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Think Differently--Follow the Other Hand
The magician called my office around 1 p.m. and left a message.
"Smart kid," he said. "You picked the right time and date. Go to the corner of Eighth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. That's in New York City! You'll see the sign for my shop."
End of message. I pictured the cross streets he mentioned. This was a part of town I didn't spend much time in, an eclectic part of Manhattan that connects you with Macy's, Madison Square Garden, and the New Yorker Hotel, the fabled headquarters of the "Moonies." Entering a nondescript building, I climbed three flights up a rickety staircase and entered the only door on the floor.
Inside was a world that was completely foreign to me, but also one that I would very quickly get to know. Waist-high glass counters spanned three sides of the room. They were filled with the most mystical assortments of magic paraphernalia that would serve me well in my tutelage: large, brightly colored silks (I learned later to call them foulards) that could disappear or change colors on command, giant silver balls that floated in the air, jumbo cards, magic wands, old-fashioned top hats, floating lightbulbs, candles that turned into dancing canes, and real silver dollars that squeezed through the thin neck of a soda bottle. Each trick had a name that was as mysterious as its effect: the Professor's Nightmare, Chinese Linking Rings, Phantom Tubes, Die Boxes, Square Circles, Foo Cans, Chop-Chop Cups, and the Passe-Passe bottles. Would my colleagues suggest I take medical leave when I told them where I'd gone?
When I wasn't busy looking down into the glass cases, I found myself gazing up at the wall-to-wall photos of magicians in tails and hats, clown suits, and flamingo outfits. Many of these magicians were doing the most uncanny things to their assistants--shoving swords through them, cutting them in half, levitating them in the air, turning their heads 360 degrees, and making their bodies zigzag in impossible positions. Others showed a peculiar-looking bald-headed guy meeting with famous people, like the photos you sometimes see in people's offices. He was shaking hands with the usual suspects: the mayor of New York, the President of the United States, and players from the New York Yankees.
And then I saw him, in the flesh. Behind the counter stood a man of average height, broad shoulders, round face, bulbous nose, and shiny bald head--with one long hair wrapped around many times as if to hide his baldness. (I later learned that he still went to the barber for a "hair cut.")
His suit was rumpled. His shirt was stained. His tie undone and his fly partially unzipped. Since I was the only one in the shop, I assumed he was embarrassed by his sloppy dress because when he spotted me, he quickly went into a back room to tidy up. Minutes later, he came out; the suit was still rumpled, shirt was still stained, the zipper still down. The only change was that his tie was pushed into a neat knot.
Before I could walk over to introduce myself, George Miles called out as if he were singling me out in a standing-room-only crowd, "Hey, kid, want to see a trick?"
It really was not a question, because he didn't wait for an answer. Instead, he pulled out a flattened top hat, made in the days when top hats were constructed to pop up and down with the flick of a wrist. Popping open the hat, he turned the bottom toward me and asked me if anything was inside. "No," I said.
"Phantasmagoria! You're one heck of a smart kid," he replied.
The magician showed me a black and white die, about three inches high, which he placed in the hat. Then he brought out a fire engine-red box the size of a tissue box. It had four doors: two on top and two in the front. The pair of doors on top opened upward; the doors on the front opened side by side, on the side facing me. When all four were open, you could see right into the interior of the box.
"What's in the box?" he asked, as he opened all four of its doors.
"Nothing," I responded.
"You're pure genius," he remarked with a smile.
The magician plucked the die out of the hat and placed it in the right side of the box. The die completely filled the space. Then he shut all the doors. "Did you see what just happened? The die disappeared," he remarked.
"No, it's on the right side of the box," I emphatically reminded him.
And, in fact, as I pointed to the right side, he tilted the box to the left. I heard a loud, audible "clunk" as the die slid to the other side.
"Bongo-Mongo! I hate to tell you you're wrong, kid," he said as he proudly opened the door on the right side. Nothing was there.
"It's on the left side," I quickly replied. Now he tilted the box to the right and with a loud stamp of his foot (probably to hide the clunk the die made as it slid over) he proudly opened the left door to show me that nothing was there.
"It's on the right!" I screamed out. He responded by sliding the box in the opposite direction. A "clunk" sound followed.
"There's absolutely nothing inside," he assured me as he opened the right door.
I was feeling a variety of different emotions at this time--embarrassment, frustration, and anger. It was obvious how the trick was done. It was obvious that this guy, George Miles, was a lousy magician. It was obvious that I was wasting my time and that Wilcox was going to have his check cashed without my even completing the first visit. As if reading my mind, the magician opened all the doors of the box at the same time. The box was empty. The die was gone. He reached into the hat, which had been by my side the whole time, and took out the die.
