Remember when I said I bombed those two tricks before? Well, tonight I sat down in Roots with a new deck of cards, and someone sitting on the couch across from my chair said, “Practicing blackjack?” I somewhat reluctantly said, “No, I’m not much of a gambler these days. I’m sort of an amateur magician.” To this, the guy said, “Do you have a trick?” So, I performed the Topsy-Turvy Cards again since it’s one of the tricks I feel is both impressive and challenging enough to merit performing for people. It played well, and I was happy to have my last performance failure officially behind me.

I’ve been working on a couple of card tricks lately from Royal Road and been feeling pretty good about them. Today, I performed them for an audience of acquaintances that didn’t know I was a magician. Put simply: I totally bombed. Not in the sense that the tricks didn’t play well or even in the sense that they figured out the method. I bombed because I completely botched the tricks. I didn’t get the deck into the proper position for “Topsy-Turvy Cards” so the ending had the cards face up instead of face down except for two cards at one end. Then, I incorrectly controlled the selected card in “Design for Laughter” and ended up with the wrong card in the revelation.

There are a couple of lessons I was able to learn from this experience. First, even though the tricks bombed, the audience didn’t really care. Of course, of it was a paying gig or something, the stakes would have been higher but in an impromptu situation, there’s very little risk. They can’t eat you no matter how badly you do. Really, no one cares about my magic as much as I do. That’s oddly reassuring.

Second, I need to learn how to handle the situation better when things go wrong. When I revealed the wrong card at the end of “Design for Laughter”, it was a happy accident that the user’s selected card was the king of clubs and the card I revealed was the ace of clubs. I panicked a little bit about the trick going “wrong,” and didn’t recognize the opportunity to say something like, “Oh, look at that! Your king got a promotion,” or some other such patter that wouldn’t have meant the trick “didn’t work.” More study about performance will certainly help.

Even though I bombed, I am glad I tried. I forced myself to ignore my lizard brain, and no one ate me. No one even laughed at me. And to top it off, I learned a couple lessons that I could never have learned sitting at my desk at home practicing alone.

The way I approach learning magic, there are three modes in which I find myself working: learning, practicing, and reflecting. One of my biggest struggles is learning to recognize the difference between all three of these useful working modes and the unhelpful, blissful state of procrastination.

I’m getting better at recognizing the numb psyche that comes along with procrastination. When I know I should be learning something new, but I sit and “practice” blind cuts and shuffles, it feels qualitatively different from when I am working on those things because they need genuine improvement. When I know I should be writing a genuine, reflective article about an experience but I choose to browse the media section of instead and “get inspired” by what others are doing, I feel that I’ve wasted my opportunity to take another step forward in favor of the safety of admiring those that are on the path.

The only time I never feel like I have done myself a disservice is when I choose performing. If I’m ambivalent or uncertain about what I should be doing, I never go wrong in stopping someone in the coffee shop and sharing my work with them.

My new mantra is, “When in doubt, forego the meta.” “Meta” means things that are related to your thing but are not the thing itself. For magic, this includes but is not limited to reading blogs, buying new props and books, hanging out at the magic shop, going to magic club meetings, or even writing about it. These things are important, but they should never be mistaken for magic itself.

If you’re a writer, you could be going wrong by doing more “research,” but you will never go wrong by sitting down and making the clackity noise. If you’re a guitarist, you could go wrong by reading that new issue of Guitar Player or buying some “inspirational” guitar music from the iTunes store, but you will never go wrong by picking up the guitar and putting your fingers on the frets. Most of the time, these won’t be your best efforts, but sometimes, your art will reward you with something unexpected because you didn’t settle for the numb comfort of procrastination.

One of the things that I’ve been noticing is that I need to make my sleights more subtle. I’ve been watching myself, and I see that I need to improve a lot in this area. I need to hold smaller breaks, make shorter jogs, shift and palm more quietly, top change more smoothly, and shuffle and cut more naturally. Through the miracle of iSight cameras, I’m able to keep iterating on this, but right now it’s a really weak part of my skills.

This is probably a pretty big mistake. I have no credibility when it comes to magic. But the idea of this site won’t leave me alone, so I’m going to write and see what happens. I really have no business writing about magic. I’m only just getting started with taking it seriously. But, hopefully writing about the process of sucking less at it will be of some use, if to no one else but me.

Many hours of incessant practice must be spent to acquire the requisite amount of skill; but it must be remembered if feats at card-handling could be attained for the asking there would be little in such performance to interest or profit anyone.

