What’s Your REAL Job?

What’s Your REAL Job? 1572 664 Kevin Viner

I posted an article on LinkedIn a few months back that got quite a bit of attention, and thought I’d share it here as well.

As a magician and mentalist specializing in the corporate market, I’m often asked by hotel staff and attendees if this is “my real job.” It just isn’t something people are used to seeing in a live environment. Even when we watch acts on America’s Got Talent, they normally have a storyline that involves some other source of income. In my case, I decided to make a career out of being a mentalist shortly after graduating from college.

For anybody who doesn’t know what a mentalist is, think of an illusionist who specializes in mind-reading entertainment. We do the same things that you might see a TV “psychic” do, except we present it as entertainment rather than purporting to be the real thing.

So back to being 21 and deciding to go into this full-time. My mentor, a magician named Jason Randal, posed a leading question — “Kevin, what do you think your real job is?” And given Jason’s resume, I tend to take his thoughts fairly seriously. Over his lifelong career as a magician and mentalist, he has also earned a PhD in social psychology, a seventh-degree black belt in karate, won multiple awards for different musical instruments, and is one of the top flight instructors in the world for both airplanes and helicopters. Not to mention moonlighting as faculty at both MIT and Harvard Business School. 

So back to “Kevin, what do you think your real job is?” I replied that it was to do impossible mind reading demonstrations. But he made me drill deeper. Maybe it was to fool people? Maybe it was to help guests network during cocktails? After throwing out a few guesses, he finally gave me the answer, or at least his take on the correct answer. My job as an entertainer is to change the way that people feel. And he told me that I should approach all events with that intent and purpose. Because most mentalists, and most magicians, simply go out with the intent to fool. And that’s only half the battle. In reality, mind reading demonstrations are only my vehicle, or mode of action, to a much more important goal. Thinking that way produces a scalability and a unique value for clients. 

When I show up to an event, I’m there for a greater purpose than simply fooling the guests. I’m there as an ambassador of goodwill, and everything from my arrival time to my communication leading to the event should reflect that. Given two performers of equal skill and expertise, who will do the better job? The act who shows up simply to fool the guests, or the act who shows up to create an experience that will leave them somehow changed for the better? 

So what’s YOUR real job? Leave a comment below and please share!

Fyre Festival: A Mentalist’s Perspective

Fyre Festival: A Mentalist’s Perspective 1572 664 Kevin Viner

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of the now infamous Fyre Festival. A joint venture with Ja Rule and delusional serial entrepreneur Billy McFarland, the music festival was created as PR for the Fyre music app, but quickly went up in flames through a variety of frauds and deceptions. 

Promised luxury oceanfront villas and expertly crafted meals on a private island, concert-goers instead arrived to FEMA tents, wet mattresses, boxed sandwiches, and no music. The festival was promptly canceled and guests were sent home, but not before the damage was done. If you haven’t already, check out either of the documentaries streaming on Netflix and Hulu. They each provide a slightly different angle on the downfall of the festival.

As a mentalist, I couldn’t help but to consider the psychology behind the team trying to assemble this. Enter the Dunning-Kruger effect, one of the dozens of cognitive biases that seem to universally affect our decisions (learn more about cognitive biases). As described in a 2014 paper, the Dunning-Kruger effect “suggests that poor performers are not in a position to recognize the shortcomings in their performance.” In other words, those who are completely incompetent at a skill tend to know so little that they don’t have a realistic baseline for what their knowledge should be. This can be dangerous because it leads to reckless decisions based on overestimated abilities. 

A graphical depiction of the
Dunning-Kruger effect.

In a 1999 paper entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Kruger and Dunning created a series of tests based on humor, language, and logic. As suspected, those who scored in the bottom 25% overrated their skills by much more than their peers, and those who scored the highest (experts) tended to slightly underrate their skills (part of why successful, qualified leaders don’t pretend that they have all the answers).

