in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: July 2, 2023

Podcast #306: What a Magician Can Teach You About Being More Successful

Almost every boy goes through a magic phase at some point in his life. When I was eight, I was convinced that I was going to be the next David Copperfield. Besides walking away with some cool tricks to do at parties or to impress your nieces and nephews with, my guest today says your childhood magic phase can impart some important lessons on being successful as an adult.

His name is David Kwong. He’s a magician, New York Times crossword creator, and now author of the book Spellbound: Seven Principles of Illusion to Captivate Audiences and Unlock the Secrets of Success

Today on the show, David and I discuss how several key principles from magic can be applied beyond the stage and make you more successful in business and life. We’ll learn what it means to “load up” in magic and how Richard Branson used that principle to start Virgin Airlines, and why storytelling is key for executing both a successful magic trick and a successful business. We also discuss how magicians plan for tricks gone awry and the lessons non-magicians can take from that preparation. We even get into the mutual admiration Theodore Roosevelt and Houdini had for each other and how Houdini personified Roosevelt’s ideal of living “the strenuous life.”

Show Highlights

  • David’s background as both a magician and a crossword puzzle creator
  • Where David got the idea to bring the principles of magic to the world of business
  • How magic has evolved for the technology of the modern world
  • The famed CEOs, artists, and business founders who have dabbled in magic
  • The interesting connection between Teddy Roosevelt and Houdini and their mutual fascination with each other
  • How Houdini pulled one over on TR
  • What “loading up” is in magic, and how business can use it
  • The perhaps difficult choice that one faces when you’ve loaded up for a goal or task
  • The “one ahead” principle
  • Why narrative is so important in magic tricks (and in business and life!)
  • How hearing compelling stories makes neurons fire in your brain
  • The concept of “controlling the frame” — the ability to command people’s attention
  • How FDR controlled the frame during his campaign and presidency
  • “Conjuring an out” — what it is and why it’s important

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Spellbound, book cover by david kwong.

Spellbound is an engaging read packed with actionable advice. You’ll also learn a magic trick or two while you’re reading. Pick a copy on Amazon.

Connect With David Kwong

David on Twitter

David on Instagram

David’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Well, almost every boy goes through a magic phase at some point in his life. I know when I was eight, I was convinced that I was going to be the next David Copperfield. Besides walking away with some cool tricks to do at parties or to impress your nieces and nephews with, my guest today says your childhood magic phase can impart some important lessons on being successful as an adult. His name is David Kwong. He’s a magician, New York Times crossword creator and author of the book Spellbound.

Today on the show, David and I discuss how several key principles for magic can be applied beyond the stage and make you more successful in business and life. We’ll learn what it means to load up the magic and how Richard Branson used that method to start Virgin Airlines, why storytelling is key for executing both a successful magic trick and a successful business. We also discuss how magicians plan for tricks gone awry and the lessons non-magicians can take from that preparation. We even get into the mutual admiration Theodore Roosevelt and Houdini that they had for each other and how Houdini personified Roosevelt’s ideal of living the strenuous life. Really fun show, packed with lots of actionable takeaways. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at

David Kwong, welcome to the show.

David Kwong: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: You just wrote a book, published a book called Spellbound. You have an interesting background. You are a magician, but you also have done some other interesting things with crossword puzzles. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell us a bit about your background?

David Kwong: Sure. I am a rare hybrid of magician and puzzle maker. I find that all magic tricks are puzzles in a certain sense, so it was a perfect cross pollination of my two passions. I routinely write crossword puzzles for the New York Times, Games Magazine. I’ve had crosswords in the LA Times, Wall Street Journal and my magic show is a fun, cerebral, nerdy, brainy magic show where I test the audience to try to figure out the answers to all the puzzles.

Brett McKay: What came first, the crossword puzzle interest or the magic interest?

David Kwong: They were both childhood hobbies. Magic came first. I was about seven years old when I saw my first magician and knew that I had to follow that path, but I started playing Scrabble competitively as a teenager and then started solving the crossword puzzle every day and then making crossword puzzles when I was in college.

