Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Apollo Robbins (@ApolloRobbins), often referred to as “The Gentleman Thief.” Apollo first made national news when he pick-pocketed the Secret Service while entertaining a former U.S. President. Forbes has called Robbins “an artful manipulator of awareness,” and Wired has written that “he could steal the wallet of a man who knew he was going to have his pocket picked.”
Robbins’ entertainment credentials include the Warner Bros. film Focus, with Will Smith and Margot Robbie, along with appearances in Brooklyn 99, and the TNT series Leverage. He was a producer and co-host for National Geographic’s Brain Games, which was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series. Robbins applies his expertise in magic and misdirection beyond entertainment, pulling back the curtain to show how the principles behind these illusions can enhance strategic thinking and decision-making.
His contributions to attention and perception research have been published in Scientiﬁc American Mind and Nature Reviews Neuroscience. He has delivered lectures at Harvard Kennedy School, MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Society of Neuroscience. He has been proﬁled by The New Yorker and featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and The Wall Street Journal. Robbins’ TED Talk, “The Art of Misdirection,” is ranked in the 20 most-watched TED Talks of all time and has been hailed by the TED editors as a revelation in the ﬂaws of human perception.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Apollo.
Apollo Robbins: Yes, sir.
Tim Ferriss: So nice to have you here.
Apollo Robbins: It is a pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: And this has been in the works for me, at least, in my own head since I want to say 2018, 2019.
Apollo Robbins: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: And then this pesky thing that we now call COVID came along and disrupted all sorts of plans, but finally, here we are. So thank you for making the trip, and I’m glad that you are here in person, so we may get a chance to stand up.
Apollo Robbins: It’s nice that it’s in person versus virtual. There’s so many more possibilities.
Tim Ferriss: So many more possibilities. Well, let’s start. So people might assume that, right out of the gate, maybe as a fetus, but certainly, once you entered the world, you had the dexterity of a demigod and were basically fated to become someone famous for how they use their hands. Is that the case?
Apollo Robbins: No. Quite the opposite. I think almost as opposite as it could be on that. This is a story I’ve been told, that once upon a time, my father, who was legally blind, had decided to become a minister, went to seminary in Enid, Oklahoma, and was walking down the streets from seminary, but he had moved into this kind of rough neighborhood, was trying to witness, and these two teenagers decided to try to steal from him. He didn’t know what they were up to, but then, when they realized he was blind, they decided not to hustle him.
But instead, they tried to guide him to where the bus was and encouraged him to go to another area. And he invited them to his church, invited them to have food on a Wednesday night, and they came and they did. They found food and they brought their mom one time. And then, their mom met him and they got married, and that’s supposedly how my parents met.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Okay. So, your parents meet, one thing leads to another.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. It’s —
Tim Ferriss: I’m assuming no immaculate conception.
Apollo Robbins: Perhaps.
Tim Ferriss: And then, you enter the world, what were doctors expectations of you?
Apollo Robbins: They were upside down. Because my mother had had previous children, she had three and she was a widow, they were also in their teens, they assumed that I had the same father. So they didn’t test their blood. So there was a factor in the blood, I think it was an RH factor, but it created what they call ABO blood disease. So it required, when I was born, that I had a transfusion.
There were a few other things. My mom had lupus, connective tissue disease, which created tumors in her uterus, and so my legs developed around those, so they were twisted up. And I think, out of that — I mean, it’s an interesting — we can go in this further, but out of that, when I was born, there was a product of a little, the Forrest Gump thing, that I had to wear braces on my legs like Forrest Gump to get around.
But also, I had fine and gross motor problems, I couldn’t control my hands. It was kind of the joke of trying to clap the hands three times at the therapist. I was a little bit better than that. I can clap my hands, but I couldn’t do a lot more. I had to, when I learned to write, have a large diameter pencil that was through a rubber ball, and I had to learn to write that with both hands up until about the second grade.
So I had a lot of therapy, which I think that idea of persistent learning through overcoming an obstacle like that has helped me be resilient with acquiring a lot of skills over my lifetime.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say more about your father? So, was he blind for your entire life? Did that have some onset? And how did that shape who he was? And of course, the implicit question is how did that affect you, but let’s start with —
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — the simpler version of the question. Could you just tell us more about your father?
Apollo Robbins: He was a short man, and I think that that factors in, because he was about five foot four. So, it’s pretty — quite short. He was very physically fit. He climbed rope without using his legs. He was very quick to go to a fight when he was younger.
And then, one time, when he was going into college, he was studying to be a CPA, and he had some kind of bout that — he had tuberculous meningitis that affected him for about a year, year and a half. It was a very serious disease at the time. I mean, still is, but at the time, it was more pervasive, and it made him blind during his productive year, and he became kind of born again. Somebody had come to visit him and witnessed to him during that time, and he decided he was going to change the course of his life, become a minister.
And that, I think, made him a very dogmatic minister, too. He really embodied himself with thinking about the difference of Paul versus Saul in the Bible. And when he came out — he was a traveling minister for most of my early life. He would travel, visit churches. And some of the things — I think one of the creative parts that I really took from him was that he would travel to a church not knowing what his presentation was going to be, but he would find an animal along the way, a turtle crossing the road, and that became his presentation. He would sit it in front of the pulpit and everybody would circle around him and would talk about the turtle as a analogy or a metaphor. And he was able to connect these ideas.
And meanwhile, I would sit in the back with my little braces, and usually, a pen and paper and try to draw everything that was going on. Art was a big thing for me, and it had been for him before he had lost his sight. So I think those influences factor in later to some of the other things. But I think one of the bigger takeaways wasn’t the blind spots he had through vision, although it did help that when we would walk around, I would try to be his eyes for him, there was this tug of war that he didn’t want anybody to know that he was really blind. He didn’t often emphasize that. He would often walk with a confidence level that was —
Tim Ferriss: Ill-suited to his eyesight.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And to his chagrin, because he would run full force into a park bench and come tumbling over it. But he created this ministry that was inside of government subsidized housing and what people think as the hood. And he would get beat up in front of me, by gangs, sometimes, or not necessarily gangs, but just small groups. I guess you’d call gangs. And it was —
Tim Ferriss: Where was this again? Can you remind me?
Apollo Robbins: It’s in the — well, now, it’s branded as a TV show, the Ozarks.
Tim Ferriss: Ahh. Okay.
Apollo Robbins: But the city was Springfield, Missouri. And he would go into those neighborhoods. He would go, he would set up his ministry inside of a laundromat, and he would draw the kids in with a story. He’d bring Kool-Aid and cookies every Sunday. He did that for 20 years. And they would come in and he would tell them these stories. It meant a lot to him. He was non-denominational, but he was very dogmatic about his specific interpretation of scripture, which, to me, myself, jumping ahead, I’m agnostic. I am not an atheist, but I’m not subscribed to any religion.
