What Matters Most

I was sitting at a cafe in Pittsburgh last week with my usual trio of a black coffee, Moleskine notebook, and a new book to read, when I witnessed the following:

A man sat down next to me, clearly waiting on someone else. A few minutes later, his friend arrived.

“Sorry, I’m late! How are you?” he said, as he sat down at the table.

“That’s okay. I just got here. What’s new?”

The second man lifted the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a tattoo.

“Here it is!” he said, proudly gesturing to his new ink, to which his friend replied:

“Wow! I mean, I already saw it on facebook but it’s really cool to see it in person.”

Hearing that exchange really bummed me out. And it was the same for that guy, too. I could see the disappointment on his face.

We are actively seeking to remove mystery from our lives. There is no room for discovery or wonder any more. We need more answers and more information - the quicker, the better. The joy of “not knowing” is a rare experience in 2019.

I know I write about this a lot, but I’m obsessed with mystery. And I want more of it. My real job the past few years has been to insert mystery back into people’s lives and lately I’ve been finding ways to add it back into my life, too.

I’ve been writing on a typewriter. I love the sound it makes and the connectedness I feel to the page. Plus, I don’t have to click “Remind Me Tomorrow” because it doesn’t need any updates.

I love the mystery of my typewriter because I never know what I’m going to write when I sit down. I have to sit and ponder what I want to say because there’s no “cut and paste” or spellcheck to rely on. I get to take my time to discover every single word and that brings me immense joy.

I’ve been running more this year than any other. It’s very hilly in Pittsburgh, so I’ve been loving the nature trails here. I’ve started going out without GPS, just to discover places for myself. Without a voice in my ear telling me where to go 8 miles feels like a real adventure.

And, I’m considering deleting all of my social media accounts. Don’t be surprised if I do. If you want to make sure you never miss one of these blogs, join my Thursday Thoughts mailing list.

There’s no joy in knowing everything a friend has been up to, then meeting them for lunch and having nothing to talk about. There’s no joy in the constant barrage of information. And, you definitely don’t need social media to be successful in 2019. You’ve just become convinced you do.

I’m not telling you to buy a typewriter or delete your facebook, but mystery is a good thing. It’s a great feeling to find ways to add it back into your life.

Here’s one way to do it: The next time you’re sitting with a friend and feel a buzz in your pocket, don’t look at it. Don’t pull out your phone and don’t get distracted. Stay present. Give your friend your full attention. Stay in the moment.

Later, when you’re alone you’ll pull your phone out and say “Oh, right! I have a text…” then get to find out who it is. That’s the joy of not knowing.

I love not knowing because not knowing means I’m not thinking about what happened yesterday because it’s in the past. And I’m not worried about what’s yet to come because I don’t know. So I only focus on what matters most: this moment, right here and right now.

Everything else is a mystery.

Other Thoughts:

  • I’m over halfway through my run here in Pittsburgh. Don’t miss your chance to see it!

  • Also, check out this awesome teaser for MIND READER:


I received a few messages after last week’s post from people saying “Who was that guy? I need to know!” (If you were thinking that, then you kind of missed the point…)

Sometimes when I have exchanges like that I start to wish I had a positive influence in my life as a performer, someone who could teach me and help me get better; a mentor. When I was younger I just sort of thought that one day someone would take me under their wing and give me guidance to get where I wanted to be.

However, that never happened. Over the years I just kept to myself and tried to forge my own path. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never have a mentor and that my experiences with more experienced performers would always be similar to the one I wrote about a week ago.

See, it’s so easy in life to remember the bad things that happen. A bad experience clouds your memory of everything that happened. When one negative thing occurs you tend to latch onto that moment and forget about the good stuff that happened, too.

A perfect example of this is when I have a heckler in the audience. (Luckily, I rarely have a heckler at my shows but it does happen occasionally.) Sometimes people are downright rude and don’t care that their actions are ruining the show for everyone else.

When that happens and you’re all alone on the road, you tend to dwell on it. You drive an hour back to your hotel and replay the interaction in your mind. Even if you handled the heckler like a pro you still wonder if there was anything you could have done differently and you forget about the good stuff that happened, too: the great joke you made with that couple onstage, the great reactions that you received moments before the heckler spoke out, the overwhelming standing ovation that you worked so hard to earn.

Which brings me to back to mentors…

Those bad experiences I have with other performers have clouded my opinion of other people in my field. I started to convince myself that everyone was a jerk because of a few people who were disrespectful. And I’ve realized a couple of things:

First, the truth is that most of the people in my field are incredibly supportive, respectful, and knowledgeable. They mean well and do everything they can to lift each other up and improve the art.

