A Magic Book

This is going to be a weird post. But it's related to a presentation I'm going to post tomorrow. A presentation that is probably the most Jerxian one yet (I'm not saying that like it's a good thing). Do you want to spend an hour performing what is essentially just a card change with a kicker ending that happens three days later when you're not around? Something that is part magic trick, part sci-fi play, part nonsensical self-help mind hack? A presentation that just might involve the idea of you beating your elderly neighbor to death with a badminton racket? Well, come back tomorrow for that.

What follows is not a magic trick, but it does involve some positive self-deception.

And it's the type of thing that probably won't connect with most of you. I've tried explaining this idea to a number of friends, half of them have no idea of what I'm getting at. The other half get the idea, but it only is really interesting to a small percentage of those people.

I have a friend who had self-control issues. Like we all do. She wanted to lose 20 pounds, she wanted to stop smoking, she wanted to go to open-mics and sing and play her guitar, but she couldn't get herself to do these things. I find self-control an interesting topic. It seems strange to me that we can't get ourselves to do the things we want ourselves to do. Doesn't that seem like it should be a basic part of our functioning? Yes, I know, it's a battle with our lizard brain or whatever, but it just seems like poor design. The part of the brain that says, "Hey, I think I should stop doing cocaine. It's ruining my life. I don't want to spend my days on the wrong end of a glory-hole trying to make money for my coke habit. I want to stop doing cocaine," should be more powerful than the part of the brain that says, "Coke is fun! Let's keep doing it." But whatever.

Now, while I'm interested in self-control, that doesn't mean I want to listen to my friend go on for years about her lack of it. And it was during one of these sessions where she was bemoaning the fact that she couldn't motivate herself to go to the gym that I told her I could help her. I told her to leave her apartment and go buy a small blank notebook and bring it back to me. When she came back I took the notebook from her and, with a black sharpie, wrote "ABRACADABRA" on the cover. "Do you know what that means?" I asked.

"It's a magic word," she said.

"Right. And it comes from the Aramaic language and when translated it means 'I create like the word.'" [Yes, I know that's probably not really the etymology.] I continued, "What you have here now is a magic book. The words you write in it will create the reality you live. It's not a book to put your wishes in. You can't write, 'I will lose 20 pounds,' or 'I will be on Broadway.' That's not how it works. It's a book to write down the specific actions you want yourself to take to reach your goals. If you write 'I will only eat 1500 calories per day,' that's what will happen. If you write, 'I will exercise one hour a day,' then you will. If you write, 'I will never have another cigarette,' then you won't."

"I don't get it," she said.

"Write down 'I will touch my nose.'" She wrote it down at the top of the first page. "Okay," I said, "Now touch your nose." She touched her nose. "See? It works."

"But I just chose to touch it after you said to," she said.

"It will feel like it's your choice, but really it's not. It's actually because whatever you say you will do in this book you will actually do in real life. Write down, 'I will hug Andy.'" She writes it down. I look at her expectantly.

"No," she said. "What if I choose not to do it?"

"Hmmm... well, your loss. You can choose not to do something you write in the book, but then you most definitely do not own a magic book where you actually do everything you write in it. But isn't that something you would want to own? Wouldn't that be a powerful thing to possess? Wouldn't there be strength and comfort in the idea that you don't have to rely on your own self-control, and to know that once you wrote something down in this book you would definitely do it because it's a magic book? So yeah, feel free not to do something you wrote down, and then this is just a notebook. But as long as you keep doing the things you write down then you do have a magic book."

She wrinkled her nose, considering this, then let out an exasperated sigh and gave me a hug.

"Now write down, 'I will fuck Andy,'" I said.

"No!!" she screamed, and hit my shoulder with the notebook.

"See? You already know this is real."

The crazy part is it worked. She kept the notebook and would write down the actions she wanted to take and then she would take those actions. She stopped smoking, lost the weight she wanted to, in addition to a number of other things that I haven't gotten into detail with her about. This all went down a couple of years ago. In an email she wrote me last year she said:

Yes, I still have it and I still use it. It's gotten to the point where I have to be super careful of what I write down because I KNOW I will end up doing it. Even if my situation changes and it's not important to me anymore, I HAVE to do it because I don't want to NOT have a magic book!

So what exactly is going on here? I don't know. Some kind of magic-talisman-placebo that allows you to bully yourself into doing the things you know you should be doing. I've seen it work with a few different people and others don't respond to it at all. But it has nothing to do with how rational the person is, as far as I can see. I think it probably is just a tangible reminder that your decision in regards to something has already been made. You don't have to argue with yourself if you should buy another pack of cigarettes or not because you're playing as if the decision is out of your hands. And the more you go along with the book, the more powerful it becomes.

You'll see a similar notion in tomorrows effect where we skip through the multiverse.