…habits are the compound interest of personal development. Through my work, I teach that seeing isn’t believing, but that believing is seeing, and wonder is what gives you permission to believe in a story you have yet to see. The practical work that follows turning the wonder switch back on and shifting your belief systems is the building of new habits and daily rituals that bring that new narrative to life. Writers write. Producers produce. My identify is born out of my narrative, and that narrative drives all human behavior. That means that building a daily habit of writing requires me change my narrative to be inclusive of the belief, “I am a writer.”
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harris III.
Harris “the third” has spent the majority of his life traveling the globe as a professional illusionist performing his unique brand of magic and storytelling for more than two million people on five continents. He shares how to reclaim your wonder to reshape your life in The Wonder Switch (Zondervan, Oct. 2020). After making a million dollars by twenty-one years old, only to go bankrupt at twenty-two, Harris kickstarted a decade-long journey to understand the stories we tell ourselves and how they drive all human behavior. Armed with a unique perspective, his career re-exploded as a world-renowned storyteller whose live experiences, trainings, and consulting are now sought out by some of the world’s biggest brands, non-profits and most influential leaders. He splits his time between Nashville and Los Angeles, always with his wife and three kids.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
When I was 9 years old, I received a magic kit for Christmas from my grandmother. It wasn’t at all what I asked for, or even shown any sort of interest in. Ironically, the gift that radically changed my life was the gift I never wanted. A few days after Christmas, I opened up that little box of tricks and learned my first illusion. I marched into the living room to perform it for my parents, thinking it was simple and stupid. Upon exclaiming, “Mom and Dad, gathering around, here’s what grandma got me for Christmas!”, I initiated my first performance. They were blown away and had no idea how I did it. It was the first time I remember someone else looking at me with a look of awe and wonder in respond to something I had done. Up until that point, I only remembered getting picked on and bullied at school for not being good at anything. Now that I’ve studied the neuroscience of awe and wonder, I understand how contagious their wonder was, how it reawakened mine, and how that wonder gave me permission to believe in a whole new story. But in that moment, all I knew was that this new feeling was amazing and I was filled with possibility.
Because my career has expanded over the last few years beyond my role as an illusionist, it’s worth noting that there are multiple experiences in my story that have shaped my work, this is just the earliest one. Making a million dollars by 21, only to go bankrupt by 22 was another major inciting incident in my life and work. It helped me realize the correlation between how magic tricks work, and how all deception works, and led me to explore ways of leveraging my knowledge, experience and skillset as an illusionist (one who understand the language and principles of deception) to help people understand the many ways they’re influenced to tell themselves stories that aren’t true.
In my pursuit of that more meaningful and purpose-driven work, I eventually came to the realization of the power that storytellers have, and that we as human beings are all storytelling creatures who think in narrative. While many may label me as a magician or an entrepreneur, depending on how familiar they are with my work, I am really a storyteller, who happens to know how perform magic tricks. And that was all driven by the interactions with my audiences who shared their stories with me about the ways they’d been led to believe what they believe.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My Executive Coach, Jason Jaggard, was the first person who helped me embrace the fact that I was “more than just a magician.” Deep down, I knew I was an entrepreneur, driven by the power of story. I just wasn’t willing to embrace that label or step into new work I was meant to do. I wasn’t willing to step into that work because of some limiting beliefs, based on experiences in my past. He helped me reframe much of my story and awakened my wonder, giving me permission to believe that new story was possible.
Another mentor who created a shift in my thinking in a short period of time is Don Hahn, the legendary Disney producer of films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. He once asked me why I wasn’t producing more films. I responded with the question, “How do I become a producer? There aren’t many books on the subject.” He simply said, “You just start calling yourself a producer. And you might as well start doing so because you already are one.” It’s another example of how he helped me embrace a new narrative, and the identify of the character I was playing in my own story.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I’ve failed so much over the years that I often jokingly say that I have failed my way to success. But perhaps the failure that has taught me the most is the story I mentioned above about making a million dollars by 21, only to waste it all by 22, with nothing left but a big pile of debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you have that experience, especially at a young age, it humbles you, and forces you to take a step back and ask some pretty serious questions about what life is all about.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
In my book, The Wonder Switch, I define wonder as what gives us permission to believe in a story we have yet to see. Most of us live cynical lives that lead with, “I’ll believe in that when I see it.” But magic tricks have taught me that seeing is not always believing. However, believing is seeing. When people hear me say that, it can sound a little soft, or even woo-woo. But the neuroscience supports the fact that what we believe has the power to change what we see. It’s not that belief manifests something just because we wish for it. If it did, I’d have a private jet. But if I don’t believe in a possibility first, my brain will never have the permission it needs to explore those possibilities and do the work to turn a vision into reality. If believing is seeing, wonder is an essential part of the process of reshaping our belief systems, because of how it gives us permission to believe in things that may have previously felt impossible. In my opinion, you can’t step into a new story in your life and work without learning how to live and work in a more constant state of wonder.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. In my experience of leading and coaching a community of thousands of storytellers and creative professionals, nothing keeps them from doing the work they dream of doing more than what Pressfield calls “The Resistance.” It’s something we all have and have to face when we wake up each morning, and The War of Art is the simplest, best book I’ve read on the subject of facing that resistance.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Paulo Coelho beautifully said, “Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that really isn’t you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.” When people wake up to the need for wonder in their life, and the transformative power it could have on their work, they naturally are curious to figure out where to find it. We also want to become something or someone. But wonder is your natural state. You came into the world wide-awake to wonder and believing in magic. Most of life is less about addition, and more about the work of subtraction. It’s not about finding something we don’t have or becoming something we aren’t — it’s about returning to a child-like state by unbecoming all of the things that aren’t really us.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
STORY, which is the global network and community of storytellers we’ve been building over the last 5 years has taken on a new life this past year. In a break room at NEXT while making a bagel, Steve Jobs once reportedly quipped, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” I agree. I think storytellers are the architects of culture, and that the stories they tell are the building blocks of our world. Most of the stuff we spend our time arguing about for the sake of “changing the world,” like politics for example, is usually downstream from storytelling. I wake up in the morning fueled by the desire to repaint the future of our world. That change is driven by narrative, because narratives drive all human behavior. To change those narratives, we need an army of storytellers, so we’re building one.
