Penn Jillette & Performance Wisdom

Penn Fraser Jillette (born March 5, 1955) is an American illusionist, comedian, musician, actor, and best-selling author known for his work with fellow magician Teller in the team Penn & Teller. He is also known for his advocacy of atheism, scientific skepticism, libertarianism and free-market capitalism.

For all of my life I’ve had an unusual career. And for all of that time, I’ve tried as much as possible to decline social invitations that involve standing around with strangers who ask the perennial go-to ice breaker, “so what do you do?

More often than not, what follows after my short as possible job description is some form or another of confusion: “Oh, you teach Karate? My little cousin has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do?

Over the last few years I’ve managed to turn that phenomena around a bit. Instead of focusing on what I do, which to me, is fairly boring since I am well informed on exactly what I do – I focus on what others do, especially those who are successful within their field. Taxi drivers, fisherman, chefs, surfers, fire fighters, electricians, magicians, if they’re good, they are usually, also, fascinating. Why? Because good absent passion is both rare and dull (beyond the mechanics). The more outstanding we are at any given human task, the more likely we are to truly love it. It isn’t being good that creates the love, it’s the being in love that creates the good.

Penn Jillette, is one of my favorite fascinating people. He’s an excellent performer, yes. Penn & Teller are outstanding at what they do. But, he’s also a talented writer, and by definition, an interesting thinker. He’s straight forward, clear, and intellectually stimulating. And while I’ve tried, I have yet to come up with a higher compliment for any author or performer than – they make me think.

One thing I’ve noticed, which is probably as obvious to some as it is accurate, is that a lot of intriguing-clear thinkers who are good at what they do, share common traits. Those tendencies, like all things that are fundamentally true, transcend venue. They are universally applicable, regardless of your craft. When I read this short interview this morning, I was immediately reminded me of that.

I’ve highlighted some gems, and you’ll find the full link below. Enjoy.

On skill: “…it’s passion and mechanics. If someone is phenomenally skilled, we watch. And if someone has unbelievable passion, we watch. Very rarely do we get people who do both at once”
On performance: “I grew up in a dead factory town in a school system that taught absolutely nothing. But there was one substitute teacher, one time, who told me a valuable thing. He said, “No one cares about what you write or say. They’re looking for any excuse to not read or listen. You have to make sure they don’t have one.” And boy, that applies to everything. No one wants to hear your stupid speech. So if you stutter, or ramble, or if the sound system is bad, everybody in the audience is relieved; they think, “Oh, good, we can go on daydreaming.” When you go out on stage, you’ve got the opening two minutes to get the audience thinking, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever heard” or “This is grabbing my heart and changing my life.” So it’s passion and mechanics.”
On discipline: “You have to have discipline. Every performance teacher will tell you that you must be in the moment. You must be mindful. That’s really, really important. Of course, I’ve also seen and experienced situations where automatic pilot takes over and the performances are perhaps better.”
On weight loss: when people say, “Boy, I can’t imagine how hard it was to lose that weight,” I say, “It turns out hard things are fun, and easy things aren’t.” I’m proud.
On management: I was once told by a very wise person in business, “You don’t find people for the job, you create them.”
Thank you, Penn. And please, keep talking.