The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Master Magician David Blaine — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss (#546)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with David Blaine from my 2017 TV show Fear{less}. The “less” is in parentheses because the objective is to teach you to fear less, not to be fearless.

Fear{less} features in-depth, long-form conversations with top performers, focusing on how they’ve overcome fears and made hard decisions, embracing discomfort and thinking big.

It was produced by Wild West Productions, and I worked with them to make both the video and audio available to you for free, my dear listeners. You can find the video of this episode on YouTube.com/TimFerriss, and eventually you’ll be able to see all episodes for free at YouTube.com/TimFerriss.

Spearheaded by actor/producer and past podcast guest Vince Vaughn, Wild West Productions has produced a string of hit movies including The Internship, Couples Retreat, Four Christmases, and The Break-Up.

In 2020, Wild West produced the comedy The Opening Act, starring Jimmy O. Yang and Cedric The Entertainer. In addition to Fear{less}, their television credits include Undeniable with Joe Buck, ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode about the ’85 Bears, and the Netflix animated show F is for Family.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

#546: Master Magician David Blaine — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss

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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.

Tim Ferriss: I’m Tim Ferriss, author, entrepreneur, angel investor, and now TV host. I’ve spent my entire adult life asking questions then scouring the globe to find the answers. On this show I’ll share the secrets of pioneers who’ve faced their own fears. We’ll dig into the hard times, big mistakes, tough decisions, and how they got through it all. The goal isn’t to be fearless. The goal is to learn to fear less.

Welcome to  Fear{less}. I’m your host Tim Ferriss, and on this stage we’ll be deconstructing world-class performers of all different types, uncover the specific tactics and strategies they’ve used to overcome doubt, tackle their hardest decisions, and ultimately succeed on their own terms. So let’s take a look at my guest by the numbers.

17 minutes four seconds. His world record setting breath hold, if you can believe that. It’s true. 44 days. How long he survived without food in a plexiglass box. 63 hours 42 minutes and 15 seconds. The amount of time he spent encased in a block of ice. For nearly 20 years he has risked his life for your entertainment. Please welcome to the stage world-renowned illusionist and endurance artist, David Blaine.

David Blaine: How’s it going, Tim?

Tim Ferriss: Watch your step. So, David, I have wanted to have this conversation for years now.

David Blaine: Yeah, I’m excited.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we’re going to have fun tonight. And I thought one way we could start is with a video that maybe does not represent the most fun, but I think is a good video nonetheless.

David Blaine: Awesome.

Tim Ferriss: This is as close as I come to doing a magic trick.

Audio: You’re doing good. Here we go. Working the next set of cuffs from behind.

Audio: — a little bit of air. You guys get ready.

Audio: There are some bubbles — 

Audio: Are you ready?

Audio: Go, go. Go.

Audio: Divers are in.

Audio: Just relax, relax. We got you, David. You’re all right. You’re all right.

Audio: The divers are in the sphere.

Audio: Okay, David. Just relax. We’ve got you. Come on up. You’re okay. You’re okay.

Audio: They brought him up.

Audio: Mandy-Rae Cruickshank got David out of the bubble.

Audio: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: So that is a terrifying video. What happened in that particular situation? Why did things go sideways?

David Blaine: In training when I had worked on that, the record was, I believe at the time, was nine minutes. And I’d never gotten up to nine minutes. I got to seven minutes and 47 seconds dry, no oxygen, just breath holding. And I figured if I’d starve myself from in the sphere, my metabolism, everything slows down, I would be able to miraculously hold my breath much longer.

And it did the opposite effect. So when it came time to do the stunt, I had handcuffs on. I was strapped at the bottom, and I just started to convulse. They jumped in to get me and you can’t see in the video and I was like, “No.” I held my finger up to stop them — 

Tim Ferriss: “I got this.”

David Blaine: — because I thought I could keep going but I’m blacking out. And luckily they did jump in because he had to take these things off to pull my head above the water.

Tim Ferriss: The shackles.

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Seems like one of the main dangers of any type of breath hold training is you feel fine until you’re not.

David Blaine: With some of it. But when you black out, I learned that Navy SEALs, as part of the training, what they do is they make the SEALs comfortable with blacking out underwater so what they do is they strap them to 45-pound plates and make them walk the bottom of a pool. And they walk until they black out underwater. And then they get pulled to the top and they’re brought back and they’re fine but that makes everybody not afraid of drowning.

Tim Ferriss: Right.

David Blaine: You have no fear because you’ve already blacked out underwater.

Tim Ferriss: You’ve already experienced the worst case scenario.

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: At TEDMED, where you gave a great presentation, it’s been a hugely popular talk. But what I remember personally was with a small group sitting in the audience and having you — 

David Blaine: And you held your breath.

Tim Ferriss: — train people. So check this out, guys. There’s maybe roughly 15 people in the audience.

David Blaine: You got up to almost five minutes, I think.

Tim Ferriss: I got to 3:33.

David Blaine: Oh, okay.

Tim Ferriss: I remember very specifically. But there were people in the audience who got past five and these were people completely untrained. My breath hold record for me was around 45 seconds. I have lung issues and I got to three minutes and 33 seconds. And there were other people who just kept truckin’. And that was maybe 15 or 20 minutes of exercises?

