Two weeks ago, I flew to Puerto Rico to perform beach-side magic. At least, that’s the elevator pitch.
In reality, there was a lot more to it. I had an hour the night before to fervently pack in between class and homework. I woke up the next morning, tired, to go to Dulles. And I missed a weekend of my all-too-precious senior year that I feel so much pressure to maximize.
Look: I know those are extremely minor issues in the grand scheme of things. I am incredibly lucky to go to Puerto Rico for a gig. My point is that behind my shiny elevator pitch, there is always a flip side to “glamorous” road gigs.
Additionally, a gig that sounds cool is often just a product of circumstance. Meaning, I got lucky that the company that hired me had their meeting in an interesting place.
For example, in 2019, I got the opportunity to perform at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Again, it was a showy, incredible opportunity. But there was another side to the prestige–I had never been more nervous in my life. Those nerves showed on stage–and I messed up a simple part of a routine that I’d never missed before.
It’s easy to let the fame of a venue and the pressure to perform get to your head. I’ve let this happen to me tons of times. But ultimately, it’s important that I remind myself to always improve the quality of my work. The fact that I got a gig, no matter how prestigious it sounds, is not an excuse to sit back and say that I’m done, as evident by my 2019 performance.
Derren Brown, one of my heroes in magic, said that “gradually, we come to realize that we simply are where we are: that we have approached the castles in the air and most simply dissolved.” It’s a slightly convoluted way to put it, but I think Brown is saying that as we age, our once all-important priorities dissolve. The castles we construct, like “I will be successful once I perform at ___________” ultimately show themselves in their true forms–mirages and social constructs.
Back then, performing at Caesars Palace was “making it.” In hindsight, I was a 19-year-old kid with absolutely no idea how to use this performance as a launching pad for the rest of my career. Scratch that. I was unaware that I even could use that performance as a launching pad. It was a wonderful opportunity that I am grateful to have had, but I can definitively say that one performance at Caesars Palace as a teenager cannot constitute making it big, especially because I still had (and have) so much to learn.
What would it have looked like to capitalize on the show? Well, I could have made friends with the stage manager. I could have learned more about how productions worked at Caesars. I could have been more aware and asked more questions–basically anything besides narrow mindedly focusing only on my own performance. Going on “the road,” or performing anywhere, for that matter, is useless unless you know how to use it.
It’s easy to glamorize Caesars Palace, though, because it is the textbook definition of success. But in a recent Daily Stoic episode, Ryan Holiday challenges the listener to define what success actually looks like to them. It’s a simple question, but a surprisingly difficult thing to do! Because what does success look like for me? Sure, performing at “prestigious” places is cool. But to me, success also means performing well in other important areas of my life, such as having enough time to invest in my relationships and other hobbies.
If performing in exotic places also means I need to spend months alone and that I’ll have less time to be with my family, read, ski, or hike, that’s not success, that’s hell.
Like I mentioned last week, this comes back to values. If you’re young and hungry and eager to travel, there’s a ton of upside to the road. But I have spent time figuring out my own values, and they are not conducive to traveling all the time. For example, I attribute much of my productivity to having a routine–I journal, meditate, and read in the mornings, and this takes up to an hour. It’s important to me to wake up early and be well-rested, and traveling based on someone else’s schedule inherently throws that off.
One way to reconcile competing values, though, is to combine them. For example, I am actively pursuing performing magic at ski resorts. This would combine my passion for performing with my passion for the outdoors. Plus, skiing during the day and doing magic at night sounds like the definition of a perfect day.
But maybe you like the pace of traveling–a lot of people do–and you also value long periods of stillness. Those are hard to combine, which is why one solution is seasonality, meaning you only work on certain projects for portions of the year.
Cal Newport, an author and college professor who always has summers off, talks a lot about this (for example here on the Tim Ferriss Show). What might seasonality look like for me? Perhaps it will be a regular performance schedule at ski resorts in the winter, and taking the spring and summer to pursue other performing opportunities.
Seasonality is essential because it gives you down time to think and reassess. There’s a reason sports take several months off after the championship. We all need breaks.
This is all to say that “the road,” or whatever metric of success your art uses, is absolutely meaningless unless it is actually something you want.
Instead, I’m finding that it is more important to take opportunities that align with my values both in and outside of magic; there is a lot of upside in performing locally so that I never need to travel. Ryan Holiday, for example, says to “Build a life you don’t need to escape from.”
The bottom line is that the good life is designed. You do not fall into it. It does not look the same for everyone. By definition, we all start in different places and my opportunity is not the same as yours. Whether you design your life on a macro or micro level, though, having some agency to do the things you want, even in the five minutes after you wake up every morning, is essential to a meaningful life.
Whether it’s 300 days on the road or 300 days at the beach, it doesn’t matter–as long as you value what you do.