Brett McKay: It’s amazing. I think of most kids, they go through a magic phase. I went through a magic phase. I came of age when David Copperfield was doing his big … Making the Statue of Liberty disappear, levitating. I was like, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I’d have my mom take me to the library every week to check out every single magic book. It didn’t stick with me. Why do you think it stuck with you?

David Kwong: Every kid definitely has a magic phase. You’re not alone on that. Every kids gets his first magic set. I think it stuck with me … There was some innate desire to be on the other side of the curtain and know how things are done. When I was seven years old, I saw a magician performing at a pumpkin patch in upstate New York. I’m from Rochester, New York. I’ll never forget this. The magician took a little red sponge ball. He put it in my hand. He picked up a second one. He made it disappear and when I opened my hand, I had two. Many magicians say that this is one of the greatest tricks ever invented, the sponge ball trick. It packs such a punch. Then, there was this moment that I will never forget, which is that he took a little red sponge ball and he put it in my father’s hand and then he picked up a second one, made it disappear. When my father opened his hand, he had two. My father is a biochemist. He is this omniscient figure that knows everything about the world, especially to a seven year old kid. When the scientist did not know how it was done, I knew at that moment that I had to pursue magic.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. You’ve been able to incorporate your crossword puzzles into your magic routine. In your book, Spellbound, you go in another direction. You bring your magic and your crossword work and go apply it to a different realm of life. That’s business. It’s called Spellbound: the seven principles of illusion to captivate audiences and unlock the secrets of success. Where did you get this idea of applying principles and ideas from the world of illusion to the world of business?

David Kwong: I’ll first say that 99% of magicians, most of them pretend in some way or another to have superpowers. There are mind reading magicians, there are the ones that pretend they can float and levitate. It’s all approach. It’s all character, but there are a small number of practitioners that acknowledge upfront that magic is science and that it’s slight of hand and that it’s being one step ahead or two steps ahead of everybody else. That is my approach. Writing this book, it was an extension of that approach, to say, “Look, ladies and gentlemen, I am a magician. I’m going to fool you. This is all tricks.” I find that giving people a little glimpse behind the curtain is the best way for them to enjoy magic. I come out of Hollywood. I worked in Hollywood for a number of years and I took that approach on the Now You See Me movie, the bank heist movie with magicians robbing banks. We gave audiences a real taste of how a magician thinks and I’ve done the same thing with this book. My hope is that people will have some takeaway, that they’ll learn about the different principles of illusion, the way that a magician thinks and how they can apply that to their own lives.

Brett McKay: Do you think that kind of magic, what you’re doing, is more appealing to a more modern, younger audience? Do you think that’s what young people want nowadays? I’m more attracted to that than say David Copperfield doing his elaborate presentation of, “I was a kid and I always wanted to fly.” That was cool when I was eight, but now that I’m 35 and a little jaded, I like to be in on it, but also at the same time, like to be fooled.

David Kwong: Well, David Copperfield’s an absolutely legend. He is the reason that most of us got into magic. It has evolved and modern magic today, it’s much different and I think that it’s evolved with the technology. If you think about what Copperfield was doing, he was making large monuments disappear, like the Statue of Liberty. Today, no magician can ever pull that off, because everybody has a cell phone with a camera on it. There’s a video on the Statue of Liberty at all times. With YouTube now, with tricks being exposed online, you can so easily Google how something is done, I think that magicians today, especially the younger ones, are not pretending to have superpowers anymore. I think there’s a lot more acknowledging upfront that these are tricks and that magicians are simply one step ahead of everybody else. There’s a little more exposure on the methods, but people are embracing it. The magicians are embracing that and putting that into their performance. That’s very much what my approach was to this book, was to embrace the principles of illusion and share a little bit of the knowledge with everybody else.

Brett McKay: You started the book … I thought this was interesting. You highlight several CEOs, founders who, at one point in their life, were practicing magicians, or at least dabbled in it as a kid. Any successful business owners that people might know of that were once magicians?