David Blaine: Yeah, 20 minutes total. That was scarier than any of the stunts that I’ve ever done, talking at that conference.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, talking at that conference.

David Blaine: The stunts are easy but I was in front of 500 of my favorite people, you being one of them. And I had never given a public talk where I wasn’t doing magic so just to stand there and have to talk in front of everybody that I respect so much, I was like three days, three nights, and sleep. So that was its own stunt.

Tim Ferriss: It’s all relative, right, guys? He’s not afraid of that but he’s afraid to talk in front of 500 people. So whatever your fears might be, it kind of puts it in perspective. What was your childhood like? How would you describe your childhood, early childhood?

David Blaine: I grew up in Brooklyn with a single mother and we didn’t have much. She worked multiple jobs but she was so incredible because she allowed me to dream, imagine. And also, do you see I have leg braces on?

Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah.

David Blaine: I was born with my feet turned in so I couldn’t run fast and I couldn’t swim fast, so at the age of five I was on the YMCA swim team and that’s where I started to learn to hold my breath because in order to keep up or even be faster than the other kids, I learned how to swim without breathing. So all the other kids had to learn how to do this and I would just swim straight across and that’s where I started to develop an ability to hold my breath.

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

David Blaine: But back to my mom, I could ask for nothing more amazing because she was the best gift that I could’ve had as a child. And she’d walk me through the park all the time and even if I was late for school. One time I was walking through the park and I was late and she was walking me before she had to go to work and I was like, “Mom, look. There’s King Kong.”

And instead of her saying, “No, no. We’re late. Let’s go.” She said, “Where?” She engaged. So we walked all the way over and it was just a log, a tree that was down. But the idea that she let me imagine and believe and didn’t want to stifle that, that’s what made her so incredible.

Tim Ferriss: How were you introduced to magic or magic tricks?

David Blaine: When I was about five years old, my mother gave me a deck of cards and I would carry it everywhere that I went. It was like a treasure to me. And I would go to the library and wait for my mother to finish work and pick me up, and one of the librarians one day walked me through a simple book of magic, self-working stuff.

And when my mother came and I did it to her and she went crazy, I became obsessed with doing magic and getting her reaction, and then getting her friends’ reactions. I never did it for the other kids because they would’ve been really difficult.

Tim Ferriss: Brutal.

David Blaine: Yeah. So I was lucky I just did it to my mother.

Tim Ferriss: That’s a tough crowd.

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Did you want to be a magician from that point onward? Or what did you think you were going to be when you were little? What did your mom think you were going to be?

David Blaine: When I was five I said to my mom, “I’m going to be a magician one day.” And she went, “That’s amazing.” So [crosstalk 00:07:49].

Tim Ferriss: You stuck to the script.

David Blaine: Yeah, stuck to it.

Tim Ferriss: How has she affected how you live your life today?

David Blaine: She was so brave. She got sick when I was a teenager and fought cancer. And she fought without a complaint. She was very tough but the way she approached suffering and death was almost like she was so graceful about it that I was curious. The suffering that she endured and how she found so much beauty out of it. I think that was one of sort of planted the seed to what is there on this other side of enduring things that are — 

Tim Ferriss: And not viewing it as just a bad thing. And you were with her when she passed?

David Blaine: Yeah, she died in my arms.

Tim Ferriss: I can’t even imagine.

David Blaine: I remember at that moment I felt like my body was one big twig and it was snapped. And I became really afraid to connect like that to anybody else.

Tim Ferriss: Besides the putting the arm around her or not wanting to necessarily connect in that way, did anything else change?

David Blaine: I think also at that point that’s when I became fearless because at that point I felt like I had nothing to lose. So when I was 19 or 20, or something like that, I was at the airport and my bag was missing and I saw a whole bunch of identical bags coming out and there was all these guys dressed in identical jumpers and I was like, “I think you guys have one of my bags because I have the exact same bag.” It was a TUMI bag. They said, “Go ask him. Knock on the window.” And it was a limousine, a while limo parked out front with tinted windows.

And I knocked on the window and the thing rolls down and Mike Tyson’s there with his fist up. He’s like, “You got a problem?” And I was like, “Holy shit, no. Mike, you’re like my favorite person. And I grew with da-da-da.” So he says, “Jump in.” So I jump in the limo with him and we drive to the hotel he’s staying at and I’m doing magic to him and it’s amazing.

And along the way he says to me, he says, “You know I wasn’t supposed to be the heavyweight champ. I wasn’t tall enough. I didn’t have long arms.” He’s like, “But I had nothing to lose and when you have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain.” And that was like another great piece of information from Mike Tyson.

Tim Ferriss: These types of encounters just blow my mind because if I look at their chronology, at 18, I think it was, and I don’t know if this was a milestone or not, but I believe this is when you jumped a turnstile, got in some trouble for that?

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Could you tell people — 

David Blaine: I was doing magic in restaurants and it started as a waiter where I would do magic and then people wanted to come back and just see me do magic so I started walking up and down Park Avenue and trying to get different fancy restaurants to let me do magic to the people that were dining and then they would tip me.

As I started doing that I started getting hired by wealthy New Yorkers to do their parties and things like that. One night I jumped over a turnstile and that’s when Giuliani was sweeping everybody, so I got locked up. But as I was going there, I kept breaking out of the cuffs for the cops, so they liked it.