"Lesson number one has begun," he said. "Before we continue, why don't you call me by my trade name, Merlin."
"OK, Merlin," I repeated. Satisfied with my acknowledgment of his professional standing, Merlin began to teach.
"Magic is the art of understanding human behavior and the assumptions we make," he explained. "My role is to have you follow the wrong assumptions with the result of mystifying you."
To demonstrate, he pulled out the red box. "What I placed into the box may or may not have been the die. But you assumed it was." Merlin smiled. "Based on that, I knew that when I tilted the box and you heard the clunking sound you would assume that the die was moving from one compartment to the next. I knew you assumed that when I coughed or thumped my foot I was covering up for the sound. In essence, you were the one making the magic happen by forming the wrong assumptions. I just directed you there. The accepted term for this is mis-di-rec-tion," Merlin said theatrically.
"But there is another school of thought that my compeer, Marc DeSouza, likes to remind me of--mis-di-rec-tion is a misnomer. Marc, a successful real-estate developer and head of the ethics committee for the Society of American Magicians, points out that the magician is actually directing you, not misdirecting you, to follow those assumptions.
"I am directing where you focus your attention with the result of providing 'magic'--a form of harmless entertainment that puts a smile on people's faces, creates awe, and leaves you with an experience you never forget.
"But in business and in life, we are up against forces within ourselves and outside our control that are directing us to look in a particular direction that forms our assumptions. We often treat these assumptions as truths rather than a set of beliefs.
"We frantically search the house looking for the keys we assume are lost, when they are actually in our hands. We assume the person sitting next to us at a party doesn't care for us because she is neither talkative nor smiling, when in fact she is a wonderful, caring person who is merely very shy. In situations like these, we fool ourselves, and in most cases the consequences of doing so are harmless. Other times, they are not.
"What assumptions did IBM make when they let Bill Gates license his operating system, rather than just purchase it outright?" asked Merlin. "Microsoft may not have been the company it is today.
"AT&T had the same information on the future of cellular technology as their competitors had, yet they passed on investing in this business, following the direction of thinking that cellular service was always going to be local. Making an assumption like that is one of the reasons AT&T was purchased by another telecommunications company it once owned," he continued.
"Think about how Coke felt when they assumed that taste is everything. The masters at building an emotional relationship with the consumer never bothered to do a real test of 'New' versus 'Old' Coke. Instead, they assumed that blind tasting indicated people preferred the new taste to the old. These are classic cases of focusing in the wrong direction," said Merlin.
"But understanding the principles of directing attention opens a whole new world of successful opportunities for marketing and business solutions."
I was baffled and wondered where this was leading, afraid he was going to suggest misleading clients to get ahead. Reading my mind once again, Merlin said, "What I am now going to show you is no foola-doola. Watch closely.
"I am going to take the coin from my left hand and hold it in my right."
I followed his actions like a beagle following the scent of a criminal. One minute he was holding the coin in his left hand, and then it was gone and inside the fist of the right hand.
"So let's see if you've got the focus-pocus to answer my next question," said Merlin with a wicked grin. "Your brain and all your life experiences tell you that the coin is in my right hand.
"I can tell you're making that assumption because your eyes are looking at the right hand holding the coin.
"But what if you were to challenge that assumption? What if you opposed what your present intellect was telling you? What if you stopped and considered that the coin may not be in the right hand? What conclusion might you draw?" Merlin said in a way that invited response.
"I'd say the coin never left the left hand and you are holding it, even though your left hand appears empty," I replied.
"Exactamundo!" exclaimed Merlin, as he opened his right hand to reveal an empty palm. Then he directed my attention to his left hand holding the coin. "By challenging your assumption, you have discovered the secret to the trick and a new solution that did not exist for you before."
I felt a sense of accomplishment and recognized a feeling that I was on an exciting journey down a river of new possibilities.
"Mis-di-rec-tion," exclaimed Merlin, "is not only a method for achieving magic. It is a reminder of a simple question that we must constantly ask ourselves, or else be willing to accept the consequences if we don't. Which hand do we choose? Do we follow what everyone else is thinking or do we challenge their assumptions and look in the other hand for new ideas? Some people see this need to constantly question as a burden. Foola-boola on them. Deciding which hand to follow is your opportunity to uncover real solutions. It's also the fastest way of creating new ideas, as well as the most crucial step in creating your own magic.
Copyright © 2006 by Andy Cohen. All rights reserved.