Beyond Compare

What am I Like?

Image Conscious

Performing magic is all about presenting an image. Not only do magicians present alternate versions of reality, they also present an alternative version of themselves. Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, famously (among magicians!) said, “A magician is merely an actor playing the part of a magician.” 

This can be true to a greater or lesser extent: some magicians have on-stage personas that are very similar to their everyday characters, others are completely different.

How we are able to present ourselves to the world is underpinned by how we view ourselves. There is normally a difference. However, if there is a huge disparity between our “front stage” and our “back stage” then, sooner or later, we are going to experience problems, maybe even mental health problems.

‘Ere We Ego Again

We are all constantly comparing ourselves to others to see how we measure up. If someone says they don’t do this then they are probably lying! 

Am I as thin as that person? Am I as rich as this person? They are more successful than me, more popular than me , cleverer than me, more skilled than me, get more gigs than me… it goes on. Magicians are notoriously fragile of ego, but this applies across the board.

To whom we are actually comparing ourselves? 

Hush the Air Brush

It could well be that we are not comparing ourselves to real people at all. I have done this. It is all too easy to construct an image of an ideal person who is cleverer/ more successful/ more attractive/ etc than you. But that is all they are, an image, an “ideal” created in your mind. Pause to check whether any real people you know of actually match up to that ideal.

Similarly, it is quite possible that we are comparing ourselves to air-brushed versions of real people. 

We all know that the magazine cover model has been re-touched to make them look like an “ideal” person, whatever that is. This is to make us feel inadequate, to induce us to buy something to achieve that ideal ourselves, or so we think. Even if we know this in our heads, it is all too easy to react on instinct and be taken in by it. It is worth reflecting regularly to see if we are falling prey to this kind of thing.

Happy Comparisons

However, comparing ourselves to real versions of successful people can actually be useful. If they work in the same or a similar field to us we can learn a lot by looking at their success. 

The key is not to get discouraged. It is all too easy to feel that we could never achieve the same as them, that it would be impossible for us. I try to combat this by asking myself, “How are they actually different to me?” 

If I see a magician with huge success on the stage, performing close-up magic or jetting off to exotic locations I ask myself, “Could I perform those tricks?” The answer is that, if I bought the props and practiced enough, there is no reason why not.

Secondly I ask, “How did they get that gig?” It probably boils down to contacts, networking, marketing and a bit of luck. Could I do those things? Well, if I put in the time and effort I probably could. Suddenly their achievements don’t seem quite so unattainable. They are just further down the road.

You are a unique individual on your own special journey. No-one else’s journey even compares.

Thought for Food, pt 2

Eat your way happy

Pulling a Habit out of a Hat

Habits are magical things. No more so than with food. 

We noticed a huge difference when we made pudding something for a special treat once or twice a week, rather than a nightly habit. If you want something sweet at the end of the meal, have a chocolate or two afterwards while you watch TV. 

I recently realised that I was drinking a glass of wine or beer every night, unconsciously exceeding the recommended healthy drinking limits. As a result I have switched more than half my wine consumption at meals to sparkling water.  I am fully expecting to have more energy and to lose weight as a result. 

Similarly, my coffee consumption had crept up to four or five cups a day. I have now limited myself to two cups before 10am and then only rooibos and chamomile tea after that. 

Its going well so far…

Veg Roots

I am pleased that we persevered in putting weird and varied vegetables in front of our three boys as they were growing up. They will now try anything and, if they are out, will shun burgers and fried chicken in favour of healthy salads and wraps, because they now genuinely prefer them.

Sleight of Pans

One of the best things I ever learned was how to cook. I say that like I have achieved it, which is ridiculous. Like magic, cooking is one of those things where you are always learning new techniques, new presentations, new approaches. 

I lost my fear of cooking thanks to a student newspaper article in my first year at college, then I was turbo-charged by Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef in the early nineties. I have never looked back.

Cooking your own food enables you to control your diet more. I heard an American doctor on YouTube a couple of weeks ago suggesting that the one thing that could solve America’s obesity problem was for everyone to cook their own food. “Eat whatever you like, just make sure you cook it yourself.” It sounds simplistic but I know what he means.

Improving with Thyme and Experience

My favourite way of cooking is to improvise, much like doing a close-up magic gig where I have a store of effects in my pockets and work out what I am going to use depending on the audience.

