Card Tricks and Life

When I was a teenager, I went through a period where I was obsessed with card tricks. I learned a bunch of them – some that relied on preparing the deck beforehand, some that relied on a bit of sleight of hand, and some that relied on mental math. I was always better at understanding the tricks than performing them, though, and I was always better off at the ones that required me to think than required me to use dexterity.

Like any curious kid, I eventually wound up at the library. I checked out several books on card tricks and magic and devoured them, learning the inside tactics of many different card tricks and coin tricks.

One element that always stuck with me is that many tricks are never guaranteed success. Quite often, when you see a magician doing a card trick, they’re not sure that the trick will actually work. Usually it involves some serious uncertainty.

The clever part of being a magician is knowing what to do when the card trick fails.

Let’s say, for example, that you have a card trick that will work exactly one out of a thousand times. The other 999 times, the trick fails. Naturally, if you do it enough, you’ll eventually see a success or two, but it will fail over and over.

Magicians sometimes use “tricks” like this in their act – but they don’t use those tricks alone. Instead, they’re prepared for that trick to fail. They know how to carry the audience through that failure and directly into another trick that has a higher likelihood of succeeding. Sometimes, they’ll even use the result of that failure as a tool to make another trick succeed.

For example, they might have a stacked deck that they know the order of. Someone comes up and cuts the deck while the magician is blindfolded, then reveals the top card of the deck. The magician guesses what the card is, but they honestly only have a 1 in 52 chance of guessing the right card. When they fail, though, they have a story ready to go, usually involving how they were “calibrating,” then they’ll correctly guess the next card (because they know the order of the deck and the first card told them where the cut was).

In other words, a magician is willing to take a huge risk on a trick if they have a plan to turn the failure of that trick into something else that’s at least somewhat successful.

This is a great way to approach finances, careers, and many other aspects of life. Taking a big risk makes sense, but you need to have a fallback plan along with that risk.

Investing is a great example. Sometimes, people are tempted to take big risks with their investments. They want to invest in some smaller and potentially risky company or they want to put their money into a small business partnership.

Those decisions can be fruitful, but what does it look like if those investments fail? There are a lot of approaches – you can set up your investment so that you get out with something, or perhaps you’re just investing with a small fraction of your money. On the upside, these kinds of opportunities can build relationships and friendships – perhaps you are now part of the small business community in your town or maybe you’ve joined an investing club and built some new connections.

You’ve turned a potential disaster into the seeds of your next act.

What about careers? You can take on a huge project that might be over your head. Sure, you might fail, but if you’ve thought about it in advance, you may have planned an exit strategy with your boss.

Along the way, you’ll gain skills. You’ll gain relationships. You’ll gain respect from the decision makers as someone willing to take on a challenge.

It’s a risk. It might fail. Even if it does, you’re left with the pieces you’ll need to build something new.

When you’re considering taking a risk, don’t focus just on the downside of failure. Instead, figure out a plan where it’s not a disaster if you fail. Give yourself a plan. Also, think about the good things – skills, relationships, ideas – that you can get from a failure if it does happen.

If you make sure that you’re getting value out of this no matter what happens and failure begins to seem a lot less scary.

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