Tim Ferriss: Cops love that, by the way. I’m kidding.

David Blaine: They actually did.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, did they?

David Blaine: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: So you’re like, “Hey, guys. These aren’t working.” How did they respond to that?

David Blaine: No, no. They were all good. They know that I’m not really a threat so it was good.

Tim Ferriss: They know they just have to go through the motions.

David Blaine: Yeah. So I get put in central booking and central booking is crazy. It’s like everybody is in and out of Rikers so it’s like a tough room and you’re being moved from one cell to another and there’s like 40 guys in there. And I’m like, “Oh, man. I’m going to get my ass kicked.” So the four biggest guys are sitting on the ground playing spades. So I walk up to them and grab the deck of cards from them. I’m like, “Let me show you something.” They’re ready to kill me and I start doing magic.

And then what happened was they started to go crazy, and these are the toughest guys in the cell, so then the whole cell is around me, 30 guys or 20-some guys, all going crazy. And then the guards come in and everybody was reacting to me doing magic. They were all going crazy again. I was like, “Whoa.” So these people on Park Avenue, these super powerful people, and then in prison these guys, the reactions are so amazing and so similar. I want to show that. So that became the impetus for the first TV show, which was called Street Magic.

Audio: You know the guys that do three-card monte, right?

Audio: Right.

Audio: All right, this is that game for you right now.

Audio: Not for me bra — 

Audio: No, no. No money, no money. This is just pretend. It’s the three cards used for — 

Audio: [inaudible 00:12:49] a joke.

Audio: Hold your fingers like this. Hold your fingers like this. Look, watch. This card, right? Remember diamonds. Forget ace, just diamonds. Hold it pal. What card do you have?

Audio: What?

Audio: What card is that?

Audio: Can I look at it?

Audio: Yeah, name it. Name it. What is it?

Audio: Ace of diamonds.

Audio: Diamonds, just diamonds. Look, show it to them, make sure it’s all right.

Audio: Bingo bango.

Audio: All right, show it to them too.

Audio: Bingo bango.

Audio: Bingo bango, cool man. Hold it like this. Look. Lower, lower, lower. Watch. This one same thing. Just remember hearts. Forget ace, just hearts. Watch this switch. Ready?

Audio: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Audio: See, I switched it. Look, I’ll do it again. See it switched back. It just switched twice so quick you didn’t see it.

Audio: Sorry.

Audio: [inaudible 00:13:24] off my shoe, homey.

Audio: Sorry, sorry.

Audio: Yeah, it switched twice. I’ll do it slow so you can see it. Look, here’s the move. See how the borders line up?

Audio: Don’t put it on the bottom [crosstalk 00:13:32].

Audio: Look, no, I’m teaching you. I’m teaching you right now. That’s how I do it. Hold it tight.

Audio: I got it tight.

Audio: That’ll make it impossible because you know the move. I have diamonds. Ready?

Audio: Right.

Audio: Without looking at it, what would you bet on, hearts or diamonds?

Audio: I ain’t betting, ain’t got no money.

Audio: All right, but pretend. Would you bet hearts here or hearts here? Or, could I impress you if the heart was on top, diamond was on the bottom?

Audio: The heart’s on top because you had the heart.

Audio: Turn your hand over.

Audio: Nope.

Audio: Go ahead, turn your hand over.

Audio: [crosstalk 00:13:55].

David Blaine: Everybody thinks they’re so different, but really there’s also generalities among people, so you can really look at a group and you can estimate which person’s going to react a certain way and you get better and better the more you do it.

Tim Ferriss: Now, I’ve heard — 

David Blaine: It’s kind of like what psychics do. Sorry to interrupt. Psychics, basically when you walk in, they profile you right away and they’ve done it so many times that they can cold read what you do, where you’re from, what you’re looking for, whether you’re skeptical, whether you’re not. You just learn to read people.

Tim Ferriss: Read the cues.

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: What are some lines or approaches that you use when you just cold approach somebody?

David Blaine: There was a magician named Harvey Cohen that I used to love. He taught me so much and he would approach people when he would do magic and he was very fumbling with the cards but while he was fumbling cards, he was secretly loading cards in your pocket and doing all this stuff so he’d approach with this non approach. It wasn’t like, “Look, I’m a magician. I’m going to amaze you.” It was almost like he couldn’t hold the cards, so you’d be hoping that he was going to succeed.

And then at the end when you thought everything had gone wrong and there’s two cards in your pocket and one on the — so it was the approach that I always like to do in magic is the opposite of what a magician would do because I always imagine if somebody could really do magic, they wouldn’t really have big patter. They would kind of be fumbling and they’d say, “Look at this thing,” and just do something.

Tim Ferriss: Right.

David Blaine: So that was always the approach, simple. Simple and understated, I think, is the best approach.

Tim Ferriss: At what point did you go to acting school? You did go to acting school?

David Blaine: Yeah. I went with Bryan Callen, who was amazing. I learned so much from him. He was incredible.

Tim Ferriss: How did you decide to go to acting school?