The Fyre team set out to create an incredible experience from the beginning, but nobody knew what they were doing. That wouldn’t have been as problematic except that they didn’t seem to realize how over their heads they were. In particular, Grant Margolin (Fyre’s CMO) seemed to ignore advice from those with far more experience. A few great Grant quotes from the documentary:

  • “Let’s just do it and be legends!”
  • “I’m not a perfectionist, but everything needs to be perfect.”
  • “I’m a marketing prodigy!”
  • “I asked for sushi chefs!!” (after the food budget was cut from $6 mil to $1 mil.)

We’ve all heard the saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  In this case, Margolin operated under an assumption that his talents far surpassed his actual abilities. 

I’ve seen the same with mentalists and illusionists who have come to me with requests for advice on their programs. Too often, they don’t have enough performance time under their belts and their show needs a heavy amount of lifting to make it viable. After giving helpful thoughts, the comments are nearly always a defense of why they don’t want to change. And yet they wonder why their careers aren’t going in the direction they would like. You may have found the same problems interacting with both staff and other executives at your workplace.

A takeaway for all of us is to assume that there are always those who know more than we do. There is a fine line between being a visionary and being a fool, and the Fyre Festival should serve as a reminder to show humility in our cognitive self-assessments. You will become a better leader by thinking like an expert, not by pretending that you are one.

Lessons From Howard Schultz

Lessons From Howard Schultz 1572 664 Kevin Viner

A couple of months ago, I received a call to fly to Seattle for a last-minute event. Howard Schultz, the famed Starbucks CEO, was hosting a retirement party and wanted me to be the featured entertainment.

Although I visit Starbucks almost daily, I knew little about the man who revolutionized the coffee industry. So, as I do for all of my clients, I spent some time researching Schultz’ background and reading his book Pour Your Heart Into It. There were a few great takeaways on leadership that I think we should all keep in mind:

It’s Not All About Profit

For many successful companies, profits follow a motivated workforce. Starbucks has always opted to balance social responsibility with high profits and volume. By providing employee health care and other great benefits, Howard Schultz created a team of evangelical baristas for the company. This leads to less turnover, happier customers, and better relationships. All of which increase Starbucks’ bottom line. As an entertainer, I can be hired by anybody once. But to get repeat bookings and word of mouth, it’s important to deliver an executive entertainment EXPERIENCE that will unify the room. Working on increasing customer and vendor satisfaction can often yield better results than simply focusing on the money.

What’s Your Real Job?

Too often, our job title means something different than what we really do. About a decade ago, my mentor told me that I was looking at my career all wrong. I wasn’t in the business of being a mentalist, or a magician, or fooling people, or even making them laugh. Those are all methods that I use to accomplish my goal, but it isn’t really the core of my business. You see, entertainers are REALLY in the business of changing the way that people feel. We are brought in to touch the audience and to make them think, and we do that by engaging them and making them laugh with awe and wonder.

With Starbucks, Howard Schultz realized that it wasn’t all about good coffee. It was about creating a neighborhood environment and a location for people to gather daily. It was about warmth. It was about richness and depth. It was about capturing what he LOVED about coffee and creating a business that would pass that joy to others.

Lead By Example

Nobody was a bigger advocate for the Starbucks brand than Schultz himself. From a 2014 Inc. Magazine interview:

“Starbucks is not in business for Howard Schultz. Howard Schultz is in business for Starbucks. The company will evolve and survive long after me, because it’s built for that. But I’m not going anywhere anytime soon… I love this company so much. My emotional state in relation to the company is beyond normalcy. It’s a fanatical feeling.”

Creating incredible cultures at work and home are often a matter of leading by example. If you can be the most excited, you will excite those around you. And by creating something even bigger than yourself, you can share a goal and mission with your employees, or as Schultz called them, your partners.

How Groups Think, and Why It Matters

How Groups Think, and Why It Matters 1572 664 Kevin Viner

As a mentalist, I’m typically onstage in front of a group that ranges in size from 15 individuals to 18,000. While the sizes of the groups have varied, their dynamics for the most part have not. In fact, most groups have immutable characteristics that we can capitalize on (and defend ourselves against). The same characteristics can be found in friends, coworkers, city councils, and juries.