Don’t think this only applies to cards.

The Weekly Magic Failure

Take a look around. There are step by step instructions and tutorials on just about anything. How to paint, how to play guitar. And you can watch all of these for free. If you take a brush or a guitar you will realize that it isn’t that easy. And that you need to work.

Today I was reminded of something that was probably one of the most enduringly useful tricks I learned in all of my music education. In a piano lesson, my teacher pointed out that if I have a repeated note to play quickly, pressing that same key on the keyboard with the same finger is slow and inefficient. Instead, use two fingers alternating to press the same key in a kind of walking motion. I use this all the time now even though I never play piano. I use it with my computer keyboard. Navigating a text file in vim? Tapping out six or seven J‘s in a row and watching the cursor move is more efficient than counting lines for a 7j or waiting while my system decides to send the repeated event to MacVim while I hold down the J key.

Sometimes, it really is about the journey. The journey is where you encounter the people and experiences that will stick with you. But you don’t use the journey for what you get out of it. The journey gives you its gifts freely because you were along for the ride.


What’s Happened

In 2010, I went on my first cruise. (I thought I would hate it but it ended up being one of the funnest I have ever done.) I also went to NSConference and WWDC. It’s always inspiring to be around engineers that are way smarter and way more accomplished than I am.

One of the things I am most proud of from 2010 is the completion of my first Mac application. Eureka will be in the Mac App Store on January 6, but I both started and finished it in 2010.

Oh, and I got a new dog.

What I’ve learned

2010 was one of the toughest years of my life, but at the end of it, I’m a much better person than I was at the beginning. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Forget about superlatives
    Perfectionism is something that I’ve struggled with since I was a kid. When I say perfectionism, I don’t mean the kind of commitment to excellence that you appreciate from folks who make kickass stuff. I mean the kind of debilitating, self-sabotaging self-requirement that says mistakes are not allowed, that you have to be all things to all people all the time. I owe a big thanks in this area to my reading The Now Habit by Neil Fiore.

    Here’s what I’ve learned, too. Chances are (and this is OK, by the way) that there’s no aspect of me that is superlative. I used to be the smartest person I knew. Then I went to graduate school and met some ridiculously smart people that cared a helluva lot more than I did. And in my computer science program, there were people like that too.

    There have been a lot of things I thought I was superlative. But slowly, one by one, I have been disabused of all of those. What’s dangerous is that if you base your identity on superlatives, you’ll eventually be left with just the shell of an identity when those are stripped away. So, what have I learned to base my identity on? The answer to that is simple: things that don’t change. Being a husband, friend, uncle, son, a software engineer, guitarist, Pez collector, and other things. And what’s left? Getting better at them and helping others get better at their thing too. That’s it.

  2. Keep Your Balance
    When I have a decision to make, it’s easy to let a particular emotional component of the situation make me lose perspective. When a new client contacts me with a project, I have a decision to make. If all I think about is the money, I might overlook how additional time commitments might affect my marriage, work, and other deadlines. Even if I manage to keep those things in balance, maybe I’ll have to burn the midnight oil or forego my exercise routine to make it all happen and that could affect my health. This isn’t to say that I won’t still take the project, but when I do I will know it’s a better considered decision that I would likely have made a year ago.

  3. First Person Transitive
    Merlin Mann’s been using this phrase for a while and it’s been such a huge help to me. My friend Patrick says it this way, “Don’t worry; do. If there’s nothing to be done, don’t worry.” When I face a problem, I face a simple question: Is there anything I can do about this? If the answer is yes, then get your ass to work. If the answer is no, then accept the state of things and make the best of it. There’s no other option.


In 2011, I have some modest goals:

  1. Be a supportive and encouraging husband to my awesome wife as she finishes up her medical school prerequisites.
  2. Write and release at least one more indie code thing. I have several ideas in the pipeline for Mac, iOS, and the web, so we’ll see which one makes it out first.
  3. Continue getting into better physical condition.
  4. Slow down and enjoy things better than I did this year.

That’s it. Really those are my goals for 2011. Of course the usual ephemera such as being a good friend and remembering to take out the trash when it’s full, but those are ongoing, unmeasurable things. So, for 2011, my list is four deep. That seems manageable.

Matt Wood

You just need the perspective to sort out the necessary from the guilty pleasures, to distinguish the real problems from the self-inflicted, and to have the courage to step away when something makes you unhappy.

Thanks, Matt, for calling folks forward for a healthy dose of autonomy, empowerment, and ownership of what’s under their control.