The One Thing They Remember

After I graduated from college I moved to Los Angeles as soon I could. I knew if I put it off then I would never go.

I had $500 and two bags of props. My computer stopped working soon after, so I’d sneak into a college library to check my e-mail.

I read everything I could and worked tirelessly to get my name in front of people. I’d take gigs off Craigslist and donate my services to charity functions. But nothing seemed to stick.

Then, another performer gave me some advice:

“You need to find the thing that defines you - your one trick that people will remember you for.”

So I set out on a quest to find my trademark performance piece, the one thing that would become synonymous with the name “Mark Toland”.

I tried it all.

I worked on hypnosis but (and this is absolutely true) I kept falling asleep during the course.

I worked on advanced material from classic performers. I studied circus arts and sideshow stunts, hoping I would discover the one thing that would set me apart.

Then, I stumbled across something incredible. I found a video of someone walking barefoot on broken glass. At the time, it was a demonstration that few people were performing. It was so rare, in fact, that I couldn’t find any instructions for it.

So I taught myself.

Some friends had just moved out of their apartment and I claimed a long carpet that they had left behind. I went to the Dollar Store up the street and found two heavy-duty plastic buckets and a hammer.

At the time I was living in a tiny, smelly apartment with six roommates. I was sleeping in a literal closet, with a tiny mattress shoved up against the wall. There was no A/C and no space. I called it “the crack den.” But, my roommates were big drinkers and gladly let me “recycle” their bottles.

Soon I had collected over a hundred bottles and had filled both of my buckets with broken glass. Once a day, I’d lay out the blue and white striped runner in the parking lot behind the crack den. And for a couple hours I’d work up the nerve to step across the glass without wearing any shoes.

I cut myself too many times to remember but I kept at it. Eventually, I performed it for a show in Long Beach, then a show in Hollywood, and another in Santa Monica.

It was a staple of the act.

I didn’t have a car so I’d take my trusty buckets with me on the city bus. I’d ride two hours to a gig, then two hours back home. I walked on broken glass in a barbershop downtown, at rooftop parties, and even poolside at a movie producer’s home in the Hollywood Hills.

Often, I’d get off the bus several blocks away from my show so the client wouldn’t know I didn’t have a vehicle. Then I’d haul the glass and my other props the rest of the way to the show.

Once I was trudging along a dark street late at night, trying to find the correct address for my gig, when I ran into a hard-to-see fire hydrant. I yelped in pain and grabbed my shin, releasing the buckets at the same time. Glass spilled onto the sidewalk.

Little did my client know, but I spent the last few minutes before I rang their doorbell picking up a hundred broken bottles worth of glass with my bare hands and putting the pieces back into my buckets. If they had opened their doors they would have seen the “world class entertainer” they had hired crawling around the sidewalk on his hands and knees in a three piece suit.

But I stuck with it, convinced it was my claim to fame. I did it on TV and in at least 20 states. At one point I had backup stashes of broken glass in three states (Illinois, Texas, and Florida) and joked I was going to “have a set in all 50”. I was half-kidding.

Then, it got popular. I saw other people doing it more and stopped doing it as much. I got tired of driving to gigs and started flying. The glass stayed home.

Eventually, I only brought it out for special occasions in Chicago. Then, I stopped bringing it out altogether. It went in a closet, locked away and forgotten.

Until last month. After an apartment renovation and a quick break between the tour and the fall schedule, I was reassessing my closet of show props and production equipment. And that’s when I found the broken glass.

I took a long look at it and realized what I had to do. I boxed it up and put it in the recycling.

At one point I was certain that I would be walking barefoot on broken glass for years to come. I was sure that it was the spectacle that would put me on the map. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t.

It took hundreds of bottles, cuts, bloody towels, broken buckets, busted shins, and long drives to have a simple realization. It took those three years of storing the glass in the back of my closet to fully get it. I finally understood that the advice that other performer gave me back in L.A. was wrong.

I had spent all of that time working to find my calling card but the most progress I made was when I had spent time working on myself. People weren’t wanting to see the mind reading or the broken glass. They were wanting to see me.

The truth is, it’s not a skill or a trademark product, it’s not a signature piece or a notable work that’s going to make your name. It’s not the art - it’s the artist.

The one thing they remember is you.

9 Psychological Life Hacks

A lot of people approach me after my show and want to know if I put my skills to use in the real world. The answer is yes!

Much of the techniques and knowledge I have acquired from being a mind reader onstage is perfectly suited to daily life. My biggest secrets aren’t how I appear to tell people what they’re thinking. My biggest secrets are how I get people to assist me effectively, without realizing they’re doing exactly what I want them to.

Whether you work onstage or off, here are 9 Psychological Life Hacks that will help you be a better listener, navigate big crowds, be more memorable, and learn new skills:

1) Get Someone To Do You A Favor - Ben Franklin once said “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

If you ask someone to help you with something then they will likely think of you as a good person in the future. After all, why would they do a favor for a bad person?

I’m constantly asking for people to provide assistance onstage, then complimenting them on a job well done. I’m confident that once I’ve gotten them on my side they won’t try to mess me up later.

2) Ask For More - When negotiating with clients I’ll often shoot for the moon, knowing that I probably won’t get my initial offer. When the client comes back with a counter-offer I end up getting exactly what I wanted all along.