I’m talking about The Wisdom of Crowds, as well as the aptly named Groupthink.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The Wisdom of Crowds was a term coined by James Surowiecki in 2004. His similarly titled book begins with James recounting a phenomenon where the crowd at a county fair accurately determined the weight of an ox by averaging the group’s individual guesses. Oddly, this result worked even though many of the original guesses were wildly off. So what does this mean? It means that groups, when working together and leveraging each other’s knowledge, can achieve results not as easily obtained individually. It also means that if your child has a jellybean counting contest at school, they should average the guesses of all their friends around them! See, the average isn’t always wrong. In fact, it’s often right! And that’s why we should teach our children to just be  . . . average. 🙂

For this idea to hold merit, James gives 4 pillars that each group of people must stand on:

  1. Diversity of opinion amongst individuals.
  2. Independence, that each person’s opinion is their own.
  3. Decentralization, that people can draw on their own knowledge.
  4. Aggregation, that the ideas can somehow be merged into a communal decision.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.


When the above ideals aren’t met, The Wisdom of Crowds theory self destructs and we are left with a “black hole” so to speak, a vacuum of irrationality that yields inferior results. This is called Groupthink, named by William H. Whyte in 1952 and derived from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. When members of a group don’t stand for their own ideals because they would rather have the group’s support (when they seek agreement rather than meaningful solutions), we wind up with the bulk of the group giving way to a few key leaders, or “thought leaders.”

In the past, it was often thought that that The Wisdom of Crowds only held true if people didn’t talk to each other, but the University of Pennsylvania’s Damon Centola recently proved that this isn’t true. In fact, groups who communicate with each other can achieve incredible results, as long all members hold equal weight. When “thought leaders” take over the decisions, it is “more likely to lead the group astray than improve it” (Centola).

As a Mentalist

Knowing the similarities and subtle differences between these modes of thinking creates incredible opportunities onstage. In any given room, I know that I can predict with reasonable accuracy the average behavior of the audience at large. By meeting the personalities in the lobby before the show, or during the cocktail reception, I can often gauge the overall makeup of the group. And by flipping that thought on its head to create groupthink, I know that establishing rapport with a few key individuals in each audience (the thought leaders) will relax the rest of my guests, making the job much easier since people have let their guard down.

In The Office

Follow the lead of companies like Square, who hold weekly “Town Square” meetings where employees are encouraged to speak up about anything that may be on their minds. Give all individuals the chances to have their voices heard, rather than relying on the opinions of a select few. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know the strengths and weaknesses of every employee (famed hedge fund manager Ray Dalio even had statistical performance and personality “trading cards” made of each employee) — it just means that you should at least recognize and listen to each individual voice.

In Your Personal Life

We’ve all been in situations where things don’t work out exactly the way we wished. Our friends decide to go to a different movie than us, or a different bar, or even just have a different opinion. While our first reaction is almost always defense, it might make sense to realize that the group may be creating a better decision that we would individually. And conversely, if one or two leaders in your friends always makes the decision, it might be time to voice your opinion in a kind way.

Confirmation Bias: Do All Those People Really Agree With Me?

Confirmation Bias: Do All Those People Really Agree With Me? 1572 680 Kevin Viner

As a college student, my writing 39C professor taught us to always question the source of our information. In a world where Facebook and Google know more about us than we know about ourselves (each company has a small book’s worth of information on our habits, desires, interests, and friends), it’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about the information that we receive.

In psychology, there are a series of mental “illusions” called cognitive biases. One of the most well known is the confirmation bias, defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” In a sense, we treat information that feeds our personal agendas as more important than that which does not.

Social media networks only help feed this, with algorithms that place “liked” posts higher in our news feeds. This creates a distorted reality field, causing us to believe in an inflated majority of the world sharing our beliefs.

