A Magic Story from Penn and Teller

Who knew that the entire process of inventing a magic trick is, quite simply, the process of absolutely unforgiving storytelling? Penn and Teller's Teller, for one.

In a recent This American Life podcast, Ira Glass told the story of a magic trick six years in the making – the non-floating, floating ball trick seen in duo Penn & Teller’s live magic shows. (Watch the trick.)

The story began with Teller learning the mechanics from a magic book written nearly 100 years ago. He was obsessed – he practiced daily. Alone, on the stage, after their shows. He took the props on vacation with him. Teller spent 11 months coming up with new moves and a routine. Only then did he show his partner, Penn Jillette.

You can’t look at a half-finished piece of magic and know whether it’s good or not. It has to be perfect before you can evaluate whether it’s good...Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.
— Teller

And Penn hated it.

So Teller kept going – he realized mechanics weren’t compelling enough on their own. He needed a plot. He added one.

Penn hated it more. Both thought the trick lacked an “essential dramatic idea.”

There’s no better partner than Teller. He’s not the smartest or most creative person I’ve ever been around, but he’s the hardest working.
— Penn Jillette

Teller went back to work, and after 18 months, his trick came together.

I have a certain dog with a slipper quality about me.
— Teller

And Penn still didn’t love it.

But after six years, they added a final element – a Penn-style grace note. 

I do trust my gut. This trick that we do in the show is not the trick I thought we were going to do. But it is the trick that was calling out to me.
— Teller

For insight into your own storytelling (and the making of a successful 40+ year partnership), listen to the podcast.

Know Thyself (And Thy Work)

One-on-one critiques beg for a healthy dose of self-awareness - not to be confused with self-consciousness (I'll bring plenty of that on my own.). This weekend I'm headed to the Austin Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Working Conference. Like a lot of conferences, there will be networking and keynotes, break-out groups and catching up with old friends. There will also be one-on-one critiques.

A very timely recent podcast reinforced some great advice I've received in the past - not only for the daunting work of receiving critiques, but for critical learning conversations with your partner, your boss, your friends and more. 


What is self-awareness?

According to Tasha Eurich, author of Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and Life, self-awareness has an internal component - knowing ourselves - and an external component - knowing how other people see us. These are independent skills - you may be great at one and not the other. Good news is, you can improve both.

Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.
— Marie (Carrie Fisher) from When Harry Met Sally

Why does self-awareness matter?

Studies have shown that people with self-awareness make better decisions and are happier, more confident, more successful and more fulfilled. But in a society that's become, in Eurich's words, "more self-absorbed and less self-aware," we may not have a clear idea how to start doing the work of awareness. Work that extends from our person to our understanding of how our stories and art are seen and received in the world.

How do I develop self-awareness?

No way around it. To build the external component, you have to be brave. Baby step? Ask a trusted person what they see you doing well that you might not be noticing. Feeling more advanced? Ask "What do I do that's especially annoying?" Or "What do you see me doing that's holding me back?" Then the hard part. You listen.

Self-awareness is a continuing process of reconciling our views with others - which is why the internal piece matters. Otherwise you may find yourself swinging from opinion to opinion without a clear idea of what your essential truth is.

Self-awareness and Your Work

Back to this weekend's conference - a critique is an opportunity to receive external feedback on the same questions we detailed above "What am I doing well?" "What is annoying?" "What is holding this piece back?" And the advice for taking in that information is the same, whether we're talking personal self-awareness or work insights. Here are five steps to help you make the most of feedback opportunities:

  1. Listen.
  2. Ask questions if you don't understand a piece of feedback. (Note: This does not mean harangue your critiquer if you don't agree with what you're hearing.)
  3. Feel the feelings.
  4. Give yourself time and comfort.
  5. Don't worry about what you're going to do about the information until you are hours/days/weeks out and feel more grounded and ready to address.

This type of knowledge can only improve your work. But if none of this is resonating? Listen on to hear if you're one of three types of unaware people. (Kidding. But don't worry - there's still hope for one of the three types...) 