David Blaine: You know, there’s a famous quote that Orson Welles said, but it’s from Robert Houdin, where he says, “A magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician.” At that time I was a close-up magician. There was no business in it. There was no way to make a living at it. So I figured I would study acting and take it seriously and maybe apply it to magic and see what happens. And it was a really valuable year because what you learn in acting school is living truthfully in a given imaginary circumstance.

So it’s interesting because when you apply that to magic it’s like instead of these are just tricks you almost believe what you’re seeing on some level. Not believe it like, “Ah, how’d I do that?” But you kind of play into that as opposed to this silly patter and this silly trick. And I feel like the magic comes to life that way. It makes a performance more interesting.

One of the best things Bryan taught me there, he was an early mentor to me, one of the quotes that his dad gave to him is, “Always surround yourself with people that will inspire you or help you grow.” And that was just a great piece of advice from him. I took that very seriously and pursued people that I looked up to or that I admired and tried to learn things from them since I didn’t have really a father figure or anything like that.

Tim Ferriss: Did you look for father figures throughout that adolescent period or was it — 

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: — more surrounding yourself with peers?

David Blaine: Early on I would read about all the people I looked up to and that was like my college was finding people that did things that I was really amazed by and then learning as much as I could. And then what I started doing is I started finding all the books on Nobel Prize winners. And then in literature specifically, and then I would read what books they recommended. And then I would read the books that they recommended. And on the back of that book it would be what this book was influenced by. So I started going through lots of that stuff.

Tim Ferriss: The original hyperlinks, bibliographies.

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. When did you start fasting, and why?

David Blaine: I’ve been obsessed with fasting since I was a kid, but I think it started when my mother gave me Siddhartha to read, the Hermann Hesse book. And I read it when I was 11 years old, and in it he fasts and he stands and he does these things where he sees the world in a different way and he realizes that he can control his body with his mind.

So that was the beginning of the seed of the curiosity. And then loving the way you feel when you fast. Colors change. The blues become vibrant. You notice the sky. You become more emotional. So I took everything away and it was incredible.

Tim Ferriss: The fasting, Siddhartha‘s one of my favorite books.

David Blaine: Really?

Tim Ferriss: Oh, absolutely. And I remember — 

David Blaine: Have you guys read that? It’s amazing.

Tim Ferriss: It’s a short read. It’s a short read and I remember at least in two instances he’s trying to court this noblewoman, I think she is, and he’s also trying to get a job with a merchant at one point. And they ask him, because he’s effectively at least acting the part of monk at the time, they say, “What can you give? What can you do?” And he said, “I can think. I can wait. And I can fast.”

David Blaine: Yep.

Tim Ferriss: And he talks about the value of not being beholden to food. And he says, “For instance, if you ask me to work for you right now and I needed food, I’d have to say yes to whatever you offered me.” But he’s, “Since I can fast, I can think about it more rationally.” But I’ve done seven and 10-day fasts.

I’ve never gone as far as you have but it’s incredible when you click over from carbohydrate dependent to pulling on your fat stores. Cognitively everything changes. It’s very, very interesting. You can’t go back to how it was before in terms of viewing food and so on.

David Blaine: Yeah, that’s true.

Tim Ferriss: It’s totally different. Looking back over your stunts, all the magic, the endurance feats, which ended up being more dangerous than you expected, or scarier than expected?

David Blaine: Probably the 44 days with the water fast in London in a box because I think I went into mild organ failure and I dropped 33 percent BMI, which was well documented, but the recovery on that, I think to this day, it still screwed up my metabolism and my weight goes up and down really fast and it did real damage.

Audio: — vitamin deficiency. So the pigment leaves.

Audio: David Blaine, who has been there 44 days. No food, only water.

David Blaine: I lost 60 pounds in 44 days.

Tim Ferriss: The plexiglass diet.

David Blaine: Not recommended in any way, shape, or form.

Tim Ferriss: Not recommended. Your dietician will not have this on the multiple choice options. What did you’re refeeding look like after that?

David Blaine: That was the really interesting part. After I did the 44 days I was rushed to the hospital where I stayed for, I think, two weeks. When they started refeeding me I think my phosphate levels jumped out of control and I almost went into shock and died. And that was the refeeding syndrome.

Tim Ferriss: Yep.

David Blaine: We published the paper in the New England Journal of Medicine about the refeeding syndrome, which is because most hunger strikers in the past, they do it and they’re very anti-government, it’s for a statement. Whereas I just did it as a performance piece and therefore I was willing to give all my blood and all my urine to doctors and let them use it as research. So it actually became useful in a sense that there was a real documented study of the prolonged effects of fasting.

Tim Ferriss: 44 days.

David Blaine: Or starvation technically, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Were there any of your performances on the flip side that you thought were going to be very difficult or very scary that were easier than expected, for you, for whatever reason?

David Blaine: Nope.

Tim Ferriss: What does magic mean to you, because you do so much more than illusion and magic. You really have a full-stack performer kit at your disposal. But what does magic mean to you?

David Blaine: For me it’s just a beautiful performance art. It’s something where — and it’s also you learn a really difficult skill. It defies logic. And then you have an immediate reaction to it. So it’s something you can do almost anywhere, anytime. And it’s also a constant pursuit of information but information that isn’t readily available. So it’s like you have to dig up history. You read about a guy that had done something from 100 years ago. He died, took his secrets to the grave.