David Kwong: There are so many out there and to name a few, Tony Shay of Zappos, Aaron Levie of Box. We also have every Hollywood director that you can think of, by the way, because those art forms are so closely aligned: J.J. Abrams, Ryan Johnson, who has the next Star Wars movie coming out, the great director of photography, Larry Fong was a magician. Daniel Lubetzky of Kind snacks and a very good friend of mine, Adam Grant, who is a real force in leadership and management. He was the youngest tenured professor at Wharton Business School. Adam Grant and I, we started the Harvard Magic Club together. I think these people, they all embrace the idea of being in command and being a step ahead of everybody else. It’s no coincidence that these are all successful people. I think there were a couple of stories in business that really had the light bulb turn on for me.

I remember reading about a Silicon Valley executive named Tristan Walker who had this really great story about a time when he used … He didn’t realize this was a principle of magic, but I think it was. He used this method to be in control of his situation. Here’s the story: Tristan Walker was in business school and he really wanted to work for Foursquare. This was 2009, so he emailed, incessantly, the CEO of Foursquare, Dennis Crowley, saying, “I would love to come work for you. Please get back to me. I’ll do anything you want.” Finally, after the 8th email, Dennis said, “Okay, the next time you’re in New York, we’ll sit down and have coffee.” Tristan wrote back, “Well, I’m actually scheduled to be in New York tomorrow.” They agreed on a time and the meeting was set. Moments later, Tristan got online and booked his ticket, a red-eye to New York to fulfill that promise of being there.

I think that’s something that magicians do all the time is that we … That’s just one of the principles is that we’ll claim something is done before it’s actually done, but we know we can get there. We know we can fulfill that promise. I saw a similar trick pulled by Richard Branson and this is on the Virgin Airlines website, on how the airline got started. He was younger at the time. He was trying to go to the British Virgin Islands. I think he said he had a beautiful lady waiting for him and the flight was canceled. He walked over to a charter company and he hired a plane. By the way, this was before Branson had the gazillion dollars that he has now. He hired that plane. Then he had to fulfill that promise, so he borrowed a chalkboard and wrote, “Virgin Airlines: $39, one-way, to the British Virgin Islands,” and went around the airport and collected all the other passengers. That’s how he was able to fulfill the promise and the cost of the airline that he just chartered. That’s a little glimpse and that’s what inspired me to write this book.

Brett McKay: We’ll get more into the specifics on these principles that business owners apply that you also find in the world of magic. You had an interesting vignette in your book an Theodore Roosevelt and Houdini. We’re big fans of Theodore Roosevelt here at AoM. Can you talk about Houdini’s connection with TR? I think Houdini had a fascination with TR, but also TR was attracted or drawn to Houdini as well. What was going on there?

David Kwong: Teddy Roosevelt is certainly the manliest man out there. I think Houdini is a close second. It’s not a coincidence that they were part of the same era. I think at the time, this was really the beginning of the perfect man, this idealized perfect man. There’s actually a great book that everyone should check out, which is called Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man by John Kasson, and I took a look at that for this book. In this era, this is where you have the beginning of body building and people going to Coney Island and showing off their sculpted bodies. This is largely why Houdini rose to such fame at this time, because he exhibited this idealized strong man persona. Houdini was known for and ultimately … Do you know how Houdini died? Do you have a …

Brett McKay: Yeah, he had that bit where he had people just punch him in the gut.

David Kwong: Exactly, exactly, and many people think that he died in the water torture cell because of what’s been portrayed in the movies, but that’s exactly what he was doing. He was tightening his abdominal muscles and letting people punch him in the gut and he could take the punch. This led to his death because he wasn’t prepared for a punch when he was up in Montreal and a couple of students approached him and socked him right in the stomach and it ruptured his spleen, but before that, of course, Houdini was the manliest man out there. He met Teddy Roosevelt I believe for the first time on a trans-Atlantic voyage from the UK back to New York in 1914. There’s a famous story about Houdini pulling one over on the rough rider himself.

