The Same But Different

Always scaffolding somewhere…

The Spires Have Different Dreams Every Day

I am tremendously lucky to be living once again, at least for the moment, in central Oxford. This is by virtue of my wife’s job as Chaplain to Christ Church, one of the colleges of Oxford University.

Oxford is a magical and inspiring city. The very buildings feed me with a sense of wonder. There is a timeless quality to them, they feel like they have been and that they will be there forever.

However, there is always some scaffolding up somewhere. One or other of the colleges will be doing some modernisation or refurbishment of some kind. Beneath the apparently ancient exteriors thrums a modern and constantly changing institution. 

All Change

It is not just the buildings that are in a constant state of flux. The people change fast too. The average length of stay in Oxford is only a few years. Significant years for most, but not many in number. People arrive, study, research, teach and then move on, leaving a little of their unique insight and influence behind.

Yet there are enduring aspects to the University. The traditions, the core values, the overall character of the place change very slowly indeed, if at all. 

The Show Must Go On, But Slightly Changed…

As an entertainer, my family magic and circus show hasn’t changed radically in 25 years and yet it is now completely different to when I started. It evolves, it gets renewed.

The underlying structure remains the same. My character is still an amplified version of myself. My costume has only changed once in all that time. And, yet, I learn from every show. Sometimes I will drop an improvised line in and it gets a big laugh. From then onwards it becomes part of the show. Sometimes I realise that something could work better if I timed it slightly differently. A couple of times a year I will come across a new trick or routine that could fit my style and I try it out for a bit.

The show evolves yet the core values and overall character of the show remains unchanged. These were instilled years ago through my upbringing, my faith and my performance training. Everything subsequently builds on those foundations.

Bound to Get Better

Having firmly established foundations imposes boundaries on you. This is a good thing. I have heard it said many times that boundaries lead to much greater creativity. Ask anyone who is part of an improv group.

Have you established your core values, your traditions, your ground rules for life and work? If not, then I encourage you to do so. 

Then you will have a firm foundation on which to perform your unique miracles to the world.

Facing in Different Directions?

Facing Different Directions?

If you are setting out on a course different to anything anyone in your family has ever done then it is understandable that they might be fearful – we are all naturally wary of what we do not know. 

Especially if you are running away to join the circus, or even just become a magician. Your family will have no idea how you can make it work.

But it can be very unsettling to feel out of alignment, your family and friends not supporting what you want to do, not sharing your vision.

Wisdom or Fear

It may be that they are older and wiser and have some wisdom that it would be good for you to listen to. They are probably genuinely concerned that you will not earn enough money to support yourself both now and in the future.

Or it may be that they are fearful and worried about their own reputation. 

Or it may be a combination of both – human beings are complex!

Go to the Bank

The way that you interact with them will depend on the quality of your relationship with them. This will be different for everyone and will depend on the history of your relationship. I love Stephen Covey’s concept of “emotional bank accounts”, outlined in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

The idea is that, with everyone you know, you have unconsciously opened an emotional bank account. Whenever you do something positive for them, spend time with them, smile at them, you are making a deposit into the account. Every time you offend them, need a favour or are just grumpy you are making a withdrawal. Covey encourages us to maintain  positive emotional bank balances. 

If you have a healthy balance in your account then you are going to be able to have a much more meaningful, honest and understanding conversation with a family member or friend than if you are overdrawn. It is never too late to start making deposits into the account!

Find the Other Crazies

In addition, it would be good to find a community of people – maybe a club or society, physical or online – with people who have made it work in your chosen field. Those who are a bit further down the road than you who can advise you of possible pitfalls and give you good advice. They can give you the benefit of their experience.

You can also use them as examples to your fearful family to reassure them that there is a way to make your idea work and that you are not blindly following a crazy vision, you have experienced people to guide you and you are going in with your eyes open.

