On astronauts, India, and making the impossible possible: a magical conversation
Vyom Sharma does a lot of things. He creates magic shows, spends hours working as a doctor, writes for medical magazines and has been published in various newspapers. Sometimes when you’re working so much you forget to put your ego aside and ask “why”, which is what this interview is all about. There are deeper motivations behind the things we do every day, and if we look closely and dig a little deeper we can all benefit from them.
What’s your story? You’re a magician, doctor, what else? What did your childhood look like and what’s been happening in your life up until now?
I was born in New Delhi in 1986, growing up in a very loving and supportive family that really supported ambition and emphasised hard work. There was constant excitement about what you are going to do next, what you are going to do when you grow up, but always in the positive sense, it was never a pressure. My earliest thought was that I wanted to be an inventor or an astronaut, I’ve always been entranced with the idea of outer space.
Where did that idea come from?
My dad’s an engineer, my mum’s a doctor. Lots of kids at that age have a curiosity about things that they can’t know about. You have this landscape that you can only explore through imagination. My childhood was always about being curious about things that were intrinsically wonderful.
There was also the idea that you have to work hard for whatever you want to do - life’s tough, and you’re very lucky compared to other children in India. So the idea being that you’re very lucky, the world is wonderful, you can do great things, try.
Growing up in India there was this constant pressure from the outside about what you are going to do - in the negative sense. If you don’t do something great you haven’t made it. And if you haven’t made it, then how are you going to feed yourself, look after your family, etc. There’s an enormous pressure on middle class children in India to live up to people’s expectations in terms of what’s considered prestigious, honorable and high-earning.
We came to Australia when I was in grade four. I realised that things were very very different. I remember thinking that Australia was going to be this amazing, perfect place, but I was very fearful of whether I’d be able to match what was expected of an eight year old in Australia. I expected much higher expectations than India, but that was not the case.
The teachers were shocked when they found out that I knew my times tables up to ten, and they took me around from classroom to classroom to show the other children that I knew them. I was being paraded around as a core genius, which I was not. It was a style of learning that we don’t have in India.
I also remember being taken to the school library and being told that you could read and borrow any book you want, which was a huge shock. At the library in India you couldn’t just read any book you wanted, and of course you couldn’t take a book out, they’re valuable things.
The mode of learning in Australia didn’t feel like learning at all. It was only much later that I realised how much I was actually learning. There was this intellectual freedom and creativity you were given to explore things just because you like them, not because you think you’re going to be graded or measured against an objective scale. From that point onwards in my life I had two very distinct parallel forms of learning.
We don’t use much of that imagination as adults anymore, it often seems to disappears as we grow up. Why do you think that is?
It brings up the question of whether imagination is even important. And why. I’ve hung out with very artsy people as well as with very practical, career oriented crowds in medicine, so I’ve seen both extremes. At the end of the day a beautiful painting is not going to feed hungry kids, but on the other hand, what's the point of having a full stomach unless you’ve got something to enjoy? I think both streams are very important.
Indulging in imagination and being exposed to magic is an intrinsically valuable thing. People enjoy it, it’s not something I have to teach people to enjoy. Somewhere along the way it gets trained out of you, you get told that these things are infertile, that there are more important things. Something being child-like can be a good thing though. Often when you re-connect with it you experience a whole different flavour to life. There are so many adults who do amazing, wonderful, world-changing things that are more motivated by a pure sense of wonder and imagination.
So how can we reconnect with it?
Firstly, realise that it is a legitimate sense and emotion. Second, give yourself permission to indulge in these things. Recognise that all the real, practical good comes from imagination and a sense of wonder. Even if you are the ultimate pragmatist you have to admit that the reason why we can cure a lot of things these days is because an MRI machine was invented, or because someone once wondered what it would be like to reach the moon. It is that crazy, infertile, imaginative kind of leap that led to so many amazing scientific developments, which then as a by-product led to some real, tangible benefits for all of us. That's the beauty of imagination - it makes you ask crazy, stupid questions that you wouldn’t dare ask otherwise, and then you end up with answers that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. It’s almost like a method of interrogating the universe around you.
What do you answer when people ask “what do you do?”?
I really hate answering that question, because what you do doesn’t reflect what you get out of it and what your experience is. I don’t really like saying I’m a magician, because people have a very preconceived notion of what a magician is.
What do you think that preconceived notion is?
It’s top hats and rabbits and very archaic things. Or kids parties, or sewing a girl in half. What I do is very different. It’s either comedic kind of magic with my group, the Gentlemen of Deceit, or it’s an alternative branch of psychological magic. It doesn’t really fit any kind of role. It’s ironic because the most accurate description for what I do is being a magician, but it is so far from what people imagine it is.
What does it take to be a magician, and what does it take to be a doctor?