Around the world, there are fraudulent psychics (think Sylvia Brown, the Long Island Medium, etc.) who greatly rely on this fact to create their sensationalized performances. At their programs, guests arrive already believing that they are seeing the “real thing.” This leads attendees to place more importance on what the psychic gets right than what they miss. They downplay information that doesn’t fit their mental model, and as such give the psychic more credit than would be otherwise deserved.

As a mentalist, I’m able to use this fact when I build my shows. At the beginning of the show, the audience has their guards up and will scrutinize every action. As the show progresses, I can take more risks and rely on bolder, more creative methods since the audience has relaxed more. They assume that I will be able to correctly guess the information, allowing their guards to drop and in a sense becoming easier to manipulate.

Want to test this with your friends?

Grab a copy of the horoscope with some astrologically-minded friends, and ask them to read the horoscopes and choose that which describes them the best. They will likely find ways to explain why their horoscope is the best fit of the 12. Now wait until there is a new set of horoscopes on a different day. Clip them each out and discard the heading that says which horoscope text belongs to which sign. Without having the information readily available, you’ll find that it is virtually impossible to select the correct horoscope. This is because horoscopes are written in generalities (called Barnum statements) designed to apply universally. It is only our confirmation bias that causes us to read our personal horoscope as more applicable.

So next time you are thinking that the rest of the world thinks exactly like you, sit back and ask yourself what information you might be dismissing.

The Rubber Hand Illusion

The Rubber Hand Illusion 1572 680 Kevin Viner

Mentalism is based in part on building performances that take advantage of natural cognitive biases and illusions. This is the first in a series that will explore the inner workings of our minds.

In a study called “Rubber hands ‘feel’ touch that eyes see,” scientists Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen published an optical and sensory illusion that has found great acclaim with neuroscientists as well as mentalists. This was a huge step in the knowledge of how we bodily self-identify, and the original study can be found at https://webapps.pni.princeton.edu/ncc/publications/1998/BotvinickCohen1998Nature.pdf.

Essentially, one of the subject’s real arms was hidden behind a screen, while a life-size fake rubber hand was positioned directly in front of the subject. 2 paintbrushes were then used to stroke the fake hand and the real (hidden) hand in sync, wherein the visual information of seeing the rubber hand being stroked along with the tactile information of the synced touch created a compelling illusion that the rubber hand belonged to the participant.

This has led to compelling advances in virtual reality technology, as well as helping to relieve “phantom limb” neurological pain. Other experiments have taken a more lighthearted approach, such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxwn1w7MJvk where you can see the reaction when the fake hand is suddenly smashed with a hammer!

And psychological illusionist Derren Brown even performed a routine based on this idea in his 2011 television special Svengali.

When you have a chance, give it a shot with a friend. You’ll have fun and learn something in the process!

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can 786 340 Kevin Viner

One of my favorite parts of performing for a living is catching up with old friends, as well as meeting new friends. At a corporate program in Phoenix earlier this month, I was able to meet Frank Abignale, Jr, who you may know as the subject of the hit film Catch Me if You Can (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks). Meeting one of my childhood idols was a pretty incredible experience!

If you aren’t familiar with Frank, he executed a series of incredible cons from age 15 to 21. These included impersonating a Pan Am pilot, by which he was able to travel over 1,000,000 miles for free, impersonating a doctor, escaping from police custody multiple times, and successfully (and legitimately) passing the Louisiana Bar Exam without having ever attended legal classes. When apprehended, Frank served a small sentence before being brought onboard as a security consultant to the FBI, turning his life around and becoming an international authority on fraud.

What an incredible story of somebody turning their life around.

A few key takeaways from his lecture:

Your “Smart Home” Isn’t All That Smart
Be mindful of “smart devices” in your home. These include wifi connected TVs, cameras, thermostats, etc. These often aren’t built with robust security standards, and the weakest link in your home network can open you to a variety of attacks. Consider a router that allows you to create a guest network upon which these devices can live. Even if hackers can gain access to that network, your files and main hub will be protected.