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

I realise that sometimes you have to follow your vision, come what may, or it will feel like you are killing your soul. But it has to be practical, workable and sustainable. Often, those closest to us will be worrying because they don’t think we will be able to survive. And that is a valid concern. 

You will have to sell your vision to different people again and again throughout your journey. So beginning with your nearest and dearest isn’t a bad place to start. Having to prepare a case for them will force you to think through all the practical and financial issues, to come up with at least a rudimentary business plan. This may not sound very romantic but it can only be good for you in the long run. Or even in the short run.

New Tricks

Stay curious

Successful magicians are always seeking out new tricks or researching old tricks. Most will not be performed, but something will be learned from all of them. How did they do that? Is that the best method? Would an effect like that suit me? If not, could I use the idea in a different way?

Stuff in leads to stuff out

If you are always learning you are constantly broadening your mind and skill-base. You get better at talking and better at doing. You build up a resource bank of ideas, invaluable when called upon to improvise. New creativity opens up new possibilities.

The more and better stuff you feed into yourself, the more and better stuff you will get out of yourself: words, music, comedy, physical co-ordination and more.

Come on, keep up

The world is constantly changing. If you don’t keep learning you risk getting left behind. Leadership styles now are very different to those of a couple of decades ago. How many times have you seen an older leader upsetting and struggling to manage a younger team, mainly because the assumptions about their relationship are different? 

How do you keep learning? You could go back to college or university, or do another kind of formal training course. That is quite a heavy commitment in terms of time and money. However, there are now more options than ever for continuing education using ad-hoc methods throughout daily life.

Reading is feeding

A key element is reading. It has been said many times, but bears repeating, “Readers lead and leaders read.” It is all too easy to give up reading because you don’t think you have time. Actually, that is a false economy. You don’t really have time not to read. You will soon start to stagnate and your ability to produce and create will diminish. Stuff in leads to stuff out. 

I try to maintain a mixed reading diet. First thing, I will scan the headlines on my phone. I will read a magic magazine if I am on the train. During my morning tea break, an autobiography sitting on my bed (I work from home!). In my afternoon tea break, a business book on the sofa downstairs. In the middle of my weekly kayaking trip, history on my phone. And in bed, a novel on my tablet, propped up on my nightstand so that it will switch off automatically if I go to sleep! 

Your car is your college 

I am also a huge fan of podcasts. Several hundred miles driving per week between magic bookings means a lot of podcast time! Again, a varied diet of comedy, history, economics, personal finance, leadership, spirituality, public speaking advice and interviews with performers. Many magicians use driving time for listening to audiobooks with a similar aim. I listen while driving, but you can also listen to educational audio content while cooking, running or walking.

‘Appy and I know it

Online and app-based learning is great. I have a Duolingo habit – 5 minutes of French each day. Two years ago I learned touch-typing through a free web course. The resources out there seem endless. Work out what you need and then knit it into your routine for a bit.

Mixing in Societies

Lastly, I have always loved joining clubs and societies. Maybe it is my natural introversion, but I like having my social life a little bit structured. This has been true since I was a child. At school at one point I was going to 12 extra-curricular clubs or lessons each week! I am not quite that extreme now, but I am currently a member and regular attendee of The Magic Circle, Toastmasters and the Professional Speaking Association. I learn a tremendous amount from these meetings, both from the formal lectures and training and from the informal interactions between members, the sharing of expertise and ideas. 

Education is the magic ingredient to keep you sharp. Whether it is by formal or informal means, never stop learning new tricks.

Stay curious! 

Who’s Looking at You, Kid?

Who’s watching?

There is a paradox in performing magic as a solo gigging performer. It is all about you as an individual but it is also all about the audience. You have to present what only you can present, tricks that you have selected to suit your style in your own inimitable way, not copying anyone else. You have to be you and entirely you, not a facsimile of another performer. However, you also have to completely aware of those to whom you are performing and you have to tailor your material and presentation to suit them.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

I do not wear the same costume or use the same patter when I am performing a nursery school show that I do when I am strolling round a corporate drinks reception. Strangely enough, some of the magical effects will be the same, but they will be performed in very different ways. And yet, though the situations and performances are very different, I am still unmistakably me in both of them. It is all about me and yet it is all about the audience.