They are vastly different, and both have humbled me as a person. To be a good magician, you need to be willing to fail, be willing to take humiliation when you fail, and still keep moving forward. I probably progressed much faster in magic than a lot of magicians despite not performing thousands of shows. The very simple reason is that I’ve taken huge risks and I’ve failed more than most magicians, and as a result I’ve learned more. I’ve definitely stretched myself, I’ve done things I wasn’t ready for, but there’s so much growth I got out of it in such a short amount of time.
Magic is not like most other art forms, it’s not so much dependent on subjectivity, but has a pretty clear line of whether something’s worked or not. You’re not really stretching yourself until you’ve failed quite a few times. What is your limit that you can push through?
That’s so completely distinct from medicine. In medicine you should not be taking risks, it’s all about being conservative. It is about making small, incremental, constant efforts towards something.
The similarities are that they both take a lot of work and long-term commitment, but your attitude towards success has to be very different. When it comes to medicine at its core it’s science, the art of practising it is the human side of it. It’s a life-long education, and I will never learn enough and need to constantly manage my ignorance.
How do you bring these two sides of intense risk-taking and its complete opposite together as a person? What does taking risks mean for you?
The risk when I fail a magic trick is humiliation. A failure in medicine is a person dying. Your personal experience of looking bad as a doctor is very real, but that’s nothing in comparison to what you’ve done.
So I look at what a failure in medicine means, then I look at what I’m doing in magic, and I take the risk. There’s a huge arrogance to not wanting to fail just because you might be humiliated.
That’s just your ego, right?
That’s the thing. Who am I in the big cosmic scale of things to think that me feeling bad over a magic trick matters? It really doesn’t. What matters more is people potentially getting to see a miracle. When you’re very fearful of failure or humiliation it is in part because you prescribe a certain important to your ego. I think my confidence comes from knowing what real failure looks like in life.
This brings it all together. It sounds like your curiosity and interest in the unknown is the big cosmic scale of things. It puts everything into perspective.
Exactly right. The universe is such a big grand amazing thing. Something I could never fathom as a kid was my dad telling me about this force called gravity. I got what gravity was, but I just didn’t understand why people in Australia, in the Southern hemisphere, didn’t just fall off. But I did understand that clearly they’re not falling off. So I was wrong. But I just didn’t get it. Thinking about that occupied so much of my time. When kids ask that question it’s not a stupid question. If you asked adults enough levels of questions about gravity they too would be suspending their mischief and actually wouldn’t know. It’s a really wonderful, selfless, egoless frame of thinking. You’re engaging in something that’s bigger than you.
There’s this almost-cliche saying “don’t grow up, it’s a trap”. Your stories actually give that saying some context.
You have to be mindful of your expectations though. I think that sometimes people have expectations too high when they’re doing things that they like. For example, not only is it unrealistic, but you shouldn’t actually expect that the art you’re creating or whatever you’re indulging in, is going to pay the bills. You can’t get angry at the world that your passion is not paying the bills because that’s not the reason you should be doing it in the first place. This might mean that you need to be very pragmatic and do other things to support that passion. Your drive for it is because you love it, and it should only be because you love it.
Thanks for breaking that misconception. Not many people actually talk about this middle ground, where you can do what you love but you just have to be pragmatic about it.
The reason people do this is that classical moment of dissonance. When there are two apparently opposing ideas we have huge difficulties as human beings to reconcile them both and acknowledge that not only is the truth somewhere in the middle, but both things can simultaneously be true. Often when people ask they just want me to say the whole thing of “just do what you love, it’s the best thing, and all these people working 9 to 5 don’t get it, they’re just plucked into the system”. It’s not that simple. There are people who are plucked into the system, working 10 or 12 hours a day who love what they do. I think sometimes it’s really bitter to swallow that pill. Maybe the corporate “slave” is getting some satisfaction out of it that we can’t fathom. You just have to be honest about why you’re doing it. It also gets really tough when you start comparing yourself to people.
How do you deal with comparison?
I notice the very wistful way people sometimes look at me and how I live my life, thinking I’ve got it all. And there’s also a huge percentage of people who see me as a bit of an idiot - they think I’m just throwing everything down the sink and wonder how long this whole magic thing is going to last. You look at how the community perceives you and you start to wonder who you are. But then, instead of thinking about what they think of you, why don’t you think about what you think of people? To simplify it, just ask yourself, who are your role models? Who do you want to be like when you grow up? (When I look at my role models I realise that I’m not that far off from the way I want to live my life.
Who are your role models, who do you look up to and learn from?
The only role models I have these days are people who really like what they’re doing, no matter what it looks like to other people. For example, I know a GP who has that glimmer of a hungry 20 year old in his eyes, he works in an incredibly immersive way and just loves what he does.
