The Duality of Advanced Preparation

A couple announcements before I get into the post.

First, this is the last post before my fall break. Regular posting will return on Friday the 19th. There may be some music up this weekend.

Second, if you want the upcoming book and you haven’t ordered it yet, you have a couple weeks left to do so. I’m ordering the exact amount that I need. And while the publishing company will generally print a small percentage more than you ask for as “overage,” I can’t guarantee that, so no more copies will be publicly for sale after the end of this month. You can order here if you want.

Third, if you’re supporting Season 3, the autumn issue of X-Communication will be in your email boxes on the 19th.

This is not a post about fire wallets, but I’m going to start by talking about fire wallets.

This is an anecdote I’ve thought about including in various posts over the years, but I’ve hesitated because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of people that I know. However, I thought of it again in relation to Monday’s post and I decided it’s something we can all benefit from thinking about.

In NYC there are some magicians—some you might even know—who will be hanging out at a bar and they’ll go up to order a drink and stand next to an attractive girl and pull out a fire-wallet and light it up as they go to pay. One of the guys I know who does this acts really cool about it and just lets it burn without commenting on it. The other acts like he’s surprised, “Ah, what the hell is that!” Either way it gets a brie shocked reaction, followed by a couple laughs.

I’ve witnessed this in person easily a couple dozen times. And 100% of the time there is a moment after fire-wallet guy leaves, or when people have peeled off into their own conversations where one of these women will say something to the effect of, “What’s the deal with this goofball and his wallet with the fire?” Sometimes they say it that bluntly, sometimes it’s more like, “So… your friend is…uhm, interesting.”

They’re confused. But not like, “How did he do that?” But like, “Why did he do that?”

They have this sort of look to them.


I have to be honest, I’m not sure what reaction the fire wallet guys are hoping to get. It does make these women pay attention to them, at least briefly, because they’re blasting fire around their face. And I’ve even seen them occasionally transition from the fire wallet to having a genuine interaction with someone, but it always feels to me like they had to dig themselves out of a hole in order to get to that point. As a way to engage with people, the fire wallet always felt to me a few steps removed from walking up to someone and vomiting on them. Yes, now they have to talk to you, and maybe you could even win them over, but surely it would have been easier just to say, “Hi,” right?

I know I’ll get disagreements on this. People will tell me spectators love the fire wallet. Maybe in context, in a professional performance. But done casually I can almost guarantee that you’re hearing what you hope to hear. Yes, there will be a reaction (because there’s fire involved) but what is it you think people are taking away from it?

It’s not a trick… I mean, if it is a trick, it’s literally the worst trick you could accomplish. It would be like an ironic punishment in an O’Henry story. “Oh, Great Genie, I wish for magical powers!”

“Okay. I will give you the power to set your own wallet on fire!"

“What? Oh fuck. No! Please! Don’t! I’m sorry!”

And if it’s not supposed to be magical, but just meant to be some neat special effect, then, in a social situation, you’re the guy who’s carrying around a wallet that lights on fire to get people to pay attention to him. That’s… not a good look.

This is one half of the duality of Advanced Preparation.

For the social magician, performing in a casual environment, for people he or she just met, concrete signs of advanced preparation will undermine the experience you’re trying to create with your magic.

I once watched a friend perform the brass block penetration trick, the one where you stick a match through a hole in the center of a matchbox, and everyone is like “so what?” then you open the matchbox to show that it’s completely filled with a solid brass block. It got a perfectly fine reaction, and then one of the people watching said, “So… you carry around a little brass block with you?” And you could just hear the slide-whistle of sadness suck the air out of him.

Here’s the thing, the person who said that wasn’t trying to be a jerk. But when people are out in a social situation, they want to be a part of spontaneous, organic interactions. They don’t want to be the target of this thing you were planning at home to spring on whoever happened to be at the bar that night in order to hopefully make yourself look good. Even if they really enjoy the trick, the fact that you walked in that night with the intention of showing it to whoever you bumped into, takes what could be a special moment and turns it generic.

