Burning Wallets and Learning Magic

I really wasn’t very surprised this morning when Garret DePass’s wallet burst into flames as he opened it up to retrieve a business card for me. After all, DePass is a “closeup illusionist”—what most of us refer to as “a magician.”

Garret DePass

Garret DePass

And in the course of our conversation in a neighborhood coffee shop here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, we realized how much our work has in common even though it starts from very different directions. In magic, as in learning, some of the most exciting moments are grounded in the unexpected and the engaging. In magic, as in learning, we arrive with expectations that, when set aside, produce something memorable. And in magic, as in learning, each revelation leaves us viewing the world a bit differently than we did before the transformative moment occurred.

It’s possible, DePass suggested, to overthink magic—just as it’s possible to overthink learning.

A friend of his, he recalled, suggests that “magic as an art has no aim; it’s all about just being magical.”

Continuing with his own reflections on that idea, he added, “Should we put a message to magic? No. The magic itself is enough.”

And that’s when my own DePassian moment of revelation magically occurred. While we are (understandably) asked to document results in learning to justify learning in business terms and I don’t at all disagree with the idea that learning can and often should produce something quantifiable, I believe we miss what DePass and his colleague would refer to the “art” of learning. Recognizing that learning can sometimes just be about learning actually paves the way to produce more concretely justifiable results.

Many of us involved in training-teaching-learning know the pathetically meager results our efforts produce. Resources including The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results (second edition written by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, and Andy Jefferson) document the obvious problems and offer an engaging roadmap to creating learning opportunities that produce positive results. But in our rush to produce those “metrics” that are meant to justify the time and expenditure invested in supporting workplace learning and performance, we forget the foundations for some of the most enduring and memorable school-based learning experiences we’ve had throughout our lives. Our best and most effective learning facilitators were those who reached us where we needed to be reached, inspired us with curiosity and appreciation for the value of learning, and helped shape us into the successful and avid learners we became in the course of becoming valuable in our workplaces and beyond.

When we learn how to learn and, more importantly, develop a deeply-rooted appreciation for the learning process itself, we are nurturing a skill that helps us become successful in the lifelong learning efforts that keep us competitive and sought-after in the challenging world we inhabit.

Sleights_of_MindIt’s hardly a new idea that magic and learning are inextricably interwoven. Illusionist Kevin Spencer’s wonderful paper “Hocus Focus: Evaluating the Academic and Functional Benefits of Integrating Magic Tricks in the Classroom” offers a fascinating exploration of the topic. A #lrnchat conversation form February 21, 2013 (transcript retrievable by using “magic in learning” as the search term in the site search window) produced an engaging hour-long online exploration of the topic. And Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, in their book Sleights of Mind, review the cognitive neuroscience—the neuromagic—of how our brains process the magic tricks we see.

Pulling all of this back to DePass and his burning wallet brings us back to one more of those unexpected moments where magic and learning overlap. He and I were meeting, at a the suggestion of a shared colleague, so he could learn more about the possibilities open to him if/when he and his wife decide to move from Denver, where they currently live, to San Francisco. Still relishing the sight of that burning wallet, I decided to extend the moment by telling one of the waiters—who had not seen the now-extinguished flames—that we wanted another glass of water as soon as he could bring one to us; before he could turn away, DePass demonstrated the immediate need by reopening and reigniting his wallet. As soon as the waiter stopped laughing, he asked DePass whether he was free this coming Saturday afternoon and explained that he wanted to explore the possibility of bringing a bit of close-up illusionism to his seven-year-old son’s birthday party that afternoon. And as if by magic, we all learned that DePass’s possibilities here in San Francisco were far better than even he might have imagined.

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