But it was such an interesting learning lesson. I think about, the difference between — most people would judge somebody by their perceptual blind spots of not being able to see, but sometimes, it’s worse, the stories that we tell ourselves and how that limits our perception.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll definitely come back to this.
Apollo Robbins: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Like perception, story, perception-shaping story, story-shaping perception, I want to talk a lot more about this. But since it’s something you just mentioned, the agnosticism, did you start off religious, and then, at some point along the way, become agnostic? Was it a response to, perhaps, your father’s dogmatism? How did you get to self-identifying in that way?
Apollo Robbins: I started off as religious, which I think is the same thing, people start off as extremely patriotic to their certain country where they’re born or where you go to form a family, where they’re very religious, it’ll be under that flag as well. And my father had me study a lot of different types of scriptures, from Jehovah’s Witness to the Mormons, because he wanted to be able to debate those for a lot of different topics. He had the book of Hebrew, he wanted me to study King James for its specific interpretation.
I had a debate in debate groups for evolution and creationism, so I was on teams that did that. I was in a bible quiz team, where I would buzz these buzzers and quote scriptures, and I went to the world championships in that and placed in the world championships. So it’s all these things as a young kid that I was deeply entrenched in that world, and there was just poking at this thing, that this certainty is what flagged me, just the absoluteness of my father’s answer.
And it was in juxtaposition of what was happening on the other side of my family. So my mother, and this shifts to the other side. It was a dichotomy between the two, because she had been a widow and she had raised these three kids that — her husband had died very early, and two of them had picked up this beyond a hobby of how they were making money on the other side of the law, from stealing things, running small hustles. They never called it pickpocketing, but they would steal from people at the zoo when they were leaning over to watch things, animals being fed, they would cut their pockets or steal their bags, at sporting events through bleachers, mostly, opportunistic.
But later, it evolved. In the military, when he came out, he started working, again like the series, Ozark, I feel like that route that was in Ozark is probably what my brothers are associated with, with some type of trafficking group `—
Tim Ferriss: Drug trafficking.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, drug trafficking up through that pipeline. One of my brothers also did smuggling for firearms, so moving those in and out. So it became very intense, and I was exposed to some of that at the same time that I was growing up with my father as a devout minister. So it was really, I think a fascinating juxtaposition between those two worlds, that seeing deception in that true sense of the word of what we often think it to be, but yet, also, he was okay with my brothers as people. He didn’t know that that’s what they did. But I got to see both sides of that.
And they did other things publicly. They were truck drivers or other things, and exceptional people in many ways, but it taught me to see the gray. I think back to your other question now, became — when I started to go to the church, I’d sneak out of the back of the church when the services transition, and I’d sneak off to another church and say, well, if the Assemblies of God believe that tongues is the first physical, initial sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit, then what do the Baptists believe? And then I’d go see their tenets.
And then, as I bounced around, I noticed that there were just lots of little slices of different views or perspectives, which, to me, has continued to follow me through my life of anytime somebody claims a truth is, maybe we need more perspectives on this.
Tim Ferriss: When does Ben Stone enter the picture?
Apollo Robbins: Wow, that’s a great name.
Tim Ferriss: And how old are you?
Apollo Robbins: How dark do you want to get? I can take it light or dark or gray.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe you pick, dealer’s choice.
Apollo Robbins: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, we’ve gone dark on this podcast before, so we can go there, but —
Apollo Robbins: I’ll pop in and out. So, just as a transition, once upon a time, I had had a pursuit to become a syndicated cartoon artist. And I was about 12, 13, 14, going through that. And I was pretty confident that I could pull it off. I wanted to be the youngest one. There was a guy who was imitating Gary Larson’s single-panel cartoons, and I had six months of character sheets. I was going to send them out to get syndicated.
And my parents didn’t understand what this was, or what this weird thing I was doing. They just knew I liked to draw and do cartoons. But I think it’s important to understand the energy of what that was. And then, there was a fight, and parents have fights with their kids, with their teens. It’s just, mine was a little bit more intense. My father thought I was possessed. So they tried to evoke a demon out of me.
Tim Ferriss: Because of the cartooning?
Apollo Robbins: Not because of the cartooning, but because of some argument that we had.
Tim Ferriss: Ah.
Apollo Robbins: But the argument — I say this as proximity to my large case of six months of cartoons, my parents — some variation of a water boarding process occurred and the water poured over on all my art. So that’s the dark side, that it destroyed all the art. And when you had that much work invested, it’s a reset. How do you start over? What do you do? And for me as a kid, that was what I pictured as my escape.
Tim Ferriss: The cartooning was going to be your escape plan?
Apollo Robbins: Yes. Yeah. Mm-hmm. From that world. And then, I think, I was down in our basement, I was going through some boxes and I found this little magic gadget. It was a piece of plastic, looked like a thumb, and I was very curious about what that was. And somebody said, “It’s a magic trick.” And I said, “Well, how did that end up in our stuff?”
So I call a magic shop that was downtown, and there’s this guy picked up the phone and he was probably 70 something at the time. His name was Ben Stone. So, long way around to answer your question.
And Ben Stone, I said, so I’ve got this plastic thumb, I don’t know what it is. I said, “Do I act like my finger’s cut off? What do I do?” I’m like 14. I’m very precocious. I’m borderline at this choice in my life, like I’m shoplifting. I’m running away from home for two weeks at a time living out in the woods, sometimes. So I’m kind of at a transition place of which way I choose as my paths in life.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a vulnerable place where you could have inflection points.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Or vectors in a lot of different directions.
Apollo Robbins: And I had lots of ingredients to go a certain way. Later, as I’ve met people in my life, I resonated with them because of that, because I had that fork to make a decision. So, Ben had a big impact at that decision, and that’s why I wanted to give you the context for it.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I appreciate that. And so what happens then? You’re like, “I have this fake thumb.”
Apollo Robbins: “What do I do?” Ben says, “Come to the magic shop, downtown Springfield.” It was about 12 miles from wherever my house was. So I rode a bike, I went with a friend, and went down there. And he didn’t show me anything about the fake thumb, but he used it as a trap. He made this coin move around —
Tim Ferriss: Your kind of guy.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, which is great. It’s exactly what should have happened to me. And he moved this sleight of hand with the coin, he made it jump around, disappeared, jumped through his clothing, jumped through his body. I was fascinated, because I was thinking, if this old guy can do this, I could probably pull this off myself.
