Think Time and the Importance of Being Foolish

Problems are often created out of thin air by failing to see the reality of a situation or concept. One imagines that a certain situation pertains or has changed due to some unfamiliar but actually unconnected factor, when in reality nothing has changed. The Double Un—–t is always the same, regardless of whether one is c—ing cards from top to bottom or from middle to top. The number of cards in the top section – one or 25 – is an immaterial factor. When those cards are moved to the bottom, the card below them comes to the top. One is automatically a byproduct of the other. The number of cuts is also irrelevant; you could have simply made a single, straight cut.

How do I open that door?

People like me have immense difficulty clicking on web icons. Those three stacked lines or that little round icon at the top of the page just look like… either nothing at all (the eyes just block them out) or fancy-looking decorations or logos; that we should actually click on them to go somewhere important in the website is almost a paradigm shift for us.

Far from doing so instinctively, we do this as a last resort after sniffing around and hunting the page for clues like a nervous cat, and not finding any. I like a website filled with words and links, not empty spaces with a pancake menu on the left and a little Cluedo-shaped figure on the right. (The present website probably has such a menu on certain browsers, and there’s not much I can do about it.)

The same thing happens walking into a foreign train station or modern airport or hotel bathroom and not seeing ticket machines or check-in desks or taps. You feel like someone has pulled the rug from under you.

Who’s zoomin’ who?

I was trying to connect with someone on Skype for the first time. For the internet generation this may seem laughable. Aside from claims that video conferencing has been around since the 1870s (that’s not a typo), it’s been in common use for maybe 15 or 20 years. But for those of us brought up on analogue systems (cassette decks etc) it can be a challenge to jump on what is now an established digital bandwagon.

Much confusion can be avoided initially by realising something totally obvious: am I calling you or are you calling me? Once this is established, the method of how I or you start the call becomes simpler. Familiar patterns – making a normal phone call – start to emerge through the mist and you realise later it was all pretty simple.

The mist is our cognitive framework (worldview or network of interlocking assumptions) that we impose on life which blocks us from perceiving new or modified realities; and from realising that old realities are often still there and haven’t changed.

Boiling a fried egg on the grill

Equivalent issues face people learning magic. You might think there is a clear difference between for—g a card and contr—–g one. Yet the beginner often asks ‘How do I for– a card to the bottom during a shuffle’, in so doing conflating not two concepts but three:

  • contr—–g a selection
  • f—–g a card and
  • shu—–g a card to a position

It’s all very well saying ‘question your assumptions’, but assumptions are often subconscious and – by definition – taken for granted. But they are there nonetheless and must be unearthed by rigorously thinking through what something is and asking fundamental or so-called foolish questions.

Indeed, foolishness is the way forward when it comes to perceiving realities. For example, anyone wanting to understand finance on any kind of effective level has to ask, sooner or later, the supposedly foolish question: what is money? In its foolishness this is one of the most intelligent questions anyone can ask.

Is boiling something the same as frying? If you don’t know then it is not a foolish question, is it? (The term for frying in water is water sauté. A chef called Jonathan Marcus has even managed to deep-fry a ball of water. As children we were enthralled by the ideas of deep-fried ice cream and Christmas baubles that bounced; foolish concepts, surely?)

[O]ne class completely shut down and became frustrated when asked to think and when they weren’t given steps and notes. It was really disappointing when the next day a student came up to me and said, ‘I hope you are going to teach today. I don’t learn like that.’
– Michelle Russell

The clue may be in the name

Many years ago a four-year-old relative would refer to his favourite film as ‘Summoliday’ (‘Summer Holiday’). To youngsters, words very often just consist of sounds and the use of those sounds comes through mimicking. Only when one is older does one start to connect the dots: that table, tableau, tablet and so on are all related, for example.

In magic one can easily fall into the trap of learning names for things but not their meanings. Yes, a Multiple S–ft is a s–ft with multiple cards. But one first needs to understand the definition of a s–ft.