I look in the fridge and then cupboard to see what we have and then work out what I could make out of it. Granted, this takes some experience, trying things out, but you only get better with time. Or thyme.

I used to read Nigel Slater’s recipe books in bed(!) to get inspiration and ideas. Like watching a magic trick training video and then putting it away to develop my own routine without copying the demonstrator, I wanted to get the basic techniques and then put away the cook book and make the recipes my own.

Vegetable Adventures

We get an organic vegetable box once a week from Riverford and I love it, you are never quite sure what you are going to get and sometimes you get vegetables that you have never seen before. This makes you resourceful and adventurous in your cooking. 
You can get much more interesting flavours out of vegetables than meat if you know how to cook them. I am not vegetarian but my approach is to make meat just one element of the meal, rather than the main feature.

To perform better, be like a discerning monk and choose your habits carefully.

Thought for Food, pt 1

Choices, choices…

“Eat food, not too much, mainly plants.” Michael Pollan

I love that quote.

You’re a Star by What You Eat

Entertainers need to stay healthy. If you are ill you can’t work and therefore you don’t get paid. And you need to look healthy to maintain the oh-so-important showbiz image. Otherwise, you won’t get the repeat bookings. 

Diet is a major factor. It is very easy to eat badly as an entertainer, especially if you are on the road.

Junk Fuel

In my twenties I spent most weekends driving around doing kids parties. I still do. But, back then I used to fuel these weekends on pasties, mars bars, caffeine energy drinks and protein shakes. I know other entertainers who choose fried chicken, burgers and pizzas. It is always the burger, pasty and chicken outlets that have the biggest queues at motorway services.

I used to be able to eat anything. I couldn’t get fat. I was blessed with a rapid metabolism that meant that I could burn off anything. People warned me that this would change when I hit 30 years old, that my metabolism would suddenly slow down and that I would start having to watch what I ate. However, I cruised through 30 and nothing happened. I thought, “Hey , I’m different, normal rules do not apply!” And then it hit me at 33. Oh well, I got three years grace!

Salad Days

Since then I have managed, more or less, to stay healthy and not to put on loads of weight. I have done this by training myself to choose good food, to like good food and to cook good food.

On the road, I have switched to healthy salads from M&S or Waitrose, black coffee, apples and fizzy water. I feel better and fuller as a result. 

It is worth knowing a bit about nutrition and reading labels on the packets. I try to limit my saturated fats. Protein kills hunger faster than carbohydrates. For my staple meals on the road I tend to choose salads with rice or potatoes, normally with fish or a small amount of feta cheese. I avoid pastry and pasta. 

Change your snacking habits. Get rid of mediocre biscuits. Only eat decent biscuits and only eat them on special occasions, like when a friend comes round to tea. Eat a piece of fruit or some nuts instead of a chocolate bar.

The Best Possible Taste

As well as training yourself to choose good food you can also train yourself to like good food. I know beer is not generally regarded as a health drink, but I remember that when I started as a student I didn’t like the taste. Now I love it. At some point in my undergraduate career I decided to learn to like beer. When I was a child I didn’t like cucumber, now I love it. At one point in my teenage years I decided to learn to like cucumber. I did the same with black olives.

I has a fascinating conversation with a magician who was struggling with his weight. I asked what he tended to eat and then I suggested he try eating more salads. “Oh, I don’t like cold food,” was his response, and there was the problem. But the tragedy is that it is entirely possible to train ourselves to like new tastes. Our likes and dislikes are not set in stone. This should be liberating if only we choose to embrace it and train ourselves to like new things. 

Just like a magician trains themselves to do a new move, you can train yourself to eat healthily.

Starting transforming yourself into a new you today!

The Zero Hero Secret

Feels so good…

Desk Jockey

There is an old saying, “A tidy desk leads to a tidy mind.” These days, paperless communication means more chance of a tidy physical desk., However, our principal desks are now virtual, our email inboxes and task lists. 

Over the last couple of years, I have found the secret of how to keep a tidy virtual desk. 

The Magic Advantage

This is essential for running an effective magic business, I need to see enquiries as soon as they arrive so that I can get back to potential bookers before my competitors. I need to maintain efficient communication with those who go on to book – I can’t afford for their messages to get lost in a myriad of junk mail. I need to make sure certain tasks are completed each week: charging my portable PA system, putting the bins out, refilling my paraffin bottle for my fire-eating act. The normal sort of stuff.