I have had great debates about this with professional speaking colleagues. I would argue that the audience are the most important people in the room and my colleague would say that the speaker is the most important. I have come to realise that we are both right. You have to be authentically yourself but you have to prepare and present with the audience in mind at all times.

As with magic and speaking, as with life and work in general.

No kicks from slick tricks

Who are you doing it for? Just as a magician works out which audiences could suit his or her style, you need to work out who you are going to target with whatever it is that you do. I realised a few years back that I am no longer (if I ever was!) able to compete in the expensive-suit-slick-smart-young-corporate-close-up magician market. For a while that bothered me as I had, in my head, been holding that up as the holy grail of magic work, the type of job to which I should aspire.

But then I realised a few things. I don’t really enjoy that kind of work anyway, on the occasions that I have done it. Also, I love doing the multi-generational-significant-birthday-and-wedding-anniversary type family events, I love doing open air shows at community events and I love doing kids parties. And I am really good at all of those things, if the repeat bookings are anything to go by. So why was I aiming at the wrong type of customer all those years? Since I realised all this I have been much happier and less stressed. 

Find your audience

Think about your own life. Are you aiming for the right kind of customer, the ones that you can serve better than anyone else? They will be out there, and they may well not be the same customers as the ideal customers for your friends and colleagues. And that is OK.

Build up a picture in your mind of your ideal customer. Write down their characteristics. As with my magic business, you may have more than one type if you have offer different products. That is OK, create a profile for each one. This has been called creating an “avatar”. Whenever you are designing something for your business, be it website copy, graphics, publicity material, a speech, do it all with the appropriate avatar in mind and imagine that you are designing it just for them.

Finding Your Gig

Where are you going, and why?

What’s your motivation, darling?

I would suggest that you can enjoy much greater impact and success if you clearly identify why you are doing what you do. As an actor might say, “What’s your motivation, darling?” You need to work out your own unique contribution to this world. You need to identify what makes you feel alive. And, last but definitely not least, you need to make a living.

What is your calling?

This is Me

What is your own unique contribution? No-one else in this world will have has exactly the same life as you. They will not have had the same parents, home town, upbringing, education, food, friendships, breakups, relationships, work experience, training, hobbies, talents… you get my point. Your mix of experience, knowledge and skills is unique. Which means that you are set to make a contribution to this world that it is impossible for anyone else to make. 

Some might even argue that you have a responsibility to make this contribution, otherwise the world will miss out on your piece of the jigsaw. What do only you know? What makes you excited? What do you love doing? Do you have a burning desire to express yourself and/ or your ideas somehow? When do you feel most alive? It is worth taking time to reflect on these types of question because they can be really useful for working out what you should be doing with your life.

Money, Money, Money

Remember through all of this that you need to make a living. You will have to decide for yourself what that means in terms of income. It will change at different stages your life and career. How much do you need to live on now? How much do you need to save now for your future? How much do you need to earn to clear any debts that you have? What kind of lifestyle are you happy with? 

If you are working then one of the main reasons that you are doing it is to make enough money for your life. If you can’t make enough doing what you are doing then it won’t be sustainable for very long. You will need to do something else. If at all possible, find something that you enjoy. 

Your money-making  job may or may not be fulfilling your calling. You may need to follow your calling outside of your job, at least for the time being.

Taking the Call

People have debates about what constitutes a calling. My wife is a priest in the Church of England. She had to spend a long time discerning her calling. Everyone she asked had a different definition of what “calling” meant! 

Michael Hyatt has a very practical starting point. He suggests that you need to find something 

  • you are good at,
  • you are passionate about and
  • that can enable you to make a living.