Unfortunately there is no standard, academic protocol in magic for naming moves and effects, and if someone wants to concoct a silly name for something they can; the rest of us are stuck with referencing it. Nonetheless, the student, when learning a new move, should find out about the name. Who, for example, is Biddle, and why is it called the Biddle Grip? One doesn’t need to spend half an hour researching (ask your magic coach or do a quick search).

Sometimes, in the case of something poetic (‘Miracle Shuffle’ or something) it doesn’t mean anything at all, but it’s always worth asking. One of my favourite trick titles is Marlo’s ‘All You Had to Do Was Watch and Still You’re Not Happy’. This title means something, both in terms of the effect and its place within card-magic lore.

My left is your right?

Sometimes the solution is simply a matter of perspective, visual or mental. ‘Order blindness’ might be a term in magic where the order of cards from face to back or back to face is confused. It is not uncommon to believe that a deck of cards spread on the table from left to right is automatically reversed in order when spread from right to left.

Sounds daft? Try it and you will see that, on some level, the order is reversed; just not fundamentally. Such a simple misapprehension causes difficulty (and nearly tears) for some students. (Some card tricks actually use this as a methodological principle, such is its efficacy.)

Ace to Five
Potential for confusion?

The Cr–s-Cut F—e eluded one student for over 20 lessons because he couldn’t get to grips with what it is supposed to simulate, and the more he thought about it the worse it got. The moment for grasping it directly and intuitively had long since passed.

Perpetual confusion

In a magic lesson the student has to understand not just the method and the effect, like looking through two telescopes simultaneously, one of which is reversed, but often play the opposite roles of performer and spectator. Said F—e also uses an illogicality which makes it all the more arcane for the student getting to grips with it. No wonder the student was confused.

For the aforementioned reason (direction of spread versus order) the ‘Circus Card Trick’ can be challenging when the relationship of a k– card with the selection is topologically muddled; while ‘Twisting the Aces’ will keep going wrong if you are not clear on the starting order.

Imagine that the cards should be in ChaSeD order from top to bottom. You turn the packet face up to check; but now they are in reverse-CHaSeD order because your idea of top and bottom has changed; so you reverse the order to correct this and turn them face-down; but now they’re in the wrong order again; so you are stuck in a perpetual loop. This sounds silly, but you need to ask a foolish question: what is the definition of top and bottom? If you’re not sure then you will keep trying the wrong thing.

Forgot to plug your brain in?

When I was working in media monitoring I once called the IT manager over to fix my computer which ‘wasn’t working’. He bent down and plugged it in. Why do we do this? You can call it learned helplessness (a form of conditioning) or laziness, but it may also be an inability to see the wood for the trees.

However the onus is also on the teacher to know how the student is thinking at their particular stage of magical development and to explain things on their level. A common syndrome where someone (anyone) is seeking information is for the adviser to speak in their own language instead of the enquirer’s language.

This is a tragically unhelpful answer… [to a] question that over 123 million people have asked.
– Frustrated newbie

Egocentric universe

The psychologist’s term for this is egocentrism or the inability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. The Latin master shouting a string of verb endings at high speed out of frustration is not helping the student learn. A common example is a newbie seeking help with software applications such as… well, how about making their first video call:

They ask customer services ‘How do I make or receive a video call – this is my first ever time’. Many customer service reps will not reply on the customer’s terms, but their own: ‘Just login with your ID or video call number and send an invite’ they will breezily explain. The poor enquirer then has to reply, apparently from a standpoint of stupidity, ‘But I don’t know what my ID is or even what it looks like, and I don’t know where to find my video call number.’

The initial answer from the rep presupposed knowledge which was not there, and they needed to back up one stage and start at a lower level; what exactly an ID name or number is, what they look like (give an example), and where they may be found. Only then can one think in terms of applying that information to make a call.

Outlook or Outlook?