Second, and most importantly, I’ve realized that having a mentor in 2019 isn’t what I imagined it would be 25 years ago. It’s not having a single person taking you under their wing and showing you the ropes. It’s not being someone’s apprentice for two decades and shadowing someone 24/7. That’s just not how it works today.

Having a mentor now is being lucky enough for someone to share their wisdom, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time. Having a mentor now means someone was willing to take some time out of their day to support you in some fashion, no matter how small.

Once that thought occurred to me I realized that I’ve had some amazing mentors over the years, and I don’t want a post like last week’s to cloud my positive experiences with some truly caring and thoughtful professionals who have offered me encouragement over the years.

So, let me share some positive examples of mentors I’ve been lucky enough to learn from over the past decade. (I’ll only use first names to preserve some anonymity for my friends. But, take it from me, these are some of the finest minds in the business and I’ve been lucky enough to learn from them all.)

Mentor #1 - KEN

If you learn anything about Ken from this anecdote, you should know that he is one of the smartest minds in my field. His thinking is in high-demand, not for his illusions but for how he provides help from a director’s point of view, pushing artists to a higher standard of performance and helping them to improve their shows. (His book on performance is the most-read book on my shelf. In fact, my new year’s resolution was to read one book per week this year. I’m on a six week trip right now so I brought seven books. One for each week and Ken’s for daily reference.)

He once came all the way across New York City just to watch my show in a crowded, hot, black box theatre. He sat quietly in the back of the theatre then gave me notes and ideas for a solid hour. As soon as he left I scrawled everything onto the back of a napkin so I wouldn’t forget anything. Those notes were the building block of the last two years of my touring show. Ken truly helped me find ways to maximize the level of entertainment in my performances.

Mentor #2 - CHRIS

In college Chris came to my campus and gave a mind blowing show. I watched in awe. Here was someone doing things that I did could not fathom, yet wanted so desperately to learn. He was easily the highlight of the year for myself and the other students at my college. After the show, I approached the stage to say hello. I was probably a bit of a know-it-all back then, but if it bothered Chris he didn’t let on. He generously sat with me on the stage for a solid half an hour, giving me a few pieces of advice and asking about my interests.

Years later I was attending a booking conference on my own. I was terrified. I didn’t know anyone and had no idea how the business worked. Suddenly, I heard a voice.

“Hi, Mark. Mind if I join you?”

I looked up to see Chris standing at my table with a drink in hand. “He knows my name?!” I thought. I couldn’t believe it.

Chris sat with me for a long time that day, offering encouragement and telling me stories of his experiences when he was in my same position. By the end of that afternoon I felt confident in the direction I was headed, all thanks to Chris.

Since then, Chris has attended a few of my shows, let me shadow him a couple times at his own, and offered advice anytime I’ve needed it. I owe a lot of thanks to many performers, but esp. Chris.

Mentor #3 - NEIL

Neil is an incredibly supportive friend of mine, a fellow performer, and a wise thinker and creator in my field. Not only is he a great thinker but he’s an incredible performer, too.

One of my favorite videos of my show is from a performance I did in a small room on the north side of Chicago. It’s a dark room and the footage isn’t that great, but throughout the show you can hear Neil laughing at my jokes just off camera. Every time I watch that video I remember when he came up to me after the show and took five minutes to offer encouragement and support. I’ll never forget that.

When Neil speaks people shut up and listen, because if you aren’t paying attention you’ll miss the beautiful ideas hidden in each and every sentence. There have been times I’ve learned more from Neil in ten minutes than I did in all of high school. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Neil’s wisdom is supernatural.

Mentor #4 - MICHAEL

Several years ago I was attending a convention in Las Vegas. It was past midnight and most of the other attendees were drunk and rowdy. It was chaos. I was completely sober and all I wanted was to talk about performance. That’s why I was attending in the first place!

From the middle of the chaos emerged Michael and I believe he could sense that I had more on my mind. He sat down at my table and started asking me questions about my act. My answers led to more questions, which I struggled to answer. I found myself getting frustrated as Michael easily picked apart my artistic decisions. I’d never been forced to confront my thoughts before, especially not in front of a legend like Michael.

Michael has a way of making you question everything you’ve ever done. At first, you say what you think he wants to hear but soon you realize that’s not what he wanted at all. What he wants is for you to find the confidence to defend your ideas and opinions. That’s why he’s so hard on you in the first place.

Michael sat with me over 4 hours that night. I walked away discouraged and frustrated, thinking that maybe I wasn’t good at this after all. But the next day, I had a creative breakthrough. Then another and another. I started to solidify my onstage persona and my scriptwriting dramatically improved. It was all thanks to Michael.

I wasn’t smart enough then to understand how much help he was willing to give. But Michael, if you’re reading this, you were a real lifesaver.

