The Insider | John Guastaferro

By Damian Jennings - Monday, January 28, 2019

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This week’s episode of The Insider features a fascinating chat with John Guastaferro about marketing and magic, business and magic, music and magic and, of course, magic.

His highly acclaimed book One Degree (get a free sample from the book) set the magic world on fire with its brilliant thinking and clear and concise methods. But, don’t just take my word for why John G is interesting:

John is unquestionably one of the best minds in magic today… a master of the art. —Jack Carpenter

Few creators in our field are so gifted that they leave the patina of their ingenuity on everything they touch – John Guastaferro belongs to this select lot. —David Regal

There, that should have whetted your appetite. So, enough of my ramblings, let’s get on with the show. And remember, if you enjoy The Insider, there’s no Patreon, no advertising, all I ask you to do is tell a friend, or leave a nice review.

Transcript of the podcast

The Insider: Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of The Insider brought to you by Vanishing Inc. This week we're lucky enough to have on the line John Guastaferro. John, you've got 37 seconds. What's your origin story?

John G: Hello. Guastaferro is an Italian last name. Although I wasn't born in Italy, my grandparents were, and I just grew up in an Italian family. I did a tour of Europe across eight countries last year, and I was lucky enough to visit Venice which is pretty amazing. But yeah, that's my background. I'm a dad of two daughters and a husband and live here in Anaheim, California.

The Insider: So marketing and magic. How do you combine your business skills and your magic skills? Do you think there's a crossover there?

John G: I definitely do think there's a crossover. I think for me it's fairly unique, especially this past year because of my business background. I'm currently the CEO of a foundation here in Anaheim, California, so I love marketing and philanthropy. But I also love magic. So I have been doing a fair amount of consulting and speaking and corporate training where I infuse magic. So that's one big crossover between marketing and magic. And I realize for magicians too it's important to market ourselves. And I think that's really important to have quality and understanding of your brand.

John G: There's one essay in my book One Degree where I talk about the napkin approach, meaning how would you express your brand visually on a napkin? So I truly believe it's important to understand what your personal brand is. And there's so many other thoughts on that. But I try my best to weave in thoughts during my lectures and in my books about branding and what that truly means and how that expresses visually from social media posts, your websites, how you even verbally talk about yourself.

The Insider: So we both do marketing, but a lot of magicians don't. So let's start with what do you think a brand is when it's a personal brand? Can you define that for me?

John G: I can and I don't want to get too technical, but I look at a brand as a promise. I know it sounds kind of fluffy. But any good brand is much more than a logo, it's a promise. And I think there's four stages to this promise. First of all, you have to know what the promise is. So as a magician, what is that promise, that stake that you put in the ground for all you say and do? How do you want to be known by your audience? You have to know it first, then you have to share it. So that's where the true marketing comes in. How do you express your brand promise whether it be through Instagram posts or eblasts or your website and everything. So that's the sharing part of it. But you don't stop there.

John G: The third stage of your brand promise is to fulfil it, meaning suppose you put out some marketing and it's lead to a client calling you. They've come up with an expectation already about what your brand promise is. So the worst thing you could do is then have a gig and not deliver on this promise that you've stated so eloquently. And then the last part is to keep your promise over time. You don't want to get kind of one hit wonder. It builds brand loyalty where they truly understand and they deepen their involvement in their understanding of what your brand promise is.

John G: So I think what I've basically described so succinctly is I talk to corporations and other organizations about this. I think it's also true to your personal brand.

The Insider: Oh, I absolutely agree. But so many people I think that aren't business and marketing people might think of, as you said in the beginning, a brand is a logo or a brand is a color scheme. So why do you think so many magicians, they might have the most amazing shops and the most amazing acts, don't really understand marketing and do a lot of sort of ego posting social where they're retweeting phrase from a gig they got last night and that kind of content that not really many people would be interested in? Why do you think magicians spend so much time honing their diagonal palm shift and so little time learning about how to put themselves out there properly?

John G: Well, I guess I love magic. That's probably a good start. In marketing and even in philanthropy, which I do a lot of fundraising in the nonprofit world, there's an idea of being donor-centric, truly understanding who's on the other side of the conversation. And in marketing it's been audience-centric. So in your posts I think it may just be a failure or just a lack of focus on being audience-centric and what your audience wants to hear. That's not to say ... For me I do quite a bit of posts, and I'm pretty authentic and fairly strategic about what I share. I may post 90% about magic but 10% about me and my family out and about on a day. Because I think I've gotten to know that people want to kind of understand a little bit behind the scenes what's going on so they feel more connected. So it's just finding that balance.