No Work, No Pay, No Excuse - Jury Duty and a Sole Proprietor

Where to park, how to get out of it, and other Jury duty need-to-knows at Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Texas 

When I was ordered to appear for Jury Duty on Monday afternoon at 1, I didn't think much about it. I'd go in for the afternoon; I wouldn't get picked; it would be fine. Or I'd get picked, I'd explain that if I can't bill, I don't get paid, and they'd let me off. Easy.

In Austin, anyway, that's not how it works. Here are the ten things I learned during my five days in court at the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse.

  1. You can park in a metered spot. Living on the legal edge, I opted for a three-hour spot. Others paid outlandish garage rates to avoid possible tickets (prudent). We found out upon arrival if we got a ticket for an expired meter, it would be forgiven by the court. SCORE! (Once you get chosen, you get a placard for your car that lets you park in any of six or so blocks of metered spots - it's not easy, but it is free.)
  2. You cannot manipulate your number in the jury pool by holding back before registering or taking your time checking in. The numbering is random. People in front of me in line had numbers in the 40s. The woman right before me was #1. I was #10.
  3. Being quiet won't keep you from getting picked. Neither will proactively answering questions. Post-selection, several of my fellow jurors mentioned purposely keeping quiet so as to be overlooked. Didn't work. I had to answer questions. Didn't work either. Bringing the crazy or insisting you have to use the bathroom during the process may get you out, but it will not endear you to ANYONE in the courthouse. The karma may not be worth it.
  4. Being an independent contractor, a sole proprietor, or anyone whose income depends on working is not 'financial hardship' enough. Unless you will lose your house or utilities, you're considered eligible.
  5. The lawyers will tell you it's an honor to be chosen. For the first time (but likely not the last), you won't believe them.
  6. There is a wide variety of bathroom facilities, from palatial to prison-like. It's worth taking a mid-morning break to scope out the facilities. If you need the women's room, there's going to be a line anyway - you might as well climb a few stairs.
  7. Your judge is incredibly important to your experience; if you get Judge Wong, you're very, very lucky. Kind and appreciative, he runs a tight ship and is generous with the breakfast treats. He made serving in his courtroom a pleasure.
  8. Court shows may be making lawyers' jobs harder. Among these jurors, anyway, there was very little evidence that lawyerly dramatics like demonizing or canonizing any of the parties involved made any difference whatsoever. These 12 saw through the inflammatory statements (and photos) to keep focus on the facts that were relevant, and look past the ones that were simply salacious.
  9. Jury duty is a duty. And an honor. It's a hardship - no doubt. None of us have lives that can accommodate multiple days removed from our families, work and routines without disruption. But while you serve, you have the opportunity to live with a sense of community - the absence of which many of us feel acutely in our everyday lives. For one week, the twelve of us came together, worked toward a common goal, learned to listen, learned to compromise. We could probably use a little more of all of that in daily life.
  10. At the end of the trial, you'll receive a certificate recognizing you for your "contribution to the administration of justice." You'll have earned it. And you'll be proud of it.
For one week, the twelve of us came together, worked toward a common goal, learned to listen, learned to compromise. We could probably use a little more of all of that in daily life.

At the beginning of the week, I was 10% excited about being chosen and 90% irritated. It was a bad week for the family, and a complicated week to be out. But I walked away with my faith in people affirmed. Universally, our jury was made up of smart, thoughtful, responsible folks who took this duty seriously. 

At the end of the week, I'm proud of the work we did together. I'm thankful for an experience that let me learn more about our judicial system, see parts of my city I'd never seen before and meet people I might never have met. And while I can't tell you how to get out of it, I can tell you that, for me, the experience was worth the missed pay. (Although it helps that I don't have to serve for the next two years.)

Why Kids (and Adults) Need Struggle Stories

When we turn heroes into superheroes, you know, superficially it can seem inspiring. But it can actually be discouraging because we feel what they achieved is just out of my reach.
— Shankar Vendantam, NPR Social Science Correspondent
The work behind the writing - How telling struggle stories can affect kids' interest in math, science, hard work and genius

The work behind the writing - How telling struggle stories can affect kids' interest in math, science, hard work and genius

This summer I had the pleasure of T.A.ing Bethany Hegedus' non-fiction picture book course at The Writing Barn in Austin.