And then, he pulled out a deck of cards called the Svengali deck, and he did a bunch of tricks with that. He says, “So here’s a choice.” Kind of like a red pill, blue pill. “This deck of cards, you can walk out of here, and for $5, you’ll be able to do 50 tricks without even practicing, or here’s this big book and it’s going to take a lot of study. And maybe in four or five years, you’ll be able to do sleight of hand with almost anything, but it’s your choice.”
And it was his way of vetting at that point, I think. And I didn’t have money either way. That wasn’t the plan. So I went back, rode my bike back to my house, and I sold some stuff at a pawn shop, and came back the next day and bought that book. And for the first year, I just spent time by myself studying the coin magic by myself.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to pause because we’re going to pick up on this particular thread. But I want to rewind, I think, just a few years.
Apollo Robbins: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: You’re around 14, 15 at this point?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, I think this takes place a bit earlier. You mentioned your father and the animals that, then, become the parable or part of the sermon.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but is it true that you also used to take in orphaned animals?
Apollo Robbins: I did.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So can you tell me more about this?
Apollo Robbins: Wow. You have a research department. That’s great. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Got teams everywhere.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Eyes and ears on the ground.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And so I’m curious how that came to be, and I don’t want to make it too leading of a question, but how that has informed, or how it reflects who you are?
Apollo Robbins: Well, it’s very salient, I think. When I was eight or so, I guess, earlier, when I would take walks with my father, he couldn’t see things, but he would stop me when we’d go for a hike through the woods or something, and he’d say, “If you look around you right now, within five foot, there’s a world. There’s lots of little worlds. There’s little communities of things that are happening. You just have to find them. So find them and tell me about them.”
And that was a big thing. I saw a lizard on a tree, and he said, “Walk straight to it and it’s going to run around the tree. When it does, reach straight around behind it and cup your hand.” And he taught me that I could catch a lizard by walking around the tree because it’d go to the same position. There’s kind of a pattern to that.
And he taught me this perspective taking for animals I think helped a lot. It’s a variation of empathy that I think transferred later on for me. But I had, at that time, squirrels, raccoons. I babysit a bear for a weekend, a baby bear.
Tim Ferriss: Hold on. Let’s take the bear as an example.
Apollo Robbins: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: So, bear drop off, see you next week. What exactly happens?
Apollo Robbins: How do you get a bear —
Tim Ferriss: Like how does the bear make its way to you?
Apollo Robbins: Apparently, now, they have a mail order service, bear in a box. Just kidding.
Tim Ferriss: Be careful on the internet, you might get something you don’t expect.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: If you try to order that.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, my address is online. So, at that time, I had raccoons, which is a predecessor to getting a bear, as I’ve learned.
Tim Ferriss: It’s the bear starter kit.
Apollo Robbins: I had worked with the Humane Society as a volunteer from eight. I was an early entrepreneur from the time I was five. I was always doing some kind of hustle, some job.
Tim Ferriss: Was that encouraged, did that just emerge sort of out of your programming out of the box? Is this something other people were doing? It sounds like you had a family that was sort of active in extracurriculars. But —
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. If you run the definition of extracurriculars, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Apollo Robbins: Well, there’s a specific moment. So, at five, I was at Walmart and I saw a toy rifle that I really wanted. It was a single bullet, had a little toy bullet inside of it and I thought, I must have this. And my parents didn’t have money to buy it, but they said, “If you want to get it, you’re going to have to come back and buy it, but write down this number.”
And I wrote down the number, the cost of what it costs to get that. And they said, “It’s probably going to be there for this amount of time, so you’ve got to figure out how to get that much money.” And so I had to learn to count that much money. So I had to learn how to count the coins. I was finding pennies everywhere, doing anything I could to try to get jobs from everybody. And I got all these pennies and nickels and dimes, and they took me, my dad walked with me to the bank, and we got these paper rolls and he had me put everything in there.
And as we put the paper rolls up, we’d count up these dollar bills and other things. Walked to the store and I brought all these paper rolls of coins and paid for that rifle. And it was probably about a month’s work. And after that, I thought, how can I do this faster than going around collecting pennies? So I was like, how else do you make money? Because there’s a lot of things in the store I want.
And so, from paper routes to creating a little art business where — I had a knack for drawing when I was a kid, even though I was disabled a little bit. I was early to pick up on 2D perspective, two-dimensional perspective or three-point perspective. And so it gave me a unique insight, I think, at that age, that I went back to a back of a comic shop, took down the flyers of all the artists there that were the best, and said, “Hey, if I bring you work, will you — instead of giving me a percentage, will you teach me lessons?”
And so I started mentoring and finding mentors very young. And that has persisted with everything I’ve learned since then.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. We’re going to talk about mentors. How does the bear in a box fit into this?
Apollo Robbins: Okay, back to bear in a box. Yes?
Tim Ferriss: So you get paid to babysit bears?
Apollo Robbins: No. It was a slight ADD tangent. So —
Tim Ferriss: If so, I’m in.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No. It was right —
Tim Ferriss: What am I doing podcasting?
Apollo Robbins: But I was — along that, so I was doing lots of little efforts, like I was used to working jobs. And I went to the Humane Society and I volunteered for a couple of weekends to help out. And I saw a puppy get euthanized because it didn’t have enough space, and I was like eight. And that hit me pretty hard, because they just didn’t have space.
And I was drawing a lot, and I was really interested at that time of being an architect. So I redrew spaces of their cage to do triple-stacked cages, and they ended up saying they would use the idea, so more dogs could stay there. And they added me on to the board of my local Humane Society when I was like eight.
Then I said, “I want to help other kind of animals,” because all these orphan animals, I studied their habitats, and — I never have said this stuff out loud, so it really paints a picture of myself that I haven’t seen before, but it’s fun. So then raccoons were part of it. They were orphaned and they brought two raccoons to me, and I raised them and reacclimated them back to be released into the wild, and I had a knack for that of getting animals to successfully re-release into the wild at an early age.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think made you good at that?
Apollo Robbins: When you can’t walk the same as everyone else, you end up watching everyone else. And you become a people watcher, and there’s a lot of commonality between animals and people in those ways of — you start to do a lot of what I call perspective shifting, of jumping into their head to think, “Why would they make that decision? Why would they not do that?” I think that helped with the animals because I had to figure out, “How do I teach raccoons how to forage? How do I create little plastic containers with mud and crawfish?” And, “What are the things they’re going to need and why are they not adopting that?” “Why would they…” So I was very interested in behaviors of that at that time. So that’s probably part of it.