On this voyage … Well, it first starts with prep work, which is a big, big principle in magic. Houdini had found out from his booking agent that Roosevelt was going to be on this cruise, so he went straight to the London telegraph to research where Roosevelt had been. Roosevelt was out of office this time. He had become a private citizen once again. The details weren’t out there. This was information that the public was not privy to and Houdini was able to find out that he was in South America exploring the River of Doubt and armed with this information, he decided to perform a Spirit Slate routine onboard the Imperator, the ship they were on. He was able to read Roosevelt’s mind.

Basically, what the Spirit Slates are are they are blank chalkboards. You show that there nothing on any side of the chalkboards. When you put them together, a spirit will manifest certain words. Houdini asked the audiences to write down questions. Now, he was prepared for Roosevelt. What he would’ve done, as the legend tells it, is that he would have forced this question, “Where were you last Christmas?” He would have either slipped in his own pieces of paper with that written on it or he had a stooge in the audience. Just as it happens, Roosevelt asked the very question that he was hoping to get, which was, “Where was I last Christmas?” He was not one step ahead, but like 10 steps ahead when TR did that.

Houdini took President Roosevelt’s slip of paper, dropped it in between the spirit slates and when he pulled it apart, it said, “Near the Andes,” and there was a colored drawing of the map of Brazil, the exact location where Roosevelt had traveled. The next day, Roosevelt pulls Houdini aside and asks him, quote, “Man to man,” end quote, if the spirits had really manifested these words on the slates. Houdini said, “No, Colonel, it was just hocus pocus.” That’s what the legend holds and I think it’s a great encounter between the two of them.

Brett McKay: That is. This story of Houdini and Roosevelt leads perfectly my next question about prep. In magic, it’s called loading up. What does it mean to load up in the world of magic? I guess it’s prep work. I’d like to hear what that involved and how can a business apply that concept to what they’re doing?

David Kwong: Loading up is a term that I commandeered and transformed it to a principle. We, as magicians, will often say, “I was so loaded up when I walked into that bar,” or “When I arrived at the party, I was loaded up.” What that refers to are the hidden strings that we might have running up and down our sleeves or our pockets stuffed with various devices. What can I really say here? Magnets and maybe a fake thumb or two, these different things that we have to make ourselves appear super human. This is the idea of being a step ahead or three of everybody else. I took that phrase, loaded up, and I turned it into an active verb, loading up. This is referring to doing all the heavy lifting ahead of time and then appearing magical in the moment.

Brett McKay: How can businesses quote-unquote, “Load up.” Why is it important for businesses to do all the heavy lifting behind the scenes and just make it appear flawless and easy when they actually deliver to their customer?

David Kwong: Well, think about this example: if you are working on a project and your boss says, “I need this delivered by a certain date,” you can have already done all the heavy lifting, because you’ve anticipated that this assignment is coming. Maybe you work late nights, maybe you do it over the weekend and you deliver it ahead of schedule, but then you have a choice. You can appear super human, as if you had just instantly fulfilled the task or you can reveal your method. You can reveal that you anticipated that this assignment was coming and you can reveal exactly how you pulled it off with the extra behind the scenes work. That’s kind of a choice actually that magicians make, right? Is do you appear to be the David Copperfield, David Blaine sort or do you kind of expose and get credit for your cleverness and get credit for all the hard work and smarts that went into something?

Brett McKay: Let me ask you a question then. How do you decide which approach is best?

David Kwong: I’m not sure. That’s a personal choice that people make. I lobby for the second choice, which has been my approach through magic. When I perform and I do my feats with Scrabble words or crossword puzzles or math, I’m revealing to the audience that I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours memorizing these things. I think that I get a credit for it in that way. At that end of the spectrum, you kind of become super human in a different way, because you’re so insane as to put in all that time. That’s my approach.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I was thinking in the world of business, if you’re an employee and your boss gives you that deadline and you load it up and you’re able to just present it to them and you pass it off like, “Oh, it was nothing,” that could backfire and your boss could be like, “Wow, this guy’s awesome. I’ll just throw more work at him, because he can do it so quickly and so easily.” Yeah, you might get bogged down with a lot of extra work.

