Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest (Cards), Courtesy Nate Daniforth (Portrait)
I became a magician by accident. When I was nine years old, I learned how to make a coin disappear. I’d read The Lord of the Rings and ventured into the adult section of the library to search for a book of spells—nine being that curious age at which you’re old enough to work through more than 1,200 pages of arcane fantasy literature but young enough to still hold out hope that you might find a book of real, actual magic in the library. The book I found instead taught basic sleight-of-hand technique, and I dedicated the next months to practice.
At first the magic wasn’t any good. At first it wasn’t even magic; it was just a trick—a bad trick. I spent hours each day in the bathroom running through the secret moves in front of the mirror. I dropped the coin over and over, a thousand times in a day, and after two weeks of this my mom got a carpet sample from the hardware store and placed it under the mirror to muffle the sound of the coin falling again and again.
I had heard my dad work through passages of new music on the piano, so I knew how to practice—slowly, deliberately, going for precision rather than speed. One day I tried the illusion in the mirror and the coin vanished. It did not look like a magic trick. It looked like a miracle.
One of the lessons you learn very early on as a magician is that the most amazing part of a trick has nothing to do with the secret. The secret is simple and often dull: a hidden piece of tape, a small mirror, a duplicate playing card. In this case, the secret was a series of covert maneuvers to hide the coin behind my hand in the act of opening it, a dance of the fingers that I learned so completely I didn’t even have to think. I would close my hand, then open it, and the coin would vanish not by skill but by real magic.
One day I made the coin vanish on the playground. We had been playing football and were standing by the backstop in the field behind the school. A dozen people were watching. I showed the coin to everyone. Then it disappeared.
The kids screamed. They yelled, laughed, scrambled away. Everyone went crazy. This was great. This was Bilbo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings terrifying the guests at his birthday party by putting the One Ring on his finger and vanishing.
The teacher on duty crossed the playground to investigate. Mrs. Tanner was a wiry, vengeful woman who dominated her classroom with an appetite for humiliation and an oversize plastic golf club she wielded like a weapon, slamming it down on the desks of the unruly and uncommitted.
She marched toward me and demanded to know what was going on. The coin vanished for her too.
“Do it again,” she said, and I did.
I’m sure my hands were shaking, but when I looked up, everything had changed. I will remember the look on her face—the look of wide-eyed, openmouthed wonder—forever.
Two certainties. First, this was clearly the greatest thing in the world. I kept seeing my teacher’s face—the stern, authoritarian facade melting into shock, fear, elation, and joy, all at once. The kids’ too. My classmates had been transformed for a moment from a vaguely indifferent, vaguely hostile pack of scavengers and carnivores into real people.
If you could make people feel like this, why wouldn’t you do it all the time? Why didn’t everyone do this? For anyone—but especially for a nine-year-old boy at a new school—this transformation is almost indistinguishable from real magic.
The second certainty was harder to reconcile. The more I thought about it, the stranger it became, and even now it intrigues me as much as it did that day on the playground. Here it is: All of it—the chaos, the shouting, the wide-eyed wonder—came from a coin trick.
I knew that it was just a trick and I was just a kid. But the reactions of the students and the teacher were so much greater than the sum of these modest parts that I didn’t know how to explain them. Something incredible had happened. I might have caused it, but it had not come from me. I had inadvertently tapped into something visceral and wild: the teacher’s face, the shouts of fear, astonishment—and joy. The joy was the hardest to explain. Surprise comes easy, but joy never does. I was an alchemist who had somehow—unknowingly, unintentionally—discovered how to turn lead into gold. Even a nine-year-old knows this is impossible. You could only do that with real magic.
The gulf between wanting to become a great magician and actually doing it is enormous, however, and the career of a young magician is marked as much by humiliation and public failure as it is by the occasional success. In high school, I staged a show in the auditorium and my entire world came out to watch— 600 friends, family members, girls from school, everyone I wanted to defy or impress. They all looked on in horror, fascination, and pity as I twirled about the stage, frantically trying to remember every bit of choreography from every David Copperfield special I had ever seen. The audience sat mute, aghast, enduring the spectacle and waiting for the catastrophe to end.
A few years later, I staged a Harry Houdini–style underwater escape in the river that flowed through the middle of the campus of the University of Iowa, where I went to school. I stood on a boat in the middle of the river wearing nothing but biking shorts and a thick snarl of chains, padlocks, and weights around my wrists and ankles. The sky was dead and gray, and the water was dead and gray, and a frigid breeze blew across its surface. I had delayed this stunt by two weeks because the river was frozen. Now the ice had cleared and spring had come, reluctantly, but the water was still only 52 degrees at the surface, and colder in the depths below.
Technically, I succeeded. I jumped into the water, sank to the bottom, and escaped from the locks and the chains before swimming to the surface. But it didn’t feel like a success. When Houdini did it, thousands of people turned up to watch. I had about a dozen who stopped on their way to class, and the police showed up because someone thought it was a suicide attempt.