So you spend years trying to understand how he did it and it’s trial and error, practice, repetition. And then finally all of a sudden you’re able to do these things that you had only read about. One was called The Human Aquarium, which is about a guy that could convert his body into an aquarium where he could store creatures. Yeah, I’m not kidding.

Tim Ferriss: This is a real trick?

David Blaine: Yeah. Another was a magician — 

Tim Ferriss: So wait, he would put a sturgeon in his mouth and regurgitate it?

David Blaine: Well, anything. Yeah, anything that could live in water and land. Then you also find there’s another guy that was The Human Dragon and he could drink kerosene. It would float on top of a gallon of water in his stomach and then he would blow fireballs out of his mouth, igniting a huge fire, and then just when you thought that was the end, he’d use a gallon of water that was stored in his stomach and put out the fire. Of course, one time he did it wrong and died and took his secrets to the grave.

Tim Ferriss: Inadvertently.

David Blaine: Yeah, but I see the footage and I’m like, “I want to do that.” So I spent 20 years trying to figure it out and I couldn’t because nobody had the secrets. So I was like, “Oh, man. Maybe this isn’t such a smart idea to do.”

Tim Ferriss: We’re going to pull up this video involving an icepick.

Audio: You can see how complex and how dangerous to take an object and put it through your hand is. And especially where David is doing it, there’s a whole complex of arteries there.

Audio: You want me to pull it out?

Audio: Yeah.

Audio: Gnarly.

Audio: Oh.

Audio: Nothing. Just a hole. But nothing, just a hole.

Audio: There’s not any really blood on this thing either.

Audio: Nothing. Explain that one, Dr. Reuben.

Tim Ferriss: Okay.

David Blaine: I don’t think that deserves applause. I think that deserves like, “You’re out of your mind.”

Tim Ferriss: Condemnation. Off the stage.

David Blaine: But, ironically, before I leave, I brought another thing similar that I have an x-ray of that I’ll show you that I recently learned. So I’ll show it to you before I go, which is a little crazier than this one, I think.

Tim Ferriss: The only way that I can even begin to approach talking about that is let’s assume that it’s totally real, you actually figured out how to put that through your hand. That’s the only place I can go with it. What is your self-talk when you’re practicing that?

David Blaine: Houdini used to do this thing where he’d push pins through his face and then pull them all out, swallow razorblades, pull them out threaded, but there are ways to do things that are real that you would assume it can’t be done because you would assume that you’re going to bleed, but there’s a way to — 

And I started with acupuncture needles just trying to see if you could go straight through. I had x-rays taken, MRs done, the whole thing so I could know where all the blood vessels and everything lie. And then I found a sweet spot and just started slowly figuring out how to go through the hand.

Tim Ferriss: Is there any particular trick or stunt that has obsessed you for a long time that you have not yet been able to figure out?

David Blaine: Yeah, the craziest one. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of sleep deprivation. No, but when you do sleep deprivation like the Native Americans would do it and you get this really incredible hallucination.

Tim Ferriss: Dream quest.

David Blaine: Yeah. So I’ve done five and a half days with no sleep and for me hallucinations start to really kick in at 55 hours from standing up the whole time and it’s a really rough environment. And even though it’s scary it’s also like you’re having these dreams and these nightmares but you’re awake. But the North Koreans used it as a ultimate form of torture on the Americans when they were hostages and many of those hostages came back tweaked for life. So what is the breaking point?

Tim Ferriss: The risk-benefit — 

David Blaine: Right.

Tim Ferriss: — analysis may not be in your favor. I remember at one point, one of my favorite parks in New York City, Bryant Park, was that where you were on top?

David Blaine: Yeah.

Audio: I was going to stand on this pillar for a day and a half with no food, no water, and nothing to catch me if I fell. My legs are numb. My back is numb. But at the end of this hour I’m going to jump. I’m going to jump straight down. Hopefully I’ll survive.

Tim Ferriss: I remember reading at one point that, talking about hallucinations, the buildings became like wolf heads or something?

David Blaine: Yeah, animal heads. Yeah. When you look back and see the shapes of just normal buildings and you suddenly think, “Wow, that looks like a lion.” I was up there for 36 hours but I started hallucinating at hour 30 but just light hallucinations so the buildings that were behind me that were perfectly flat I started looking at was like, “Wow, I didn’t know those buildings were lion heads.” So the people down below — 

Tim Ferriss: That’s a light hallucination?

David Blaine: Yeah, that’s light. So the people below that were working on the thing and the people at ABC suddenly decided that there was no way I was going to hit my target so they built this huge thing of boxes. It was enormous which pissed me off. And I ended up jumping and hitting the mark but that was during mild hallucinations.

Tim Ferriss: Have you ever learned anything from your hallucinations? Very curious. Not trying to imply that have to — 

David Blaine: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. For sure.

Tim Ferriss: Just curious because I’m in my mind comparing to say, some descriptions of the psychedelic experience, but it’s different.

David Blaine: No. Yeah, also you have that as well but one of the things that I did learn is that out of anything that I did that was extremely difficult, when your brain starts to go, when you start to lose control of your mind, there’s nothing as horrific imaginable. It’s like I never understood when somebody has mental illness, I never understood how severe that is.

