|The magician discovers Carlos and Ubaldo, the whereabouts of Reinaldo (The search for Reinaldo) by David Teniers the Younger, 1629 (public domain - Wikipedia)|
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
— Arthur C. Clarke, 1968
If you have the 1965 song by The Lovin' Spoonful as an ear-worm now, I'm sorry.
But I ask the question for a reason.
In trying times we need to believe in something.
I'm not suggesting that magic is a stand-in for religion or other spiritual beliefs.
Rather, it represents our ability to suspend disbelief — even if just for a few moments — to revel in something mystical, otherworldly, or wondrous.
Magic has the power to unite us in awe and wonder, as we either marvel at something inexplicable or attempt to unravel the secret behind the illusion.
Think of the times that you've seen magic shows, whether the rabbit-out-of-the-hat kind at birthday parties when you were a child, street performers who dazzle you with the cup and ball trick, or master illusionists on a Las Vegas stage.
We invite magical things into our lives, to distract us or to help create an illusion of something fanciful.
Think about the aptly-named Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. Strolling down Main Street USA, you're magically transported to a 1910s-era America. The architecture changes as you enter Tomorrowland, or Frontierland, or Adventureland. You're meant to believe.
"'Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me."
— Christopher Marlowe, 1590
Thus Doctor Faustus admits that he is enraptured by magic, as it promises "a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, and omnipotence."
Just as the back pages of comic books promised generations of young girls and boys: "Amaze your friends! Baffle your relatives!"
We stand ready to believe that we can make believers out of others.
Humanity has a long history of believing in magic—or at least of telling stories about magic.
- In The Odyssey (c. 1190 BC), we find Odysseus and his men were delayed on their journey home, in part because of spells, enchantments, or other magic used on them by Circe, Calypso, and the Sirens.
- Apuleius' Metamorphoses (c. 160 AD) follow the adventures of Lucius, who is turned into an ass.
- The legend of King Arthur (1136) is not complete without the central figure of Merlin, the wizard.
- And speaking of wizards, how much Dorothy and her friends wanted to believe the Wizard of Oz (1900) could help them, even after "that man behind the curtain" was exposed.
It's a universal human trait—one that spans the globe over millennia—to put meaning around things that we don't understand or that are outside of our control.
And in the past, when we couldn't explain something, we called it magic.
In some cases, we did so because those who wanted to believe didn't have the ability to elucidate what they saw, while the more skeptical among them applied the term "magic" simply as a catch-all phrase.
It seems like a pretty stark dichotomy: the believer and the skeptic. If you've been following the news in recent weeks, that's exactly how people have lined up with regard to the coronavirus.
It would seem laughable—perhaps even downright fictional—if we didn't see these opposing views play out right in front of us.
And yet, there's a story from 100 years ago about two friends whose friendship was destroyed because of how fervently they each dug in.
"The purpose of art is the lifelong construction of a state of wonder."
— Glen Gould, 1982
In 1920, two of the biggest celebrities of the day met each other: Illusionist Harry Houdini and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both shared an interest in spiritualism.
Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, would seem to be an unlikely believer in spiritualism; after all, he created the foremost logical and rational thinker the world has ever seen. But after his oldest son died in World War I, Conan Doyle became deeply interested in life after death and became a tireless evangelist for the cause.
He was no stranger to the fantastical; he used the famous Cottingly Fairies photographs to illustrate an article he had written for The Strand Magazine in 1920. It wasn't until 1983 that the girls who made them revealed that they were faked.
|The Cottingly Fairies (Wikipedia)|
Houdini, on the other hand (whose birthday was yesterday), seemed the perfect match for the supernatural. He was a noted escape artist and illusionist who made people believe he had special powers.
What brought these two men together was Houdini's desire to contact his dear mother, who had passed away in 1913. He had been overseas when she died and felt that hearing from her one last time would help him deal with the overwhelming loss.
After two years of correspondence and a meeting of the Society of American Magicians in June of 1922 in Atlantic City, Conan Doyle held a séance with Houdini, to contact his mother.
Arthur Conan Doyle's wife Jean served as the medium, being "seized by the Spirit," beginning with drawing a sign of the cross after asking the unseen presence if it believed in God. What followed was fifteen pages of scribbled messages from what she claimed was Houdini's mother.
Houdini, who so deeply missed his mother, desperately wanted to believe. But logic told him otherwise: the scribbled notes were all in English; his mother spoke German. She would not have made the sign of the cross; she was Jewish.
The common bonds that they two forged over spiritualism were broken forever, and their correspondence devolved into dueling letters columns in newspapers.
"To ensure the adoration of a theorem for any length of time, faith is not enough; a police force is needed as well."
— Albert Camus, 1951
The reason I chose magic as a topic this week was because I came across the phrase "wave a magic wand" in stories about the coronavirus crisis. Donald G. McNeil, Jr., the New York Times reporter who covers plagues and pestilences, said in "The Virus Can Be Stopped, but Only With Harsh Steps, Experts Say" and the March 23 edition of The Daily that epidemiologists said the epidemic would end “If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days.”
It shows the wishful thinking and likely inability for Americans to apply the kind of self-discipline that other countries have enacted. This isn't going to happen naturally, so we seemingly need to turn to the supernatural to see us through.
Think of the ways we believe our leadership is supposed to protect us. Or at least how the various parts of public and private industry are supposed to be connected. How much faith do we put into our current system?
Is it any surprise then that magic creeps its way into conversation?
"The believer in magic and miracles reflects on how to impose a law on nature—and, in brief, the religious cult is the outcome of this reflection."
— Friederich Nietzsche, 1878
The human mind, as complex as it is, can be manipulated. In fact, Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) even revealed his secrets with his Seven Laws of Magic:
- Exploit pattern recognition
- Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
- It's hard to think critically when you're laughing
- Keep the trickery outside the frame
- To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
- Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
- If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely
Consider each of those seven principles for a moment. They could just as easily apply to magic, management, or public health, couldn't they?
Exploit pattern recognition
Pattern recognition is what epidemiologists study; by creating routines or expectations, we can guide employee behavior.
Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
When someone takes more time, money and practice to do something, you're more likely to believe. Testing and monitoring is a key part of tracking disease. Employee advocacy depends on the training and culture you build around it.
It's hard to think critically when you're laughing
Making something fun takes the drudgery out of a task. It's equally as difficult to think critically when you're panicked.
Keep the trickery outside the frame
We don’t need to see a debate about numbers, process, or staffing. Doing so spoils the illusion of a well-managed team. If you can present a fully-formed plan and demonstrate results, you'll impress your audience.
To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
If we participate in a set of actions and they're rolled into what we're already doing, it's less likely that we'll notice what's happening. We've seen this demonstrated in past weeks as people have been instructed to sing a song while washing their hands.
Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
What you choose to reveal to people can convince them of what you need them to know or believe. In some cases, we don't need to show them everything, but only essential elements that allow them to make discoveries themselves.
If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely
No one likes to feel as if they've been forced to do something, whether it's being quarantined or having to take an employee survey. If we can find ways to allow people to reach these conclusions or make decisions themselves, it's more likely to stick.
"Nothing is so easy as to deceive one's self; for what we wish, that we readily believe."
— Demosthenes, 349 BC
These are strange times, my friends. We need to find inspiration and belief anywhere we can get it.
Do you believe in magic?
This originally appeared in the March 25 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. To see the newsletter in its entirety, including links, recommended books, and more, please click here.
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