Leave the Debit Card at Home
We’ve all had the experience of having our information stolen, be it from any of the recent major security breaches that have hit the news or from simply having our credit card information stolen after giving it to an unscrupulous employee. If somebody racks up charges on this card, you are backed by the credit card company and pay nothing. The thief has essentially spent the credit card company’s cash. Debit cards are a different beast, since they are tied directly to your account. Once the money has left your bank, it can require a deep investigation to retrieve. Keep that in mind, and realize that a stolen debit card can cause much deeper financial trouble than a stolen credit card.

Watch Your Picture
Especially on LinkedIn, we are told to use professional pictures that show us off in the best light. The problem is that these same pictures can be used by identity thieves to manufacture false IDs. By controlling the images that appear online to make sure that they aren’t standard headshots, we can help mitigate this risk.

For more information on Frank Abignale, you can read his book or watch the movie!

Surprise: An Emotional Multiplier

Surprise: An Emotional Multiplier 786 340 Kevin Viner

At one of my recent events, a client shared with me their company’s mission statement. The final word was “Exceed,” which they meant as exceeding their clients’ expectations.

For this particular company, there isn’t much they can do to go above and beyond in a traditional sense. Their hands are bound by numbers and regulations, and they don’t really have leeway to offer many services or features different from their competitors. But one thing that they can do is give their clients what they expect in a way that they didn’t see coming. In other words, surprise them.

In the 1999 film The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan created an ending that nobody saw coming. Largely in part to this surprise climax, the film went on to become one of the most successful horror movies of all time. The Harvard Business Review says that surprise is one of the most important tools in a marketing toolbox. And in my own show, I’ve built in surprises to leave the audience with an experience they will never forget.

But what exactly happens when we’re surprised, and why do we enjoy it so much?

According to research by Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine, scientists found that surprise can trigger the release of dopamine through increased activity within the nucleus accumbens (one of the “pleasure centers” in the brain). Scientists randomly squirted either fruit juice or water into the mouths of 25 participants. The patterns of the squirting were either predictable or unpredictable. When the scientists squirted the liquid in an unpredictable pattern, MRIs showed that the brain’s activity in its pleasure center was much more pronounced than when the liquid was squirted predictably.

Psychologists like Robert Plutchik have classified emotions into primary categories like anger, fear, bliss, love, etc., and it appears that surprise amplifies whatever state we are feeling. Think about when you watch a horror film – the adrenaline starts coursing through your veins as the music darkens. You know that you’re about to be surprised, and your fight or flight response kicks in. On the contrary, “good surprises” (flowers, promotions, etc.) make us much happier than if we had expected them.

2017 Alkami 20/20 Conference held at the Plano Hilton Hotel from April 10-12, 2017

So look for ways to give people “good surprises,” realizing that you can harness the power of surprise as an emotional multiplier. Bring your wife flowers unexpectedly. Give your customers things that make them feel good, even if it’s just a larger smile than your competitors. A genuine, caring smile can be a huge surprise to your customers. Think about ways to meet your customers’ needs while giving them even MORE than expected. And if you, like my recent client, can’t give them more than your competitors from a product or line item perspective, allow your customer service to be the pleasant surprise.

After all, dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter, and it can’t hurt to foster a company that encourages its release in your clients. Stop focusing on your new corporate white paper, and start focusing on truly surprising your customers in an innovative way.

Playing Cards: Espionage Is the Name of the Game

Playing Cards: Espionage Is the Name of the Game 786 340 Kevin Viner

Playing cards have been a huge part of my life since childhood. I’ve used them to learn sleight of hand, enjoyed games with family, and even cheated at gambling when I’ve had the opportunity (just kidding… maybe). As a mentalist, I’ve learned to read tells to determine what cards people are thinking of.

But the history of playing cards is even more colorful than one might imagine. Did you know that these simple pieces of card stock have played a role in the serious game of espionage?

The Great Escape

One example was a project between the United States Playing Card Company and American and British intelligence on a deck of cards designed to assist allied prisoners in escaping from German POW camps in World War II.

