Selflessness - One Precursor to Apathy

Nov 20, 2007
Sydney, Australia
Here comes another long one folks, so... yeah.

This actually isn't a new topic per se - a large part of this post is build upon a post I've made previously. But thinking about it recently, I think that it's important enough to deserve its own topic.

There seems to be this budding wave of collective moral outrage amongst magicians recently, in which the overarching trend is to advocate a most extreme form of selflessness - "I as the magician do not matter at all. My feelings don't matter. It's all about the spectator."

I think this arises partly from the fact that we know at least that magic is based to a large extent on skill, whether it be presentational ability, communication skills, mental dexterity, or indeed technical skill. People are scared of the notion that in demonstrating this skill, we will be showing off, that demonstrating skills necessarily involves egotistical actions.

Anyway, I digress slightly. The point is this.

The magician does matter.

Let's for example examine the question of whether I should perform The Biddle Trick.

The Biddle Trick is a classic effect, a great effect used by many generations of magicians since it's creation. When given the proper effort, it gets great reactions.

Therefore, I as a magician MUST perform The Biddle Trick because it's great for laymen, right?


I hate The Biddle Trick! There's nothing wrong with it, I just personally hate it. It doesn't interest me at all. And as a mentalist, I prefer not to risk the perception of "card technician". But even simply as a card magician, I would not perform this effect.

But why not? We should do everything in our power for the spectators! We don't matter!

Yes, we should, but YES, we also do matter.

The truth is that there is such an extensive magical lexicon, that there is an abundance of great effects which can all get the same great reaction as The Biddle Trick. Does this mean we have to perform them all? After all, it's our duty!

Of course not, that would be ridiculous. Try and argue that and I'll slap you back to the Middle Ages.

At some point, we have to pick and choose. How do we pick and choose? We choose what we like! We choose what suits us and in that action we involve ourselves - unconsciously so, unless your method of choosing effects to learn involves a roulette wheel. We choose what appeals to us, and in that action, we make ourselves, the performer, important.

Now, apart from pure necessity, why is it important to make the magician, ourselves, important in this process of performing?

It's quite simple. Think of a passion of yours. Now imagine telling me about it.

Now think of the Exogenous Consumption statistic of your country, and explain it in the context of a simple (Two-Sector) Keynesian Model. Now imagine telling me about that.

Unless your passion also happened to be Keynesian Economics (which it could well be, in which case, you'll have to think of something else appropriately boring, with my sincere apologies), you'll quickly realise that you will be more bored talking about the latter than the former. Now, if you're bored, how do you think I'd feel as the listener?

Let's transfer this back to magic before I have too much fun. When you perform something you intrinsically enjoy, it shows. When you perform something you don't enjoy, it shows. When it shows, it affects the audience. The fact is that enjoyment is contagious. If you enjoy what you do, the audience will enjoy it too. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it is a requisite for successfully performing magic, that you enjoy what you do. If you don't enjoy it, there's no way your audience will.

Simply put, that is why you, the magician, are important when performing. Your goal is to create the experience of magic. This is impossible if you do not like your own material. If you do not enjoy it, your audience will not either, and will not experience the magic. If, on the other hand, you love what you do, your audience will pick up on this. Enthusiasm, passion, love, they all show.

Now, given that there is such a huge magical lexicon, it follows that you also have the power to choose from a vast array of effective routines.

So, why not choose what you like?

Yes, it means admitting that you as the magician are important, but that is not a bad thing! On the contrary, following what you like is a good thing because it improves the calibre of your performances. The final result is a flow-on effect, which will improve your audience's experience.

Because the opposite can be devastating. If you don't perform what you like, you have committed a graver error than any mistake you could possibly make in performance - you have committed yourself to an apathetic performance.

Performance can be many things. These things can be good or bad. But there is little if anything worse than apathy. Because not only are you not performing well, but your bad performance is the worst kind of bad - it's the sort of performance that doesn't care. How can we entertain if we don't care for the material, for the tools with which we entertain.

Of course, I choose my words carefully - selflessness may be one precursor to apathy. It is not to say that one should not be selfless, or that selflessness necessarily degenerates into apathy. Selflessness is an admirable quality in life as in magic. One should never lose sight of it. One should never stop thinking about the audience member. But one should never cease to think of oneself either. Because ultimately, it is not your magic that entertains them - it's you. And if you're not quite there, then you can't possibly do a good job. Just as they say that you have to take care of yourself, before you can take care of anyone else.

This argument can be molded into one advocating the personalisation of effects by creating your own presentations and variations - in other words, originality. I won't go too deeply into this, but briefly...

A common human trait we share is pride. And I don't mean this in the negative connotation - but rather the pride we take in our work. When we've worked hard to create something, we've invested in it. We've invested time, and effort, and energy and emotion into this creation. This in turn gives it meaning; it gives it value.

Performing original pieces is an important way to avoid an apathetic performance. Because you're showing something that you've created, that you're proud of, and rightly so.

Of course, I am not saying that you should perform only your own material. If you can, feel free, but more importantly, I want to encourage people to perform effects that you make your own. Take a trick that you've just bought. Then modify it to make it your own. I'm often asked where I learned this effect or that effect from.

How can I answer? Why is the assumption that I learned it from anywhere? I learned about half a dozen or more effects, and molded them into what they say - into my routine. But my performance is my own, and I'm excited to perform my material, and I care about what happens all the more so because it is my own. Which doesn't mean you have to care for the spectator any less - it just means you add something else that you should care about.

Bottom line is: A piece you've created is a piece that matters to you. If a piece matters to you, you care more about it and have more invested in it. If this is the case, then you will avoid the trap of apathy because it will be of special interest to you. If something is of special interest to you - it shows.