David Kwong: I do think you would hold the cards against your chest for that, yeah. You wouldn’t want to tip your hand in that situation. One sub-principle of being loaded up, of being prepared, is the one ahead principle. I’ll teach you a really quick trick that you can do with the one ahead principle. By the way, I don’t think this is the kind of trick that the magic police is going to break down my door because I’m revealing. This is just a fun, silly trick that you can do. Try this: you spread the cards in front of you, but you secretly memorize the bottom card. Let’s say it’s a three of diamonds. This card is your one ahead card. You are now ahead of the audience with this card.

Then you wave your hand magically over these spread of facedown cards, sensing the value of another card. You pick it up and you say, before looking at it, “This is the three of diamonds.” You look at it to verify your claim and you say, “Yes, I’m correct,” but you don’t show this card to the audience. You keep it to yourself and you are now getting the value of a new card, let’s call the queen of spades. You’re now one ahead. You continue to be one ahead with a queen of spades. Then you pick up a new card, sensing what it might be and you say, “This is the queen of spades,” and you pick that one up and you look at it and let’s say it’s actually the seven of hearts. You say, “Yes, I’m correct.” Then you go for a third card. You say, “I will pick up these seven of hearts,” the value that you just looked at. You pick up the bottom card, your original one ahead card, which you remember was the three of diamonds. You’ve now caught up. The value of all three cards has been said to your audience.

Your grand finale is to remind them that you predicted all of the cards. That’s a fun little trick that you can do with the one ahead principle. There was a banker named Lou Horowitz, who I interviewed, who used this one ahead principle in a way to change the way that entertainment financing took place. This was back in the 70’s and he was producing a TV show. They had paid $125,000 of their own money, the producers did this, to create the pilot. The studio was set to pay them back upon delivery of the pilot. What Lou Horowitz proposed was that the producers could assign the payment to his bank in exchanged for a new loan. In other words, the studio’s $125,000 would put the lender one step ahead of the customer and create a risk free loan. In other words, they were financing with their own money, but they were always covered for it. The show that he made, using that method, was the The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There’s a real example of how getting a step ahead of your audience can produce results.

Brett McKay: Another important aspect of magic is narrative. What happens as a magician when you’re doing a trick, you don’t have a story going along with it, does the trick fall flat? Is it not as impressive? Why is it so important to have a story when you’re performing a trick?

David Kwong: The problem is the sad reality is that most magicians do not have story with their magic tricks. This is why I think there is this kind of … That’s why there are so many birthday party magicians that don’t go anywhere. The really great magicians out there imbue narrative and dramatic arch into their stories. I think David Copperfield did this the best. Copperfield’s shows, they really hit that emotional core in the audience. There’s swelling music and lights and there’s images of his grandfather. Copperfield was a master of taking narrative and putting it right in the hands of the audience and getting them to feel like they were a part of the show. Even on a smaller level, if you’re doing a card trick for somebody, there should be a story there. You should get people to understand the, follow the arch of what you’re doing. Unfortunately, most magicians don’t take advantage of this. They just kind of do the trick. The audience might find it cool for a moment, but it doesn’t stay with them.

Brett McKay: In business, the same thing applies. You can provide just a quality product that’s amazing, that works, that makes people’s lives better. It really doesn’t stick oftentimes until you have a story that goes along with it, right?

David Kwong: That’s right. I did a lot of research talking to social scientists and neurobiologists about the effects of story. One scientist in particular, he’s become a very good friend, Paul Zach, is a neuroeconomist and he discovered oxytocin. He discovered the hormone that is released that increases our sensitivity and our response to social cues that makes us more empathetic. If you look at commercials and advertising, when these things tap into our mirror neurons, the parts of our brain that respond to what’s going on on screen. We will liken what we’re seeing to our own emotional experiences and the message would be more effective, because when you see your action hero on screen jumping from a train, your palms are sweating in the audience, right? Because you are experiencing what he’s experiencing. Your mirror neurons are firing. When you can engage people in an emotional level, people will be more receptive to your product.

