Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations—how what we expect to see, hear, and experience affects what we actually do see, hear, and experience. And because I’m interested in that subject, I find myself reading a lot of books by magicians. Go figure!
So I picked up a book by Nate Stanisforth, Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World.
I just love this book. It’s about the difficulties of making a career as a magician, and it’s also about how the performance of magic can bring transcendence, wonder, and awe into our lives.
The experience of transcendence is one of the deepest and most powerful sources of happiness, but it can be difficult to reach.
This book also made me curious to read much more deeply in this area—what happens when we see someone perform magic? How does a magician think about that experience?
I couldn’t wait to talk to Nate about happiness, habits, and productivity.
What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
I took up distance running and kickboxing while writing Here is Real Magic because I needed something in my life more strenuous than the writing, and I discovered the incredible clarity and freedom that can come from knocking down a few miles every day. A good, long walk can do the same thing. So much of my work is in my head—writing, reading, designing illusions for my show—and countering this with something that’s unapologetically physical gives my day a balance that makes the writing and creative work better. My best running days are invariably my best writing days.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That you can find it yourself by helping other people find it, too. It’s like love in that way. You keep it by sharing it.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I’ve made my living as a touring magician since I was 23 and I’m still trying to figure out how to eat well on the road. The hours are long and I’m always in a hurry, and one can only have so many granola bars and protein shakes before it all feels a little ridiculous. When I was on tour in Australia I lived almost exclusively on coffee and Snickers bars, which is not a healthy way to exist.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Yes, and it’s a big one. When I first met my literary agent Stephen, he gave me a piece of advice that I think about almost every day. He said something like “It takes as much time to fantasize about doing something big as it does to actually do it. If you use the time you’d usually spend daydreaming about your book to actually write it, you’ll end up spending roughly the same amount of time, but at the end you’ll have a manuscript instead of an unfulfilled daydream. So, just choose to make it real, one day at a time.”
This has become my working approach for all projects. It’s like a math equation: Incremental progress + time = victory. It makes the thing inevitable rather than impossible. My next book may be some way off, but I work on it every day, and every day it becomes more and more real. Just wait.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Walden knocked me down when I read it in high school. That line about his wanting not “when I came to die, realize I had not yet lived” is a thunderbolt to a seventeen-year-old. At that time in my life I felt as though Thoreau was the only one acknowledging something that I think is obvious to teenagers—stated plainly, that most people lose something essential in the passage from childhood to adulthood—and I was very much on the hunt for wisdom about surviving that transition more or less intact. I think most teenagers see the adults of the world as resigned, half-asleep, saddled with the weight of the world, and here in Walden was a manual for staying awake. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” There’s magic there for certain.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Magic isn’t about deception. It’s about wonder. A magic show should feel far more like jumping out of an airplane or staying up late to see the stars than a night at a comedy club. It’s about enchanting the audience rather than fooling them; using each illusion as a kind of tool to create a small moment of astonishment and sharing it with the audience. I know the popular image of the magician is of someone intent on deceiving the audience, but a good magician has nothing to hide.