Inbox Zero

I discovered inbox zero about two years ago and I love it.

 It requires a bit of time and effort when you first do it, but then it saves you loads of time and stress later. The basic idea is that you end each day with no emails or tasks in your inbox.

Initially it requires that you declare an email amnesty and archive all but your most recent 200 emails. 

Then you go through them and “triage” them in much the same way that David Arnold advocates in “Getting Things Done”.

For each email, ask yourself:

  • Can I do this immediately, ie, in the next two minutes? If so, do it now.
  • Is this for someone else? if so, forward or delegate it.
  • Is it junk or not relevant to me? If so, bin it.
  • Do I want to keep it just in case I need it? If so, shove it and all such messages into one archive folder. Don’t have a complicated folder system because you will spend too much time worrying about where to file things. Just put them all in one folder and let your email program’s search function find it if you need it again.
  • And, finally, it may be something that you need to do but not right now. Maybe it is not urgent or maybe it require more time and thought. In which case, schedule it for a later time. How do you do this with an email? Well, I use an email program with a “snooze” function. It pops the message back into your inbox at the time you have specified. I use Spark, which I love. I know that Gmail also has a snooze function and there are probably now many others.

Once you have done this the first time you can just carry on doing it every day.

This approach is very satisfying. It means that you never feel overwhelmed by your inbox and it allows much greater focus on the messages that are important.

You can apply a very similar approach to your task list. A task management app is very useful for this. I use Nozbe, but, again, there are loads out there. Find one that suits you.

Revision Timetable

When I was doing exams at school and university I would often spend more time designing and refining my revision timetable than actually revising. I worried about that at the time, but now I have come to realise that it was not all bad. 

In order to design the timetable I had to have a clear idea of the subjects that needed to be revised, and in dividing them up into revise-able chunks I got a clear sense of the structure and framework of the subject. In doing this I was subconsciously making connections between different areas and this, actually, formed part of the revision and preparation for the exam. 

Clarity Victory

It is very similar when we organise our task lists and email inboxes. We are working out what is and isn’t important, what does and doesn’t need to be done and in what order. That leads to greater clarity and therefore to greater effectiveness.

Become a zero hero!

Freedom Through Organisation

Are all your ducks in a row?

A Place for Everything…

When I do a show I need to know exactly where every prop is. I perform out of a suitcase for family shows and everything is arranged so that I can pick out the right trick whenever I need it. At the end of the show, and even as I perform in some cases, everything goes back in exactly the same place, ready for next time.

Similarly, when we magicians are performing close-up magic we talk about “pocket management”. We need to know exactly where in our costume to find our pack of cards, our coins and our lemon(!). There are other props that I am not allowed to tell you about. I probably told you too much by revealing the lemon…

The back of my car has a precise arrangement. I can instantly see if I have forgotten to pack something and I can always go straight to the things I need when I arrive at a show. If I need something different for a special show I can go to my prop store in my garage and, again, I know exactly where to find everything. Minimum stress, maximum efficiency.

Mama Used to Say

I applied this approach to my magic way before I applied it to the rest of my life. I wish I hadn’t waited so long, life is so much better now! There is an old, almost clichéd saying: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” It is so old and hackneyed, the sort of thing that your parents and teachers told you, that my natural instinct was to rebel against it, to feel like it would somehow shackle me and stifle my freedom and creativity.

The Keys to Freedom

However, I have found that the exact opposite is true. Becoming more organised leads to much more creativity and freedom. It frees up headspace previously occupied by stress and it frees up time previously occupied by searching for stuff. “Where are my keys?!” is no longer a problem. They are either by my bed or in my right trouser pocket ?

This approach can be applied throughout your work and home life. At home in the kitchen, your clothes storage, your garage. At work in your office, your car, your briefcase. Anywhere that you have to use and store stuff.

How to Get There?

Of course, you have to reach the organised point to start with.

This is the approach that I took with my office: Because I am freelance,  my week never has a set pattern, but I have a default timetable if I do not have any other bookings on a particular day. On those days I determined to spend 5-10 minutes, no more, on organising my office storage and shelves. 

In three months I had done it and felt great. I had also found stuff I forgot I had – books and props. I chucked some stuff away. Other stuff I wasn’t sure about. I decided to keep that stuff, I was now conscious that I had it and was confident that my subconscious would decide over the next few days/ weeks whether I really needed it. 

