dig deeper, the youngling might reveal they were taught this from their mentor who has been doing magic for over a decade. Well, let’s ask them about it.

“10 inch rings are the best for stage work, they are more deceptive. I learned my routine from my mentor,” as he points towards a much older man sitting in the corner.

We get a chance to ask him why he told his protégé to use 10 inch rings. “Oh,” he says with a shrug, “because his prop case was 11 inches wide.”

Decisions are made based on specific circumstances, but that context rarely gets included in the advice passed down the line.

If a student of card magic were to ask around “should I learn the classic pass, is it a good move to know?” the answer they get, I suspect, will entirely depend on whether or not the person being questioned is any good at the pass.

Personally, I never had the talent, or gained the skill, to do a smooth pass and I know I have described the move as “over-rated” and not important for the card magician’s repertoire. Funny coincidence, huh.

All advice is born in a moment of experience, good or bad. They say experience is the best teacher, and through it you develop your own personal advice.

One day you mess up a riffle force, perhaps due to an ornery audience member. “Well I’m never going to let THAT happen again,” you might say after the performance gone wrong. Later, you might pass on the lesson learned in the form of advice, “you should always use a one-way deck on stage.” That’s a rule without a reason.

Advice out of context is useless, perhaps even harmful, when it does not present the whole story. There is so much more to learn from understanding why a rule was made, rather than learning the rule itself.

When you hear advice from others, know that it is merely a warning flag around a hazard. It’s up to you to understand, perhaps even explore, the real hazard beyond the flag, or else you may avoid the beach because somebody else was too scared to swim.

If you are in a teaching role, I encourage you to work on diminishing the amount of advice you dole out.

I’ve become hyper aware of my own use of the word ‘should’, and it’s now a trigger to check myself. Any time I say, or write, ‘should’ I take a second look at my statement to see what personal judgements I am making, and aim to rephrase it in a more open way.

Magic, being an open-ended, self-expressive art, would benefit from fewer by-the-book teachers and more facilitators.

A teacher tells you how it’s done. A facilitator shows you what you need to do it for yourself.

A teacher shows you the way. A facilitator clears the path for you to discover your own way.

A teacher says “follow me,” while a facilitator follows behind and whispers encouragement “I’m here for you, I got your back, you can do this!”

A facilitator cuts out all advice, so as not to taint the student’s new experience with their own judgements. Rather, they provide feedback.

Feedback could make the magic community a far more pleasant place to be.

You may be wondering, “isn’t advice and feedback basically the same thing?”

Similar, yes, but there is an important distinction.

I have already talked about how advice carries with it the baggage of the advisor. It is a judgement passed about “the right way” or “a better way.”

Feedback can offer the same suggestion, but without judgement. Feedback is simply informing a presenter about your observations and experience as an audience member, without… and this is the critical bit… without offering a solution.

It is the way of the facilitator. You are helping the performer by alerting them to a potential issue yet allowing them the space and freedom to solve it in their own way.

Let’s look at an example.

Advice: “You should use jumbo cards.”

Feedback: “I had difficulty seeing the value of cards from the back row.”

Advice: “You should turn down the music.”

Feedback: “I found the music uncomfortably loud.”

Advice: “You should slow down your Elmsley count.”

Feedback: “You seemed to speed up when counting the cards. It feels suspicious to me.”

This is more than just clever wordplay to say the same thing in a nicer way. Giving advice assumes you know the right answer, but in each case there are other alternatives.

You say they should use jumbo cards, but maybe the routine requires small cards, but the sight issue can be solved with “high-visibility” faces.

Perhaps the uncomfortable music is a problem with speaker placement rather than volume.

Maybe the performer wants to speed up their card handling, rather than slow down the count.

With feedback you grant the artist the power to address your concerns how they see fit, rather than pushing your idea upon them. Your way is not the best way for everyone.

The most difficult part of giving feedback, once you make it a habit, is having restraint to hold back your solutions. There is a very good chance that you will be thanked for sharing the feedback and, (gasp) not asked “what do you think I should do?”

There goes my chance to show off how smart I am! Oh well.

Now, not everyone is so polite or well versed in the subtle art of giving feedback. Any performer is going to get advice whether they want it or not!

You can, however, peel off the advice to find the feedback within. The old fella who goes up to the young kid and says “you should never wear jeans on stage,” might be dismissed by a hip-to-the-times performer. The judgement is out of touch, but the feedback is a still a valid audience experience. Get past the bruised ego of it and listen for the nugget of truth. They are saying, in their opinion, your costume was not appropriate attire.

Okay, well, file it away. If it was a one-off remark, maybe it’s no big deal, but if it comes up again there might be something to it. Perhaps you need to look closer at how your costume is suited to the venue in which you’re performing.

Feedback is a golden opportunity to understand the impact you are having on the audience. It would be foolish to ignore the data, however it’s presented.

Don’t listen to advice, but seek out feedback.

I would be remiss to not include one final option when it comes to sharing your feedback, and advice, with your fellow magicians…

Just don’t.

You don’t need to say anything at all.

There are really only three situations in which your opinion is a helpful contribution.

One, you have a personal relationship with the performer, and regularly collaborate.

Two, you have been directly asked to share your opinion.

Three, you are in a learning environment where the purpose is to share feedback.

Actually, I guess that’s really only two situations, because participating in a learning environment implies that you have been asked to share your opinion.

Okay, so there’s two situations when your opinion…

Actually… it’s really only one situation, because a collaborative relationship implies you have been invited to share your opinion.

So, really, there’s only one situation in which your opinion is a helpful contribution:

One, when you have been directly asked to share your opinion.

If not, it’s perfectly okay to walk past a performer and simply say “hey, thanks for the show!”

And thank you for listening to my show!

I extend an open invitation to anyone in the magic community, young and old, beginner and veteran, to share their personal feedback with me. Whether it be regarding my podcast, my videos, my weekly Tips & Tricks for Magicians newsletter…

Wait what? Ryan?!? You have a weekly free newsletter packed full of Tips & Tricks for Magicians? Why yes, yes I do!

And you should certainly read it so you can send me your feedback. Without that I have no idea if I’m able to connect with people, inspire action, or if I’m being misunderstood. I know it’s not easy to give negative feedback, not easy to hear it either, but it is critically important to growing as a magician. I promise I will thank you for it.

You can connect with me at www.MagicTipsAndTricks.com

And remember, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!

Published: June 27, 2023

Access: Public


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