But then this lady who was mentoring me on that, her name was Charlie Strothkamp, and she was a fascinating lady who’d been a law enforcement officer that got mauled in a bar fight where she was trying to pull some people out of bar fight and then sliced open her arm and she had a single arm, but she took care of bears and buffalo and all sorts of crazy things. She’s a powerful lady. And she said, “Hey, it’s amazing what you just did with these raccoons. Would you like to take care of this young bear for me for the weekend? It has diapers, and it needs to be fed.” And it was magical. It was an awesome little milestone at that time.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. How old were you?
Apollo Robbins: I was probably nine. Probably eight to 10 is when I was doing those things.
Tim Ferriss: So it seems that, to your parents’ credit, they were open to you having a bear in the house?
Apollo Robbins: Well, not in the house.
Tim Ferriss: So where did the bear in the diaper stay?
Apollo Robbins: I had a habitat that I was using for the raccoons that was square footage is large enough to let them move and roam that I could —
Tim Ferriss: Like a shed type of place? Or was it more of an outdoor enclosure?
Apollo Robbins: It was an outdoor enclosure that was chained and fenced in with some options for it to go inside that could work for it, but I had to build a lot of those. My mom had a background of farm, so she taught me how to build a lot of those. I lived in the city, but we had a strange backyard, strange house.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s pick up with the book and the path of magic. So how do you go then from let’s just say broad magic, generalist magic, to what you have become so well known for? So, well, first you go to med school and then you figure out your specialty and then you do your residency and you’re like, “Okay. Actually, I’m not really great at this, but I’m pretty good at this. So let me zig and zag.” Was it that type of process or how did you meander your way? Maybe it wasn’t meandered, maybe it was a direct line.
Apollo Robbins: I was always full force in whatever I did. And I think that that’s part of it, that sometimes when we’re trying to get to a place and we just feel like we need to get to that place, we can change the vehicle. We just know that we’re on that journey, and that’s often what it was. I knew I was getting out of where I was and that was a big thing for me is getting out of the place where I was growing up.
Tim Ferriss: This was going to be my next question. So at what point did you have the conviction that magic or some variant of magic could be your metaphorical bus ticket out of that place in the way that you hoped cartooning would be?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, which is a fun combination. So the book was a dense read, and I think it helped me though, but now when people try to learn from magic, they try to learn it without mentors and from YouTube videos where they don’t have to deal with people. And so you don’t have to do the perspective taking and then management of a person in the same way that when you’re first learning it, you’re just learning it to full a camera or through a certain angle, and you only have to do it once. So it’s a different thing.
And at that time, when I was reading it from a book, I didn’t have a mentor. So I was reading this dense copy that described how something was supposed to look magical. I was trying to transfer that into an idea and doing that in front of a mirror, and I started to find ways to do it, whether they were the way the book intended or not. But what I had at my disposal, I think, is also because I had been exposed to my brothers stealing things and other things, it allowed me to have a perspective that I didn’t have the same baseline other people did for guilty knowledge, for an anxiety that happens when you get caught.
And so I was willing to try things that other people thought made them shake, it made their skin shake, make them do — and I was very comfortable with doing a lot of unusual things with magic that really started to shape. For instance, instead of trying to do what you can call complete vanish where a coin’s going to disappear but rather than retaining in your hands, you hide it somewhere in a pocket or somewhere else. I thought, “Why not put it on another person? They won’t find it there.” And I’d had that experience. One time, I was shoplifting early, probably 13, and —
Tim Ferriss: What were your go-to shoplifting items? And were you shoplifting to use them, or to resell them, or something else?
Apollo Robbins: There was a group, you call them hobos back in the day, but there was a group of people that lived out behind some of the grocery stores and they knew sometimes when I’d run away from home, I’d go stay with them. And sometimes they would need food, or they would need other things, or cigarettes, or other things like that. And at one time when I went in, I stole some cigarettes. I didn’t smoke, but I stole some cigarettes and the guy recognized me and he came up to talk to me.
Tim Ferriss: “He’s the kid who never buys anything.”
Apollo Robbins: Well, he recognized me from, I think, my family, I lived close by. And he came up to talk to me, and I didn’t want to be found with them. And I think he saw me do something. So he went to check me, and it was an interesting thing just by instinct that I didn’t put them on any pocket on me. I had left them underneath my arm facing out the back.
So as he’s checking my pockets, I reached around behind my back with my right hand. I removed the cigarettes from there and I load them in his apron that was on him. So he definitely wasn’t going to look there. And I left and I got away, but later he’s going to find the cigarettes in his apron. But I think that influenced my style of magic too because very quickly I would take traditional magic effects, and things would be called an impossible location where something disappears from myself and appears somewhere else. I said, “Well, why doesn’t it appear on someone else? What else can I do with that?” So I started developing a lot of that too.
Tim Ferriss: So where did you go after the book? You have this initial tome that you’re digesting and shaping and experimenting with. Course one. Flip the last page. You’ve tested what there is to test.
Apollo Robbins: I was trying to find a magician I had seen when I was seven, and there was a guy that I thought he was a magician, but I didn’t realize he was a magician quite at the time. And when I was second grade, this guy had come through my school. And it was just an announcement from the principal that called the teacher out of the room, and there’s this guy working on the window. He was in overalls, and he was working on the window and he asked one of the kids to help measure a rope. And then he cut the rope and it went back together. It wasn’t a show, it was just these magical things were happening from this old guy that was fixing the window. And then everything that came out of his toolbox that he was trying to use was doing some weird thing, but it wasn’t a magic show. It wasn’t presented in that social contract.
And it hit me over the head. And later I found that that plastic thumb that I found was a gift to my parents from him. So later I went back to try to find him and found his widow, and she told me about this magic club that was in my hometown.
And when I showed up, they said, “Oh, you’re new to magic.” And I started doing some things and they said, “Why can you do that?” And there’s two things I could do. I could manipulate coins, make them appear, disappear, small objects like that. And I could do what’s called equivoque, an influence of a series of choices that I learned early on when I was eight from some book, but I had used it over the years and I could do that, which is a category of mentalism that is jazz-based.
Tim Ferriss: Did you say jazz?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. My whole style is jazz-based, which is — and that’s an important thing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Please say more. And equivoque, just so I understand what that means, I’m trying to dissect the etymology, but I’m going to get stuck in the weeds there. You are, in very subtle ways, directing someone’s choice, even though they think they have free will and selection?
Apollo Robbins: You give the illusion of agency.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Apollo Robbins: You’re allowing them to play a game of darts, but you’re painting the bullseye on the wall after the dart has landed.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Apollo Robbins: And yet they don’t realize that they feel with conviction that that was all choices that they made that they navigated to. And that takes a fluidity of thought. There’s little feedback loops that you blend in the segues and people don’t notice those and the way you use your words.
