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14 years ago: the day Teller gave me the secret to my career in magic. (shwood.squarespace.com)
797 points by Sukotto 2125 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

It took me a while to appreciate it, but what I enjoyed most about this was the letter from Brushwood to Teller. Teller's letter was awesome in all of the general ways, and he makes great points about about doing something besides the thing you want to excel at.

But Brushwood's email was great because it asked for advice for a specific problem, and it was a problem that Teller had the expertise to answer. Not "Oh Teller! I want to be a great magician just like you!" Not "What are 10 things an aspiring magician should do?" Not "Dear Teller, would you mind sending me information you find relevant or letting me pick your brain over coffee?" It was "I want to develop my own style, here's what I've done to that end. I've had some success, but here's how I struggled with taking it to the next level. What do you suggest, as someone who's accomplished this?" Emails like that tend to get the best kinds of responses.

>It was "I want to develop my own style, here's what I've done to that end. I've had some success, but here's how I struggled with taking it to the next level. What do you suggest, as someone who's accomplished this?"

Connecting thought from this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywu7Vu8Hko0

Quote, not verbatim: "Roadblocks are there to stop people who don't want it badly enough."

Questions like...

> "Oh Teller! I want to be a great magician just like you!"

> "What are 10 things an aspiring magician should do?"

> "Dear Teller, would you mind sending me information you find relevant or letting me pick your brain over coffee?"

... are indications of people who don't want it badly enough. They are infatuated with the fabulous end product, but not infatuated enough to really dive into it. The advice to "prod and demonstrate the failure/successes of your prodding before asking for advice" is not a heuristic against laziness - rather, it's meant to find out the depth of passion in the inquirer. Putting effort into an infatuation elevates it from a passing delightful thought into a serious, long-term passion. People who have chased life-long passions like to help those who aim to do the same.

... or perhaps those questions are indications that someone hasn't arrived at a mature stage yet. It often takes me quite a while to formulate a good question about anything.

Whether they are willing to work hard or not probably is better seen by looking at the kinds of questions they ask a year apart.

Here's the link to the actual lecture with relevant quote.


   The brick walls are there for a reason. Right? The brick 
   walls are not there to keep us out, the brick walls are 
   there to give us a chance to show how badly we want 
   something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the 
   people who don't want it badly enough.

   -Randy Pausch

Is anyone else as impressed as I am that Teller remembered the name of an up-and-coming magician they met after a show more than a year earlier? And that he referenced the 'inside joke' with no prompting?

Also, I think folks are missing what seems to me to be the key takeaway: "And if I'm good, it's because I should be a film editor. Bach should have written opera or plays. But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint." He's taking something that's well understood in one area and bringing it to an area where that thing is not understood. Sometimes people call that a 'distinctive'. Sometimes it's a 'paradigm shift'. Teller could have been an average film editor, or he could take ideas from film and bring them to magic.

I actually went back to e original letter to see if I had missed a reference. From what I've seen of Teller, though, it isn't surprising that he would remember or that he would reply. He's one of the few famous people I wouldn't mind meeting.

If you'd like to meet him, even briefly, go to the Penn and Teller show at the Rio in Vegas. After every show, they hang out in the hallway and chat with the audience as they leave. They usually wait until everyone is gone before they head out. (By the way, Teller's letter mentions his version of The Miser's Dream, which is still in his act. And it's the most amazing interpretation of it I've ever seen.)

I always joked that if college didn't work out, I'd work as a street magician. As I've traveled around the country, I still make a point, time permitting, to stop by magic shops. I've yet to find one that doesn't have something from Teller written on the walls somewhere.

Isaac Asimov and Piers Anthony have both written in their books that they never suffer from writers block, and the reason both gave is that they read and reply to letters from their audience. Isaac Asimov especially replied to every single letter he received (I'm not sure about Piers Anthony).

Penn and Teller seem to have the same idea: Interact with every member of your audience who wants to talk to you. And they are one of the most successful magicians.