See, the truth is, in order to perform for laymen, you also have to consider yourself. How can we hope to entertain if we do not love what we do? Without acknowledging how we feel, and using how we feel about our magic to good use, and making decisions based on our feelings, we cannot hope to alter others' emotions, because the intent, and the passion, will not be there.
May 9, 2008
Awesome read! You make several great points. I'm sick of hearing people say 'quite performing masturbatory magic! it should be all about the spectator!" I say BS to that. If I don't enjoy it, I'm not going to perform it.
What are we really asking?


What does your deck say about you?

This is Magic, If it aint broke, don't fix it,


Was that in a negative way or what did you want to say?

And i think that this was one of THE best things ive read in a while.
People can sense fear in us and we are put into a very dangerous position while performing. As Max Maven said, "When we are performing, we are judged in a way that others are not". We need to make it comfortable for ourselves. The fact that magicians and mentalists need to understand is that this is our skill, our passion and i don't really give a c*ap what the spectators think. If im having fun they are and that is the end of the line.

Most people who come to see a magic show really don't know how to react to the effects and how to look at magic. If you make it a place like home, not trying to be but really being a very soft and welcoming personality on stage, if you welcome people into your heart then they will give you the affection you need. When we are performing that we are the kings, we are GOD. People look up to us(as a guy who has been doing this for a while and knows how to make them feel good).

You have to treat your spectators as strangers who you have to become lifelong friends in an half an hour. So giving them personal information, asking them for it, telling them stories or reciting quotes. All of it makes you seem more of a person that is out to show people a nice time and show them that magic and mentalism is fun.

People have a tendency to think about other before ourselves because we want to be polite. This is YOU we are talking about, your persona, your moves, your skill. Work on yourself first and then think about your spectators. You can't make an effect for everyone but there are "hacks" to make your effects acceptable and interesting to all.

Nov 15, 2007
Raleigh, NC

I would only add that one should also forget about what everybody else in magic is doing, and what they perceive as 'cool' or 'the greatest trick ever'. Do what you want to do!

Many performers think sponge balls are childish and un-cool. I use them, maybe not 'a lot' but often and have fun when using them. What kind of effect is that on the audience? Well, the numerous gags and crazy effects you can pull with sponge balls not only entertains children and adults alike, it actually loosens up the teenagers as well. o_O

If I had more time (at work now) I'd probably try and think of more to add...but you summed it up pretty well in your post so I'll just leave it at this.


Dec 18, 2007
Chicago, IL
I agree, it would seem like a bad idea to overemphasize any one part of the relatively complex interaction that is a magic trick. (I haven't been around for a while, but I read this and also checked out the What Does Your Deck Say About You? essay, which is also a great read that goes hand-in-glove with this one.)

From the start there is the Artist, followed soon by the Audience. In between them there is the Art, which consists of the Technique and the Material.

Only a combination of these things makes for great magic.

--The Artist's persona must be a fit with the Audience: clown-style magic would not be appropriate at a banking firm's black-tie Christmas party, and sophisticated strolling magic would not be appropriate at a birthday party.

--The Art should support both of those. Sponge balls and Biddle Tricks work better for some Artists than others, and likewise some Audiences. Quick-action sleights like Dan and Dave's might be more impressive to some Audiences than others. The Material you use (e.g., the deck you choose) has to fit your persona as an Artist (this is where the discussion on "cool" in that essay becomes relevant--it is worth reading if you haven't), but it also has to be something that will affect your Audience. Your Material and your Technique should go together to make flawless Art, and that should resonate both with your persona as an Artist and with the Audience.

A good magician, I think, cannot leave out any part of this triangle of Art, Artist, and Audience. All three should be honed carefully to work together (to the extent one can hone an audience). This sounds impossible or incredibly difficult, but that is why magic takes talent and determination.

Interesting thoughts, praetoritevong, thanks.

May 31, 2008
Thank you for bringing this up! I've always thought about this, but I've never been able to even think about putting it into words as well as you did. I pretty much have nothing to add to that except that performing magic we hate but spectators enjoy is a lot like that old band, The Monkees.

Don't perform magic your spectators hate, but don't perform material you hate either.
Jul 1, 2009
Once again a great read. love your work. Seriously man you need to write a book.

When you do a trick you love doing, you put you heart and soul into it the audicence will take notice of this and will enjoy the trick. But in a way if you don't like the trick you will not put the time to pratice it and it will go down the drain. But if you force yourself to pratice a effect because the audicence loves it it will not work. How can you put something in a effect that you don't love to perform thats almost immpossible( I try this before)? I think it should be the magican first then the audicence.

Remember love what you do.
Jul 1, 2009
Just noticed that this thread was type a whole week. I can't believe miss let me go chook myself right now cause I miss this awesome thread.


Nov 1, 2009
New Jersey
Of course, I choose my words carefully - selflessness may be one precursor to apathy.

Provocative post. It sounds as if you are channeling Ayn Rand:

"Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egotist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self." Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead.​

I agree with what you have said. We perform best when we perform effects that that we like and that we have made our own.

There are certain effects that each of us are drawn to. What is the greatest effect for me may be the worst debacle for someone else. Our technical skills, personalities, presentation and preferences determine what magic works best for us. What fits my style may not fit someone else's style. Magicians need to seek out and perform magic that fits their own style, not somebody else's style.

If we like an effect (because it fits our style), we are more likely to customize that effect by adapting the slights, presentation and patter. By customizing the effect, we make it our own. Those effects, the ones that we make our own, are the effects that get the best reactions from spectators.
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