I Believe

I believe.

That’s the mantra my fellow Canadians are chanting to encourage Canadian athletes to deliver gold at the Winter Olympics. The games, as you know, open this Friday in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. The expectations are high and the pundits predict that this will be Canada’s most successful Winter games.

The Olympics gives cause to reflect on the amount of practice and perseverance required for success. I’ve often spoke about my son and his skating coach who informed him that it took 800 repetitions before a movement became embedded into muscle memory; and that Olympians generate over 16,000 repetitions to achieve a modicum of success. I suspect that number is a conservative one.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell – a Canadian – mentions the “10,000 hour rule”, namely that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any area or endeavour. I have certainly logged over 10,000 hours of practice and plan on logging easily that many more hours. It is easy to do if one views practice as part of the process rather than the end goal.

Recently, while conducting research on Max Malini (mentioned in an earlier post), I came across an article published in March 1920 in The Magical Bulletin (Vol. 8, No. 3) in which the author, Edward H. Philbrook, spoke with Malini about the secret of his success. It wasn’t Malini’s technical virtuosity or bold personality that made him successful; the real secret was “rehearsal”.

Interestingly, Margaret Wente in her Globe and Mail column “Have you done your 10,000 hours”, discusses an alternate point of view Steven Pinker, another Canadian, tables in his book The Blank Slate. Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, claims that innate talent and intelligence matter more than we like to openly champion. We emphasize the power of hard work – 10,000 hours – because it is politically correct.

While I believe talent, intelligence, practice and persistence are all required, practice and persistence are key. The reason being there are now so many talented and intelligent people in this world, one must look to other factors – practice and persistence – to separate those who truly excel from those who don’t. Persistence, what Canadians call ‘heart’, has always been our strong suit. When it comes to ice hockey, however, as I’m sure these games will demonstrate, the playing field – or ice – is now much more level. Canadians, and Americans, have adopted the best practices of European skill development; Europeans now understand the importance of heart and tenacity. Now, it’s anyone’s game.

Perhaps it comes down to a matter of faith. If so, that’s good.

I believe.


Size Matters

It’s nice to know that something you secretly suspected may just be true.

Size matters.

We’re talking about the size of your hand, of course, and the ability to perform sophisticated sleight-of-hand.

A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that, in this case, the small guy wins.

Layman, that is the general public, and – I suspect – most magicians, believe that the larger the hand, the easier it is to perform sleight-of-hand; that it must be easier to ‘hide’ things with big mitts.

Vernon, whose hand was of modest proportions, indicated that a smaller hand was no impediment to performing superb sleight-of-hand. He informed Lewis Ganson, editor of Malini and his Magic, that Max Malini, one of the great magicians of the twentieth century, had a small hand with short and pudgy fingers, and yet could perform miraculous feats of card conjuring, and such bold illusions as making a block of ice appear underneath a borrowed hat.

I myself have rather small hands; broad but small. Riffle shuffle work, however, has built up the muscles around my phalanges so that there are no gaps or spaces – magicians call them “windows” – between my fingers. They are strong.

Daniel Goldreich, a professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario – alma mater of both the late master magicians John Booth and Doug Henning, suggests, if I interpret the findings correctly, that smaller hands are more sensitive hands. We are given, for example, a finite number of sensors at the fingertips regardless of the size of the digit. This means that, in larger hands, the sensitivity is spread out across a greater surface. Small hands, with smaller fingers, pack the same number of sensors in a more confined area, giving the holder a more sensitive touch.

While traditionally women have been flagged for the sensitivity of their fingers, it turns out it is due more to the size of their hands rather than their gender. This goes a long way, the study suggests, to explain why people with fine motor skills, such as surgeons – and I might add gratuitously, sleight-of-hand artists – have smaller hands.

Thankfully while the index finger appears to be the most sensitive, other fingers can be trained. This certainly explains why, after years of dedicated practice, strip-out shuffle work can, indeed, be performed with such a fine tolerance.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!