Brett McKay: Another concept from magic is this idea of controlling the frame. What is the frame in the world of magic and what are the different ways magicians … How do magicians control the frame when they’re performing a trick?

David Kwong: Controlling the frame is a phrase that we magicians use to describe misdirection and our abilities to command people’s attention. If you think about a performance, you are watching a certain area of the stage. If it’s a close-up magic performance, you’re watching the hands as they deal cards on the table. This is the frame. This is the proscenium of the stage through which you are viewing the trick. There’s absolutely a reach why film making came out of illusion at the turn of the last century. We could talk about that in a moment. This frame can be moved, so if you want to sneak something out of your pocket as a magician, you are going to move the frame up and away because maybe you pull a coin out of the air. Everybody’s attention goes up there. Their whole frame of viewing goes up there and you can sneak something out of your pocket or from behind the chair or wherever you’ve hidden it.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about film. How did film use this concept of controlling the frame to do what they do?

David Kwong: Film making really rose out of illusion and one of the most central figures there was George Méliès, who was a magician and the father of special effects and cinema and he actually took over the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Robert Houdin was the great French magician who is considered the father of modern magic. Now, Robert Houdin was the gentleman who made magic safe as an evening performance. Think of magic before as something that was just kind of done on the streets as sort of a juggling act. Well, Robert Houdin, he had his audiences put on evening clothes. You put on your white tie and tails. You come to his theater, to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, and you view an evening of astonishment and illusion. George Méliès took over that theater. If you think about film making, it’s controlling the frame through which people view illusions. To go back to storytelling, I often say that a good magician, like a good film maker, can control where you’re looking, but a great magician and a great film maker can control what you’re feeling. That’s really commanding not just where your audience is looking, but the audience’s engagement with the narrative arch of the film.

Brett McKay: In the examples outside the magic world of individuals controlling the frame to put forth the narrative so they could be successful about they are trying to do.

David Kwong: I think FDR is a great example of somebody who controlled the frame, controlled what his audience was taking away. I know you love Roosevelt here at the Art of Manliness and FDR, as we know, was burdened with polio, and at the 1924 DNC, he had to appear to his audience that he was in control, in command, because masculinity was an absolute requirement for higher office at this time. You could not appear weak in any way. He and his team and his family devised a way to stay in command here and basically, he was always in his chair ahead of time, so you didn’t see him walking onto the stage. It was a strong, oak chair to support his weight. He had braces on his legs to keep them from buckling and then when he got up, he would lean on his son and aids were nearby just in case he were to topple. They could catch him quickly. Everything was planned out.

When he returned and four years later, when he returned to the DNC this time, envisioning a run for the presidency, they had to further this command and he had a cane in his left hand. He would lean on his son’s right arm, which was at 90 degrees to sort of be an I-beam kind of support for him. Even though he was slowly walking and waddling as he would go over to the lectern, he was in control and when he got there, the lectern was bolted into the floor, solid enough to hold his full weight. No one was the wiser. He spoke with a very clear and powerful tenor in his voice and was in control the entire time.

Brett McKay: The thing was he was also in excruciating pain the entire time. People didn’t realize that, but as you said, he put on this air of confidence, tilt his chin up, and he controlled the frame. One of my favorite sections on the book that I thought was really useful and I was able to … It made me think about how I could apply it immediately was this idea of conjuring an out. What does that mean, to conjure an out in the world of magic?

David Kwong: A magician cannot mess up his show. That’s sort of the number one rule. If there’s any flaw in a magic show, it tears down the entire building. I’m sure you’ve seen magic shows and the performer has been great, but if you glimpse a flash of a coin in the magician’s hand, you say to your friend, “He was good, but I saw this.” Magicians have no room for error, so we always have outs built into our tricks. If something goes wrong, we are able to conjure up a different ending to the trick that you are not even aware of. The beauty of a magician’s out is it’s not just a backup plan, but it’s a backup plan that still puts you ahead of the audience and still makes you appear amazing and super human. For all of my tricks, there’s always an out, if not two or three of them.