But when I go through those things and it’s all of a sudden the world becomes scary because you don’t have control anymore. And I learned that now anybody that I meet that has any kind of mental illness in any way, I’m extremely compassionate to. Not just compassionate, I’m like, “This is the craziest thing ever.”

Tim Ferriss: When that starts to set in, have you developed any strategies to cope with it?

David Blaine: That’s interesting, because basically what happens is your brain is trying to trick you. So the brain knows that you need sleep so the brain can recover and your immune system recover, everything is built — what happens is when you’re staying awake, even if you have people helping you, your brain is coming at you with your biggest fears and anything that is your weakness, your brain is trying to say this is happening to you and you need to go to sleep otherwise this is going to get worse and worse.

So you start seeing blemishes appearing all over but they’re not there. You see your hand change into spider webs. Everything that would freak you out so you would decide “I can’t do this anymore” is going so you have to do it often enough and have a very sensitive, careful team around you that are guiding you almost, that teach you how to override what your brain is trying to tell you to do.

Tim Ferriss: That’s pretty wild.

David Blaine: Yeah, it’s pretty wild, also a trained skill.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have any fears? What are you afraid of or what makes you anxious? Anything?

David Blaine: First, I used to be horrified of insects. I would see a cockroach, ahh! But I think I learned that from my mother because she was really afraid of bugs. But then I went to Botswana, Africa and I was sleeping in this little tent with these hippos circling the tent all night and you’re there by yourself and you’re in this little tent filled with spiders and all these bugs and they become your good friends because these hippos could chomp you in half in one second.

Tim Ferriss: You’re mentioning something that I think is really worth underscoring because it seems to have come up a couple times which is, if you’re afraid of something you can try to think your way out of it or you can just expose yourself to it and inoculate yourself with these small doses.

David Blaine: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: If someone, for instance Cato, who was considered the perfect stoic, and he cared how people judged him at one point. He was very concerned with how other people felt about him so he started wearing odd-colored clothing and so on so that he would get ridiculed.

He did it on purpose so that he could practice not caring about being embarrassed about things unless they were truly important. And practicing poverty, similar idea. Even say if you take Seneca or some of these other famous stoics and they would take a certain period of time and eat the cheapest of food, sleep on a hard floor — 

David Blaine: Sleep on a bare floor — 

Tim Ferriss: Exactly.

David Blaine: [crosstalk 00:32:02].

Tim Ferriss: So that they would know, is this the condition I so feared is what they would ask themselves. I want to pull up some audience questions from Twitter. This is @Tykoe. “What are somewhat average things that you can’t do despite all attempts?”

David Blaine: Dance. Karaoke.

Tim Ferriss: Karaoke, God. Yeah, that’s a tough one. Not much, I always do Nothing But a Hound Dog. I don’t know why. It’s like my default. I’m like, “I can’t do karaoke but that’s my go-to.”

David Blaine: It’s like wearing the odd clothes so you can be a stoic. We should just go out and karaoke until we’re [crosstalk 00:32:43].

Tim Ferriss: Be hard watching, at least I am. The next question is somewhat related to what we were just talking about. “What is your secret reserve of strength when you feel that your body or mind can’t push through?”

David Blaine: That’s a really good question. What I do is a lot of it is based on numbers. And I run it across the board. If I’m going to run a 10k, I make sure that I get not just to the 6.2 but I’ll go always further like maybe to seven. Or I’ll pick a number that’s important and then I have these superstitions that if I don’t get to this number something terrible’s going to happen.

So by committing to this almost superstition that’s based on numbers you can use the halfway mark like, “Okay, I’m going to get to 22 days of a fast,” but I know I have 44 days so first I reach the 22-day mark and then I start counting backwards. I say, “But I already did half so now I can pretend I’m starting fresh so I have 22 days to go so let me get through another 11 days.” And it’s basically just breaking it down in little chunks but making sure that you get to that finish line.

Tim Ferriss: Didn’t you do something or have a very similar superstition when you were a kid in school really like your school bus? You had to do certain things, pull a leaf off a tree or — 

David Blaine: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I would stop and there would be a leaf that was just out of reach when you’d jump and I’d just keep jumping and jumping and then I’d have to put something down until I got that. It was just little things. But it’s weird because for me it was almost like training because I’d set a goal that very difficult and then I just wouldn’t quit until I got it. And part of it was the superstition of doing this ridiculous thing that has no meaning but just not quitting until it’s done.

Tim Ferriss: This one’s from Facebook. This is Patrick Mukuka Zgambo. I like this question. “I have 90 days to practice to perform a close-up magic event. What skills should I focus on to maximize my results in such a small timeframe?”

David Blaine: The way I do it is not the way others do it but what I like to do is I like to commit to something and put myself in the hot seat because I already committed to doing something that I’m not ready for. Like your thing when you did — 

Tim Ferriss: Sure.

David Blaine: — a week to get ready to do something so you’re all in because you have no choice. So even just when I do certain big magic stunts or feats I announce them before I do them and then I work diligently to get there. So I would say find a few things that you really like, work on them, research them, learn how to do them. And they’re going to be very messy.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

David Blaine: Keep working until you start to figure out how to do it among friends and family, just let me try this. Try it, try it over and over. And then go out maybe to a friend’s part or wherever you are and try it over and over and over and over. And after you fail a few hundred times you might start to become okay at it.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And I find also with a lot of these questions like this, and you made a great point, people are looking for more information or some type of particular way of training but what they really need is just social accountability and the incentive. So if you publicly announce it, you will figure out how to make it work.