There are magicians who are role models too. There’s a guy I’m working with who goes about what he’s doing in a very intellectually honest way. He knows what his goals are, he works very hard towards them, in a very egoless way. He expels the type of kindness that I really aspire to. He helps people when there’s no self-interest for him.
The magician Derren Brown (*put link to video/site), one of my idols in many ways, actually wrote about this beautiful model of kindness - you don’t have to think about kindness as this completely selfless act. You’ve got to think of it as a two way street, where kindness is a modern way. If you do something nice for someone, they feel good and you also feel good. So it’s an incredibly harmonious way to operate.)
Some of the most popular businesses solve a problem and help people. If people don’t love and want what you’re offering or selling you don’t have a business. What problem are you solving as a magician?
Truly successful businesses address a core need. But addressing a core need is not necessarily a good thing, it just depends on what that core need is. If the core need for a smart phone was just a transportable device that could connect to the internet, the iPhone would never have taken off. It addresses some far more egotistical core needs that we all have in terms of brand identity.
With magic the core need is that we live in this time of unparalleled cynicism. All and any knowledge is accessible at our finger tips at any point. We live in an age where you wake up, you read what’s happening in the world and get all the scientific updates that you want. You can just do that on your phone. There used to be that little bit where you’re suspended in a state of not knowing. That state can be a little bit uncomfortable, but it’s also gratifying because anything is possible. The problem is that we value the pursuit of knowledge less these days. What magic reminds us of is that mystery still exists in the world, that the state of watching something impossible is wonderful because it allows our imagination to run wild. A good magic show allows people to reconnect with that feeling of wonder and astonishment which is a very intrinsic, childlike, pleasurable state that is responsible for some of the greatest advances of mankind.
What do you think is the difference between someone who pursues their passion and someone who doesn’t?
People can have many reasons for not pursuing their passions. First, they’ve completely lost touch with that sense of imagination and wonder, they don’t believe it’s worthy. Other reasons might be that they’re very fearful of getting off the beaten track. Another thing is that they might have unrealistic expectations about what they hope to get out of pursuing their passion. And there’s another one, it’s the self pity victim card. Some people want to be the main character in the narrative of the guy who didn’t get to do what he wanted. It’s your ego that wants to feel like a victim. Your ego that can’t handle the fact that you’ve got to manage your own stuff. Things are not as bad as you think they are. If you wanted to you could. There are people who’ve come from really hard circumstances who have done more than I could imagine. You have to be really honest with yourself and ask yourself why you are not doing something. The problem is that pursuing your passion sometimes requires a very extreme, humbling level of honesty, and that journey and interrogation can be so uncomfortable.
What’s something that’s uncomfortable for you, an area that you’re trying to grow in?
I definitely don’t try hard enough. I see people trying hard all the time and I think I’m trying hard but I’m not really.
I know in my head that realistically speaking I can do whatever I want, but I also know that the reason I’m not where I want to be is because I’m not working hard enough. And now that excuse is gone it’s ok. This is the permission I have to give myself - maybe I’m a lazy bastard, but as long as I’m continuously moving upwards, no matter at what slow rate, it’s good. Being static is not.
What does your day look like, especially your morning routine?
I have to give you two scenarios because there’s no one day in my life that’s the same. A day that might be representative looks like this: I wake up at 11am because I’ve been watching Youtube videos till 2 or 3 in the morning. Promise myself I’d go to the gym. It’s 2pm, I haven’t been to the gym. I’m just going “oh my god, what am I doing in my life?!”. Make a list of things to do. Do one of them. And before I know it it’s dinner time and I hate myself for it. And that is my life.
(Then there’s the second type: it’s a deadline for the article that I need to get published. I knew about the deadline three months ago, it’s due at midday. I barely slept the night before because I started working on it at 11pm till 2am, because my girlfriend tells me I need to get on to it. So I wake up at 6am and I had my four coffees. I’m trying to write this thing, but I just can’t. I started writing, it’s shit, it’s midday, I’m past the deadline. I go “just do it, do it, do it”. And I end up with something that’s 90% as good as I want it to be. I publish it, people really like it, it’s all great, it’s all fucking facebook likes and “oh my god, how does he do it?!”.)
And then another day it’s like this: the Secret Show is happening in three days time. We haven’t rehearsed yet, we better rehearse. It’s all going down, the first show is shit and the second show is shit, and the third and fourth and fifth show are amazing. Then I just sit there for two days, going “wow, everything is possible”. And then I go back to the day where nothing’s happening, where “I’m an idiot”.
You have to give yourself permission to do what is sub-standard. You just have to be happy with 80% being good enough. Don’t let your ego stop you from getting that 80% out there. Do something. Because something is better than nothing, every time. It’s so important.