You can use this technique in daily interactions, too. Ask someone to help you with all of your homework but when they give you pushback change it to “just my college algebra”. They’ll probably end up helping you, since one subject sounds much better than all of your coursework.

3) Repeat Things Back To People - Are you ever at a loss for what to say? Sometimes the best strategy is to repeat things back to people. I use this all the time, especially when I deal with hecklers.

Repeating key phrases and words back to another person is a great way to show them you are paying attention.  Simply paraphrase what they just told you then say it back to them. You’ll get credit for being a great listener.

Simply paraphrase what they just told you then say it back to them. You’ll get credit for being a great listener. (See what I did there?)

4) Nodding Your Head - Another great conversation tip is to nod your head during conversation. Nodding is a great way to silently assure the other person that you are listening to them.

Nodding is the silent equivalent of the improv world’s “Yes, and…” technique. It keeps the conversation positive and moving forward.

5) Lean Forward - When I’m performing I’m always paying attention to the audience. I want to make sure everyone is engaged. If people are leaning forward in their seats then I know they are paying attention and enjoying the show.

I do the same thing when having a conversation. I lean forward when listening to people to subconsciously let them know I am paying attention and they’re being interesting.

Additionally, you can also lean forward when you’re trying to make a big point. It makes the information you’re sharing seem secretive and special. Usually, the people you’re talking to will lean in also just to make sure they don’t miss what you’re saying.

6) Be Early - People usually remember the first or last thing that happens in a series. Being early goes a long way in being memorable. I always try to arrive at my shows as early as possible so my clients know I mean business.

If you can, try scheduling your job interviews first (or last) so they’ll be more memorable. Arrive even earlier, fully prepared, and you can be certain you’ll stand out from the other applicants.

7) Walking Through Crowds - In Chicago, I have to navigate large groups of Cubs fans or tourists. If you aren’t prepared it can be very overwhelming. 

The biggest trick is to look far forward and keep your gaze on the gaps between pedestrians and not the people themselves. Most of the time they’ll part so you can walk through. If you look like you know where you’re going people will get out of your way so you can get there.

8) Learning By Teaching - Sometimes I have to learn new skills for a one-time corporate event. And sometimes, I only have a few days to master them.

I’ve found the best way for me to learn something new is by teaching it to someone else. I’ll teach it to my wife or friends and find that I have a newfound understanding of the subject matter just by instructing someone else. If you can find someone to share your skill with it really helps drill in into your memory.

I’ll also just ask my wife to remind me of something. Just by saying it out loud I’m much more likely to remember it. In fact, I don’t really need her reminders because once I’ve asked I’m not going to forget.

9) External Advice - My father always said to “stay positive and work hard”. That’s great advice but the real trick here is to attribute advice or feedback to an external figure. By saying “My father always said…” you are much more likely to heed the advice than if I said it myself.

No one likes a know-it-all but everyone likes to hear advice from an absent third party. Sometimes people ask me for advice and I try to frame it as “I read somewhere that…” or “my acting teacher always said…” while actually just giving my own advice. That way, my ego doesn’t get in the way and people may actually accept the feedback they requested.

I’m not advocating lying about where you heard something - so don’t make up something your dad told you just so people will like you. But, give credit where credit is due and people will be more inclined to listen to you.

Believe it or not, I learned this trick from a coach back in elementary school. (Or maybe I just came up with it myself. Either way, it really works!)

Real world tips, tricks, and techniques straight OUT OF MY MIND and into yours every Monday.

Assume The Best

It’s 2014. I’m on a rooftop in NYC, surrounded by 8 or 9 strangers. I silently write a name on the back of my business card then slide it across the table to the lady in the white dress.

“Who are you thinking of?” I ask mysteriously.

“My husband, Kevin.” she says.

I gesture to the card. She turns it over.

Everyone loses their shit.

It’s this past summer in Orlando. I’m working a trade show. A young man nervously asks me to read his mind.

I stare into his eyes and say “Does the number 13 mean anything to you?”

He stays quiet and stares at me for what feels like an eternity. Then, almost imperceptibly, he mutters under his breath.

“No fucking way.”

It’s 2016. I’m on a small stage in a hot room in Connecticut. A roomful of adults look on.

My volunteer is dressed to the nines. A New Yorker, she is clearly cynical about the proceedings. She keeps a poker face and refuses to give anything away. I’m sweating.

I pace the stage, doing my best to stay in control. Then I lean in and whisper something into her ear.

And she breaks down. Tears roll down her cheeks and she shakes from pure joy. She gives me a hug and the audience breaks into spontaneous applause.

I nix my finale. Nothing will top that moment.

A friend approached me after a show recently and said “Man, that one guy was a jerk!”

I had no idea who they were talking about. Yes, some volunteers hadn’t reacted as well as others and some were more cooperative than most, but they all seemed to enjoy it.

My friend thought the volunteer in question was being rude, but I just thought they were being themself.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my job it’s that amazement means something different for different people in different places. Whether I’m doing a small cocktail party or a huge theater full of people, it’s something I always try to remember.

Some people react internally. Some people scream and run. And some people don’t react at all. They just stare back, completely blown away.

My job has taught me to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the barista is being impatient because they had a flat tire this morning. Maybe the man on the street just had a family member pass away. Maybe the valet is an introvert and the bellhop is a morning person.

No matter who it is, I just assume they’re giving me their best.