I’m not saying don’t show people magic, and I’m not saying don’t actually do some advanced preparation. Here’s the kind of ironic thing in regards to the fire wallet thing. When I would hang around the people afterwards, someone would inevitably say something like, “Soooo… does your wallet shoot fire too?” I’d be all like, “Ah, no. He’s a good guy, actually. I don’t know what the deal is with the wallet schtick. But yes, I do some magic too. That’s how we know each other.”

“Do you have something to show me?” they might ask.

I’d pat my pockets. “Ehh… nah, not really. I didn’t bring anything. Actually…,” I’d say, and finish the drink from the bottle I was holding, “let’s try this.” I’d then take a bottle cap from the bar, show that it wouldn’t fit in the top, and then melt it through so it was inside the bottle. “Hey, there you go. Magic.” I’d say, and smack the bottle on the table. I’d really underplay it, and immediately bring the subject back to something about them. Meanwhile they’re flipping out and trying to pull me back to live in the moment a little longer. “Wait, wait, wait. What is going on?” And they’re lifting up the bottle and alternating between staring at it and staring at me. And when I slide the bottle off to the side, to be taken away by the bartender. They again have to pause and take in the moment. “You’re just going to let him take that?”

Now, the truth is, that trick requires much more advanced preparation than throwing a fire wallet in your back pocket, but that’s not how it feels to the people who see it. And that is its strength. If I had walked in with a Coca Cola bottle that I brought with me. “Hey, have you seen these weird new cola bottles they have at the store down the street?” I suspect the response would be about 30% as intense. Yes, it would be the identical trick, but a completely different feel for the spectator because the way I perform it there are no outward signs of advanced preparation. (Yes, the fact that I have the ability at all to do this would suggest that it’s something I’ve practiced in the past, but that’s a much subtler suggestion of preparation than coming in with my own props or some heavily scripted patter.)

This is one of the reasons I’m much more of a coffee shop performer than I am a bar performer. At a cafe you have, I think, many more options for items you might have with you, without it feeling like you’re setting the other person up. Normal people do bring their work or hobbies to the cafe. So it’s not unheard of that in my laptop bag I might have some books or some other objects to use as hooks. Even a deck of cards can be a “normal” object that you might have on you for various reasons. Whereas if you bring it into a bar it’s like, “Oh, I guess this guy planned to show people card tricks tonight.”

But this post is about the duality of advanced preparation. I think most people will agree with what I’ve written above. Maybe they hadn’t put much thought into it, but it makes sense. Yes, just because some object fits in your pocket, doesn’t mean it’s natural to try and pull out in casual situations.

But something else to consider is the flip-side of advanced preparation, which is this: When it comes to performing for friends, family and other people who are close to you, you will often want to emphasize the preparation that has gone into what you’re about to show them. In fact, you’ll often want to fabricate it for them even when it doesn’t exist.

Certainly you’ll still want to perform seemingly spontaneous moments of magic. But you can also make a person feel special and give some weight to an experience by implying you’ve put in some effort and planning so you can do something specifically for them.


  1. I send you an email a month before I visit to say I have this trick I’ve been working on that I can’t wait to show you.

  2. I send you a text asking if you can stop by a couple nights from now. “I have this thing I want to try out, but I need someone with your disposition to make it work.”

  3. I pick you up for a weekend getaway. I’ve found the hotel and planned our meals, but the primary purpose of the mini-vacation is because the place we’re going is on a latitude that I think will allow for this weird experience where I’ll be able to control your dreams.

Or whatever.

The duality (and dichotomy) of advanced preparation is that—when performing for strangers—it minimizes their role in what’s going on (i.e. “well, he was set to show this to anyone he happened to meet tonight”). But—when performing for friends and family—it can emphasize their role in the effect and their importance to the experience.

The most obvious analogue is romance. Imagine your spectator is the object of your affections. If you just met, they would want to feel like they’re having a genuine, organic interaction, not that you’ve come in with a bunch of pre-planned lines that you were going to deliver to whoever was standing at the bar that night. But, once you’ve been together a while, not only are the spontaneous moments of affection appreciated, but so are the ones you’ve obviously put effort into preparing specifically for them.

Bye, my loves. See you next Friday.

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