I think everyone should learn from this. Do you write a blog? Read every single comment you get, and reply to as many as you can. Run a business? Read as much customer service mail as you can. And if you are small read ALL of it.

Piers Anthony had one ongoing correspondence with a fan, and he wrote so much that he published a novel length book, Letters To Jenny, containing that correspondence. And it's a good read, too. Obviously Peirs doesn't write so much to everyone, and I can't answer whether he responds to everyone, but he certainly welcomes the letters.

Piers Anthony did, at one point, reply to every single letter he received. I don't know if he still does.

Funny that you mentioned Piers Anthony, he was my entry point into sci-fi/fantasy and I've been a voracious reader ever since.

This article has made the rounds a few times, including a recent Gruber link that I can recall, but certainly it'll be new to some people. If you ever wondered how long Teller is willing to work on a trick to get it right, just read this.


Penn goes into a lot of his life, both with respect to his career and not, in his book "God No!" One's views on religion notwithstanding, it's an interesting read; very personal and poignant.

I think maybe Brushwood really was Teller's long lost son. Only Teller and Brushwood's mom knew the truth. This fact would explain everything.

Yes, that blew me away. Almost too good to be true.

I think there are some great points that adapt well to the startup mindset.

* [Ship stuff]. A lot. Try stuff. Make your best stab and keep stabbing. If it's there in your heart, it will eventually find its way out. Or you will give up and have a prudent, contented life doing something else.

* We did not start as friends, but as people who respected and admired each other. Crucial, absolutely crucial for a partnership.

* Have heroes outside of [startups / technology / business]. ... You're welcome to borrow [other people's], but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons. Then they'll push you in the right direction.

* Love something besides [technology / startups / business]. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be [ $famous_startup_personality]. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of [startups / technology / business], THERE'S an opening.

I also especially liked the "be the $personality of $unrelated_domain". I think it could work really well because you can extract "meta-qualities" (if you'll excuse the made up term) that personality has and re-apply them to your domain.

Musically, punk rock popped into existence in a world of disco and polished/complex 'arena rock', bringing music back down to the essentials and playing it loud and fast. Be the punk rocker of startups by creating products that are lean, refuse to hide anything under a polish, and don't apologize for it.

When you edit a video (without musical soundtrack), you can get a good pacing for the scene by editing it to sync up with a song that evokes the emotions you want to express, and then removing the song when you render out. In this way you take in the qualities of pacing/emotions of the music, but don't need to actually reference the music.

And of course, we all write our code like poets. We rewrite lines that don't fit in well, and we refactor when functions get too long. Or we at least recognize when we're reading something that someone has put effort into crafting.

I'm not sure I'm supporting the argument well, so much as I'm just dumping out thoughts that the idea triggered.

Add to the list...

* Surprise users.

A perfect complement to this article is the short film "Resonance - a film about design strategy" by Continuum. http://jonathanmoore.com/post/129160860/resonance

“Sometimes the user needs are to be surprised and delighted. And they can’t tell us how to surprise and delight them, that has to come from us.”

Have heroes outside of [startups / technology / business]. That's a solid statement right there.

"Here's a compositional secret. It's so obvious and simple, you'll say to yourself, 'This man is bullshitting me.' I am not. This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it. Ready?

Surprise me.

That's it. Place 2 and 2 right in front of my nose, but make me think I'm seeing 5. Then reveal the truth, 4!, and surprise me."

Teller absolutely means this. Watching the Penn and Teller Magic and Mystery Tour, this was the one best scenes in that show or in anything else I watched on Netflix last year:


Yes, Teller is speaking, but that isn't what matters at all. The takeaway for me is that you must KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE! This is a magic trick that would not be a magic trick at all if it weren't performed for someone like Teller, a master of his craft. This scene from an otherwise interesting but forgettable show blew my mind.

