Whatever It Takes

This time of year is always my busy season. Corporations hold their holiday events in November and December, so after Thanksgiving I pack my bags and hit the road for a dozen shows around the US before Christmas arrives.

Thanks to the snow and cold, flying and driving around the country this month is always an adventure. And this past weekend was no different.

Last Saturday was what has become over the past five years a typical December travel day. I was traveling from Colorado to Ohio for my show that night, so my plan was as follows:

• 90 minute drive to Denver
• Flight from Denver to Chicago
• Flight from Chicago to Columbus
• 35 minute drive to my event

To the uninitiated that looks like a brutal day but all of my friends are “road warriors”. THIS IS WHAT WE DO.

I had to hit the road at 2:30 am, since I had a 6:00 am flight out of Denver. Hell is having to wait in an airport security line before the sun comes up.

Everything was going smoothly until my flight out of Chicago was cancelled minutes before we were supposed to board. Suddenly, all flights to Ohio and neighboring locations were cancelled, too.

I called my client and told her the news, assuring her I would do everything I could to make the show. But I wasn’t sure I’d actually make it.

In 10+ years of professional performances I have never cancelled a show. NEVER. I’ve gone out of my way to make shows happen, including last-minute flights, all nighters, and absurd travel plans.

One time there was a fire at Chicago’s airports and cancellations were announced the night before. Without a second thought I loaded up the car and drove 17 hours overnight to the East Coast to make my show.

I haven’t had to cancel a show yet, so I really didn’t want to break that streak last weekend.

Luckily, after several hours, I was the last person called for a standby flight. I landed in Columbus with a little over an hour to go until showtime.

The only problem? My bags were on a later flight.

That’s right. My microphone, props, toiletries, shoes, and more stayed in Chicago while I went ahead. I did the math and realized that if everything was on schedule then my bags would arrive 45 minutes before showtime and I might be able to pull it off.

I raced to my hotel and got ready, hoping I wouldn’t have to wear these shoes to my gig:

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Then, I raced back to the airport and realized I was going to pull this off:

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Bags in hand, I drove to the venue, set up, and took the stage on time. My client was the only person at the gig who knew what a crazy day I’d had. To everyone else, nothing was out of the ordinary. They simply got to enjoy a show and be amazed.

When I tell people about life on the road - especially days like last Saturday -  they always look mortified. They say “Wow, that sounds horrible!” or “I could never do that!” However, I don’t feel that way at all.

Some people say that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. But that’s not true. You’ll actually end up working harder - but when you have a dream that keeps you up at night you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Repetition

I had a music teacher growing up that used to say “Repetition is the key to success.”

He’d wait five seconds then say, “Repetition is the key to success” and keep repeating it until we caught on.

I love jokes like that, where you have to pay attention to the clever (albeit silly) word play to understand. As a result, I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m not sure that it’s the only “key to success” but I think repetition is an important component. I think he was mostly trying to remind us to practice our instruments when we weren’t in class but I still never did. That explains why I’m reading minds for a living now and not playing tenor sax...

When you perform for a living it can start to feel a little pointless. The days start to blur together because of the repetitive nature of life on the road. Usually it goes something like this:

Wake up early (I have alarms for 3:30 am and 3:45 am that I use every week) to head to the airport. I take the same bags, packed the same way, through security on my way to the first flight out. Then comes sleep, baggage claim, rental car, coffee, hotel, venue, set up, soundcheck, show. Then I re-pack everything in the same way and head back to my room for a few hours of sleep before I get up the next morning to do it all over again.

I will follow those steps today and tomorrow and the next day indefinitely for as long as I continue the current trajectory of my career. I keep setting my alarm and boarding the planes. I keep testing my microphone and saying the same words onstage every night. I keep hoping that putting in 10,000 hours will lead to mastery and mastery will lead to nothing but beautiful, theatrically resonant performances.

Over time you start to enjoy the repetition. An early flight means fewer delays and more time once you arrive. A good sound check puts my mind at ease and usually means I’ll have a good show. And packing my stuff the same way each time means I never leave anything behind.

Repetition provides the framework to the rest of the day so I can be in the moment onstage. Since everything else is the same during the day, I can set my mind to autopilot. I’ve been through airport security so many times now, that I could probably do it completely blindfolded. (Maybe I will for a future show…)

Once I take the stage, I’m in search of new discoveries in hopes of truly connecting with tonight’s group. Maybe something exciting will happen. Maybe I’ll have a creative breakthrough or reach a new level of proficiency. Maybe tonight will be my best show ever. Maybe I’ll be even better tomorrow.

That’s why I keep doing the same thing day after day, show after show. Rise early, read minds, rinse, repeat. Repetition is (one of) the keys to success.

There’s that old adage that says “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" is the definition of insanity...but I prefer to call it a “career in the arts”.

Failure

My first big performance was a huge disappointment.

I was in first grade when I found out they were holding auditions for the school talent show. They shouldn’t have made the announcement in the morning because I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. All I could think about was getting to do magic in front of the whole school.

I remember bursting through my front door and calling to my dad, “I’m going to try out for the talent show! Will you help me practice?”

He helped me read the rules for the audition, then we pulled some tricks from my shelf of magic props and headed downstairs. He plopped down on the couch and patiently watched me as I stumbled through my makeshift performance.

I had asked my friend Tim to perform with me. He was the only other person I knew who liked magic as much as I did. So we worked on our tricks nonstop, hoping we would get a spot in the talent show.

A week later, I packed my props into my backpack and left for school. The big day had arrived. I was more nervous than I’d ever been before.

All of the hopeful performers were ushered into the gymnasium. We sat in clusters around the room as each of our names were called. People sang and danced and hula-hooped and did skits. I heard the other students playing outside and wondered what my friends were doing. For a split second I zoned out - and then:

“Up next are Mark and Tim, the magicians!”

I heard my name and suddenly I couldn’t stop shaking. Luckily, I had my friend Tim to back me up. We walked to the front and began our performance.

Our showstopper was a numbers trick. I wish I could remember the exact trick but I’ve mostly forgotten. All I know is that when I went to reveal our prediction, my principal just looked up at us with complete disappointment.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t my number.”

We were crushed.

Something had gone wrong with the trick. I had failed in front a hundred other students and embarassed myself. When they called the final acts, our names weren’t on the list.

When I got home, I shoved my props on the shelf and swore I hated magic. I told my dad I didn’t want to do any tricks ever again. When I calmed down and wiped the tears away, I went outside and shot some hoops to calm down.

Then I heard a voice. It was my dad saying I had a phone call.

I walked inside, said hello, and was surprised to hear my principal’s voice on the other end.

“Mark, I have an apology to make. I messed up your trick. When I got home from school I tried it again and realized I made a mistake. You were right and I don’t know how you did it!”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We want you and Tim to be in the talent show. Can you guys do that?”

Of course I said yes, then hung up. I’m sure I screamed at the top of my lungs or something of the sort. All of our practice had paid off.

Not only did we get to be part of the talent show, but we actually ended up getting to be a featured act at the entrance of the school. As everyone entered for the show Tim and I were there in the lobby doing tricks for anyone who would watch. It was easily the greatest night of the first six years of my life.

If it wasn’t for my dad’s encouragement or my principal’s phone call, I might not be writing this essay. You might not be reading this post. And I might not be a professional mind reader.

Some of life’s lessons are intuitive, some are learned, and some are just downright lucky. I’m not sure where this one falls, but what I do know is that it’s impossible to fail if you never quit.

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