When I was fourteen years old I was invited to perform a magic act at my high school talent show. This was my first opportunity to perform in front of the entire school and I was eager to impress them, so I created a magic demonstration that was sure to fit the bill. It was my greatest creation up until that point, a piece I menacingly entitled: Acid Roulette.
Imagine the scene: Five test tubes each filled with water except for one, which instead contained hydrochloric acid. Colorless and odorless, the acid looked and smelled just like water—but was sure to not taste like water. The idea was I’d be blindfolded as a member of the audience mixed up the test tubes, and then I would blindly drink from each of them leaving only the test tube with the acid untouched. That was the idea. (The ridiculous, absurd idea!)
On the night of the talent show everything went perfectly according to plan—until something went wrong. The first test tube I drank from had the acid! This was no joke! I immediately spit it out tore off the blindfold and ran off the stage screaming for help! The audience, not thinking I’d actually use real acid, thought that it was a joke and they proceeded to just laugh and laugh as I continued running around yelling for help.
During the ensuing hospital stay I had plenty of time to reflect on where I went wrong. Even though I had practiced the stunt, in rehearsal I didn’t actually use real acid (after all, why practice something that you can only afford to fail once?) So in rehearsal I instead used seltzer, and it worked fine—most of the time. Sometimes I did drank the seltzer by mistake. But as the night of the talent show got closer and closer I was running out of time and was relying on this stunt to be the big closure of my act, so I decided that it just needed to work, so I just put on “positive attitude” about the whole thing and went for it. Unfortunately this “positive attitude” ignored the reality of my circumstances—it ignored the fact that it was not a good idea!
But the fun news is that the whole thing was caught on tape! Check it out:
While few people have actually attempted such an absurd stunt, as fallible beings we at times often approach our work in a similar way—with a woeful lack of preparation!
We all have dreams and goals, but even when we make the best-made plans with the best intentions that alone doesn’t ensure success. Despite our efforts not everything is in our control, so what do we do? Do we just hope and pray (like I did with the acid incident)? Do we give up at the first sign of adversity? Or do we perhaps not even try at all for fear of looking like a fool or a failure (or both!)?
I’ve been practicing magic now for over two decades and what I’ve come to understand is that a successful magic performance has far less to do with sleight of hand and misdirection, and instead has much more to do with being an expert in managing surprises (a lesson that my younger self took time to learn!). The ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment where anything and everything could go wrong (and usually does!) and still arrive at a positive result is what separates the amateurs from the pros. And that, my friends, is real magic.
Like any good magic trick, the question becomes: “How is this possible?!” How is it possible to have a positive outcome even when circumstances don’t align with our plans? One of the strategies that magicians use to manage results is what we call “practicing our mistakes.” It sounds counterintuitive, right? After all, by definition mistakes are things that shouldn’t happen, so why focus any attention and energy on getting better at doing the very things that we don’t want to have happen? Diving deeper into this same line of thinking, however, gives us the answer.
Magic coaches tell us that we should analyze every possible way that something could go wrong, and then practice our magic tricks as if we’ve made those mistakes.
By practicing our mistakes before we've even made them, when things do eventually go wrong we already know what to do to have a successful outcome because we’ve already thought about it—we’ve already practiced it and are experts at making those mistakes work to our advantage.
One of my mentors once recounted the time a flight he was on had a difficult landing: just as the plane touched down a sudden wind jolted the plane crooked and the pilot immediately brought the plane back up into the air to circle back again for a safer landing. My friend was amazed at the pilot’s quick action and as he departed the plane he stopped to thank him for getting everyone down safely, then asked how he had made such a quick decision. The pilot responded that he had already made that decision twenty years earlier. As a young pilot he had thought about all the things that could go wrong and decided that when anything should go wrong with a landing he should immediately get the plane back into the air. The success of that challenging landing was decided years earlier because the pilot had already analyzed what could go wrong and rehearsed every best response in his mind.
While I’ve never piloted a plane, I have had my fair share of plane rides, and even jumped out of a couple of them. I’m happy to say that this strategy of analyzing every possible outcome has kept me alive both times (mostly because I know myself enough to strap myself to someone who knows what they're doing!)
We will never truly know how things will work out, but by analyzing all the possible outcomes there’s a good chance that we can still plan ahead for most of them so that, come what may, we’ll know how to steer the circumstances in our favor to achieve positive results.
Jonas Cain is a Purveyor of Positivity and Facilitator of Fascination, offering support to emerging leaders and their influencers to develop resilience.