The problem is compounded in modern life by the penchant some developers seem to have for creating two of something. Hence us simple folk on will unwittingly search for hours through articles about software, or not realise there is Skype (video calls) and Skype (telephone calls). Is it really that difficult coming up with differentiating names (such as Vype and Type)? Are we playing one enormous game of spot the difference?

The onus is on both the adviser and enquirer, or the teacher and pupil, to be foolish; to ask fundamental questions and not make assumptions (eg, ‘Will giving two things the same name make them simpler or more confusing?’); for the teacher not to assume too much knowledge in the student and for the student not to overly rely on the teacher to explain and solve problems; many of which will be on the level of forgetting to plug one’s computer in. Only then can they both start to solve problems together, intelligently.

Suffering from teaching difficulties

Magic teachers will mildly berate students for not practising (it’s a leisure activity after all so it’s more carrot than stick) but they must also encourage students to spend think time as well as practice time. Think time is examining things, taking them apart and putting them back together; starting at the end of an effect and working backwards to see how it all pans out.

There is far more to magic than memorising sequences. You should be able to perform an effect, stop halfway for five minutes, and then pick up from where you were. At any point in an effect you should know where the principal cards are. If you can’t remember how to do ‘Quick as a Wink’, start at the end and work backwards; it will tell you exactly how to do the whole trick.

A teacher’s role is as much to elicit understanding – to bring out – as it is to convey information – to put in. Yes, the student can over-think things especially when something is simple or mechanical; but complex sequences must be thought through deeply and understood so that in performance one can focus on presenting and not executing, on being and not doing.

Metacognition is, put simply, thinking about one’s thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.
– Nancy Chick

This is a thing

The Psychology Today website tells us ‘that information is more easily accessed if you can reproduce the state in which it was registered, either physically or [mentally]. Any form of stress, fatigue [or] anxiety… can interfere with this ability.’

What could be more stressful on a day-to-day level than unexpectedly being asked to deceive someone in unfamiliar surroundings while said person is scrutinising you for deception (performing impromptu magic)? It’s not for nothing that CEOs, capable of giving business presentations to hundreds of people, will shake like a leaf doing a simple trick with matches for one person.

It’s also why many magicians have set openers when really they should learn how to adapt and perform something apropos. But the challenge for most magicians is being able to perform anything at all, even a mathematical self-working card trick. The common experience of not being able to remember something in the exam room because it’s a different place from where you memorised your information is a syndrome shared by the impromptu magician (ie, our mind going blank when asked to perform).

We may even find that using a mnemonic (memory) system to remember a few tricks fails us, because in the stress of the moment we paradoxically (and somewhat comically) forget that we have such a memory system in place. Knowing that this is a thing and not just a personal weakness can help us overcome it.

The fear factor

This is why understanding our magic and spending equal amounts of time thinking as well as practising is vital. It reduces stress because the stress of performing is not just nerves or ‘stage fright’; it is also fear in various forms:

  • fear of forgetting
  • fear of doing it wrong
  • fear of getting caught
  • fear of unknown variables (interruptions)

Thinking about your magic will help you conquer these fears by reducing the above factors to manageable levels. We won’t be phased by small slip-ups, minor challenges by spectators and the multitude of unknown factors present in any impromptu performance.

We will also have enough room in our mind, no longer blocked by fear, to recall one or two of our favourite tricks at a moment’s notice. In time we will learn how to branch out, adapt, and eventually improvise something truly remarkable and unique.

Students who achieve the most in magic are the ones who, as in any other field, organise their own learning and develop metacognitive (thinking about how they think) skills such as finding their weak points, knowing how they learn or fail to, inventing their own learning strategies, avoiding self-limiting shortcuts, knowing when they have truly digested information, and ultimately becoming their own teacher.

[UPDATED: 220320]

2 thoughts on “Think Time and the Importance of Being Foolish

  1. Justin Higham

    Thank you.

    Of course the issues facing beginners are harder than I made out, as the objectives are not paralleled by anything familiar, except in the most general ways.

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