The Hedonic Treadmill and the Art of Not Always Doing Your Best

I used to think I only wanted to perform miracles. And I would look at all the material that was released to the magic community and wonder what the point of most of it was. A lot of it was good, but why perform anything unless it was absolutely devastating? Sure, maybe a restaurant magician wants to do magic that isn't overwhelmingly powerful. For the same reason restaurants have pleasant mariachi musicians stroll around and not GG Allin cover bands. 

But I was wrong about this. Even for the amateur, non-pro performer—perhaps especially for the amateur, non-pro performer—you want to have a repertoire that includes magic of various levels of astonishment. This is for the sake of getting the strongest reactions to your strongest material.

It took me longer to come to this conclusion than it should have. If you often perform for friends and family, and you only perform the most astonishing tricks, then, over time, your most astonishing tricks will start to elicit their average reaction. 

This is similar to the concept of the hedonic treadmill in psychology. If this is your introduction to the term you may find it the most empowering or the most depressing idea you've encountered in a while. The concept—or my bastardized interpretation of it for our purposes—suggests that happiness is something of a fixed state and once we adapt to a new circumstance we revert to that level of happiness. So if you win the lottery or if you have your hand blown off by a firecracker, you will at first deal with the highs or lows of that situation, but then you'll eventually return to the level of happiness that is your natural set-point.

If, like me, you're a generally positive, happy person, then this is great news, because it means no matter what bad things happen, you will likely, eventually return to that positive state.

If you are an unhappy person and if you think happiness is around the corner once you get married or get a particular job or something, this is bad news because it suggests your long-term happiness won't be found in these external circumstances. But maybe you can flip that around on itself as well and say, "I'm unhappy. And I thought I was unhappy because I'm not in right circumstances. But if circumstances don't really create that type of happiness, then maybe I can just choose to be happy where I am now." I don't know. This isn't a self-help blog.

Whenever I think of the hedonic treadmill, I think of the remake of The Dawn of the Dead. That's a near perfect horror movie in my opinion. And one thing I think they got right, that you don't see in a lot of zombie movies, is the montage where things have just sort of settled down a little. These people are living in a mall, surrounded by zombies, but eventually that just becomes your new reality and you go back to being the person you were before.

Where am I going with this?

My point is that if you're always doing big, hard-hitting magic effects for the same people, then that becomes the new normal and you will find reactions regressing to the mean. You will still get good reactions but you will be getting good reactions to material that should get great reactions. To avoid this, you need to 

I'm not saying you should do shitty magic—I only do tricks that I think are good—but it's a question of intensity.

I think of magic like sex. (This makes perfect sense, of course. When you're world-class at two different activities it's completely understandable that you would conflate the two.) If you're having two hours of tantric sex every night, that's going to lose its charm real quick. It might always be pleasurable and you might always enjoy it, but it will become too common to be magical.

Dammit... I keep forgetting my audience here. I can't use sex analogies. Oh... I know... let's think of a reverse situation. What if you didn't cum every time you masturbated? What if masturbation was just something you did as a mildly pleasurable activity and then 1 out of 20 times you had an orgasm? In what way would that affect you? Well, Andy, I'd masturbate 20 times more frequently. Ok, yes, I get it, no one is going to deny you your orgasm. My point being, if that was something that just occurred a few times a year it would be the highlight of your week. 

You need to hold back some with your audience. For your benefit and for theirs. If you have people in your life that you perform for regularly, think of your performances for them as one long work of art that plays out over the course of, maybe, 50 years. You don't want to be too predictable. You want them to not know if what they're about to see is a gentle brain-fingering or a true hardcore mind-fuck.

Again, this is not an excuse for doing bad magic, boring magic, self-indulgent magic, or magic that doesn't fool people. It's just about giving people different experiences with magic.

Here is, generally, how I'm trying to look at my repertoire these days.

50% - Are what I consider minor effects. 
These are primarily effects that don't involve a huge investment of time or energy from the spectator. There is an emphasis on quick, visual moments. Things done in the "Distracted Artist" style would fall into this category. On the other hand, process heavy tricks would also be in this category. I agree with the notion that process can take away from the feeling of magic, but I still like performing these types of tricks (for reasons I'll talk about next week). This category would also include things like interesting optical illusions, unusual demonstrations, and teaching tricks to the spectator.
Examples: Mark Elsdon's Conversations as Mentalism series, a quick levitation or animation with Loops, Collusion by John Bannon, Stegosaurus by Phill Smith

40% - Are what I consider major effects.
Whereas the quick tricks or the process heavy tricks in the minor effect section have no real premise or a convoluted one, the tricks in the "major effects" category have a clear premise a spectator can easily digest. The tricks in this category should also have no real "magic-y" compromises that are visible to the spectator (convoluted processes, mathematics, obvious "magic" props)
Examples: French Postcards by Chris Philpott, Earworm by Marc Kerstein, Invisible Palm Aces by Paul Harris.

10% - Are what I consider immersive effects.
These are tricks that involve a greater investment of time and/or energy on the part of the spectator. They usually have to take a more active role in the effect. And the effect is generally performed one-on-one. The result of their ownership and investment in the effect, and the one-on-one nature of the performance, will often be a more profound experience for your spectator.
Examples: At the moment, this is kind of my own schtick. There aren't really a ton of resources for this type of material other than this site and the book coming out. So... from this site: Limitless Ahead, Multiple Universe Selection, Bazillion Dollar Bill Mystery. From The Jerx, Volume One: Talisman, Pale Horse and Rider, Dream Weavers, among others.

The purpose of performing in this way is not to get you more praise. This is an audience-centric concern. You want these big effects to feel special to people. By not making it too commonplace you are giving the weight to the experience that will make it even more amazing to your spectator.