Brett McKay: What are some of the ways the magician might plan an out in advance? This kind of ties in with loading up, right? It’s preparation but even preparing for failure sometimes.

David Kwong: That’s absolutely right, because the out kind of has a double meaning, which also can mean the alternate path you can take for a trick. You’ve asked the perfect question. I broke it down into two types of outs. There’s the safety out, which is a trick that might go in many different ways. It’s built into the trick and we could talk about that, my favorite story about the backyard card trick in a moment. Then there’s the emergency out, which I liken to the pivot in business, which is everything’s completely gone wrong. You have to shift course and still come out fine.

Brett McKay: One of my favorite tricks you talk about in the book is this one you did … I forgot who it was. It was some highfalutin guy that lived in the Hollywood hills, but involved you pretending that you’re burying cards in his backyard or something like that.

David Kwong: That’s the end of trick, yes. This is one of my favorite stories. My friend, Blake Voy and I … Blake is an amazing magician and trick builder. Blake and I went over to a friend’s house to discuss con artistry and deception, because this was a Hollywood director who was working on something like that. We showed up to the house late. We were mortified that we couldn’t find the house. We were doing tricks in the living room and when we finished, gentleman asked us to do one more trick and we said, “Oh, we kind of just did all our best stuff, but we can try one more. Do you have a driveway that we could go to, an outdoor space?” The director said, “Actually I have a lovely backyard. Let’s go out there.” We said, “Okay, sure, let’s try that instead.”

We got out to the backyard and I said to the director, “Name any playing card.” He said the five of hearts. Then Blake said, “Point anywhere in the yard that you like.” The director pointed at about 2:00 from where we were standing. I had him go over to the bush there that he pointed at and dig in the mulch at the base of that bush and there he himself pulled up five of hearts. I then took out my iPad and revealed to him how we did it, because this was a lesson on how you can get a step ahead of people. That video showed us burying 52 playing cards in the backyard a couple hours before the meeting. Then we buttressed this illusion with what I like to call the illusion of spontaneity, which is that we then had to pretend that we weren’t prepared for this at all, which is why we came at the house late on purpose, claiming we couldn’t find it, because we had never been there before.

That’s why we did not offer to do this last trick. We waited for the director to ask us to do another and we said, “Oh, we don’t really have anything else, but we can try something.” Then we also offered to do the trick at that point in the driveway and we let him upgrade us to the backyard. There’s so much going on here. There’s another chapter in the book called The Illusion of Free Choice, which is where you allow people to believe that they’re in control of the entire trick, but you’ve planned everything out. There’s the illusion of spontaneity, which I mentioned and then there’s having all these different outs, all these different roads that you could go down to finish the trick. Then there’s a little bit of a story device that we used as well. When you read the book, this is chapter three, about narrative, you’ll find out at the end of that chapter that everything I just told you was part of a scripted story and that we were actually pulling something else off at the same time, so it’s probably my favorite trick that I’ve ever done and it’s certainly my favorite trick of the book.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this applying this conjuring an out to the world of business. Any examples from there … You mentioned pivoting, but can businesses also plan for safety outs in their business plan, so if something doesn’t go according to plan, they can just immediately do something else.

David Kwong: Absolutely. I think having multiple outs, multiples roads that you can go down is essential for hitting that target and getting to the destination that you want to get to. Think about this: if you’re pitching an idea to a room, you can iterate, which is sort of the modern term for quick pivoting, based on their responses. You could have five different presentations to go, they’re ready on your computer, and you call up the one that’s needed based on their responses. It’s like going into an interview and based on your interviewer’s responses to what you’ve said, you have five different versions of your resume in your portfolio and you take out the one that’s most applicable to what the conversation has been. Again, it’s all about being prepared and a step ahead and then applying it at the right time.

Brett McKay: We talked about safety outs, basically just having multiple plans in place and depending on the situation, the circumstances, you can roll out a different plan. That’s a safety out and applying that into business. Let’s talk a bit about the pivot out.