Tim Ferriss: Please correct me if this is a lazy or inaccurate description, but for people who don’t know the term mentalism, one way that could manifest is someone demonstrating mind reading or something along those lines? What is the right way to think of mentalism?
Apollo Robbins: I think there’s a variety of ways, but if you think about card magic, when you see magician pick a card, where did that come from? It came from at one point some card mechanics or card sharps that cheated at cards, some of that filtered across and made it into the entertainment world. And there’s this other category of a lot of those from thieves and things factored into magic. There’s an interesting genealogy there, I think. But mentalism came from psychics and mediums. And that category was this impersonation that I have some type of exceptional ability to read minds, influence, predict the future, talk to the dead, whatever it might be. The different label is that, as a camp, mentalists usually will not claim that they have real powers. They’ll say that they’re doing it under the flag of entertainment versus psychics and mediums who often use the same tools will sometimes convey that they have those God-given powers.
Tim Ferriss: Some superpowers.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. Okay. So you could do the coin manipulation.
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And you also had some mentalism game and they were like — “Wait a second, you just said you were new to all this. So how are you able to do these things?” And you gave the specific example of the equivoque. And then what happened?
Apollo Robbins: I told them I’d read these books and I’d learned it on my own. And they were surprised by that and they said, “Well…”
Tim Ferriss: That must’ve felt good.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, it was nice. And I also learned early there that even though I learned some things wrong by their interpretation, it created a new thing. And they said, “Well, that wasn’t what they meant.” I was like, “Oh, that’s great. So what did they mean?”
Tim Ferriss: Now, is that what you mean by jazz-influenced? If you make a mistake, do it twice and then it’s jazz or —
Apollo Robbins: No, it’s a different thing. So if you think of a lot of performance magic, it is very sheet music-based, very classical. It’s very structured. There’s a lot of geometry and the sight lines and the calculations of that. There’s very precise scripting of what’s going on. My style has always been very jazz-based to a fault in many ways, but that I would feel constricted by any script. So for me, as soon as I had an idea, my landscape was to try it with an audience immediately before I’d even try tested it out.
Tim Ferriss: Pick up a turtle, walk in front of that audience, figure it out.
Apollo Robbins: Well, yeah. Jump off the cliff and build a plane on the way down. But yes, the turtle is a great metaphor for that. I mean, the first time I did a show with my wife, and initially we had this separate tension to go down, but we were walking to go on stage and there was a certain skill set we learned with each other. And she said, “But what’s the structure for the show?” I said, “I don’t know. I haven’t met the audience yet.” And I didn’t —
Tim Ferriss: And she was like, “Ahhh.”
Apollo Robbins: Which is this collision of two different mindsets, which she’s changed me for the better. At that time, I didn’t want to start until I knew — until I met the audience. It’s like, “Let’s create this together,” because I thought there was a value in creating. And to me, early on in magic, that’s what I was trying to do too because all the books said I had to do this in phase one, then phase two, then phase three. It’s like, I get that, and that’s useful for some things, but also I want the organic feeling that this person feels like they’re having this experience and it’s not happening to anybody else. This only happened in this moment.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So did that magic club figure into your skill development? Was it a launching pad? Where did you end up going from there?
Apollo Robbins: They offered me books, more books.
Tim Ferriss: So you like books?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. And they said, “Well, if you could get through that book that you first read, then why don’t you take these other books and learn some of those things?” Because there’s this great quote, I don’t know who it’s attributed to, but “When we buy books, we think we’re buying the time to read them.”
Tim Ferriss: As my unread stack would agree.
Apollo Robbins: And I think that that’s what they were suffering from at that time is that you have this energy, you read my books, and teach it back to me.
Tim Ferriss: Genius.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. So they did that to me and that was a really cool thing. There was a couple of people that influenced my —
Tim Ferriss: It’s a magic trick of its own type.
Apollo Robbins: It is, yes. But Ben was a mentor. He wasn’t with the club, but Ben did some things. He did one thing. There was a magician I really admired who helped me on the business side named Mark Sparks, who was a traveling performer who was brilliant. And I’d seen him make a coin fly up from one hand to another, and anything I could try to excuse or sleight of hand didn’t make sense of why that could happen. And other books I’d read, it didn’t make sense of why that could happen. So I went back to Ben Stone in that shop, we called Mr. E’s Magic Shop. I said, “Ben, what is with this coin?” “I don’t know. I think it’s this. Here’s my hypothesis one, two, three.”
And he goes, “Ah. Well, that’s obviously Dariel Fitzkee.” I said, “Fitzkee?” And I said, “I don’t know, that’s not on my radar.” And he says, “Well, Fitzkee wrote three books. It’s a trilogy. Go read that.” And so I picked up one of the books, and it’s called Magic by Misdirection on the psychology of magic. I read it, and it was a hard read. And I came back and I said, “Ben, it wasn’t in there.” And he says, “Well, he wrote two other books, The Trick Brain and Showmanship for Magicians.” So I read all those. I came back and I said, “It wasn’t in any of those.” He goes, “I must be wrong.”
And Ben tricked me again. He tricked me to use my desire to learn how to make that coin fly up to read three books that have influenced me to this day of a very structured, analytical approach for performance that I needed, but also for the psychology of magic and understanding how an illusion is constructed in the audience’s mind. And I needed that at 15 because I wasn’t thinking about that. So that was the biggest thing, I would say. And there was many other people that — from that time period, a gentleman named Ed Dillard, who was a year-round Santa Claus who did amazing things. He would go into a mall and he created experiences. That was a great thing because —
Tim Ferriss: He was a year-round Santa Claus?
Apollo Robbins: Yes, he lived it all year. So anybody who saw him — but when you’d see him in a mall — you see people go up and a kid sits on Santa Claus. But what would be effective with him is a 12-year old would say “Hi,” at Santa Claus, and he says, “It’s good to see you, Nick. So what’s been happening this year, Nick? It sounds like you’ve had some problems with your friend. We want to talk about it.” And he would say these things and just know so much about someone. And he was mentalist as well. And not to also throw off that he had an inner ear microphone in his ear and the parents had the other side of it, but he had this great book of Latin that was Santa’s book, and it was all carved out of leather with this beautiful book, and he would tell anybody about anything about themselves but through the auspices of Santa Claus.
And I just loved this beautiful approach that it wasn’t so much of what I saw magicians initially getting in a magic for was to fill a hole in themselves. They were hiding behind what they’re doing, they’re trying to get this validation from somewhere, and they needed attention. And that wasn’t the driver for me. I was trying to figure out, “Is there something here I can create sparks in people, an experience like that guy did in my second grade when it came in as repairing the window or the Santa Claus?” So I think it started to shape that I had one skill set, which, outside of magic, I could steal things that I could blend in. And there was a few factors also. I stage a little bit martial arts, I had some understanding of animation. And all of them kind of settled together to create a style that I developed in that shape.