Thanks for letting me know that the movie is on Netflix. Going to watch it now :-)

Humorous story: I once got yelled at by Teller. I was in Vegas for the World Series of Poker which was held at the Rio, the same casino where their show runs. The previous night I had had dinner at Okada with Penn's wife, Emily, who was a friend of the friend who put the dinner together. I also had tickets the next day to see their show for the first time.

On a break from my tournament I stopped by Starbucks to properly caffienate and saw Penn and Teller sitting in a corner. I went over to introduce myself, as I would to the spouse of anyone I had just met if I somehow recognized them. Right when I got there Teller gave me the evil eye and said something like "Can't you see we're working here?".

Of course they were just sitting at a Starbucks talking. They didn't have any props or anything. And probably they were hashing out details for the show or something, but I still found it quite rude, especially since I know they greet people outside of the show every night afterward.

But mostly I just thought it was funny to get yelled at by a guy most people think is mute.

I wrote out a significant response about the strange segregation of being a celebrity (of any repute) before rereading your post.

The most interesting thing to me is that within the span of 24 hours you ate alone with one partner's wife and the next day got yelled at by the other partner.

Did you talk to them after the show?

I went up and said hi and left it at that. I didn't really think ill of Teller for the whole thing, I can't imagine what it's like to be bothered all the time. I more than anything thought it was funny to be yelled at by a guy who is possibly more famous for not talking than anyone in history.

I learned this lesson accidentally.

I was showing a friend a new card trick I'd made up, fanned the cards and asked him to pick one, remember it and replace it into the deck. As he did that I got confused - I thought I'd gone wrong and, apologising, asked him to pick another card. Fanned the cards again and he looked down at them to pick another one. In the middle of the fan, staring right back at him one card was face up; the card he'd chosen the first time.

I hadn't gone wrong at all, the trick had gone perfectly - I was just confused and thought I'd gone wrong when I hadnt. It wasn't the plot line I'd originally had in mind for the trick, but it blew him away because when he went to pick a card the second time he wasn't expecting to see the card he picked the first time. The surprise was a huge contributing factor to the impact of the trick.

Brian Brushwood is an amazing magician, but as a person, he is even more amazing. I had the fortune of meeting him last weekend at a common friend's house and saw him take time out to entertain a kid. If you're not familiar with his work, he has a weekly podcast on Revision3.com (http://revision3.com/scamschool).

He is even more prominent on TWiT (http://twit.tv/) doing shows like NSFW or GameOn etc.

This is not surprising considering that his original producer (http://twit.tv/people/eileen-rivera) for Scamschool on Revision3.com went to Twit.tv.

> Here's a compositional secret. (..) Surprise me.

> Here's how surprise works. While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information. Feed it to me little by little. Make me try and figure out what's going on. Tease me in one direction. Throw in a false ending. Then turn it around and flip me over.

This is the secret of storytelling. Hell, it's the secret of art. Music, painting, writing, architecture, wine making... you name it.

Storytelling > story, BTW. That's why P&T can make new with the same old tricks. If you tell the same old story in a new way, it feels unique.

The surprise is not in the content, it's in the experience.

I recall reading a study once where the brain waves of people listening to a story literally synchronized with the brain waves of the person telling the story. Quite literally the storyteller was controlling the minds of the listeners.

Apparently we are hard-wired to become entranced by stories, but there is a skill to telling them in a way that doesn't break the trance--or, as Teller talks about, leading people to a place where you can smash the trance in a dramatic way for maximum impact.

Storytelling has fascinated me ever since I read that study. I must go find it again.

That happens whenever anyone is paying attention to anyone else, at least amongst apes. I vaguely recall an experiment about chimps watching people pick up oranges.

Observation producing strikingly similar brain activity to participation is why amputees with phantom limb cramps can be helped by observing the opposite limb being loosened up and relaxed reflected in a mirror placed where the missing limb would be.

That sounds very interesting, and I'd love to read the study. Please post back here if you find it.

There's also a related radiolab episode: http://www.radiolab.org/2011/apr/18/soul-mates-and-brain-dou...