The Insider: I think that nine to one ratio is pretty [inaudible 00:05:02] is like threes, it's give, give, give, take.

John G: There you go.

The Insider: I think nine to one is nice. So you mentioned it earlier the One Degree, your wonderful book.

John G: Thank you.

The Insider: What do you mean by that?

John G: Yeah, One Degree in its essence is an idea where just the smallest changes can have an exorbitant impact, an exponentially more powerful impact. And the one degree comes from just the idea of heating water up. Now I realize this is based on Fahrenheit. But if you heat up water to 211 degree fahrenheit, that's one degree away from the boiling point, meaning at that point ... If this was analogous to your road on magic that this would be one degree shift can take you to the boiling point. So if you look at that in your magic where you built up maybe years of building up your understanding of a certain effect or routine, you're primed and ready where, wow, just the smallest change can take it to another level.

The Insider: So can you give me an example of one of your tricks that you've improved by moving it one degree?

John G: Sure. Yeah, there's many. But I'll focus on one. There's an effect, it's on my Brainstorm DVDs in 2003, hard to believe, called Lost and Found. And it's basically where a card vanishes from inside of a clear plastic sleeve and then reappears back inside.

The Insider: I saw you lecture that at the session some time close to that coming out.

John G: Yeah, I mean it's become I guess one of the signature routines of mine. It's based on a Roy Walton effect and then others have had other versions of it. But basically my big addition is type of routine where it's not just making cards vanish but making it reappear back inside. But also with all of my magic I want to add some sort of meaning. And usually the meaning doesn't come from like these fake stories. Like, "One time I was here and doing this," which is fine for some [inaudible 00:07:04].

The Insider: This gambler came along and ...

John G: Yes, exactly. And that's not to say never do it, but in general, I like to add meaning to my props, whether it's just using the card box, in this case a plastic sleeve. So the routine was that this is a luggage tag. And then I also wanted to tap into kind of a fear that we probably all have if we're traveling is that what if you lose your luggage. So that was basically the routine based the luggage tag and then a card being lost and then found again inside. But this kind of builds up to the One Degree.

John G: There's two one degree changes I've made in the routine. Number one, I wanted to make it look like more like a luggage tag. So over the years I've added a little handle to it. So basically it's a small little camera strap. So I got a hole puncher on the very edge of the plastic sleeve, I punched a hole and then I laced the camera strap through it. So now it has like a loop handle on it. It looks a little more like a luggage tag. But also it allows routine to be done more hands off. There's points in the routine where nobody actually needs to touch the sleeve, or I don't anyway. I just kind of pull on the little handle, which is really cool. So this is an example where a small little change to a sleeve has yielded I think a more powerful part of the routine.

John G: And I'll just add one more thing to that. Talking about hands off, I used to hold ... If you don't know the routine, basically at the very end, you're holding an empty sleeve that's sandwiched between two jokers. And then I used to hold it. And then I realized with the help of Gordon Bean, the librarian at the Magic Castle at the time, that if the spectator would have pinched the sleeve that you could do the effect that way.

The Insider: So that's interesting because you can get that one degree could be a note from a friend like Mr. Bean that would say, "Ah, yes, what about if you were to do whatever?" So how important do you think feedback, getting notes and collaboration, is with your work?

John G: Oh, I think it's very important. To tell you in this digital world, I take advantage of all that just like you and I are talking right now from eight hours apart. And I visit the Castle as often as I can even though I'm now about an hour and a half away in rush hour traffic. I don't go as often as I'd like, but I take advantage of those moments. But in terms of the digital age, I have an email group that includes the likes of John Bannon and Jack Carpenter, Stephen Minch.

The Insider: Just some nobodies then.

John G: Yeah, just some nobodies. Right. Exactly.

The Insider: Magic café trolls.

John G: And there's many others. I don't want to leave anybody out. It's a good group of people but we bounce ideas off of each other. We're honest about the feedback. We give praise where it's worthy. We offer, "Hey, have you thought of this?" And you've got to be open. You have to have thick skin on this sort of stuff. But you definitely have to not surround yourself just with yes people. So that's one of the ways in terms of collaboration. And I'd say I think a lot of my effects have become better when done in collaboration that way.

The Insider: So if people aren't friends with Bannon and whoever else, where could like a kid go to get that kind of help?

John G: I mean I know brick-and-mortar shops are maybe a little bit more rare than when I was growing up. But I would hang out at my local magic shop as much as I could. So I would seek out advice and I would be really proactive on that. I mean it's not a person, but just being a student of magic, learning and reading and not necessarily just being a slave to any one source like YouTube videos or whatever. I think you could still deride a lot of knowledge from that.