David Kwong: There’s the emergency out, when everything’s gone wrong and you need to pivot, how can you get out of that situation? I think one of my favorite examples from the world of business involves Stuart Butterfield, who is an avid puzzler and game, as I understand. He created something called Game Neverending. This was a massive online, multi-player game where you walk around in a world and you interact with people and it was not performing. There were avid followers of Game Neverending, but it wasn’t performing in the marketplace and he had to figure out how to pivot. He looked at what the most robust features of the game were and he realized that when you’re chatting with people, you can very easily take an image and drop it into the chat box and it gets shared with everybody. Stuart realized that this was the direction that they had to take Game Neverending and they turned it into Flickr and Flickr was eventually sold to Yahoo for $35 million.

What’s so fascinating to me about Stuart is that he’s such an avid gamer that he tried it again. He tried Game Neverending part two, which was called Glitch and once again, it did not perform as he had hoped, but I love his dedication to the gaming world. He had again he had to look at how to pivot and what the robust features of this game were and realize that it was the communication with others and the chatting and the internal communication system and that turned into Slack, which is now worth a gazillion dollars, so you just have to take … You have to trust your skill set. That’s a big thing for pivoting and magicians in a magic show. That’s a big thing for pivoting in a magic show is if I have a deck of cards and I’m walking around, showing slight of hand to people, I am trusting to my skill set to iterate and respond to people’s reactions and change the trick on the fly and take advantage of opportunities.

I’ll tell you a story, which is my favorite real time trick that I ever did, which involved … This was probably five years ago. This was a moment that only comes around once a decade for a magician and it’s when everything just perfectly aligns. Here’s what happened. I was performing for an investment bank in Philadelphia. It was the night before the conference where I was going to be speaking, so I was just doing some slight of hand tricks at a bar. I had a deck of cards and I had slipped into a gentleman’s pocket the two of clubs. I saw that he had an open pocket. It’s the opposite of pick pocketing. It’s called put pocketing. I had put the two of clubs in his pocket and I was a step ahead. If I had a second two of clubs at that point, that would have been ideal, but I didn’t. This was a normal deck of cards. I thought, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do a trick with the two of spades and then as the big climax of the trick, I’m going to say, ‘Well, the two of spades has a sister card, the two of clubs and I’m going to make it appear in this man’s coat over there.'” But I didn’t even get that far.

This obnoxious banker comes over and says, “Hey, magic trick guy, if you think you’re so good, why don’t you make the two of clubs appear?” In that moment, I’m thinking like, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” You can’t break character. You have to slow it down. You have to maximize the effect, because if you rush it, you’re going to completely screw it up. You can’t make it too impossible. That’s a big principle here. Too impossible, if I had snapped my fingers right away and said, “Look in your coat,” it would’ve revealed … People would’ve concluded that it was already there and it was a coincidence. You can’t make it too impossible. I had to say, “Okay, two of clubs, two of clubs. Well, let me see what I can do here.” I started shuffling the cards and then I mimed with my hand that I was making this two of clubs fly through the air and I came just close enough to the guy’s jacket, but not touching it that it made it possible. I snapped my fingers and I said, “Take a look in your left pocket there.” He pulled out the card and the obnoxious banker kind of stormed away, I think, defeated. It was a glorious moment for me.

Brett McKay: It’s an example of pivoting, using the situation that was thrown before you and adjusting and making it work for you.

David Kwong: That’s right. You have to trust to your skill set, do your tool set and be able to react in the moment and change the outcome of the trick.

Brett McKay: David, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your book and your work?

David Kwong: Well, I’m all over the internet. You can find me on Twitter, @davidkwong. I post tricks on Instagram also @davidkwong and I’ll be speaking about the book in the next few weeks with General Assembly. I’ll be speaking on Los Angeles on the 10th and also in New York on the 18th and all over the country, at bookstores.

Brett McKay: Well, David Kwong, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

David Kwong: Thank you so much. It was great.

Brett McKay: My guest today was David Kwong. His book is Spellbound. It’s available on and in bookstores everywhere. Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy our podcast, have enjoyed the shows over the years, really appreciate it if you take a minute or two to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brent McKay telling you to stay manly.

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