I am living proof, though, that if you throw enough time and effort at something—maybe even anything—you can become good at it. I found inspiration in a quote attributed to Houdini: “The real secret to my success is simple: I work from seven in the morning to midnight and I like it.” This quote lived on a scrap of paper stuck to the wall by my bed for ten years. I had hit Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of dedicated practice by the time I turned 22, and he’s right—I got pretty good.
The week after I finished school, I drove to Los Angeles to begin my career as a professional magician. I have never held another job. (Find out why we say “abracadabra” during magic tricks.)
Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest
For years I have traveled the country performing. Every crowd is different. Sometimes you have to charm them or cajole them, sometimes you have to entice or fascinate, and sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and fight, winning the room with a careful blend of intensity and goodwill, convincing the audience that you’re either a genius or a madman and that, either way, they should probably stop and listen.
Tonight my arrival onstage at a college in Chicago was met with a mixture of applause and disdain, the audience being equal parts people who came to see a magic show and people who came to drink. One six-foot, 250-pound bruiser with a crew cut started booing even before they finished my introduction. Now I am standing on a table—his table—in the basement of the student union.
“Listen,” I say, scanning the room. “In a minute, you are going to see something impossible. Some of you are going to scream. Some of you are going to yell. This gentleman right here is going to soil himself.”
Crew Cut is looking at me like he wants to fight, but I have him pinned in his seat with the gaze of 300 people who are finally paying attention. For the moment, he can only glower.
“I’m not doing this for the money. I’m not doing this for the glory. If I were, I sure wouldn’t be here. I’m here because I’ve spent my entire life learning to do something incredible, and tonight I’m going to share it with you. When I’m done, you can clap, you can boo, you can stay, you can leave—I don’t care.”
This succeeds in shocking them. Now the entire room has turned to watch.
“I’m going to give this gentleman my wallet,” I say. “I’m choosing him because he’s the biggest guy here and I need someone to keep the wallet safe.”
I look down at Crew Cut. “What’s your name?”
He looks at me like he wishes he’d gone somewhere else this evening.
I hand him my wallet. “Marcus, I want you to put this on the table and put both hands on top of it. Don’t open it yet. But make sure that no one else opens it either. Got it?”
Marcus nods. I know that if this works, he will remember this experience for the rest of his life. He will tell his children about this moment. I’ve spent six years developing this illusion, and it has been worth the effort. If I had five minutes to justify my entire existence as a magician, this is what I would perform.
I turn to the rest of the room. “I’m going to need six random people to help. If I just asked for volunteers, you might think that I had confederates in the audience, so I’m going to take this gentleman’s hat”—and here I reach down and snatch a baseball cap from someone’s head—“and throw it out into the room. If you catch it, stand up.”
Thirty seconds later, six people are standing and the man has his hat back.
“I need each of you to think of a number between one and fifty. When I point to you, call your number out loud so everyone can hear.”
I pause before the last person, a girl standing in the back of the room. When the hat flew toward her a minute ago, she jumped up to catch it.
“What’s your name?”
“Jessica, before you tell me your number, I just want to say this: When you go home tonight, you are going to be unable to sleep. You’re going to lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, driving yourself crazy wondering what would have happened if you had named a number other than the number you are about to name.”
The audience laughs. Jessica just listens.
“Before you give me your number, I want you to know in your heart of hearts that it was a free choice, that there is no way I could have gotten inside your head to make you give me the number I wanted. Right?”
She nods slowly.
“What number are you thinking of?”
Every great illusion has a moment of calm before the build to the end, and right now the room is completely quiet. At some point the bartender had started watching and turned off the music. Everyone is still.
“I want to point out that the odds of this working by chance alone are in the trillions. What are the numbers again? Sixteen, thirty-two, nine, forty-three, eleven, and fourteen, right?”
Marcus has been sitting at the table the entire time, holding the wallet and watching the performance. I point to the wallet.
“Marcus, could you stand up for a second?”
He stands. I ask him to hold the wallet up above his head so everyone can see, and he does.
“You have been holding my wallet the entire time. Open it and look inside. You should find a lottery ticket. Take it out.”
Marcus opens the wallet and removes the lottery ticket.
“This isn’t a winning ticket. I’m not a millionaire. But I want you to look at the numbers. I’m going to hand you the microphone. Read them out loud.”
I am watching his face now, waiting for him to see it.
“Oh,” he says quietly. “Oh no.” He looks at me. His eyes are very wide. He looks back at the lottery ticket.
“Read the numbers, Marcus.”
Marcus raises the microphone. “Sixteen, thirty-two, nine, forty-three, eleven, and fourteen.”
The room explodes. People are on their feet, screaming and jumping and turning to one another. Someone runs for the exit, knocking over a table. Jessica has her hands on her face, her mouth open. Marcus has dropped the microphone. He is reading the ticket over and over again, shaking his head and laughing.
I want you to see his face. I want you to see the joy, the open, unaffected joy. It’s the kind of joy that reminds you for a moment that when the weight of worry, of pain, of anxiety, of the world, has gone, the face that shines without it is extraordinary. Magicians get to see people at their very best, and in this transformation you can see through the illusion what can only be described as real, actual magic.
Next, don’t miss these 12 other people with cool jobs who revealed what their work is really like.
To learn more about Nate Staniforth’s journey with magic, buy his book, Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World.