The Insider: Absolutely. So lots of people view success in some way as the goal they're striving towards. I want to give up my day job and become a full-time magician. I want to have my own show in a swanky hotel in Manhattan. That success is ... that's what I'm working towards. And in one of your books, En Route, you talk about the journey being the goal, which sounds kind of crazy. So can you explain that mindset?

John G: I will. I will. I'm going to give you two different perspectives on this. Number one, this whole En Route idea that we're always en route to a final destination point is really an extension of the one degree philosophy. So if we're constantly looking for one degree of improvements to add to our magic, I mean that's an interesting journey. In every performance I have, I often find like, "Oh, there's one little change I might add to this here and there." But I also realize, there comes to a point where, yeah, this routine is done. I love the handling and I will likely never change it. Then the question remains, is it done?

John G: Then I realize every single performance is a brand new opportunity to bring it to life in new ways, which means that one degree changes can be added to your interactions with your audience through the pauses you make, how you address your audience. I basically never lose sight of that in terms of looking for handling improvements, but also looking for new ways to present it, new ways to bring it to life, and realize that your audience members are part of the routine. You just haven't written their parts yet.

The Insider: Sure.

John G: You have to be kind of in the know.

The Insider: So it's not so much about swapping out, I don't know, a double undercut for a pass, but just maybe the way you look at the volunteer or beat that your breath that you give before something happens. That kind of thing?

John G: That's exactly right. Yes. You have to know when to walk away too I guess like a painter. They step away from the painting and they go, "It's done." At some point you don't want to keep adding and then you might ruin it, right? But just like a painting and the way it's presented, the way that it's hung in a museum, there's different ways that it's appreciated. So that's that, but I also just want to talk about this whole success versus other goals you might have in magic.

John G: And again this is going back to the marketing thing. So I think any great brand doesn't start off anyway with this grand goal to be this ultimate, successful big brand like Starbucks. I don't believe, and in the books I've read, when they started off in a small shop in Seattle, really started off saying, "We are going to be the largest coffee purveyor over this third part of your life between home and work." This connector of people, right? They evolved into that.

John G: But they truly evolved from just a love of brewing coffee and toasting coffee beans. And they would invite people to the store to watch the beans being roasted and things like that. It started off with a true inherent love of the essence of what it is in the first place. And same with Apple. I mean just think of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in a garage. They started off with a passion to just put computing in the hands of everybody and then evolved in the making it. It's simple and cool and nice looking. And that's how the brand evolved. And it just so happened because of that inherent love of the core of what it is in the first place that evolved into big brand.

John G: For me anyway, same thing. I grew up loving magic. I love to create a process. I love sharing it with others. I guess I'm one of a few who's on the creative side but also on the performance side. I know there's many others. But I just have an appreciation of both. And I try to excel at both. But for me that has always been the goal. And the fact that I've written a few books and it's been appreciated by others, that's just been a result. That was never the end game. It just happened as a result.

The Insider: That's interesting. Now obviously particularly America, but they're all round the world, single use items. For example, plastic straws are hugely in decline which annoys me because it messes up your amazing zen bend trick where a straw visually bends with apparently no interference from the magician. Have you found an alternative, because I love that trick?

John G: Oh, my god. I wish I had a silver bullet answer for you. But I do have a few thoughts. First of all, it works just as well with plastic coffee stirrers. Those aren't as much under the gun and they're smaller. But you can totally do it with that as well. But it's funny as this is all happening because I did a keynote address at it's called the Rising Tide Summit. There's all this focus on conserving our ocean and straws are the big part of the day, right? My keynote was based on marketing and everything else. That's when it sparked on me, oh, boy, I got to kind of think about this straw thing a little bit.

John G: Here's the deal. So plastic straws can be recycled, although the problem is that they're so small that they usually get naturally separated during the recycling process and end up in the ocean anyway. So on further reading I found out that a good use is to put straws inside of another plastic container like a plastic bottle. But wait a minute. A long straw won't fit in a plastic bottle. You have to fold it in half maybe and put it inside. So although I haven't presented it this way, you could certainly bring out a straw and say, "Look, I know we got to start recycling this, but if you're going to do it, you need to put them inside of a plastic bottle and make sure they don't get in the ocean. And here's one way to bend it." And then you could do my magic.

The Insider: So you get an important environmental message across while still being able to do your brilliant straw bend?

John G: There you go.

The Insider: OK let's market that. Where's Andy? Andy, Josh, come over here. We've got an idea. We can sell the bottle, a hundred straw refill packs. It would be brilliant.