David Blaine: You’re committed to it.

Tim Ferriss: I have a buddy, A.J. Jacobs. He lives in New York. He’s a writer for Esquire, really good guy. And he couldn’t lose weight despite all of his attempts. And he wasn’t obese. He described his physique as a python that swallowed a goat. Just middle-age paunch.

David Blaine: Like in The Little Prince.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And he wanted to fix it. And he had all the diet books, he just wasn’t doing it. So he’s a Jewish guy. He wrote a check, I believe it was to the American Nazi Party, for $1,000, gave it to either one of his best friends or his wife and said, “If I don’t lose 20 pounds by the end of next month, I want you to mail this in.” In which case his name would be on the record, public record, as having donated to this organization. Lo and behold, he lost the weight. So I think the accountability is such a huge part of it.

“What are you learning right now?” Josh Anderson on Facebook.

David Blaine: What am I learning currently? What I’m working on is I’m trying to figure out how to put together a stage show because I’ve never really conquered that and haven’t done it in a way that I feel is right yet so I’ve been working, just getting up on little comedy stages and trying out different things. And the idea of being able to do something in an intimate room and then also in a bigger room, that’s my goal. So that’s the thing I’m working on diligently and I’m most consumed with right now. And it’s a big learning curve.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

David Blaine: You need to do thousands of shows before you really figure out what you’re doing.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

David Blaine: So it’s hard to get that time and space necessary. But that’s my big goal.

Tim Ferriss: Working on your material in a way — 

David Blaine: Yeah, figuring out how to work that — yeah.

Tim Ferriss: I remember watching Comedian, the documentary with Jerry Seinfeld and also another up and comer. It was so sobering and reassuring to watch because you see Seinfeld, who’s one of the biggest stars in the world at that point, and then he goes back to work on new material as a standup. And you just see him bomb.

You see him bomb in these little venues and he just forgets his lines and he just sits there on stage and he’s like, “Wait a minute,” trying to remember his lines. It’s just excruciating but it’s reassuring in the sense you’re like, “Okay, this guy, it’s not like he just wakes up in the morning with a finished one-hour set.”

David Blaine: No.

Tim Ferriss: You just have to put in the time to hone it and refine it. When you think of the word, or hear the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind for you?

David Blaine: My mother. She was a school teacher and she came from a very powerful family. Left her family, moved to Brooklyn. Decided to do social work and teach and things like that. And she was really incredible and really cared about doing and helping and giving. So to me that’s the greatest thing you can do. She was in that regard extremely successful.

Tim Ferriss: What’s success to you personally?

David Blaine: When you give as much as — I think Bill Gates is a great example because he’s made so much money but he basically figured out that he can figure out how to give better than most institutions can so he directs his money outwards. It’s not like I want to have so much, it’s like I want to amass this amount so that I can give it to the right places. I think that’s really important.

For me personally it’s one of my favorite stories, around Thanksgiving, whenever I can I go to BAMC which is the Brooke Army Medical Center and I go into the burn unit there where all the kids that are burnt from the war and just terrible tragedies. So every year that I would go I would try to get everybody that I can and one year there was a kid named Victor who was 21 and a really handsome kid that got blown up in a Humvee and when he was rushed to the hospital he had basically been burnt exactly on half of his face and the top of his head.

But half of his face was completely burnt, the other half was perfect. And he wouldn’t go out. He wouldn’t interact with the other people. He stayed in his room. He was more angry that he was suddenly burnt on half his face than the actually losing the fingers, losing the ears, all that stuff. And I asked the nurse, “Have I done everybody?” She said, “Yeah, but there’s one kid, but he won’t see anybody. He won’t even talk to the nurses. He won’t meet with the therapist. Nothing.” I said, “Bring me to him.” She said, “No, no, no. He won’t see anybody.”

I said, “Just bring me to him.” So she asked his mother who was standing in the room with him, all the time dying inside, and the mother is like, “Sure. My son’s not going to talk to him but sure.” I walk in and he’s stone faced. He won’t even look at me. And I grab his hand, which people don’t touch him like that, like nothing’s wrong. So I grab his hand, “Let me show you something. Hold your hand out.” And I start doing magic to him. And all of a sudden, because I’m not treating him like he was disfigured, suddenly I see him interested.

Then I keep going and he cracks a little smile. And I see his mother when that happens bawling in the corner but holding it in. So I’m fighting my hardest not to cry. Anyway, I completely finish doing magic to the guy. I put my hat on his head because you should not do it because it’s open wounds, and I leave the hospital content that now I’ve done magic to everybody including the guy that didn’t want to see me.

And then I decide to come back the next morning, the day after Thanksgiving, and the mother comes out and she’s bawling. And she says to me, when she sees me, she’s like, “Right when you left, my son let the nurses put him in a wheelchair and he went out with the other guys and he started his physical therapy.” So it was just that little bit of treating him like there was nothing — 

So I came back the next year and he had had all this — he looked really good. He had all this reconstructive surgery and it was in Texas and I took him out for dinner and then to a strip club. We had the time of our lives. It was amazing.

