Know Thyself

Socrates admonished his students to “Know Thyself.”  He said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” It is also the beginning of effective marketing and branding but more importantly it is the beginning of a satisfying career and a fulfilled life.

For too many years self-discovery was the last thing on my mind. In other areas of my life I was quite introspective and contemplative but my approach to magic was less deliberate. As an amateur who aspired to be a professional, I simply didn’t see the connection between understanding who I was as a performer and performance success. By performance success I am not simply referring to the paycheck after the gig but also to the satisfaction and enjoyment of my audience and to my own sense of satisfaction with the performance.

The performance of magic can be an enriching even spiritually fulfilling experience but only if it comes from the deepest part of our soul as individuals. We need to devote time and attention to finding that place that is uniquely our own from which our magic can grow and flourish into one of a kind experiences for our audience.  We need to give that search the same passionate dedication that we bring to other areas of our art like the search for new material, the reading of new books, or rehearsal.

At this point in my life I have found that the fastest path to success and all that success means is to take the journey inward before I offer my creation to the world around me. Have you ever had the experience of learning a routine to perfection and then once it has been in your public performance for a reasonable time, you simply can’t understand why your audience isn’t enjoying it, why it doesn’t seem to be achieving what you hoped it would? All artists suffer the chasm between a dream and a reality but maybe the failure of the routine has another cause, maybe the routine isn’t congruent with who you are? If that is the case no amount of rehearsal, tweaking, or analysis will fix it.

“Magician, Know Thyself!”  

In the past I wanted to learn the latest cups and balls routine or buy the newest card gaff. I wanted to do the routines that entertained me without a thought to how those routines might resonate with or work in opposition to my personality.  This tendency to buy the shiniest object and try to force it into my show is even more tempting today with the super slick and seductive video promotion that many dealers engage in.  Resisting the good and concentrating on the best is one indication of growth and maturity. The best in this case is not the best magic but the best magic for me.

I cannot be all things to all people. I cannot present a show “for any occasion.” I have my specialty, I know what works for me. Our performance must be as unique as we are if we ever hope to differentiate ourselves from the ever-growing crowd of magical entertainers.

Our “brand” impacts every marketing decision and eventually our success or failure as performers. I can’t think of anything more important to focus our attention on than this journey inward to find where our contribution really begins as individual performers.

So how does one “know thyself?” It may comfort or frustrate you to know that philosophers have struggled to answer this question for centuries and yet every generation must come to terms with it and so must we both in our lives and in our art.  The answer may be as individual as we are.

What works well for me is paying deliberate attention to my intuition and to my feelings. For instance, if I have thoroughly rehearsed a routine to the point that I can present it without conscious thought, if I have tested it in front of my test audiences so that I know its ready, and yet I still feel apprehensive, that is a red flag. There is a difference between apprehension and stage fright. We all get nervous but when, somewhere deep in your gut, your body is telling you, “This routine is wrong for you,” its time to dump it no matter how much you’ve invested.

Dis-ease is one indicator though certainly not the only indicator of what will and what will not work for you. Another method of learning who I am as a performer is to ask myself, “Why are you doing this? What is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve by devoting the time to develop this into magic?” I also ask, “Do I own this? Have I placed my mark upon it? Does it come from my soul and no one else’s?”  

I can’t answer these questions unless I know my values, interests, and temperament. I am a spiritually minded introvert. Another performer maybe a skeptical extrovert. If that is the case, then clearly what works for me will not work for that performer and vice versa. Our magic must grow from the unique blend of our values, interests, and temperament. When it does it has the best chance of becoming art, all that we hope our performance can become.

Good magic is personal, it originates from the unique characteristics of the performer. On a physical, technical level, Dai Vernon used to observe how his body naturally performed the function he needed to accomplish a sleight before he created the movement. His sleight of hand grew from his natural body movements. Doing his movements his way is a little like putting on his suit. We may be the same size, but chances are his suit will either be too tight or too bulky to fit us as well as our own tailored suit will fit. Finding or developing the magic that is you is much the same process.

We each need to be students of ourselves. We need to allow our observations about who we are to inform our choices in magic and how we develop our performance material. To the extent that we do this, our magic will be uniquely our own, not an imitation, but a one of a kind original.

Much love,

David Dellman