Get your ducks in a row. Then quack on.

You Need to Move It Move It

Book Your Exercise

Why not walk instead?

Too many magicians neglect exercise.

This particularly applies to close-up magicians who don’t have to leap about in their act or lug heavy equipment around. However, they are missing out, and so are their audiences.

The general  benefits of exercise are many and well known. However, for the entertainer there are additional benefits. 

Driving Force

Performing regularly requires stamina, particularly as you get older. Not only does giving your all to the audience take a lot of energy, but being a magician requires a lot of travelling, which is tiring. Especially if you are driving. I regularly drive 300-500 miles a week between gigs. I need to exercise to give me the stamina to do this.

As with magic, as with life. This applies to most people in the world of work, especially those who work alone, travel a lot and or have to stand up in front of people and present.

Bend Me, Shake Me

The right kind of exercise will not only improve your stamina, it will also build your strength and flexibility. This will enable you to avoid injury while performing, but it will also allow you to perform a greater range of tricks and effects. Depending on the type of exercise you choose, you may also learn valuable transferrable skills, eg, balance, co-ordination, timing, leadership and teamwork.

You Need to Get Out More

You will be more successful as an entertainer if you can present a showbiz image to your clients. Looking healthy really helps with this. If you exercise regularly outdoors, not only will it help to keep your weight down, you will also develop healthy complexion rather than looking pale and pasty.

Exercising outdoors is also great for your mental health. Most magicians spend a lot of time alone and performing solo. For some this is fine, but others find it a struggle and, if something difficult happens in life, the loneliness can compound it and lead to real mental health struggles. It is not a cure-all, but one of the tried and tested methods for helping to maintain and improve mental health is to do regular outdoor exercise.

The fresh air and sunlight help to lift spirits generally, seeing the outside world and nature can help to put things into perspective.

Gym Jamming or Solitary ‘Appiness

Whatever kind of exercise you choose, it needs to be sustainable. You have to be able to keep at it. I hate gyms but my wife loves hers and goes along to classes a couple of times a week. She is an extrovert and loves the interaction with other people. I am an introvert and prefer to exercise on my own. I have found my own mix and I encourage you to find yours. 

My favourite discovery of the last year is the Seven Minute Workout, a phone app. A friendly and encouraging, yet authoritarian, voice (weirdly, the same voiceover artist as the one in the lift at our local train station!) talks you through 12 different exercises. You do 30 seconds of each one with a 10 second rest in between each one. It’s high intensity training (HIT) packaged in a very easy to use format. I love it because it fits beautifully into my morning routine. I can put the coffee in the cafétiere, go and do my exercises and when I come back my coffee is ready. 

I also walk the dog for 45 minutes each day and go kayaking once or twice a week (depending on the temperature outside!). That mix works for me and I have developed the routines and habits to make it sustainable. It is important that you find your own mix that enables you to stay fit and healthy without it being onerous.

For the sake or yourself and your audience, “Don’t Stop Moving…”

Cannibals and Thieves

“Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief…”

Bono makes good point in the U2 song “The Fly.” There is very little, if any, completely original art in the world. Most is a new combination of existing ideas. And that is fine, it is good, it is why art can help us to see old things in new ways.

However, that doesn’t let us off the originality hook.

Find the new stuff in your head…

Video Kills the Magical Star

A problem has crept into the magic world in the last couple of decades. In the past, the main way of learning  magic tricks was from books. You had to prop a book open and try to follow the instructions and diagrams, It wasn’t easy but it meant that you really thought about the mechanics of the trick and then you came up with your own way of presenting it.

However, now the most common way is from video. It is much easier to access the content and easier to learn the mechanics. However, the problem is that you also tend to pick up the mannerisms, patter and quirks of the person doing the teaching. As a result, too many magicians end up performing a particular trick in exactly the same way, becoming clones of the magician in the instructional video. They become another generic magician, they don’t stand out from the crowd. Too often we hear,
“Oh yeah, so and so had a magician at their wedding, they did that trick with the (whatever).” 
“What was the magician’s name?” 
“Oh, I can’t remember…”

It is much better to watch the video to learn the technique and then, as soon as you have worked out the mechanics, to put the video away and never look at it again. Then you can practice the trick and work out how to make it fit your style, your personality, how it will fit into your existing show or routine. 

