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Professional Amateurs and Amateur Professionals

How to avoid compromising your work as a professional

“The best amateur has the skills of a professional but true professionals stay amateurs at heart.”

Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece

During my ten years as a full-time professional magician I regularly received messages from amateurs who wanted to take me for coffee to “pick my brain.”

I’ve always hated that phrase. If you want my advice, just tell me that. I can afford my own coffee, and I prefer my brain intact. I digress.

These coffee meetings always went the same way.

“I’m a lifelong lover of magic. I’ve done a couple of small paid gigs for friends of friends, but it’s my dream to be a professional magician. I hate my day job. How can I quit and do magic full-time like you?”

I should have been flattered or proud, but I never was. Instead, I was jealous.

Oh, to be an amateur again

As a child I was obsessed with magic. I watched all the TV specials, went to live shows with my dad, and practiced card tricks in front of my extended family after Thanksgiving dinners. Every single birthday and holiday my wishlist just looked like a catalog from the local magic shop, and I was lucky to have parents and relatives who had the means and good will to provide for such an expensive hobby (a single trick may cost anywhere from $10-100).

Magic saved my life. It broke me out of a debilitating childhood speech and social anxiety, gave me a community of friends, developed my self-confidence, and even a way to provide for myself throughout college.

It was the first thing on my mind upon waking up and the last thought before falling asleep. It consumed me, and I loved it.

And then I found a way to make magic my full-time living, through a combination of hard work, talent, and a lot of luck. It was the holy grail, what all young magicians dream of and so few achieve.

Ten years, thousands of audiences, two national recognitions, and multiple continents later… 

I hated magic.

Well, that’s not really fair. I missed loving magic.

Professionals must compromise

It’s a fact, not an indictment.

When you turn your passion into your profession, it changes from something you get to do into something you have to do. And this inevitably leads to compromise.

The Open Road

For instance, I spent most of those ten years flying to events nationwide. Flying means checking bags. Checking bags means obeying the 50 lb per bag policy on airlines, and paying exorbitant fees for additional bags, or additional weight. 

Every dollar spent checking bags was a dollar less to provide for my family, and every extra bag was one more variable that could get lost or damaged. A lost or damaged bag would set you back hours of dealing with customer service and frantically shopping in local stores to replace impossible-to-find custom magic items before that evening’s performance.

And so I eventually figured out how to “pack small and play big.” In other words, design a show that required the smallest number of props that could be performed to the largest number of people. I figured out how to pack my entire show, a show that could play to an audience of 1200 people in a medium-sized theater, into a single bag small enough to fit in the overhead rack on the plane. 

Becoming Secondary to Yourself

Yes, it was a wonderful creative exercise. But it was also a crushing creative compromise. There were plenty of tricks that I truly loved performing, that my audience would have really enjoyed witnessing, that simply didn’t fit in the bag. 

And at the end of the day I had to weigh my creative pursuits with the realities of being a professional touring act. My clients didn’t care about the tricks in the show. They cared that I was on time, unfrazzled, and delivered a predictably solid show no matter what the conditions. 

The magic was always secondary.

And if your passion is painting, writing, comedy, knitting, waterskiing, or kite-flying, you might be surprised to discover that turning that passion into a profession means you’ll spend less time than ever on the creative pursuit itself, and most of your time running a business.

Because when it’s the only way you provide for your family, the business has to come first.

Weekend-warrior: the best of all possible worlds

Many of those magicians who would take me for coffee had solid 9-5 jobs that paid $50-70,000 per year and provided health insurance, sick leave, vacation pay, and a 401k.

They loved magic, were just as excited about new tricks as when they first started, and occasionally did a paid gig on the weekends.

I was jealous, because it sounded like the perfect solution.

They got to pursue magic in its purest form, only and always do the tricks they wanted, say ‘yes’ to the gigs that were a perfect fit and ‘no’ to all the rest, because their livelihood didn’t depend on it. 

Meanwhile they had all the security (real or imagined) of a day job.

To top it off, many of these weekend warriors are the best magicians you’ll ever see. They aren’t worried about running a business 24-7 so they invest all their time into the magic itself, and are often vastly ‘better’ magicians than the full-timers. 

They are professional amateurs. 

The lucky few

Most full-timers are amateur professionals. They make a living from their art and are perfectly competent, but objectively no ‘better’ than the dedicated amateur. They are in business first, and artists second.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Once in a while, however, an artist will retain the best qualities of an amateur while also successfully running a business. I know a handful of them, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it.

It’s not for everyone

As a full-time magician I never quite cracked the code. At the height of my ‘success’ as a professional magician I was unsatisfied with my actual show. Sure, my clients were thrilled. My audiences loved it.

But I knew I was capable of so much more when unencumbered by the business that had taken over my life. 

And then an off-ramp opened up out of nowhere and I transitioned my career to writing, speaking, coaching, and consulting on human connection. In this new career I am finally one of the lucky few, capable of making a comfortable living while retaining an amateur’s mindset. I’m confident my work in this space is world class, and I simultaneously support my family.

Good things come…

Meanwhile as a magician I am back to being a professional amateur. And I absolutely love it. My livelihood no longer depends on magic. Of course I still do shows (virtually, these days), but I don’t need to take any, if I don’t want to. So I only accept the events that are the right fit for me and my interest in magic. 

I choose the tricks and stories that I’m most excited about, and rarely make any creative compromises. My skill as a magician is finally back to a level I’m proud of, and certainly better than it ever was as a full-timer. 

And most importantly, I adore magic again. My art is mine, and mine alone. And I get to pass along that joy to the clients and audiences I choose to work for.

Everybody wins.

Driving behind the tour bus

“I don’t believe in the “hustle and grind all the time” because people will cut you loose, and then what do you have for yourself?”

Listen to the episode.

Erin Jackson is a stand-up comic and comedy writer. She has appeared on Conan, Seth Meyers, and Ellen, opened for Dave Chappelle, and shared the stage with Jerry Seinfeld.

And yet, in her own words, you’ve probably never heard of her.

On this week’s episode of the Beyond Networking podcast, Erin I discuss the nuts and bolts of comedy, whether mainstream media still has the ability to break a comic’s career, self-confidence and validation, and how to connect with an audience.

Plus, Erin’s story of a “chance encounter with lasting impact” is one of my favorites in three seasons of this show.

Erin is one of the few creative professionals I know who has remained an amateur at heart. And when I asked to provide advice for professionals looking to build a sustainable career in an unpredictable world, she said simply: have a passion outside of your job.

Listen and learn more about Erin’s work here.

This article was originally posted as a blog at HumanConnection.blog

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