The business leader’s guide to magic

Magician David Kwong on the principles of illusion and how to stay a step ahead

First, he tossed a Rubik’s Cube in the air. It twirled a few times before landing in his palm, solved.

Then he asked a volunteer to draw a dinosaur on a dollar bill. Ten minutes later, he pulled that same dollar bill out of an uncut kiwi.

It’s magic! Indeed it is — the handiwork of magician, cruciverbalist, TV producer, and now author David Kwong who forged an unlikely career path by combining his passions into “a new super steroid nerdy magic.”

Earlier this month, prior to all the hocus pocus, Kwong sat down with Slack’s Julie Kim to chat about his debut book Spellbound: Seven Principles of Illusion to Captivate Audiences and Unlock the Secrets of Success.


Slack: We met a couple years ago, after I saw you perform in Seattle. After the show, a bunch of us were hanging out at a bar, and you obliged the crowd with some signature card tricks. You were three feet in front of us and trick after trick, furnishing cards from nowhere. People were not in awe; they were aghast — baffled, shouting, lying in fetal position. In a Wired column, writer Jon Mooallem called it “sorcery at close range.”

Is this a common reaction to your work? Why do we unravel when our brains fail us so?

Kwong: Well, your brain’s already imperfect. It jumps to conclusions, I call it the magical gap. And magicians play in that gap — we complete the story for you. So we’re always a step (or two or three) ahead.

I think in this age as we’re getting more and more digital and everything is on a screen, at a remove, when you see something right in front of you that’s analog and uses the two hands, it’s even more impactful.

There’s lots of different kinds of magic — stage magic, for example, which we call grand illusion. But close-up sleight of hand is still the most memorable.


Spellbound book cover


Slack: Your profession relies on secrets. But you wrote Spellbound, in part, to dispel the myth of magic. You say it quite clearly: here are the seven principles of illusion and guess what, they can be learned.

Kwong: Yeah, 99% of magicians pretend they have superpowers in some way or another. There’s a small group of us — Penn and Teller and other sleight-of-hand artists — who acknowledge up front that it’s all tricks, the science of misdirection and being ahead. And that’s my approach as well.

Probably because I come out of the puzzle world, oh that’s the other thing…I’ve basically taken the world’s nerdiest hobbies — magic and puzzles — and made them into a career. My parents are super proud.


It wasn’t until about six years ago that I decided to cross-pollinate them into a new super steroid nerdy magic.


Slack: How does one become a magician-cruciverbalist, exactly?

Kwong: I’ve been solving puzzles everyday since I was a kid, and I started constructing crosswords when I was 20 years old. And I’ve been doing magic since I was seven, but neither one of these was a profession.

It wasn’t until about six years ago that I decided to cross-pollinate them into a new super steroid nerdy magic.

I was sitting at my desk at DreamWorks Animation — I had a normal professional day job. So there I am working on Kung Fu Panda 9, and a light bulb turned on: I should put these things together. And I came up with my signature trick which involves a New York Times crossword puzzle that I create onstage. I construct it as quickly as I can, and hide secret messages in it. And that caught the attention of [New York Times Crossword Editor] Will Shortz.

I’m a preacher of cross-pollination. If you can take one thing you’re an expert in, and put it into another field that’s stagnant, you will create something new.

Slack: Thinking about always being steps ahead of your audience — what can people who are building and selling a product learn from you?

Kwong: Well, the first thing we need to address: is magic not inherently manipulative, and are you deceiving people? You can take it that way, but I’m asking you to use your powers for good. There are ways you can use illusion to increase your own command and control in life to get a step ahead. That’s the spirit of what I’m talking about.

There’s a great thought that Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler put out called nudging. When you’re a leader and you know what you want your employees to do, you empower them to make decisions themselves — you just give them a little nudge. It’s like in a school cafeteria, putting the healthy food at eye level. Everything is free choice, but I’m going to put this right here in front of you.

If you’re in sales, when you’re negotiating, you know where you want things to go. But you’re going to be more successful if you empower the person on the other side of the table to get to that decision themselves, rather than strong-arming them.

Then when they come to the decision themselves, they’re more emotionally invested in it, and everybody wins and everybody’s happy. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting people to want what must be done” — which I really like.

Slack: You really dig Eisenhower. You quote him a lot.

Kwong: He breaks things down in a way that I like. He’s what we call a choice architect. He changes the choice environment in which people make decisions. That also comes from Thaler and Sunstein.

Slack: There are lots of products out there. What advice do you have for business leaders looking to make theirs stand out in a crowded field?

Kwong: Misdirection is a magician’s greatest tool. To liken it back to filmmaking, I often say that a good magician, like a good director, can control where you’re looking. If they’re really good, they can also influence what you’re feeling.

One of the most legendary magicians, a guy named Tommy Wonder (that was his stage name) said that misdirection is the art of giving your audience something of greater interest, and entering it into the frame. So it’s not dropping a platter of metal dishware on stage…like, that’s pretty bad misdirection.

But if I’m performing a magic show and I make a bird appear, everyone’s going to look at it and be like, “Holy shit, where did that bird come from? That’s awesome.” That’s an effective use of controlling the frame.

There’s a lot of that in politics these days.

Slack: Is that the good kind of magic or bad kind of magic?

Kwong: The great magician James Randi calls illusionists “honest liars” because they tell you they are going to fool you and then they fool you.

Politicians are probably just dishonest liars.


Since working on this story, Julie Kim hasn’t been able to get “Abracadabra” out of her head.


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