An Interesting Performance Tidbit I Picked Up From A 19th Century Magician


I used to strongly believe that it was our thoughts that directed our performance in life, and the results that we achieved.  I still think that thoughts are important, but I’m not so sure that they are the most important factor.  I really believe that what powers the results that we achieve in life ultimately is habit.

Our thoughts may initiate action of some kind, but unless that action is sustained and performed over and over again, we won’t get the results that we want.

Tell me if this experience is familiar:  We read a business book, or a self-help book, or watch an inspirational TED talk, Oprah episode or YouTube Video.  We get fired up and motivated, and tell ourselves we are going to make changes.  But we don’t act, or if we act, our actions are short lived.  We don’t create new habits, and as a result we don’t experience massive change.

It’s definitely happened to me in the past, and over time, as I’ve continually studied the lives of masters I’ve come to the realization that masters are far more concerned with repetition than inspiration.

Once a strong habit is formed it makes it much easier to perform the action in the future.  We are able to act without thinking. In fact, this is primarily how our action takes place. It is the “thoughtless action” that is the action of the master.  A master can perform acts that astound onlookers because of their dexterity and skill and yet remark after their performance that they acted without thinking.

And once thoughtless action is present a master is capable of reproducing the thoughtless action at any time in the future.  A master can reproduce great feats that ordinary people could only dream of doing, even though it has been many years since the master last performed the action.

It’s like water flowing.  When water flows, it hollows out for itself a channel, which over time grows deeper and wider so that even if it ceases for a time to flow, when it later resumes, and starts to flow again, it can easily trace its former path. 

I recently read a story that illustrates perfectly this principle.  It involves a true master, one who transcended his field, a real original – the great French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.  Robert-Houdin’s influence on his craft was so wide, and loomed so ominous, that the person whom many consider the greatest magician and escape artist of all time – Harry Houdini – actually changed his name in honour of Robert-Houdin.  Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss, but after reading Robert-Houdin’s autobiography, he became so impressed with the French Magician that he changed his performing name to “Houdini” in his honour.

It has been said, that what distinguished the great Robert-Houdin, and allowed him to perform such incredible feats of magic, the great tricks that would astound even the most skeptical and astute of observers was his relentless level of practice.  He formed habits of practice that would allow him to spend many long hours working on very simple tricks.  However, the amount of time that he spent in dedication to his craft gave rise to a mastery that has hardly been seen since.  His teacher, a French magician named Maous, stressed in young Robert-Houdin that dexterity in performance was only attained by repetition, and as a result, relentless practice became his ongoing focus.

His relentless practice also spawned a level of unconscious mastery that allowed him to perform the tricks spontaneously and effortlessly, but also recall the tricks, and perform them a later time with the same level of mastery, even if the trick had not been performed for many years.  An excerpt from a biography of Robert-Houdin notes:

With a view of cultivating the rapidity of visual and tactile perception and the precision of respondent movements, which are necessary for the success in every kind of prestidigitation, Houdin early practiced the art of juggling with balls in the air; and having, after a month’s practice, become thorough master of the art of keeping up four balls at once, he placed a book before him, and while the balls were in the air, accustomed himself to read without hesitation.  ‘This’ he says, ‘will probably seem to my readers very extraordinary; but I shall surprise them still more when I say that I have just amused myself with repeating this curious experiment.  Though thirty years have elapsed since the time I was writing, and though I have scarcely once touched the balls during that period, I can still manage to read with ease while keeping three balls up.

What allows us to do this, is not thought, it isn’t the “secret” or some magical esoteric force.  It is plain biology. It is the power of our brains.  And this power can apply to many things besides magic, or sports, or martial arts. I believe it can apply to any aspect of performance, in any career.  If we want great results we should spend less time thinking, less time seeking inspiration and more time practising.

It is simply habit, and when sustained over a long period of practice, habit can be magical.

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