A Conversation and a Card Trick with Aspen Magician and Thinker, Eric Mead
“Most people, who are not only involved in magic but really big fans of magic for a long time, still have a misconception about what magicians are,” says Aspen magician Eric Mead. “There’s a huge spectrum. But the magicians that I like most—respect most—aren’t even on that spectrum. They’re in a different room, doing work that is aimed at really smart people. There are ideas behind magic besides what the trick part is.”
Confident yet a gentleman, Mead doesn’t place himself on the spectrum or in the room. Perhaps he works more in something like the Great Room, where library meets dining room meets living room: a locus of curiosity and question, observation and presentation.
A recent Indian summer’s conversation I had with Mead is an expansive, tangential flight.
“It’s where you find all the good things,” he says, leaning in. “If you stick to the plan, you find out what you thought you would find out. If you fly off on a tangent, you’ll find all the things you never would have even thought about.”
Acclaimed by peers Penn and Teller, lauded by Jeff Bezos, Mead has been featured on Ted Talks and NPR. Educator, writer, international speaker—magic informs all of it.
“Why does anything hook someone?” he muses. “Why do they take piano lessons for a year, and that becomes the driving thing in their life? Why does someone throw a baseball, and now that’s all they devote their time to, whatever it is? I can’t tell you why that is, but I can tell you—me and magic hooked like that.”
He explains, “Ever since I was seven, eight, nine years old, I’ve thought about magic every day. Whether I’m working, not working, on vacation, playing in the park with my family—it goes on, in my head. It’s a lot of imagination, dreaming of things that aren’t, and of interpreting things that exist, that are.”
“Is there something bigger in there?” Mead ponders. “I don’t know. I wonder if it’s the same question you could ask about some other kind of art. Take a painter. Did painting lead him to think of these things, or did he think about these things and express it through painting? In a certain way, it has to be both.”
The breadth of Mead’s career has been driven by curiosity and willingness.
“One of the things I like to do is to say ‘Yes’ when people ask me to try things and I’m not sure I can do it or not. I say, ‘Yes.’ And then I hang up the phone and say ‘Holy crap, I’ve got to figure out how to really do this now.’ Some of that has been frankly disastrous, of course,” Mead laughs. “Because it’s too far outside my skill set. But sometimes, it’s been surprisingly fruitful.”
As in some hocus pocus at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Mead was originally hired to perform magic and entertain. At a closing party, he commented offhandedly to one of the directors that a guidebook associated with a leadership course wasn’t aimed at the high school students using it. The director told him to “put his money where his mouth is,” inviting him to rewrite the guide. Upon six months of program research and interviewing, the guide Mead produced was so well received they asked him to teach the course. He did, for seven years.
While magic enchants an audience, chasing ideas enchants Mead.
His wife is a school teacher in Aspen. Their daughter is now four, and is a renewing portal to the world for Mead. As a family man, he has had to reconfigure the business model that once frequently took him far from home. Writing more has allowed Mead to enjoy his family and deepen his study of magic.
With numerous books to his credit, Mead’s current endeavor is a two-volume encyclopedic set, five years in the writing, with over 4,000 photographs.
“It’s a book not for the general public, it’s for magicians. It’s a very advanced ‘how to’ magic book; an immense amount of technical writing and a very tiny audience. The return on investment is ridiculous!” he chuckles.
Almost 20 years of incubation give rise to Mead’s next book, which explores the concept of deception in our culture. Tentatively titled “Misdirected,” it will be for the public.
“It’s about how the magician’s tool of misdirection is used by people who aren’t magicians. In other words, how controlling attention affects how people look at things, how people understand things: in politics, relationships, in sports and games, advertising, all of these arenas, in ways that are deceptive. Frequently we think of deception as negative,” he concedes, “but in some cases it can be a positive.”
Mead adds, “This is a difficult book. I’m a little bit afraid of doing this one, actually. I get in and out of my wheelhouse where I’m comfortable, my area of expertise. I’m writing a book now for the general public about magic in a vague way, related to other things. I don’t really know anything about politics except how I see misdirection being applied.by political operatives; there’s an immense amount of research that needs to be done, all so carefully fact-checked.”
In this role, Mead is stepping off the stage and into the audience, pulling back the curtain on the trickery. He admits the complexity.
“In this book, it’s important to me not to give away the secrets of magicians that would ruin it for someone going to see a magic show. If you read my book and therefore could figure out the tricks in the David Copperfield show, I would feel like I had done something wrong.”
Under azure autumn skies, Mead gestures to a freshly cracked box of playing cards on the patio table. An invitation.
“I won’t even touch it,” he promises. “Break the deck about halfway through and think of a card.”
I join in, trying to catch him along the way while my adult suspicion gives way to wonder—what’s going to happen here?
The finale is gleefully astonishing: how did he read my mind?
I did not scribe three of diamonds or seven of hearts, nor utter their names aloud. At no point did I ever see or touch the cards I envisioned; no clues along the way for him to know or reveal my cards. I was gobsmacked.
“The best and most interesting thing about magic,” he says, grinning, “is this very specific feeling you get when you’re confronted by something you think is impossible. You’re a rational adult human being. You recognize that it’s a magic trick; you recognize there’s a secret to it. But applying everything you know about the world to it, it seems impossible. And that brings up a certain kind of feeling and experience for people, which is the key thing that magic is about.”
Mead adds, “A dear, close friend of mine always said, ‘We don’t keep magic tricks secret from you, we keep them for you.’ And when you get to the deepest levels of what magic is, it is about connecting people.” He returns the cards to their box. “And this is what we’re doing.”