Tim Ferriss: Is the animation and form the style?
Apollo Robbins: Animation, there was a great book called The Illusion of Life by Disney’s — what do you call them? His nine men. But it talks about the illusion of life, in just frame by frame when you’re hand drawing, how to create life motion. And one of those is secondary actions and what they call slowing in and slowing out, something moving at the top of a curve, how it will have more frames versus on the bottom of a curve. And I started realizing there’s overlaps in relationships of that to Aikido. And when you study Aikido, there are certain half moves and half circles. And so when I started blending those together with sleight of hand, I realized that I could lock people in a dance. When you’re doing a cross body lead, how does somebody know that you have a lead and how do you transfer that with your hands? So by putting those together, I started to see that I could manipulate a person’s body and tell them a story that they wouldn’t register consciously, and I could lock up their body without them knowing that I had locked up the mechanics.
Tim Ferriss: Lock up, meaning like gain control, hijack?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Put them in a frame, as you would say, on the street. So I could put them in a frame that I didn’t need other people, a team of thieves to help me. I could do it by myself and I could use certain things that would draw. I noticed from animation because of that, there were certain motions that drew attention, and that later became a thing, too.
Tim Ferriss: So a lot of people try magic in some form or another. Very few people make it to the point where they are performing, giving TED talks, getting profiled by The New Yorker, et cetera. Very few. What were some of the most important inflection points, say, picking up where we left off and after reading these books, after having these various inputs, I guess maybe it could have been during these various inputs like the martial arts and the jazz and the dance and so on. What were some of the critical moments, let’s say? Could be decisions, could be interactions, could be people you meet that helped to set their trajectory.
Apollo Robbins: I’m so fortunate to have had some incredible people influence me along the way, and I’ve surfed through my career from person to person that’s made an impact on me. But back at that time, there’s one I’d say that makes the most impact, which is my wife. I’ll circle back to her because she’s probably the biggest. But at that time, when I was in Las Vegas, I was married when I was young. And so it was my first wife.
Tim Ferriss: When did you first get married?
Apollo Robbins: I was 18. So I was married. I had a son. Now I have two kids. I have a son who’s 30 and a daughter who’s six. So fascinating, two different worlds. But at that time, I had to provide for my family. So it amped up that entrepreneurship that I think made it a very serious thing that I had to find out if I’m going to do this — I was in a juxtaposition between two worlds. I had given up art because of this incident with my father, but in school and high school, I had some teachers recognize that I shouldn’t, and they pushed me toward design and illustration and computer graphics. And I had two careers that I could do simultaneously, the design aspect of that, and then moonlighting with the magic style and comedy clubs and things. So I was doing both of those in high school. But then I was transitioning into doing that full-time by the time both of those simultaneously as I graduated high school.
And there was a gentleman who was a touring magician from Las Vegas, came through town and he saw me performing and he said, “You should go to Vegas.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s what everybody says.” And he says, “Come visit me.” I said, “I’ve never flown on a plane before. I don’t even know what it’s like outside of Missouri.” And he says, “Come.”
And I flew to Vegas to visit this guy. His name was Daryl Martinez. They called him The Magician’s Magician. And he picked me up at the airport. He drove me straight downtown into a gambling spot. And he was a gambler. He showed me that world and he said, “Vegas has everything to offer, but it will give you nothing.” Which was perfect for me because I love working for it.
And I formed a model real quick. I looked at all the magicians that were around me, and I recognized that they blew me away. They had exceptional skills, things I didn’t know were possible, but they didn’t have everything. They either had high skill, which I put underneath the talent. They had low business sense maybe or their ambition to take that effort to the next place. And the combination of those were atrophied in different areas. And I felt like even if I don’t have the same skill level, I can bring some of that back or find other angles.
And so I decided to move out to Las Vegas and to try to go after that. I’m jumping through a timeline real quick, but I was initially working at doing a couple of design jobs. And my second one was for a series of slot machine design, designing the animation sequences for slot machines and doing all the illustrations for that.
And I was doing freelance artwork for a hypnotist named Justin Tranz. And I was designing all this stuff and he said, “Why are you here?” He says, “For a couple years you’ve been in this little place. You’re doing freelance artwork for me.” He said, “But your performing capability,” he says, “you could just do something else.” And I said, “What’s a good reason? Give me one good reason.” He says, “Wouldn’t it be amazing story sometime later in your life if people said, ‘Why did you quit your job as an artist and become a magician or performer full time?’ And it was because a hypnotist told you during a lunch break.” I thought that was a great idea. So I went back into my job and I gave my notice that day. And that was a Friday.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, what a gift. Well, it depends on how that’s — I mean, I know you’re sitting here, so I’m not sure the intervening experiences looked like, but it seems like a gift.
Apollo Robbins: That was a big point because that was a jumping point. And it had a context in that I was a senior designer at that time in the company I was working for, and the reason why I didn’t say their name, they had led off a large production team that supported the graphics I did. I’d hand my designs to them, they would port them across to bigger things.
Tim Ferriss: They’d let them go.
Apollo Robbins: They found a way to get around their contract. So they’d outsource them to another company and then let that company fire them.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so they wouldn’t owe any severance or they’d dodge something?
Apollo Robbins: Yes, they’d dodge all their severance. And that made an impact on me. So they had just given me a bonus. They’d just given me a raise. That was the context at that time that he said that, “Well, why are you here?” And it wasn’t about the money for me. And it was that moment of, “Yeah, what would happen if I did this thing? I don’t know how, but let me just clean this slate on this thing and see what happens.” And coincidences, I still believe, happened. And that weekend, a friend of mine said, “Hey, I’m going on tour for a couple of weeks and there’s a show called Caesars Magical Empire, and I was wondering if you could come fill me in. Fill in for me that for those two weeks, starting on Tuesday.” I said, “Perfect timing. That sounds great. I’ll give that a shot.”
Tim Ferriss: What did you have ready at that point? Filling in, does that mean you have a 30-minute set, a 15-minute set? I’m not sure if set is the right term, 60-minute set? I think of comedians working on standup material and to get a polished hour could take years for something, right?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: So what did you have when this opportunity falls from the sky? “Hey, could you fill in within the next week?”
Apollo Robbins: I’d been doing it professionally at the same time. So even back in my hometown, I had contracts with — I did restaurants, I did nightclubs. I had 15 different contracts per week.
Tim Ferriss: So you had things you knew had already worked so you knew that you could string them together.
