Perfection steals our starts. It gives us creative anxiety unnecessarily. We’re far more creative than we give ourselves credit for. How creative are you? As much as you think you are. We all like to do things we’re good at. We like to be seen by others doing things we’re good at. We’re typically embarrassed by doing things we’re bad at and choose to avoid them.
Loving the things you’ve never done before
In his book Presto!, Penn Jillette talks about loving to do things he’s never done before. He sees it as a fun challenge. He talks about how when he was on the Celebrity Apprentice, the other contestants would talk about their strengths, their wheelhouses, areas of expertise that they liked doing. And how much they hated doing things they thought they sucked at or had no idea how to do. For Penn, it was the opposite. His entire career has been built upon doing things he had no idea how to do, figuring them out, and then practicing them to get good, building new skill sets regularly. Penn became a master skill builder by doing these actions over and over again.
Embodying creativity and skill building
Nearly all of the tricks Penn & Teller perform have never been done before — they had to figure them out for themselves. They had to practice and grind and whittle away at the trick until they had it down as tight as possible. Penn says that the actual Penn & Teller show at the Rio isn’t the work. The work is all done behind the scenes practicing and grinding that nobody sees. Penn & Teller have made their careers on getting good at doing things they had no idea how to do when they began. This is the essence of creativity and skill building. They had to allow themselves to suck at something new while they figured out the best and safest way to pull off the stunt. Then, they practiced it again. Then, they practiced it again. Then, they practiced it again. Penn & Teller live professional skill development. In fact, they eat it for breakfast.
Penn further discusses being trained by a professional chef to go on TV cooking competitions. He says he had almost no cooking skills before he got his made-for-TV cooking training. To blow the judges’ minds, the professional chef had Penn make dishes that were loaded, really loaded, with salt and sugar. And he told Penn to serve them all with a story. A perfect fit for TV. Being a quick study, Penn got the dishes and stories down, taking on tasks he had idea on how to do and performed them well. While he didn’t win the TV cooking contest, he developed new skills in made-for-TV cooking and knows how to blow away television star foodies with his creations. He went from zero to competent in very little time.
Practice. Rehearse. Practice. Rehearse. Practice. Rehearse.
Perfection isn’t even on Penn & Teller’s radar when they’re trying to figure out a new trick. They’re simply trying new means and methods of pulling off the new actions without hurting themselves or others. It’s trial and error with no fear of looking bad in front of others as they iterate their way to success. Remember: they’ve never done this trick before. While they have decades of stage performance experience, Penn says that every new trick is starting over again. They have confidence in their ability to figure things out. Willingly doing things that you have no experience in is a wonderfully creative and courageous act. They realize they’re not going to get it immediately out of the gate. In fact, it may take them years before they get a trick to where they want it to be.
They wanted to figure out how to make Bessie, the cow dressed as an elephant, disappear. They worked on this trick for six years behind the scenes before Penn & Teller deemed it worthy of their show. The Bessie disappearing trick is now a part of their act, but it took them years get the gag to where they wanted it: safe, fun, reliable, and repeatable.
Broken down into its component parts, the Penn & Teller act is really about practice, taking chances and learning. It is a terrific statement of courage to say they take on things regularly that they have no idea how to do. Almost no one does this. Great entertainers are constantly working on their act, honing it, changing it, tossing parts of it they feel no longer fit, and learning how to do something new they’ve never done before. They are all about the challenge of it. They can feel the growth that comes from stretching themselves regularly, and it energizes them and their act. They regularly embrace the discomfort of doing things they’ve never done before and enjoy the time they spend there figuring it out.
Love what you do.
Lastly, both Penn & Teller love what they do. They are 100% engaged in their act and in the practice and rehearsal it takes to pull it off each night. They love the learning, the embracing of discomfort, the trial and error. They also do a lot more than only the act itself. Penn states they only have around 12 hours per week involved in the actual act. Everything else is the marketing they do in order to get people to come and see them. They write books. They do interviews. They’re on podcasts. They’re on Stern. They do TV regularly. They take the act on the road. They do what they feel is necessary to get people to come see them at the Penn & Teller theatre in Las Vegas.