Skip to content ↓

magicians by Vincent H. '23

trying to learn magic

in april my friend recommended the excellent article becoming a magician

Not only is any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic; any sufficiently advanced technologist seems like a magician…
Even though he placed first and I placed fifth and logically we both existed on a scale of ‘competence at bodypainting’ it seemed like the skills required were completely different. You could not simply scale up my abilities and get Sanatan’s. You would have had to step back and build something completely different altogether. When I speak to Sanatan… I don’t get any closer to a mental model that would allow me to paint like that. It seems to require completely different mental inputs entirely…
That, in fact, is my definition of magic – competence so much more advanced than yours with such alien mental models that you cannot predict the outcomes of the model at all. If you asked me to imitate the work of any of the top 20 bodypainters, I could give you a fair imitation, given enough time and access to reference images. With his work I have no idea.

then they asked me what i would want to become a magician in, and for a while i wasn’t sure. most technical work doesn’t feel like magic to me – for instance, i’m fluent enough in math and cs that i can more or less understand the workflow of professional mathematicians (other than ramanujan i suppose) and software engineers, and i think with some effort i’d be able to understand what goes on in wet labs and mechanical engineering

eventually i came up with an answer: some people are very good at reassuring others and inspiring them and making them feel better about themselves. i have only ever been able to do this passively, eg. via being a good listener or leading by example. when i see someone who can consistently do this in a more active manner, through direct words and actions, that to me is magic

in february one of my friends was complaining about their social life. i want to be the kind of person everyone wants to date, they said jokingly. then they followed that up with a more serious statement: it’s really hard to be noticed, so i want to be the kind of person that everyone notices in a room full of people

i agreed with the first part of that sentiment: i find it difficult to get people to pay attention to me in large social settings, particularly because i specialize in two-to-three-person conversations and tend to zone out in significantly larger groups. but on the other hand, i didn’t really like any of the people i knew who were very good at grabbing peoples’ attention; they all felt inauthentic and impersonal, and my interactions with them tended to feel more like entertainment than conversations. as a result i wasn’t sure if the skill of getting peoples’ attention was something i actually wanted to pursue

this summer i met a magician. someone who was extremely authentic and down-to-earth in conversation, and also very entertaining and fluent in ways that didn’t compromise on substance or truth. i felt endlessly drawn to their presence, and in large groups i could feel them sparkling and glowing. they shattered my conception of the tradeoffs in social interaction and existed far outside what i thought the realm of possibility was, and for the first time in my life i understood what the narrator of looking for alaska must have felt when he said “if people were rain, i was a drizzle and she was a hurricane”

since then i’ve gotten much better at noticing when i encounter a magician in my life. and like i mentioned earlier, almost all the magic i’ve found has been non-academic in nature. that’s part of why i haven’t been as enthusiastic about classes this semester – i am trying to become a magician, and while many mit classes are interesting, at the moment very few of them feel like magic to me (the main exception is 6.2540 nanotechnology: from atoms to systems, which is why i am enrolled in the class)

recognizing magic has left me feeling ordinary, dull, unremarkable. i feel a unique flavor of powerlessness in the presence of magicians, and that feeling is incredibly inspiring