I’ve also been encouraged by the success of my book, The Wonder Switch, and how it’s giving so many people permission to embrace their role in the world as storyteller by awakening their wonder, thereby changing the stories they tell themselves about who they are and what they’re capable of.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
As James Clear says, habits are the compound interest of personal development. Through my work, I teach that seeing isn’t believing, but that believing is seeing, and wonder is what gives you permission to believe in a story you have yet to see. The practical work that follows turning the wonder switch back on and shifting your belief systems is the building of new habits and daily rituals that bring that new narrative to life. Writers write. Producers produce. My identify is born out of my narrative, and that narrative drives all human behavior. That means that building a daily habit of writing requires me change my narrative to be inclusive of the belief, “I am a writer.”
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Daily Rituals, which I see as a form of habit-stacking, has completely transformed my life. Sitting down and intentionally designing those daily rituals with specifics like where they’ll be performed and for how long, allowed me to develop the tangible practices necessary to take the vision of my future story and turn it into a reality.
One example is that many of the parts of my morning ritual are built around awareness. My background as an illusionist taught me how easily distracted we are as human beings, especially in our modern age. At the heart of a magic trick is a principle we call “misdirection.” Performing magic over the course of almost 30 years allowed me to notice how increasingly easy people are to misdirect. It used to require more effort to distract someone on stage than it does now. Most audience volunteers now come on stage already in a state of distraction, making the moments of misdirection even easier to accomplish. Though I understand this concept, I’m not immune to it. So to live in a more centered, state of focus on what is important to me, I’ve developed a morning ritual that develops and promote a more mindful life. I do that through meditation, journaling, and more.
Another example comes from my evening ritual. I used to spend far too much time mindlessly scrolling on my smart phone, both at night before going to sleep, and as soon as I wake up in the morning. I redesigned my evening ritual to include the step of checking my calendar and reviewing the events of the next day while brushing my teeth at night. I moved my phone charger to my bathroom vanity, and after I finish my nighttime routine, I set down my phone and leave it in the bathroom. That means I’m going to bed without my phone within reach, and waking up in the morning without the ability to just reach over and grab it, increasing the chances of me staying in bed. It is not an exaggeration when I say that this simple habit has decreased by screen time by over 12 hours/week. The best part is the activities that have replaced that usage of time: More reading and quality time with my wife at night, and more productive mornings that don’t start behind schedule.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Read Atomic Habits, by James Clear, and follow his 4 laws of habits. Don’t just read it. Do what he teaches. My addition would simply be to stack those habits in the form of daily rituals by grouping together as many of them as possible. I feel like James’s book and my book, The Wonder Switch, are great companions. In my experience, a lot of people struggle to even figure out what new habits they want or need to develop, because they’ve lost touch with their ability to match the size of their thinking with what they’re truly capable of. The Wonder Switch will teach you how to dream again, and Atomic Habits will take that inspiration and teach you how to develop the daily practices necessary to make bring those dreams to life in practical ways.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
See story above about decreasing smart phone use by making your phone less visible and desirable. That will increase focus, thereby making more room for wellness and performance.
Ultimately, wellness is developed out of awareness, and the greatest habit for becoming more physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually aware, is through becoming more mindful. I become more mindful through a daily practice of meditation, journaling and gratitude.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
My favorite habit that leads to optimal performance at work is visualization. From the study of athletes, to the study of piano players by Harvard Medical School, we now have the research to showcase the brains ability to create new neural pathways and muscle memory simply through the act of visualization. Not only are we capable of improving our performance in this way, but studies show almost the same rate of improvement through mere visualization compared to physical practice alone.