Apollo Robbins: And I knew I could make an impact. And the big skill I had that was unique when I came to Vegas, I decided, “Let’s just drop the other stuff and just focus on the stealing.” Because at that point, there was one other guy who was really good, two other guys that were in that space. One of them had passed away. He was a friend, and he worked at that place. So it was a good angle for me to explore further in more depth.
Tim Ferriss: To differentiate yourself.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, as a brand. I’ll give you — just paint a picture of the — it’s a fascinating thing. My first show I ever did in Las Vegas, separate from Caesars, it was just a corporate event for a large corporation, and it was a red carpet event. They had limousines pulling in. It was very different for a Missouri boy, when I first moved out there. And these agents, they said, “So, all right, go steal things from people,” I guess. And they gave me hundred-dollar poker chips to give to people as gifts. And I went up to this guy, and the agent was watching. And the first time I tried to steal —
Tim Ferriss: When you say agent, this is someone who works at the casino?
Apollo Robbins: These are agents that hire for entertainment in Las Vegas.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Apollo Robbins: And they were watching and they were trying to vet if I was a good fit. And the first guy —
Tim Ferriss: This is like your audition gig.
Apollo Robbins: It was kind of, yeah, if they’re going to hire me back again. And so I walk up to somebody that was important. They brought this big VIP up to me right away. And as I go to steal his watch, his watchband was very worn out. And it snapped in two pieces while I was stealing it. And I could feel my ears turning red. And I just was running through the gamut. “Do I give this back to him? Which is more important?” Because I got a lot of pressure at that moment. And so I was performing with him and another gentleman, and then I said, “Oh, and here’s your watch.” And he’s shocked that I have his watch. And before he even processed, I pulled out the other piece of his watch and gave him the second piece of it, which was a leather band.
And I said, “See that lady over there?” He goes, “That lady?” I said, “Yeah. See her watch?” I said,” I’m going to let you just see it a second time. This time I’m going to steal her watch, and I’m going to try to do it without breaking it.” Now that’s a lot harder, but I’m going to try to see if it’s possible.” He goes, “No, you can’t do that.” And I was gambling on the idea that he didn’t need the money. He probably knew that he needed to replace this band, but I’m reframing it that, “Hey, that’s a whole another level. You guys want to try it? And let’s move past this idea that I just broke his watch.”
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Hard to script for.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. And that’s constantly what was required from me.
Tim Ferriss: “I didn’t take cigarettes. You took cigarettes in the apron.”
Apollo Robbins: Yes. So my career has been majority of those, right? And when my first day after I had left my job as a designer, I come over to work at Caesars Palace. I was accused of stealing this lady’s rings. I was doing a performance in front of a group. And she said, “My rings!” And her husband said, “Where’d they go?” And she says, “Somebody stole them.” I hadn’t even touched her. And I said, “What did you have?” And she goes, “I had diamonds and rubies and emeralds (oh, my)!” And I just said, “Oh, I must’ve sent them as a child support payment.” I just turned it in as a joke. And then the husband really got mad.
Tim Ferriss: Didn’t like it.
Apollo Robbins: No. And so once everybody cleared out, they came at me, come up to me, came at me too. And he said, “Give us the rings.” I said, “Do you really believe that I have your rings, or are you joking?” And he says, “No, give us the rings.” And he says, “We’re going to the police.” And they started to leave. And I said, “Stop. Don’t walk away.” And he goes, “What?” I said, “If you walk away right now, you’ll never know if I have your rings because I could hide them anywhere. But I want you to know that I don’t. So I’m going to walk in front of you and I’m going to keep my hands out to the side. You watch me, we’re going to walk to the police together.” So we walked out in the casino, we went to security, and I got strip searched. And his wife went up. She was very dramatic, which to me conveyed that she was sincere about her belief, that she really believed that that happened. So then she up in her room found her ring sitting on a sink as she’d been washing her hands.
Tim Ferriss: Did you get an apology?
Apollo Robbins: I did.
Tim Ferriss: That’s good.
Apollo Robbins: But I think it may also helped. It wasn’t just an apology. It helped me secure a job there beyond filling in for a friend. I got it for five years. So that five years came from how I handled that situation. And over that time, I had people grab my throat, pull out a gun one time, pull out knives. I had —
Tim Ferriss: Hold on a second. This is at shows, right after a show. Did it happen —
Apollo Robbins: During shows all over the place. I’ve had every variation of that happen. And that’s —
Tim Ferriss: Because they think you have stolen something or they’re upset that you duped them?
Apollo Robbins: Or maybe I have, yes. But it was in a social context of entertainment, right?
Tim Ferriss: Right, right.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. But still, that’s a different thing than if you mess up on a magic trick. If you mess up on a magic trick, they caught you, “Look, I understand how your trick works.” In the space I was playing, it was accusations, law enforcement, lawsuits, and I was constantly doing with that. I learned certain rules. Don’t steal from someone who’s been drinking. Don’t steal from someone who has Alzheimer’s or any potential for that because that’s a really hard one to fight your way out of if they believe they had something they didn’t. And I started making my own set of rules, and it changed one big thing in my style, which was, all right, I’m going to treat this like a vampire. I’m going to tell them —
Tim Ferriss: Like a vampire.
Apollo Robbins: Vampires had to be introduced into the household, across the threshold.
Tim Ferriss: You’re right, they need to be invited.
Apollo Robbins: So I’d say, “In three minutes I’m going to be wearing your watch, try to catch me.” And if they say “Yes,” but that was the first time I had ever seen that happen. When I had studied the history of theatrical pickpocketing and everything, there wasn’t that open challenge that, “Beware, this is about to happen. If you engage, that’s the game we’re going to play. Are you ready?”
But it now meant a whole different thing, but it came from all those concerns and lawsuits and everything, I’ll say, that almost happened. Never landed. But now I developed this style that was a very different style, very potent style, but instead of surprise, it was suspense.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It was suspense. It was also a preemptive strategy.
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So you would have less need to be good at reacting.
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Because you’re setting the ground rules and getting invited as a vampire. At what point then, you said five years, is it within that span that Jimmy Carter and the Secret Service show up?
Apollo Robbins: Yes. So at that time, I had been there — and I’ll give you more context. So when I was performing, it was a specific role at the beginning of the show. 24 people would go into a certain area and they’d be there for 10 minutes before they went on to the next part of the show. During that time, I would steal from four people and pass their items off for the function in the show. And one person then I would bring up front, steal all of his stuff while everybody’s watching and give it back. And then later everybody would find it and it comes back to them later. I would do that every 10 minutes, six times an hour, five hours a night, five nights a week, for five years. So some math, is somewhere around 200,000 people, plus my side gigs, that it became a lab for me to experiment. Can I take someone’s glasses while they’re wearing them? And what does that do? Is it possible? Can I steal their belt? What are the boundaries? And that was a place for me to experiment on the aspect of that.