Mentor #5 - SHAUN

In one of the lowest points of my life I met Shaun. I had recently lost my father and transferred colleges. I wasn’t happy or especially motivated at the time.

Shaun didn’t care about any of that. Well, he did, but he didn’t let it keep me from succeeding. He expected my absolute best. He demanded that I show up on time, work hard, and give 100% to everything I was doing. While other people in my life were questioning my dreams, Shaun was daring me to dream bigger.

Shaun was so important to me that I affectionately have him as “Dad” in my phone. He became a second father to me because he invested in me and what I wanted to be doing. If it wasn’t for Shaun I would have never found my voice.

* * * * *

There are numerous people who have inspired me over the years but these are some of my favorites. I can never thank them enough.

When you get discouraged or someone tries to bring you down, try to remember the good. And always remember that mentorship presents itself in many forms…you just have to be open and willing to learn.

Finally, always remember to be patient and willing to offer people advice anytime they need it. Always treat questions with respect and be forthcoming with your advice and ideas. You never know how meaningful a few minutes of your time might be for someone else.

Other thoughts:

  • I was just on Pittsburgh Today Live on CBS Pittsburgh this week to promote my show! Check out my appearance below:


There was a fellow performer in my audience earlier this year. It was one of my best shows thus far in 2019. I was completely in the moment and the audience was loving it. Yet, this performer sat completely emotionless, arms crossed, refusing to smile or have a good time.

It reminded me of this cartoon:


For the entire show I kept glancing over to see if he was enjoying it, but it just looked like the guy in that cartoon.

Honestly, it pissed me off.

When I go to another performer’s show, I try to be a good audience member. Reactions are contagious, so I try to lead by example for the other people in the audience: I lean forward, I smile, I nod, I laugh. I work extra hard to pay attention and respond accordingly, because that’s what I would want if I was doing the show myself.

Seeing another performer refuse to acknowledge my performance was incredibly annoying. There was no reason for him not to enjoy himself. It was a good show, in a gorgeous venue - did I mention I WAS DESTROYING THAT ROOM?! His lack of respect for my effort onstage was rude. There’s no other way to put it. This performer who I thought I respected and admired was being a complete jerk.

At the end of the show the audience leapt to their feet for a standing ovation. (I told you I was killing…) I stepped to the front of the stage and could see out of the corner of my eye that the only person not standing was this guy. So I turned, made eye contact, and pointed right at him as if to say “I saw you the whole show and that wasn’t cool.”

After the show this colleague-who-must-not-be-named made his way backstage and we passed in the hallway.

I said hello and shook his hand.

“Did you have fun?” he said, as he condescendingly put his hand on my shoulder.

DID I HAVE FUN? What kind of cop-out question is that? I could see it on his face that he refused to tell me I did a good job, so he asked a surface level question to maintain his seniority over me. He was treating me like a child, when I’m actually his competition. We’ve been in the running for the same big events, we’re of the same pedigree, we are both working professionals, but he was refusing to treat me with respect.

A lesser Mark Toland would have let that exchange bother him for weeks, maybe even months. The Mark Toland of ten years ago would have panicked and wondered what was wrong with himself. He would have thought “Wow, my show isn’t good enough yet. I have to work harder and one day maybe I can earn this guy’s respect.”

When I was just starting out an exchange like that might have soured my entire night. I would have played it over and over in my head, getting more and more frustrated with every single replay. I would have spent countless nights blaming myself and questioning my actions.

But that was then…

I’m more self-assured now. I have the confidence of a thousand shows under my belt. I’ve done shows on the other side of the world and worked for every kind of audience imaginable. Things don’t really get to me now like they used to.

I know now that that guy’s actions during the night were all due to his own insecurities. There’s something wrong with him that made him treat me like that, and it had nothing to do with me.

Isn’t it great to get older and wiser and feel more confident? Isn’t it wonderful to understand that you can’t control people’s actions and usually they have nothing to do with you? It took me years to understand that but I’m so glad I do.

“Did you have fun?”

Those words hung in the air for a moment. Then, I looked him dead in the eye and placed my hand on his shoulder in return.

“Did you have fun?” I responded, slightly sarcastically. And for an instant, I could see the realization flash across his face that he had been incredibly disrespectful for the entire evening. He didn’t say anything but I’m certain it was there.

I walked down the hall and thought to myself “Hmm, maybe I’ll write a blog post about this…”

Then I went and celebrated the success of the night. The standing ovation for my award-winning show, with a group of friends who had come to support it. It never crossed my mind again, and if I hadn’t jotted it down in my list of potential blog ideas I might not have even written this post.

I just got the first (hopefully, of many!) reviews for my show at Liberty Magic in Pittsburgh. Last night was the start of the 2nd week of my residency here. You don’t want to miss it. Go here to get tickets!