When you write a non-fiction book, particularly for children, you end up shaping the story by what you leave out as much as by what you put in. Writing is hard work, and it can be tempting to leave out the hard stuff and the tedious stuff. 

But it turns out there's very good evidence - scientific evidence - to support why telling struggle stories can help people achieve.

The Science Behind the Struggle

An educational psychologist at Columbia University, Xiadong Lin-Siegler, was raised in China, where she learned about scientists through their hard work. When she moved to the U.S., she found that students here learned about scientists through the lens of their genius. She wondered if that perspective shaped students' approach to math and science. Spoiler - It did. 

When kids read about genius, they assume that certain achievements are beyond their personal abilities - in Lin-Siegler's experiment, these kids then scored significantly lower. But the kids who read about struggle? They improved their science grades significantly. 

At a book launch this weekend, local author and engineer Christina Soontornvat spoke of testing and redesigning in both engineering and writing. She admitted her new book, The Changelings, took ten years and more than 30 drafts. She talked to children about the struggle. And in doing so, she reminded them that achievement comes through hard work. It was a message that resonated with adult writers too - this one especially. 

The most interesting discovery is people who read struggle stories improved their science grades significantly than people who read achievement story.
— Xiadong Lin-Siegler, Educational Psychologist, Columbia University

Check out the Morning Edition interview about Lin-Siegler's "struggle study" here

And catch Shankar Vendantam's podcast - Hidden Brain - to explore other patterns in human behavior. 

The Eighty Percent Solution

Steve Barnhill had a typewriter collection. This one is behind bars. Tidy metaphor, hmm?

Steve Barnhill had a typewriter collection. This one is behind bars. Tidy metaphor, hmm?

Ok, stick with me for a minute. 

  1. I, minutes ago, restrained myself from tweeting "I think writing is actually more terrifying than acting. WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS TO MYSELF?" And then I adulted, and I realized that the blog post I have been mulling over in my head for you is exactly the blog post I need to read. Right now.
  2. Background 1: I am currently working on two projects that are kicking my butt. 
  3. Background 2: I am currently reading Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, and I think her style may creep into this blog post because I AM LOVING THIS BOOK.
  4. Background 3: I was telling my husband about Furiously Happy, and it went like this. Me: "I am reading this book about this woman with mental illness--" and he immediately broke in "You do not have mental illness." Because he knows me. And if I read something, I assume I have it. That is neither here nor there, but it's the kind of honesty that good acting and writing requires...and THAT IS WHY IT IS SO TERRIFYING.

OK. Now for the solution.

From Middle Finger to Master Class

My first copy job was hard won. I was ready to give a big middle finger to the entire advertising industry. I made a list of all the jobs I'd ever considered doing and started conducting interviews with people in those professions to see if I wanted to do them. I got a couple of offers and realized I wasn't ready to give up on advertising - if I was a copywriter. I'd always wanted to be a 'creative', and I'd never been ballsy enough to insist on it. 

I pulled together a portfolio and went on interviews. I volunteered at the Addy's so I could network. I met a woman dancing at the after party who ended up working at an agency and making sure my future boss saw my portfolio. Long story longer - he saw it, he brought me in, he took a chance on me. And he ended up being my master class in copywriting. 

Calling All Perfectionists

There's a million different things Steve Barnhill taught me, and I'm sure I'll share more in time, but for now - the 80% rule.

He recognized that I was a perfectionist. And that the quality that could lead to really excellent work could also stall it before it ever got started. So this is what he told me:

Concentrate on getting it 80% there.
— Steve Barnhill

You might have read this far and be thinking, that's it? That's it. And it's changed my life. When I start to shut down, to get so frustrated with my own inability to do what needs to be done (you know, absolutely perfectly on the first try), the 80% rule gets me out of my own way. 

It helps me let go enough to get started. 

And often, that's enough.