We are storytelling creatures. Narrative is the operating system of our brains. When we get clear about who we are as a character in our own stories, we can visualize the actions of that character in the same way a writer creates action in a screenplay. In my experience of coaching others, our inability to create a power habit of visualization has less to do with habit-building, and more to do with a lack of clarity around who they are and what they want to accomplish. You can’t visualize a future story if you haven’t written one, and that’s where the real work exists.
When I set out to write my book, The Wonder Switch, I made visualization a part of my morning ritual. It feels silly at first, but similar to a practice of meditation, I developed a practice of closing my eyes, activating my imagination and focusing it on the necessary steps of writing. I visualized myself sitting where I would write, tuned in to the activity of my fingers pecking away my laptop’s keyboard. I visualized the sending of emails to my editor, the affirmation I would receive from her, and the congratulations of a finished manuscript. I visualized myself reading 5-star reviews on Amazon, and the congratulatory call of my literary agent. This regular habit of visualizing the story I want to live allows my brain to update my beliefs that drive my thinking and behavior. Most of our behavior is driven by a blueprint, and our brains work from that blueprint. If you aren’t re-imagining your blueprint, it’s hard to update your narrative or expect any changes in your story.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
In some of my answers above, I talked about how the path to success is less about addition and more about subtraction. The thought, “I need to find more focus” is not about finding something, but about eliminating something. The work of “finding” focus is about eliminating distractions. Time is a non-renewable resources. Which means that everything we say “yes” to, we are by default saying “no” to something else. If you’re in search of focus, you have to begin by identifying what is already consuming your time and energy. Once you do, re-focus that time and energy on what’s more important to you.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
It’s almost always a smart phone getting in the way. See above. 🙂
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Flow is deeply connected to a state of wonder. For me, the free flow of productive work and creative ideas is rooted in my ability to curb my worry and cynicism. Flow could be considered the opposite of resistance, and the resistance comes from the way we misuse our imaginations to worry and fear. It’s worth noting that imagination is not something that becomes less active as we grow up. It’s not a question of if we use our imaginations, but how. Worry is a misuse of imagination, and how we use our imaginations is determined by whether we are awake to wonder. We have to return to a child-like state of wonder, allow our imaginations to be used in positive and productive ways, decreasing the resistance, thereby increasing flow.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have many, but each of them comes back to wonder. I think every problem humanity is facing is a story problem. Because narrative drives all human behavior, all change and transformation occurs when someone moves from an old story to a new one. To change those narratives, wonder is required, because wonder is what opens us up to the possibility that the new narrative being introduced to us might be better or more true than the one we’re currently holding on to.
Conflict in the middle east? Storytelling problem, rooted in a lack of wonder. Broken criminal justice system? The result of storytelling problems, rooted in a lack of wonder. The need for radical changes that impact the environment? Storytelling problems, rooted in a lack of wonder. There are even storytelling problems that if solved, could radically transform healthcare.
Whether it’s research around positive awe-states and how they shift the physiology of our bodies (for example, a new study from UC Berkley highlights an increase in cytokines, decreasing chronic inflammation in the body while in a positive awe-state), or the research from artists like Yoko Sen, whose work is showcasing the connection between the soundscape/environmental sound design and how our bodies heal, it all comes back to how the stories we tell ourselves drive all behavior, down to even the function of our brain. If the design of a hospital room, including everything from the gown we’re wearing, to what we hear in the environment like an intentional soundtrack instead of beeps and machines, to even the color on walls, all contributes to the story our brain tells itself about what the future holds, than surely we can change these things, which would change the narrative. There are volunteers in Baltimore reading books to kids in children’s hospitals, and it’s making a difference. It turns out that what we imagine is possible has a profound impact on what our bodies do in response. Why would we not leverage every storytelling tool available to help our bodies heal, which is everything, because our brains turn everything into a story to make sense of the world.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them. 🙂
I’d love to have time with anyone like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, who seems to be driven less by their bottom lines, and more by solving problems being faced by the future of humanity. I believe those problems are storytelling problems, exasperated by the lack of wonder and presence of cynicism. By leveraging the power of story, we can re-paint the future of our world in more effective ways.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about my personal work as a storyteller, and how wonder plays a transformative role in your personal and professional development by visiting: http://harrisiii.com
You can learn more about my book, The Wonder Switch, and take a free assessment to identify the number one lie crushing your wonder and creativity by visiting: http://thewonderswitch.com
You can learn more about embracing your role as a storyteller and how to do your best, most creative work by becoming a part of the STORY community: http://storygatherings.com
Organizations who are in need of leveraging the power of story to spark, lead or navigate change can learn more about how our collective of storytellers can serve their efforts by visiting: http://istoria.com
Follow along on Twitter or Instagram: @HarrisIII