Letters #11/12: Penn and Teller

On Creativity, Performing, Values, Decision-Making, and Family.

Hi there! I go by KG, and I love studying the history of business and investing. I’ll be sharing some notes from one Investor/Shareholder letter per weekday (mostly from my compilations) here.

Today’s notes are actually on TWO letters: one each from each member of esteemed magic duo Penn and Teller. While they aren’t directly related to business, there are a lot of lessons regarding creativity, performing, values, and decision-making that any businessman, entrepreneur, developer can learn from.

Teller’s essay is an email reply he sent to Brian Bushwood, a then-struggling magician who was having trouble creating. He sent Teller an email (essentially lambasting him for being too creative and demoralizing him), to which Teller responded with the following email, sharing his philosophy on performing and creating.

You can read both Brian’s initial email and Teller’s reply here.

Penn’s essay is a letter to himself he wrote in 2015, writing about what he would tell himself if he could send a letter 10 years back. In this letter, he reflects on his weight loss journey (over 100 pounds), and touches upon honestly, family, and “hardness.”

You can read Penn’s letter to himself here.

If you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see, let me know!

Teller Notes

Now, calm down. Remind yourself of a few things.

  • The first thing that Teller does is calm Brian’s nerves — if you read Brian’s letter, it’s very clear he’s in deep distress, and kind of going through a mid-life crisis and questioning everything: his passion, his career, himself.

I am 47. I have been earning my living in show business for twenty years. I have been doing magic since I was five, which makes it 42 years. And I had the good fortune to (a) meet Penn and (b) become an off-Broadway hit at the exact right moment in time.

When we started we HAD no style, no understanding of ourselves or what we were doing. We had feelings, vague ones, a sense of what we liked, maybe, but no unified point of view, not even a real way to express our partnership. We fought constantly and expected to break up every other week. But we did have a few things, things I think you might profit from knowing:

We loved what we did. More than anything. More than sex. Absolutely.

We always felt as if every show was the most important thing in the world, but knew if we bombed, we'd live.

  • This is one of the best mentalities to have. It’s like my dad used to say, “Treat every practice as if it was the world championship, and the match/game/performance as if it was just practice.”

  • Take everything seriously — but no that it’s not the end of the world if you bomb

We did not start as friends, but as people who respected and admired each other. Crucial, absolutely crucial for a partnership. As soon as we could afford it, we ceased sharing lodgings. Equally crucial.

We made a solemn vow not to take any job outside of show business. We borrowed money from parents and friends, rather than take that lethal job waiting tables. This forced us to take any job offered to us. Anything. We once did a show in the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia as part of a fashion show on a hot July night while all around our stage, a race-riot was fully underway. That's how serious we were about our vow.

  • No Plan Bs. If you have a Plan B, you’re not all in on Plan A. Be a cockroach.

  • Go all in.

Get on stage. A lot. Try stuff. Make your best stab and keep stabbing. If it's there in your heart, it will eventually find its way out. Or you will give up and have a prudent, contented life doing something else.

  • Get started then just keep iterating

  • Inertia Framework: An object at rest stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion. Once you get the ball rolling, it’s easier to keep going

  • If you don’t really love something, it will show, and you’ll end up doing something else. If you do really love it, you’ll keep going back to it. This is why so many startups start as side projects — the founders just keep going back and hacking at an idea.

Penn sees things differently from the way I do. But I really feel as if the things we create together are not things we devised, but things we discovered, as if, in some sense, they were always there in us, waiting to be revealed, like the figure of Mercury waiting in a rough lump of marble.

  • Have a partner with a different perspective — you don’t want someone who has the same worldview as you. Opposites attract, and when they meet, magic happens

  • Devising makes it sound boring, discovering makes it sound exciting. When you discover something, it’s like a secret that only you know — it’s a childlike feeling that never gets old

Have heroes outside of magic. Mine are Hitchcock, Poe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bach. You're welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons. Then they'll push you in the right direction.

  • Be interdisciplinary. Don’t simply stay within your field (Hence why I’m writing about two magicians instead of two businessmen here)

  • It’s okay to borrow ideas, but you have to make them your own — this is an important distinction. Many people, especially “so-called value investors” (not actual ones) simply copy the trades of their favorite investors and claim they only source through Buffett or Munger and then do additional analysis to reverse engineer the trades — if you actually do, great. But if not, don’t bother.

  • Choose the right role models — they’ll push you in the right direction. Or as consultants like to say “directionally correct”

Here's a compositional secret. It's so obvious and simple, you'll say to yourself, "This man is bullshitting me." I am not. This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it. Ready?

  • My favorite Andy Benoit quote: “Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

  • Some “secrets” are viewed as low-hanging fruit so people ignore them. Other times people just don’t put in the work.