First: Brian is the man. (Had him on a show I used to be on called The 404, and he had me both laughing and vomiting by the end of the show.)

Second: Teller's advice is echoed by another great... Ira Glass. He talked about how to make it in broadcasting. http://shorty.randallcbennett.com/post/36484012/ira-glass-gi...

The thing with all of this is pretty simple. When you start, you have taste. If you have good taste, you'll know what you're making isn't quite what you want, but it's on the way to being good. If you keep perfecting your taste along the way, you're making positive progress. For startup entreprenuers, that often means starting lots of insignificant companies / working at insignificant companies on your way to perfecting the sense of who you are.

I feel like I'm _just_ starting to know who I am professionally. It's been about 7 years, and now I know that the only thing I want to do is make it so anyone can create TV quality video without a TV quality budget.

Failing in numerous ways has finally led me to figure out who I am. Now, it's time to take what I've learned and actually contribute something to the world.

For Brian, it's kickass magic which people can consume online. For me, who knows what my end "product" will be, but either way, if you don't enjoy the taste refining process, you'll probably both be dissatisfied with your life, but also miss out when you're about to break through.

I hope anyway.

Why does transferring knowledge across domains have such exponential returns?

Is it only because the time it takes other fields to adapt to new methodology is longer - or are there other factors?

EDIT: Holy crap, I worded this terribly.

Rewritten: Why does going across domains with new ideas have such high returns? Obviously you're a fresh idea but are there other reasons that influence your success?

"A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points." (Alan Kay and others)

Basicly I think its because they have different points of view on problems we can find similarities in.

Ah, but which perspective? One can't sell non-apples, and 'a stroll through the insane asylum demonstrates that faith proves nothing'.

Perlis, epigram 39: "Re graphics: A picture is worth 10K words - but only those to describe the picture. Hardly any sets of 10K words can be adequately described with pictures."

Is there any way to discover how much selection effect occurs here? I wonder how many people apply insights from study in one field to another, and utterly fail because they weren't applicable at all.

I think its a matter of perspective. Where I went to college (evergreen.edu) they firmly believed in interdisciplinary study because approaching situations with one point of view necessarily makes you blind to others.

There are worlds of esoteric knowledge stuffed away in industries that, if applied to other industries would yield amazing innovation.

Look what Apple has done with Technology/Liberal Arts.

What did Apple do, make computers that are slightly better/worse than other computers?

Do you remember what computers were like before the Mac? Do you remember what all of Google's services looked like before they let a designer get a hold of them?

Apple took technology, created by developers and scientists ('Nerds' for lack of a better generalism) and not only made it accessible; they made things work the way people wanted to use them. Desktop publishing, graphic design, etc. These were things that normal people would not have been able to easily use without a GUI and the tools in place for the creation of the software.

If you think this is a natural progression of computing, you're really not giving credit properly.

Look how much UX has improved since Google started their redesign initiative. We can sit around an nitpick about whether its good or bad; regardless, its easier to use! Its easier to understand than it used to be! Improvement!

When it comes to applying knowledge across domains, its almost a corallary to the Observer principle (if you'll allow me some metaphorical license). The more accurately you are able to observe a specific detail about a larger system, your observations about other details in that system will be less accurate. If you approach a problem, design or otherwise, with many observational vantages; you're less likely to miss details globally.

Did I talk myself into a hole here?

They also made software that is slightly better/worse than other software.

Your question--and Teller's advice about the arts--dovetails with Bret Victor's excellent talk, Inventing on Principle, recently released from CUSEC [1]. He starts by blowing you away with demos of software he's built, but then he backs up and reviews how he got there and why. His self-discovery process involved trying, making, and experiencing lots of things over a difficult period of ten years. That process eventually gave him the perspective to find commonality in things that make him react strongly. From there he found a principle to live by. For Bret and other examples he cites, it's not about domains and returns. It's about having a distinctive principle or cause that guides your decisions and approach to domains.

See also: mbarnett's response. I can't say it better than that.

