Lessons from a magician

Blind Spots in a world outside a magic show

Feb 7, 2023

The second semester of my Freshman year in college, I made the not-so-astute decision of channeling my inner Lebron James and tried to contest a lay-up. While I did get the block, I landed on my friend's shoe, and twisted my ankle, tearing some ligaments in the process.

What followed was three months in crutches and while I could have spent this time productively, I decided to watch "How I met your Mother" again and venture into the world of card magic. I was already intrigued by magic and this newfound time on my hands only got me more involved in the art. Soon enough I was on a mission to amaze (irritate) my friends with some card tricks. The ability to perform something which should be "impossible" with a regular deck of cards was surprisingly powerful.

Magic is interesting cause it makes you question reality. A playing card does not actually vanish in thin air, the statue of liberty cannot disappear from its origin, and a feather does not actually transform into a pigeon. Magic serves as a gentle reminder that our perception of the world may often differ from reality. It highlights the obvious blind spots that exist in how we tend to perceive the world.

While I am far from an expert, I thought I'd touch on four important ideas I've learned while trying to do a few card tricks.

(Spoilers on a few tricks ahead)

1. Miss the obvious

In a TED Talk, magician, Apollo Robbins, called an audience member on stage and used his skills to remove the spectator's watch and cash, while keeping the audience focused on his sleight of hand. The audience was in fact so focused that they seemed to miss the fact that Apollo had changed shirts mid-way through the talk. I watched this video online and missed the change too. (It's incredible).

Misdirection as Apollo touched upon is often the ability to control and divert someone's attention in a manner that even if they are looking directly at the sleight, they notice nothing. It was about keeping the mind busy and misdirected rather than then trying to hide something from the sensory organs. The "Invisible Gorilla" experiment is a classic case of how misdirection can affect our perception and how we can miss something obvious right in front of us, just cause we don’t expect it to be there. (Another reason why checklists are important)

For more on this you can refer to this article.

2. It's all relative

There is a popular trick where a magician is able to steal a watch from a person’s hand without the person realizing it. This is possible cause, when the magician touches a person's wrist, he applies an even greater pressure on the person’s shoulder. Biologically, we tend to perceive things in a relative fashion and so the pressure on the wrist is not felt. This is interesting cause, from equity valuation to buying the right size of popcorn, relative decision-making is everywhere.

For more on this refer to this article.

3. Storytelling

So much of magic is storytelling. I've done card tricks where I've convinced people that I can read their handwriting and if they write the name of five cards, I can examine their handwriting and tell them which one they actually picked. Ofcourse I have no mind-reading skills, but I do know how to force someone to pick a card, I want them to pick. The rest is storytelling.

A big reason why we fall for the story a magician is telling us is our desire to listen to stories and find meaning in them. Being innately curious we are always looking to make sense of the world and in the case of magic, anything that makes some sense is adopted as an explanation. Our brain is constantly trying to connect dots, and a magician is trying to nudge the brain in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, this nudging happens even outside the world of magic.

For more on this check out this article!

4. Time

The Incredible magicians Penn and Teller once produced 500 live cockroaches on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. The preparation of this trick involved hiring an entomologist, learning how to pick cockroaches without screaming, building a secret compartment, and then creating a routine to sneak this compartment into a hat. When asked about this trick Teller said “More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.”

He goes on to mention that to fool someone, “Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money, and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest”."

Or as Mr. Munger says “Take a simple idea and take it seriously”.

That’s it for now! Hope you found some of these insights interesting! Do consider subscribing to the newsletter if you have not yet!