The #1 Lesson to Learn from Professional Magicians


Magicians “get it”.

I’m not just saying that because I used to be one. I really mean it.

There is a skill they have mastered that is lacking in almost every other industry.

Which skill? Sleight of hand? Misdirection? Telling corny jokes? Over-the-top dramatic gestures?

No, no, no, and definitely no.

Those skills have never served me in the “real world”. (I’m not even sure if “telling corny jokes” can be classified as a skill, but if it is, magicians have that market cornered.) The skill that HAS served me well is a skill I picked up by accident while studying the art of illusion.

The image above is from the instructions to a very famous magic trick (the one David Blaine used to make himself levitate on his 1997 breakout television special, Street Magic). It contains a key phrase that is beat into the head of every young magician. It’s the phrase, “watch your angles”. I’ve seen it in magic books and magic trick instruction manuals dozens, if not hundreds of times. But what could these words possibly mean for you, a “normal person”?

The idea is to see from the eyes of the audience, to understand their point of view BEFORE you try to create an experience for them.

Down with O.P.P. – Yeah You Know Me

Magicians obsess over O.P.P. (other people’s perspectives…see that? Corny joke.) like no one else. They practice in front of a mirror for hours so they can see what you see. They video record their performances from multiple angles and study every move so they can see what you see. They hire coaches to sit throughout the theater and shout, “Watch your angles!” whenever they have a momentary lapse and forget about the entire audience’s perspective.

Many times, a trick will only work when viewed from the proper angle. That’s why a magician is a master of O.P.P. And here’s some science that suggests why you should be too…

Perspective-Taking Beats Empathy

In a study conducted by Galisnsky, Schweitzer, and Maddux, a group of negotiators were prompted to, “try to understand what [the other party is] thinking; what their interests and purposes are.” In other words, try to take their perspective. Another group participated in the mock negotiation with only the standard instructions. Those who took the opposing side’s perspective were more likely to construct a more creative, more successful deal.

“Interestingly,” Galinsky writes, “empathy – actually feeling the other person’s emotions – is less effective in a negotiation than is perspective-taking.”

In a negotiation, too much empathy will create acquiescence instead of mutual benefit. Galinsky again, “Our research has found that perspective-takers both expand the pie and secure additional resources for themselves. Empathizers, it turns out, often just lose.”

Be careful however, perspective-taking without any empathy is dangerous too. Bullies are great at understanding exactly what will push their victims buttons. This is perspective-taking without empathy.

Perspective-Taking Makes Mimics, and Mimics Make Friends

Tanya Chartrand of Duke University measured the perspective-taking ability of a group of participants, then had two people work on a task together. The ones who scored highly on the perspective-taking scale were more likely to subtly and unconsciously mimic the actions of the other person.

Multiple studies show that when people are mimicked, they rate the interaction as more favorable and the person doing the mimicking as more likable. Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks of the University of Michigan even found that when people were mimicked during a work-related interview, their performance improved and they experienced less anxiety. The key though, is to keep the mimicry subtle.

Perspective-Taking Beats the High Failure Rate of Start-Ups

The world of entrepreneurship is known for high-risk, high-reward ventures. Why do 80% of small businesses fail within the first eighteen months? Could it be a failure to take perspective?

According to analysis by Don Moore of UC, Berkeley, most entrepreneurs cited their personal capabilities or the high quality of their product as the reasons for starting their businesses. Rarely were external factors like supply and demand mentioned. In other words, would-be business owners failed to take the perspective of either their potential customers or their competition.

Perspective-Taking Beats the “Boss Barrier”

BOSS: “Can you pop by my office today at around three?”

EMPLOYEE: “I’m dead.”

No one wants to get called into the boss’s office. That can only mean one thing, trouble. The whole day is now ruined as you plan for the uncomfortable confrontation looming on the 3:00 horizon.

This is an example of what I call the “boss barrier”. Along with a new title, a promotion brings with it a certain distance from the rest of the team. You are now “one of them”.

Leaders often don’t realize the power their words have. With a little perspective-taking, the major problem of the “boss barrier” can be minimized or even eliminated.

When you take a moment to think about an employee’s perspective, you will communicate more often and more effectively, and in turn, they will communicate more effectively with you.

Perspective-Taking Beats “Racism Suppression”

I played this game of “Guess Who” with my wife last week and she performed exactly as Michael Norton of Harvard predicted she would. (My poor wife and kids put up with far too many of my little psychological experiments.) Even though asking me if the person I selected was white or black would have given her a distinct advantage, she avoided asking the question entirely.

Subconsciously, she thought mentioning race would make her look like a racist. So, in the interest of what I’m calling “racism suppression,” she didn’t even bring it up. Seems like a good idea, right? Racism is bad. Shouldn’t it be suppressed?

Actually, Evan Apfelbaum of MIT’s Sloan School of Manangement has found something surprising. The more you try to be color-blind, the more likely you are to be perceived as a racist, causing more tension than there should be. So what can we do instead?

Back to Galinsky and Schweitzer (this time, along with Gordon Moskowitz of Lehigh University). White participants were asked to look at a photograph of a black man. Some of them were asked to suppress any stereotypes, while others were asked to take the man’s perspective. “Go through the day as if they were that person, looking at the world through his eyes.” Later, participants engaged in an activity designed to surreptitiously measure their racial bias. Those who had been asked to perspective-take exhibited less racial bias. They write…

“Suppression makes us look like a racist. Perspective-taking makes us appear engaged and present.”


Perspective-taking doesn’t cost you any money, but it can save you a lot of trouble. It can make you a better, more creative negotiator, a more likable and trustworthy person, less likely to fail in business, easier to communicate with, and it can even make you appear less racist.

Take it from an ex-magician, you want to be down with O.P.P.

One thought on “The #1 Lesson to Learn from Professional Magicians

  1. Joyce Williams

    Totally appropriate and absolutely inspiring as the time is now to re evaluate our real intentions and preconceived notions. Welcome to the new world of guarded conversations and political correctness. The words unspoken are much scarier that hateful banter any day. Coming from the perspective of a black female born in the sixties. Thank you for this much needed lesson.


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