John G: There's your marketing mind working. So anyway, but I think even that idea is also an example of one degree, right? It's like with no extra physical effort here. It's just another way of looking at things or another way of presenting the same effect. But you get your message. And you get to teach them a little something and you get to keep the routine and not throw it away.

The Insider: That's interesting. So the strengths about this is interesting. So if you were a naturally funny performer to be able to put a joke at the time when you're going to do the move or if you were Zabrecky and you're going to draw on your face to cover up a move. So it's that kind of know what you're good at and play up to it.

John G: Yeah, and the whole spectrum. So you're giving the example of your style, have that come out, but also weave that in as a strategy, right? But also just in the way handling. Will you make it more hands off? Will you make it more hands on and go for a diagonal palm shift versus the spectator shuffling the cards? There's so many choices you could make to make sure it's based on your strengths. I would say if you had my Brainstorm DVDs. I think I'm praised by a lot of magicians for having routines, they're fairly easy to do for the power you get out of it. But there's a lot of presentational bits that I don't think will be noticed until you watch it again. My interaction with the audience or doing a move as I'm authentically maybe laughing or interacting with the audience. I don't just fake my way through it. But it's still me obviously. But I seize those moments. And sometimes they'll be planned. Sometimes they won't be planned because someone will make a joke in the audience and people will be laughing. Like, "Well, I'm going to take advantage of that."

The Insider: I'm stealing that.

John G: Exactly. So you have to be on your toes. And I guess I'll just close. In magic there's this thought of having a level of mastery, meaning where you're almost subconsciously doing the things you know well. It's the same thing as if you're typing or driving. There's things that you're doing that you're not necessarily thinking, "I am doing this step right now. I am putting my finger on the letter R." You're doing it without thinking. So magic has to get to a point where you're doing these moves with less intentional thought.

The Insider: Autopilot.

John G: Exactly. And then you shift that free space you have in your mind to focus on your audience.

The Insider: It's like when you begin, so say it was in your RAM memory, that it's full of, "Oh, where does my pinky need to be? How do I mechanics grip? How do I do that in-jog for an overhand shuffle?" And then it gets to a point where you can do that in your sleep and you can concentrate on more important things.

John G: Very well put. That's it.

The Insider: But your hands are not just talented with a deck of cards. You play the guitar. You write music. Do you think there's any link between music and magic?

John G: I think there is. Yeah. Because the more and more I ... I post a fair amount of videos of new songs I'm writing on the guitar and I have an album on iTunes this month which I'm really excited about.

The Insider: So I've seen you post stuff on Instagram but so people can follow you, what's your ... See, I'm 47. I don't ... Is there a handle? Is there a tag? Is it a name?

John G: Yeah, it's johngmagic.

The Insider: What is it on Instagram? I don't know. The thing. What's the Instagram?

John G: My handle is johngmagic.

The Insider: Perfect.

John G: So it's J-O-H-N-G, magic. And it's true for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The Insider: So the music and magic?

John G: But then I hear people saying, "So-and-so is a magician as well. And So-and-so plays the piano." I guess I realize just by hearing that, "Wow." I think a lot of magicians gravitate towards music or other creative outlets.

The Insider: It's not just that the names sound familiar? Similar?

John G: I don't think so. Isn't that funny though? Although I've been trying to think of a way to bring that in if someone says, "Oh, yeah, you're a musician." If I'm doing magic and they call me a musician, right? But if I were to ever pull out a guitar...

The Insider: Absolutely. You're meeting someone at a party and they say, "Yeah, I'm a magician." Oh, really? What instrument do you play? Well, actually.

John G: That's funny. But the thing is they don't even realize that they're saying it. I don't want to call them out on it. They're saying musician. I know they mean magician, but some people might say, "No, he's a magician. Not a musician." But I don't know. It's really funny thing. To me they're so distinctly two different words and two different crafts, but.

The Insider: I think there are elements that overlap, learning scales, learning slights, and then being able to apply scales and play different songs and produce different effects with the same chords.

John G: That's true. But I think there's one more correlation. In a set of lecture notes, I forget the year, but about maybe five or six years ago. It's called gnotes. So the double meaning to johngnotes, but also the G note on your guitar. And besides the technical example you just gave in terms of playing scales or doing slights, think of any great song. There's a hook, right? A song that just sticks in your mind. You can't get rid of it. I think every trick so also have that hook. Everybody leaves remembering one moment or remembering one line or something would happen. So if you approach effects in the same way as any great song where it starts off, it captures your curiosity, it makes you listen. It makes you want to sing along so to speak, and then it leaves you with a memory. So there's a lot of other correlation between a great song and a great routine.