However, Dan Cumberland thinks this is limiting, and I slightly agree with him.  https://www.themeaningmovement.com/calling-comes-from/

However you do it, once you find your calling, find a way to follow it!

What if I could change into…?

Transformation is the ultimate magic trick. Transform yourself, transform your environment.

One of your 5 (minutes) a day?

The Type that Writes

A couple of years ago I decided that I wanted to become the sort of person who writes books. However, the whole idea of writing a book seemed completely daunting. I needed a transformation.

My typing was an obstacle – slightly better than two fingers, but I had to look at the keyboard and I was slow. Learn to touch-type was the first step. I found an online course that allowed self-paced learning with as little as five minutes per day. Great, that was achievable – who can’t find five minutes each day?

Hey presto, a year later I could type using all my fingers and without having to look at the keyboard. As a bonus, I have saved more than five minutes per day because I can now answer emails more quickly. And my typing speed continues to increase as I use it.

Once my touch-typing was sorted, I realised that I would never really get anything written unless I established a writing habit. So, phase two, the next stage in the journey, the next mini-goal. I committed to going to the library at the start of each day and writing for an hour. So far it is going well!

Writing a book once seemed like an impossible dream. But now with touch-typing and a writing habit, it no longer seems impossible.

Disappearing Clutter

The same principle transformed our garage. We don’t keep a car in our garage, rather it is a store room for magic props, along with tool kits, camping stuff and kayaking gear.

Six months ago it was a complete mess. There were corners that hadn’t been touched for ages and boxes that hadn’t been opened since we moved in several years ago. But, I thought, this has to be done. The commitment was ten minutes per day after the morning dog-walk and – ta da! – six months later we now have a beautifully organised and de-cluttered garage. It has been transformed!

Having seen the benefit of this little-and-often philosophy, I have now applied it to other areas of life. Exercise, organising the office, reading books, developing marketing materials, even developing relationships. 

Visualise your goal, break it down into bite-size chunks and then establish a habit and routine that allows you to achieve it in a manageable and enjoyable way. 

And watch yourself perform the ultimate magic trick!

You can do the impossible

One bite at a time…

As a magician I must practise, practise, practise before presenting my seemingly impossible effects to the waiting world. The method becomes invisible as I develop muscle memory to perform secret moves without apparent thought or effort.

When I start performing to lay people the practice continues. In fact, many argue that this is when the learning really begins; only when I perform can I see how a trick will be received, how certain lines of patter will or will not land and how the rhythmic timing of a trick works best.

But how to practise? I have never been a big fan of extended practice sessions. I much prefer the “little and often” approach. I have packs of cards all over the house, in my car and in every jacket and bag that I take out with me. In a spare couple of minutes I can whip out a pack and work on my new moves. Muscle memory builds up much better this way: short, intensive training, have a break and then come back to it later. I have heard dancers say the same sort of thing.

This “little and often” principle can be extended to many areas of life with great effectiveness.

Doing the Impossible

How often do you get demoralised about a goal because it looks too large, too daunting, plainly unachievable? You say to yourself, “I could never complete that task, it would take too much time and energy,” or look at someone successful and think, “I could never achieve what that person has achieved.”

Well, try breaking it up into little steps. When asked, “How do you eat an elephant?” the answer is, “One bite at a time!”

First of all, picture yourself having achieved the goal or completed the project. How does it feel? Great, I bet. Ask yourself whether there is any real reason that you shouldn’t get there. What is the real difference between you and someone who has already achieved it? Probably just determination, consistency and possibly a bit of learning. When I see another magician do an amazing shuffle or flourish with cards I am tempted to think, “I could never do that!” However, I know – because I have forced myself – that given enough “little-and-often” practice I can actually do it. Now people look at me and say, “I could never do that!”

Get your goal in mind. Then identify what has to change and what you need to do to get there. Break it down into sub-goals along the way. And then break the sub-goals down further and further until you have a practical step that you could easily take today.

Then you will achieve the impossible. Just like a magician learning a trick.