Surprise me.

  • SURPRISE. The element of surprise, when done correctly, is truly powerful. Think of Teller’s inspirations — the first one he mentions is Hitchcock. A master of suspense and surprise. Another is Shakespeare. Same thing. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

That's it. Place 2 and 2 right in front of my nose, but make me think I'm seeing 5. Then reveal the truth, 4!, and surprise me.

  • Surprise, surprise surprise. Everyone loves (good) surprises.

Now, don't underestimate me, like the rest of the magicians of the world. Don't fool yourself into thinking that I've never seen a set of linking rings before and I'll be oh-so-stunned because you can "link" them. Bullshit.

  • Be intellectually honest. Be intellectually honest. Don’t do something that someone else has done before. You can build on what others have done, but you HAVE TO MAKE IT YOUR OWN.

  • It’s the same as what he said about heroes — “You’re welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them for your own reasons.”

  • Fun note — if you look at Fool Us!, you’ll see that magicians who do spins on old tricks rarely fool Penn and Teller, but magicians who create their own magic — they often do fool them.

Here's how surprise works. While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information. Feed it to me little by little. Make me try and figure out what's going on. Tease me in one direction. Throw in a false ending. Then turn it around and flip me over.

  • Study Hitchcock. Learn suspense. Give me hints, lead me on, tease me. It’s very much a game of cat and mouse.

I do the old Needle trick. I get a guy up on stage, who examines the needles. I swallow them. He searches my mouth. They're gone. I dismiss him and he leaves the stage. The audience thinks the trick is over. Then I take out the thread. "Haha! Floss!" they exclaim. I eat the floss. Then the wise ones start saying, "Not floss, thread. Thread. Needles. Needles and thread. Ohmygod he's going to thread the need..." And by that time they're out and sparkling in the sunshine.

  • Classic

Read Roald Dahl. Watch the old Alfred Hitchcock episodes. Surprise. Withold information. Make them say, "What the hell's he up to? Where's this going to go?" and don't give them a clue where it's going. And when it finally gets there, let it land. An ending.

  • Draw inspiration from anywhere. Read books. Watch movies. Learn from other disciplines.

  • The ending needs a twist.

It took me eight years (are you listening?) EIGHT YEARS to come up with a way of delivering the Miser's Dream that had surprises and an ENDING.

  • Coming up with a good surprise AND an ending is difficult — it took Teller, one of the greatest magicians of all time, EIGHT YEARS to nail down one trick

Love something besides magic, in the arts. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, we'll THERE'S an opening.

  • Be interdisciplinary. Have many loves.

  • Interesting thought — if we think about some of the greatest thinkers and fathers of their fields, often they take concepts from another field, apply it to theirs, and all of a sudden are super insightful. Think of the Margin of Safety. Engineers have known this concept for centuries — but Ben Graham was the first to articulate and apply it to finance — and he’s been immortalized as the Father of Value Investing (yes, it wasn’t just MoS, but you get the point)

  • You can’t be someone else in your field. But you can be someone else from a DIFFERENT field. Because that’s still unique — you’re taking something from another field, and becoming that person for your field

I should be a film editor. I'm a magician. And if I'm good, it's because I should be a film editor. Bach should have written opera or plays. But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint. That's why his counterpoints have so much more point than other contrapuntalists. They have passion and plot. Shakespeare, on the other hand, should have been a musician, writing counterpoint. That's why his plays stand out from the others through their plot and music.

  • Build up skills from other areas. If you build up skills in other areas, and transfer them to your field, you’re essentially creating something new. It may seem “inspired,” but if you do it well, you’ll make it your own

I'm tired now. I've been writing to you, my dear bastard son, for 45 minutes merely because, tonight, I'm remembering that evening I first met your mother in Rio, during Carnival...ah!...and how we loved!

  • “Bastard son” is an inside joke, see the original source (linked above) to see why

  • Teller took 45 minutes out of his day to reply to a then-struggling magician whom he had met only once after a show

  • Teller knows how to keep things entertaining, sharing in and referencing (several times) the inside joke in a clever way.

Penn Notes

You’re wicked fat. People think they are being kind by not telling you that. But even if they did tell you that, you’re strong enough to not be swayed by peer pressure. You’re strong enough to not be swayed by vanity. You’re strong enough to not be swayed by the advice of your doctor. You are strong enough to not be swayed by the fact that you take a handful of pills every morning and night to keep your blood pressure where it is: a red . . . hair from stroking out.

  • You’re mentally strong, but physically weak. As they say in China, “strong body, strong mind” — you can’t be strong in one area without the other. As Charlie Munger says, “you mix raisins and turd, all you get is turd”

  • Penn starts off immediately by being brutally honest with yourself. “You’re wicked fat.” Most people would wilt at the sound of those words coming out of anyone’s mouth.