It is even better to take a principle or technique that you have learned and change the props or effect so that you come up with something that is entirely your own. It will then be fresher, suit you more and be more likely to stick in people’s minds.

Free Your Mind and the Rest Will Follow

The best magicians are always the ones who don’t just watch magic and don’t just read magic books. Instead, they feed on a wide diet of different art forms. They read other genres and subjects. This leads to cross-fertilisation of ideas and produces much more originality. 

Out Standing in Your Field

As with everything, what is true in magic is true for life and work in general.

If you produce original material, or original takes on existing ideas, then you will stand out from the crowd, If you are a speaker or writer, use only your own stories and illustrations, then you can be confident that no-one else will be using them, There is nothing worse than two speakers at the same event telling the same story.

Similarly, if you use photos in your blog, take your own photos or get someone to take them for you. If you write a book or give a presentation that uses illustrations, draw  or get an artist to draw original illustrations. That way you will know that no-one else has them. You will stand out, you will be different.

Limited to Unlimited

True originality probably never happens. Everyone is inspired by something or someone. But we can all give our unique perspective on things and we can all combine different influences and ideas in our own special way.

There are only a limited number of plots for novels. In the same way there are only a limited number of effects in magic:


These limited options are combined with myriad other ideas, characters and settings to produce infinite possibilities.

Don’t Keep it to Yourself

If you don’t produce original material then you are depriving the world of your own unique contribution. No-one else in the world has ever had, or will ever have, exactly the same life experience as you. As a result no-one else will see the world quite like you do. Your perspective will be extremely valuable to someone out there. Go for it. If you do it enough then it will be found by those who need and appreciate it.

There is only one you, don’t keep yourself from the world.

No Show Without Business

A couple of years ago, a friend and colleague at The Magic Circle articulated something I had already realised. Show business is 50% show and 50% business. You need both. If you don’t have any business sense then, sooner or later, you won’t have a show.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to performers. It applies to anyone who doesn’t think of themselves as a business person.

Without business, there is no show…

One day Rodney, We probably won’t be millionaires…

This is an unwelcome realisation for many creative types. The idea of business is somewhat grubby and and they long for the days of yore when an artist could get themselves a patron and just concentrate on following their muse. However, for most of us, that is just a pipe dream.

Business is essentially about people and money. It doesn’t need to be that scary. You need to get good at dealing with people and get good at dealing with money.

Let’s face it, most of us are not going to achieve mega-riches doing what we do, but we can avoid penury, financial stress and debt-misery. It is quite possible to build a comfortable life as a creative as long as you have your business eyes open.

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Firstly, get real. Be completely honest with yourself. You need a completely accurate picture of your current financial position, however scary. If you don’t know how to put together a simple spreadsheet, for goodness sake learn right away. There is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost from denial. 

Where the Dickens are you?

Once you know where you are, what you have, what you are currently bringing in, you can start to see what needs to change. Is your income exceeding your outgoings? 
As Dickens had Mr Micawber say: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” 

Heed the Profit

Are people buying what you are selling? There is a continuum between the esoteric art that artists want to produce and commercial art that will sell. Once you are famous you can produce pretty much anything you want and you will probably sell enough of it to live. Until that time you need to produce stuff that people will buy. When I was at mime and physical theatre school some of my colleagues were into performing weird avant-garde theatre at the weekends. I was using the same techniques to do kids’ parties. I made consistent money to support my course, they were reliant on the latest Arts Council grant.

Have a Cunning Plan

Dream big, but plan conservatively. It is so tempting to forecast your income using a best-case scenario. Don’t. Plan for a low level of income and then you can only be pleasantly surprised if you do better one month.

Save for taxes. When you get paid, stick 20% in a separate dedicated bank account for tax. Don’t touch it until tax time. It’s not not your money anyway. I recommend the book Profit First by Mike Michalowicz – it is really helpful.

Delegation, that’s what you need

Granted, there are definitely dull and difficult bits to business. Work out what you can and cannot do yourself. Pay someone else to do the bits you can’t do or can’t stand. This might include accounts, bookkeeping, web design, graphics and more. It is always cheaper to pay an expert than to try to teach yourself and muddle through something with less than 100% effectiveness. I have learned that the hard way.

Remember, there is no business like show business, but there is no show without business.

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.