This special deck was called the Escape Map Deck and was produced with hidden maps of top-secret escape routes embedded between the two layers of paper that comprise a standard card. By soaking them in water, the card layers could be separated to see the hidden maps with the route to safety.

These wartime decks were highly secret for several years even after the war, partly due to their potential relevance to war crimes prosecutions. It’s not known how many were produced or how many remain. In fact, there may be only one in existence, rumored to be in a private collection.

A commemorative Bicycle Escape Map Deck is available featuring original artwork on the front and back of the cards. Portions of a map are also printed over the front sides that can be assembled when the cards are arranged in order.

Secret Messages

We’ve heard of invisible ink as a means of sending secret messages, but there is another method that involves hiding words in plain sight. According to research performed by the Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York, soldiers (also in WWII) would band together and memorize the random order of a deck of playing cards. This would sometimes takes days of hard work (or more), but in the end it allowed for transmitting encrypted messages across camp.

Operatives would write a message on the edge of a deck of playing cards while it was in the known order, and then shuffle the deck multiple times, rendering the message completely unreadable. Only by placing the deck back into the correct order could the message be read.

So the next time you sit down for a quick game, or try learning a card trick, remember that those common playing cards you’ve been taking for granted all this time are actually versatile and sometimes heroic players.




The Real Secrets: Improving Your Memory (pt. 2)

The Real Secrets: Improving Your Memory (pt. 2) 786 340 Kevin Viner

We left our previous discussion, in part 1, with one of the cornerstones of all memory technique, the linking method. If you missed that article, then this won’t make much sense, so please go read that first!

Also, a couple of great resources if you’re interested in learning more are Moonwalking with Einstein and The Memory Book.

At the end of the last article, I challenged readers to use the linking method to memorize a list of seemingly random words. I also promised to reveal the importance of this list, so here you go!

If you’ve memorized those items, you now know the top 20 countries in the world in order of population (as of today, at least). Drumroll please…

  1. Teacup (China)
  2. Indian (India)
  3. US Flag (USA)
  4. Mud Coffee (Indonesia)
  5. Brazil Nut (Brazil)
  6. Pack of Music Stands (Pakistan – “pack of stands”)
  7. Niger River (Nigeria)
  8. Bang on a Desk (Bangladesh)
  9. Nesting Dolls (Russia)
  10. Ramen (Japan)
  11. Sombrero (Mexico)
  12. Phillips Screwdriver (Philippines)
  13. Eating Opal (Ethiopia)
  14. Vietnam War (Vietnam)
  15. Pyramid (Egypt)
  16. A Turkey (Turkey)
  17. Hefeweizen Beer (Germany)
  18. Running Quickly (Iran – “I ran”)
  19. Gorilla (DR Congo)
  20. Tying Shoes (Thailand)

This exercise shows how effective memory technique can be for studying. It isn’t limited to simple grocery lists. If you can think of creative ways to link ANYTHING as a picture, you can remember it.

Think of U.S. state capitals. An example would be California and Sacramento. When I think of California, I think of surfers. And Sacramento sounds like sacrament. So I imagine a surfer receiving communion in a Catholic Church. As another example, Juneau is the capital of Alaska. I picture a June bug trapped in a block of ice. Using this technique, you can memorize all the capitals in about an hour. Sure beats rote learning!

Another example, in the business world, is memorizing speeches. Let’s say you know all the information, but you need to remember the order of your slides without having notes.

Maybe your speech looks something like this:

  1. General overview of past year
  2. Top leaders
  3. Sales goals
  4. Biggest problems your company is facing
  5. Analysis of competitors
  6. Changes for new year

This is a very broad overview, and maybe there are many components to each of these. The linking method will work no matter how long this list! I would picture (i) a general speaking with (ii) all of his lieutenants, then (iii) boarding a ship with large “sails.” They run into (iv) rough water, then (v) some other ships try to overtake them. To conclude, they (vi) change course and move to smoother seas.

By linking information this way, you take a series of ideas and create a story arc that you can remember with ease.

Have any other ideas for ways to use the linking method? Email me and let me know your thoughts!