Monday, February 28, 2011


As Jurgen Apelo shows, people don't trust magic. Oracles, witches, magicians, and even mad scientists have long lived on the fringes of society. A colleague of mine considers the word 'magic' a sign of incompetence or an over-reliance on luck. For Jurgen, magic is the art of illusion. Rather, he prefers the scientific method--repeatable, and rational: "When determining whether something exists or not, rely on the words of the scientists, not the hands of the magicians." But is there nothing good in magic? I recently went to a re-creation of a medieval warlock's workshop--and was captivated by the wonder and excitement he inspired in my children. As a person who focused on chemistry in undergraduate school, none of this show was new to me--I could picture the chemicals he'd chosen, explain the colors, smoke and fire, and remember working with some of these materials myself. Was the warlock's work all an illusion, all unreal?  I do see that his storytelling was not an explanation of the chemistry, but what is his purpose in the show? Can we dismiss it because it is not serious? What about learning through play, the agile trend to play serious games, and multi-sensory learning in today's schools?
What is more likely to create a a desire to learn more about science--a magic show, or a dry lecture? I think that the test for what is real is misguided--why limit ourselves to what is real right now? To an extreme: is the wonder and excitement our children feel after hearing fairy tales an illusion? No! Their hope, their hearts full of wishes, drives them to play, to experiment, to try new things. Magic unleashes our imaginations, it is the key difference between humans and machines, it is the ability to act irrationally against a set of known laws and scenarios. Instead of mistrusting magic, let's use it to our benefit.

What is Magic?

To me, magic is using uncommon knowledge to produce dramatic change. Another key element of magic is the artistry--the holistic view, as opposed to the scientific analysis. Science brings us understanding, reproducibility; magic brings us inspiration and discovery. It is that which gets our feet tapping to good music, it is the way good food makes us want to share it with others, it is the power a good story or show has over our emotions. Magic is that which gives us life energy, the contagious, social power that makes us human--simply, it is passion for the work we do, it is love. Magic is what makes work fun!

How do we bring magic to work? It's hardly prescriptive. Magic may use science, timing, charisma, skill, or craft, but is more than any of these--it is an art. Just as jokes go stale, magic only mystifies when it's fresh. Furthermore, a true magician has rehearsed and knows how to handle an unexpected turn of events. We show people things they can't make sense of. We support the irrational, and we bring magic into work by staying current, by keeping healthy amounts of slack, and by practicing in a playful manner, both at work and after work.

Magic--Making Ideas Real
In a lab environment, a scientist is trying to control for variables and principles that are not yet fully understood.  Science makes history repeat itself--but magic is the key to creating something new: invention is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. This environment makes inspiration more likely, but only rarely does one make a breakthrough to a great, new idea. All of this makes me believe that we need more magic in the software development world, just as Beck has urged us to "embrace change", and as Ghandi encourages, "be the change you wish to see in the world". It is not more control, more repeatability we need in this world--that's why we hand off the most boring tasks to machines. What we need more of is magic/inspiration. Rather than asking if something is real, let's imagine the possibilities brought to us by magic--the suspension of disbelief--the creativity lurking behind our self-imposed barriers.

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