The Insider: Of course. And there's also a correlation with classics or, as musicians would call it, standards and modern songs. There's a place for both of those and adding your own spin on ...

John G: I hadn't thought of that example. But that's another great way of looking at it.

The Insider: I'm not meaning to take your point and run with it.

John G: But you know what though? I get so much joy out of just sparking ideas. I mean the whole one degree and everything else, it sparks ideas that I hadn't thought of. And I love that.

The Insider: That's cool, isn't it?

John G: Every lecture I give, I ask myself, "What did I learn? And not just what did I teach." I think we all have to be open to that. And I love hearing just what you just said and different lectures people will come up with ideas. And wow, sometimes I'll include that in my next lecture.

The Insider: My fees are very reasonable.

John G: Thank you very much. Yes.

The Insider: Perfect. Perfect. Deal. But I could hear you smiling actually honestly when you said that. Not honestly, I could hear you smiling really when you said that. So I think you do really view sharing as important but not just the magic that you release to the magic community but also volunteering and philanthropy work you do at school. Why do you think that giving is important?

John G: Well, for me personally it is important. I've worked at a nonprofit sector for over 20 years. And just this past year went from a career of working at the YMCA doing marketing and fundraising to being a CEO of the Anaheim Community Foundation. I have the opportunity to do a lot of great work, focus on the greater good. I realize not everybody's focused on philanthropy in that way. But I certainly am. But it goes hand-in-hand with magic. And really it has enriched my work across the board whether I'm working in business and magic. And I mention when I'm doing consulting and keynotes and trainings for corporations, just this past year specifically I've been weaving the two. And the big revelation for me this past year has been what is that common thread between my love for magic and my love for music and my love for philanthropy and making a difference in communities? And I came up with one sentence. And for me it's a unifying vision that I'm called to connect people to the extraordinary. And once I came up with that, everything made sense more than it ever has.

John G: And honestly, that's a topic of my keynotes and trainings as well. And people are inspired I think on their end to come up with that one sentence for them. In terms of the things that they're called to do, there're multiple passions, whether it'd be magic or their family or the things they do in their off time. Sometimes we're tempted to feel really scattered all over the place. But if we come up with one unifying vision, we realize not only is it a statement that mentally makes sense, you realize that you could draw from that experience across the board.

John G: And I'll just close on this idea. When I'm meeting with say a potential donor to donate, from a magical standpoint as an audience of one, it's my goal to captivate their curiosity and their imagination to create a sense of wonder, to paint this picture of something, an impossible circumstance becoming possible, right? So there's a lot of other correlation that I draw from on both ends. So but that has definitely [inaudible 00:26:21] in me physically giving back. If my vision is to connect people to the extraordinary, I don't just want to say that. So beyond my work in terms of being a CEO of a foundation, I also walk the talk. And I will volunteer in terms of an afterschool program and share magic or maybe give some leadership talks to young adults but also weave magic into it and talk about this great thing.

John G: But I think we all have our own way of giving back, but that's my way. And hopefully that story might inspire something that's authentic and meaningful in your side of the world.

The Insider: What does 2019 look like for you, John?

John G: Wow, that's a great question. And I like how you said 2019, not just a New Year's resolution. I'm going to be focused throughout the year again on how I can connect people to the extraordinary even more. I have a magic slash consulting website called And if anybody wants to go, you can check it out. But this is more on the business side of what I do in terms of doing more speaking with corporations, doing more trainings, and basically I do keynotes, half-day trainings, full-day corporate retreats. So I want to do more of that, which is a big love of mine. It enables me to bring marketing and magic and everything else to life. I'm really focused on perhaps doing a TED Talk. I don't have anything lined up, but if I was to have any big goal for '19, it would be to at least have an audition at some TED Talks.

The Insider: I'm sure lots of TED Talk executives are listening to this. So that's going to happen for sure now.

John G: I hope so. I'll tell you. My friend Adam Wilbur and many others have done TED Talks, they're, I mean-

The Insider: It's your turn now.

John G: You better. You better. Well, it's my turn. And I think I have a message to share. And if there's a TED Talk that's aligned with that, then perfect. But for me that's another big goal I have. And certainly like I said, being just a husband and a good son to my mom. I was raised by a single mom as an only child as well. So we're really close, really focused on family too. That's an underlying thing of everything I do as well.

The Insider: Thank you so much for your time, John. I really appreciate talking to you this early in the morning-

John G: Thank you, Damian.

The Insider: ... and you taking out the time of your day to share your thoughts with us.

John G: Well, I appreciate the great questions and the dialog and the conversation. And I thank you as well.

The Insider: It was a fun chat. Thanks, John.

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