Tim Ferriss: Wow. It’s hard to follow that up with just about anything. What is your, if you have one, your end goal with magic? What keeps driving you?

David Blaine: I think the ultimate goal is just I always wanted to just bring magic to the people. Just bring magic in a good way or in a new way or in a different way. So that’s the end goal. Maybe we should try something in here.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you could try something in here. You guys want to try something live? All right. How should we begin?

David Blaine: Can I take the x-ray? One of the new things that I’ve been working on might be hard to see but I’ll let you hold this up. This is an x-ray. Can you all make it out somewhat? Can you all see what that is? Yeah, there’s a sword that I recently learned how to push all the way inside like a sword swallower, basically. And I learned it to work on one new trick. So if I could — yeah, good. So here’s my little — now you guys are seeing this when it’s brand new. And this is much bigger than the one in the picture.

The one in the picture is actually pretty thin. And the esophagus is very, very thin, so I’m going to try to push this down inside. And lots of people assume when sword swallowers do what they do that it’s a trick but it’s really not and I recently learned that in studying this. I don’t know if I’m going to succeed but we’ll try. You’ve got to come closer, though, to make sure it’s real.

Tim Ferriss: Okay. Yeah, that’s real.

David Blaine: I’m not going to have him try it yet. I’m going to give Tim a week to learn it. Let me give this — it might have some food and stuff — no, I’m just kidding.

Shall we try this one other thing?

Audience: Yeah.

Audience: Yay.

David Blaine: I’ll let Tim help. This is something else I’ve been working on which is a strength thing. Just because you’re the closest, do you want to help with this?

Audience volunteer: Sure.

David Blaine: Do you mind? You’ll have to jump up on stage. I’ll give you a hand, here. Good. So, one of the things I’ve been obsessed with is just feats of strength. But, Tim, can you mix the deck? Shuffle it up.

Tim Ferriss: Not very good.

David Blaine: Let him shuffle too.

Audience volunteer: [inaudible 00:46:32] too.

Tim Ferriss: I’m like my [inaudible 00:46:36] skills are — 

David Blaine: But you agree they’re all shuffled. There’s no order, nothing like that. Yes?

Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Blaine: So, Tim. I’m going to give you a quarter of the deck.

Tim Ferriss: Okay.

David Blaine: Just — 

Tim Ferriss: Tear it in half?

David Blaine: Yeah, tear it in half. Exactly.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, God. Here we go.

David Blaine: All together so it’s one neat rip. Here, make it neat, all together.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, my God, I’m trying.

David Blaine: You’re going to mess this up. No, but put them like this, flat. And then rip it so it’s one unit. Otherwise you’re ripping one card at a time.

Tim Ferriss: That’s the only way I can do it.

David Blaine: So it’s difficult.

Tim Ferriss: It’s difficult.

David Blaine: So I’m going to teach you the technique right now. The idea is this. So see, I pinch here and then it’s almost pretty simple. See.

Tim Ferriss: That was very cool.

David Blaine: But okay, you know what, which half do you want?

Audience volunteer: This one.

David Blaine: Okay, so take that. And now do this for me. Pick up a bunch of cards, put them on bottom.

Audience volunteer: Yep.

David Blaine: And put them on the bottom. Good. And do it again, pick up a bunch, put them on bottom. Great. Now every time you do that the top and the bottom card and the middle cards, everything is going to change. Understood? So every time you do it the order changes. Yep? This time I want you to do it behind your back.

So behind your back I want you to cut the deck, complete the cut, and then keep them behind your back. And they’re slippery. Don’t let them spill. And take either the top piece or the bottom piece and hide it in your pocket. Either the top or the bottom, it’s up to you. And we don’t need the rest of the big pile. Good. So here’s the idea. Can I give you these?

Audience volunteer: Yes.

David Blaine: Just to show you that they are shuffled, you did mix everything up, correct?

Audience volunteer: Yes.

David Blaine: Yes. I’m going to have you just choose one from inside. Actually we’ll do a few. So here, you just reach in and pull one or two. One is fine. Now let me just say something. Most people would go for the obvious card like the ace of spades or even the king. You didn’t do that. You shifted. You went to a card that was not obvious.

David Blaine: What card was it, the seven of spades? So when you chose you had the choice and you shifted around and pulled one but behind your back you didn’t know what you chose. You just pulled a card without looking and hid it in your pocket, correct? So you have half of a card in your pocket and there’s another half of a card in your hand.

Audience volunteer: You want me to take it out?

David Blaine: Sure. Let everybody see. Put them together, see if they fit.

Tim Ferriss: David Blaine, everybody.

If you had a huge billboard, could put anything on it, something short, meaning get a message out to the world, what would you put on it?

David Blaine: The last thing that my mother said to me is, “God is love.”

Tim Ferriss: What does that mean to you?

David Blaine: To me it means that love is the ultimate God, so loving everything and everybody and not being filled with hate or animosity or fear and trying to find love — to me, that’s the ultimate in life.

Tim Ferriss: David Blaine, you’re amazing. Guys, give it up for David Blaine. Thank you, David. Thank you guys.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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