  • Being “strong enough” isn’t always good — or true

Our hero Bob Dylan sang, “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” and you pride yourself at having the strength to do that. The New York Times and the government tell you to take better care of yourself and you have a few Krispy Kreme doughnuts and feel like you’re sticking it to the man. You aren’t. I can tell you what no one else dares to tell you: you are exactly like everyone else.  You are not honest – you are living well inside the law and you’re doing that by lying to yourself.

  • Not only do you have to be intellectually honest, you have to have the courage to act on that honestly

  • No one will be 100% honest with you, not your spouse, not your parents. Only you can be 100%, totally, and completely, honest with yourself

  • You think you’re unique, but you’re really not. This is what makes the Thiel Question so interesting: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

You want to really live outside the law?  Get healthy. Your beautiful daughter, Moxie, just turned six months old. You found out today that your next baby, who’s going to be born May 22nd 2006, will be a boy. You’ll name him Zolten. Start telling people now it means “king” in Hungarian, so you’re naming him after Elvis, because you won’t think of that joke on your own until he’s three months old.

  • Common sense isn’t so common. Health is something everybody knows about, but no one follows through on — just look at America and obesity rates.

You’re a way-old dad. You were fifty when Mox was born, and your life expectancy at your present weight is about another 15 years. Remember how you couldn’t stop crying for a full year after your dad died?  You were forty-five then.  How do you think Mox and Zz are going to deal with you dropping dead of fat when they’re just teenagers, you selfish prick?

  • Even if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids.

I’ve got an idea, why don’t you grow some gonads and stop eating S.A.D. (Standard American Diet)? Why don’t you live outside the law and care more about your family than you care about hype?  You didn’t listen to the Eagles – you listened to Sun Ra. You didn’t watch Seinfeld – you read Nicholson Baker. You didn’t drink beer – you learned to juggle. How come you eat like everyone else?

  • You’re so unique in so many ways. Why be the same at anything at all? You’ve found success by being different, so keep being different. Don’t eat like everyone else.

  • Family + Values > Hype

I’m sorry, Penn, but you’re going to eat like a hippie. You’re going to be mostly vegan (but UNethical vegan  – no ideology, just health). You’re going to stay away from refined grains, salt, oil and sugar. You’re going to just eat whole plants. The hippies were wrong about The Grateful Dead and socialism, but they were right about love and diet. You’re a fifty-year-old man with a ponytail; you can be seen eating cruciferous vegetables.

  • Important distinction here — not ideology, just health.

  • People can be wrong about some stuff, but right about others. Don’t disregard people just people you disagree with them on one or a few things. As the saying goes, “I’ve never met someone so dumb that I couldn’t learn anything from them”

  • Make fun of yourself — a 50 yr old man with a ponytail haha

Here’s something you’ll like – at first, weight loss is really hard. You need to take off in a few months what you put on in a few decades. Enjoy the difficulty. Everything you love in life, everything you’re proud of, you had to work for. That’s why you’re proud of it. Don’t believe the hype that there are easy ways to get healthy. Live outside the law. Be honest. It’s easy once you get there, but it’s difficult to start. You’re bucking the whole system. The law says make things easy – so do things that are hard! Everything you love was hard to do: Juggling, playing bebop jazz on upright bass, catching a bullet in your teeth, working with Teller, being married, raising children, even reading Moby Dick was hard. All the things that make life worth living take work. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t go on any diet that’s easy and makes small changes. Penn, please go crazy. Obsess. Change. Have fun.

  • Obsess. Change. Have fun.

  • If things are too easy, they’re not fun. Well, maybe they are at first, but it gets old quick too. Do stuff that’s hard — you’ll feel more accomplished afterwards.

  • Don’t buy into the hype — the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

  • Small change build up over time — The power of compounding is the 8th wonder of the world.

Live outside the law – and live there for a long time!

  • Be DIFFERENT. Don’t follow everyone else. Stay different. Different is good. As Kaycee Rice says, “Be a WEIRDO

Oh, and by the way, on November 24, 2008, buy all the shares you can of (ass)Whole Food at $4.01 and sell it on November 29, 2013 at $64.95 – in ten years, you’ll be wicked thin, wicked healthy, and wicked rich.

  • “Wicked thin, wicked healthy, and wicked rich” sounds a whole lot better than “healthy, wealthy and wise”

With love to your fat ass,

  • Always good to be self-deprecating and witty


If you’ve got any thoughts, questions, or feedback, please drop me a line - I would love to chat! You can find me on twitter at @kgao1412 or my email at kevin@12mv2.com.

Please DM or email me any time — to share non-obvious intel, views and correct or solicit mine. I appreciate your continued support and partnership :D.

All compilations here.