1 - http://vimeo.com/36579366

Bringing knowledge/an approach from outside the "channel" gives you a distinctive viewpoint. That distinctiveness is the building block of personality and brand identity, and those are things that cause you to stand out from the pack.

There is a great book that talks about this at length called "Sparks of Genius". It goes into detail about how a conceptual framework from one discipline can lead to blinding insights in another. Highly recommended.

I think the answer is simpler: it's because you're likely working twice as hard as people exclusively in either field. If you know both fields only superficially, you can't make much of a dent in either. People successful at crossing boundaries simply have done roughly twice as much legwork.

As I was once told: "the problem with being a tenured prof in a multidisciplinary department is you have to do tenure-worth work for both sides"

Because all the connections between ideas within a domain have already been mined for everything worthwhile. By connecting two domains, you're exposing a whole new set of connections between things that are rarely connected.

There's a theory / definition of creativity that says that it's simply the ability to connect seemingly unrelated things. This is an example of that.

Expert knowledge has insights, meta-knowledge if you will. It is the insights, the ability to see the thing and then see the stuff that go into it being that thing, which give the exponential returns.

There's plenty of expert knowledge within each domain, though. It seems that simply being a fresh pair of eyes has an acute effect on success.

Hamming suggested it, "You need to get into a new field to get new viewpoints, and /before/ you use up all the old ones."

Teller closes with a great point about where to draw inspiration from. Look beyond your own field. If you can distill something about the greatness you admire in a different art and adapt it to yours, then you will have accomplished something original. Study the masters, but especially the masters of other arts.

I wonder if the same could be said for software engineering. Maybe it's pretentious but I like to think of it as a practical art. Certainly much of what Teller teaches about "how to surprise" could apply to Steve Jobs' keynotes. Withhold information. Tease. Throw in a false ending. LAND the real ending.

Sounds like Jobs had a lot in common with magicians.

Great letter. Thrilled at the start where he remembers, without prodding, one of thousands of people he briefly met long before. Great insights, prompted by the questions I want to ask great people but could not put in words.

P&T have a great show. As the letter, they tell so much more than just clever tricks - they comment on the human condition. Because of its insights into Occam's Razor "Teller Smoking" is my oft-recounted favorite ... Well, that and the bullet trick, but that because I inspected Teller's bullet, shell and gun, and still have the shell I marked and the bullet (also marked) Penn "caught" and spat into my hand.

Hey did you guys check out the comments section with that one guy calling BS, saying regular people didn't have access to email way back in 1995? Good stuff. I love how people assume their tiny reality is the reality.

Heh, I noticed that guy, too - made me look up my earliest Usenet post, July 4, 1994, when I was 15 years old. I had other Usenet, Fido, and BBS identities before that, but I can't remember what they were.

So yeah, in 1994, a 15 year old and his 12 year old brother were definitely able to figure out their way onto the "Live Internet" (to differentiate from dialup relay like Fido or UUCP)

Then came the convincing of the parents to get a dedicated line so we could leave our SLIP connection up 24/7 so that others could check our finger status, etc....

Similar case here, but it was 1984 when I was 15 and had email. Didn't have internet then of course, but BBSes were already linked, with email and forums being synced among the others in the network every night.

Even then I knew I was late to the game, Compu$erve was in it's prime, and the grassroots infrastructure was rapidly maturing.

That's what kills me with this guy pulling the "IT Professional" card. 10 years later claiming regular people didn't have email. That's like 100 computer years.

What I took away the most from this article is taking things outside of your realm and applying it... Goes hand-in-hand with “Good artists copy, Great artists steal”

Yet another reason to love P and T. Although unmentioned he captured the valley spirit of execs mentoring youngsters who might nonetheless become competitors.

Teller's letter is amazing, and I think we all have much to learn from it.

This is truly relevant to all who strive for greatness.

> Surprise. Withold information.

Works well for Apple.


Not a very relevant HN material. Still puzzled on why it got so many votes.

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