Tim Ferriss: So could you please tell the story of the Secret Service?
Apollo Robbins: So about probably near the end, about three years after I’d been performing at Caesars Palace, there was a special night when I had come into work and they had a big meeting before the show. And the manager said, “We have a previous president of the United States coming in to visit and we are going to have some people go home that haven’t had background checks…”
Tim Ferriss: Slightly different rules.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Because they’d done background checks on all of us. And he said, “There’ll be photo ops as he goes through the show. He’s got a small party with him. But the whole theater is just going to be sectioned off for that. They have Secret Service will be here, so don’t be alarmed, but they’ll be stationed throughout the casino and throughout the theater.”
And then we were all departing and he said, “But Apollo, they asked you not to meet the president, not to shake his hand, they don’t want it to get in the news if you were to steal from him.” And everybody just kind of laughed. And I went back to him and said, “Well, that’s not fair, I’d like a picture with the president.” It was Jimmy Carter at that time. Not that I was in the era of Jimmy Carter, he was an ex-president at that time. He was on a book tour. And he said, “But they didn’t say anything about the Secret Service.” I said, “What does that mean?” They didn’t say that you couldn’t steal from the Secret Service.
Tim Ferriss: You didn’t hear this from me.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. “But do you think you could?” And I’m so happy that he posited that then versus now, because I’m in my twenties, I probably wouldn’t do those things now in the same way. I mean, I still steal from Secret Service today, but it’s a different context, usually.
Tim Ferriss: Wait a minute, we’ll come back to that.
Apollo Robbins: There you go, get back to that.
Tim Ferriss: All those Secret Service bar mitzvahs that you go to.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, it’s a thing.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right.
Apollo Robbins: Why else move to Washington, DC?
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Okay. So you wouldn’t do it exactly the same way. And then what unfolds? So you get this side chat, which is like —
Apollo Robbins: I get a side chat.
Tim Ferriss: Technically they didn’t say you couldn’t do something with the Secret Service. And then what?
Apollo Robbins: He brings in the head of security for Caesars Palace, they talk to me about certain provisions and warnings. Don’t take any of their firearms, don’t touch them, that would still be considered a felony. If they do take you to the ground, it’s on your own, you’re on your own for this. We have plausible deniability.
Tim Ferriss: We disavow all knowledge.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And that this could be rather serious, which I thought was a really interesting challenge. And so I moved into that. It was approaching the show and as I was moving through, I saw two of them were stationed at a certain point. And I went up and started to hit those guys. And I see, it was the way I approached them, I got in their space and I stole several of their items.
Tim Ferriss: So there are two Secret Service agents, I guess, is the right term, maybe?
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And to a lay person, to a civilian, I think two more complicated, but maybe two actually provides more surface area/opportunity. But when you say you went into their space, could you paint a more detailed picture of how you ended up taking items from two very well-trained people who have a lot of situational awareness, who know what you do?
Apollo Robbins: Sure. You used a great word there, you said surface area. And surface area, they have a lot to protect on themselves, both where they keep their firearms, their credentials, the keys, the itinerary, all these things. So they just treat it as a whole, but it’s got all these little parts.
And I like to think of attention as a limited resource. It’s really useful to think of the economics of attention. If they spend their attention one place versus another, how do you toggle that? And it’s not traditionally like, look here and not there, you’re curating their attention. So in that there’s ways to approach it. And it’s usually contextual. It changes from person to person.
And when I approached them, I hadn’t had any experience with anyone like that before. And the context was different. They knew who I was specifically when I walked up. There’s a nickname for me in the show, they called me Klepto. They said, “It’s not happening,” was I think the first thing I heard from them. And they said, “No, it shouldn’t at all.” I said, “‘Yet’ I think is the word you’re looking for, right?”
So I kind of pushed at the boundaries of their confidence level, because I was coming in pretty confident. And one of them stepped back as I approached. And there’s a way that I approach that gains access to someone’s space. If you think of someone’s personal space as a bubble and their proprioception of how you get into their awareness of their space, it’s kind of shaped like an egg. And it’s larger up front, it’s narrow on the sides, and it’s shallow on the back. And you can break eye contact with someone to sneak underneath that as you move through. I can show you more of that later.
But as you gain access, there’s a way of approaching from the side that can often help. So when I started to sidle up next to one of the gentlemen to show him something, he stepped back. And they have a term for it called maintaining occupied space. And it also indicated to me with a slight brush that in my world I have to know a lot of being able to determine what’s inside people’s pockets and the printing of a jacket, what it means, being able to make pretty good estimates of what a good target is inside of the outline of a pocket. So as soon as he stepped back on the left, he indicated to me that he might have a firearm on that side versus on his right side. So it was probably underneath, in a holster underneath his jacket.
And so I just acknowledged that, I put that on the surface. I said, “You’re very well-trained.” I said, “It’s going to be much harder to do anything with you.” I said, “You’ve been doing this for a while?” And he says, “Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while.” And I said, “Okay, so I’m going to have to do it to you, sir.” And so I lean into the next guy. And the next guy’s like, “That’s not happening.” And he was very serious.
But now as I’m facing him, and this other gentleman is here, he doesn’t realize that he’s given me access from the side.
Tim Ferriss: The first guy?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, the first guy.
Tim Ferriss: He thinks he’s off the clock.
Apollo Robbins: He thinks he’s off the clock. And so just by — that’s one of the things that by setting that expectation, he thinks he’s done and the play has moved on. But now I reached underneath my arm, and I steal from inside his jacket. And I steal what I found to be his credentials, it was wallet, passport shaped, and I steal his glasses from his outside pocket and I steal a couple of things. And as I was talking to the other guy —
Tim Ferriss: As you’re doing that, does the other guy notice?
Apollo Robbins: No, he doesn’t notice. And he can’t see because he’s watching my hands. And they’re trained to watch hands. But there’s all these pause points I learned over the years from different thieves and other ones of holding out places. And if I steal something, you’re not going to get to see it go in and out of my pocket or anything, it’s going to go somewhere else. So I can put it on them in a more accessible spot or I can put it on me at another place. So I did some of that.
But at the end of that, with the two guys, I said, “I didn’t get anything except for this. I don’t really know what it is.” And I pull out this paper that was kind of tri-folded. And as I’m opening it up, I see what it is, it’s now the itinerary where they’re taking Carter to. And I said, “I can’t really read it with these glasses on.” He realizes that I’m wearing his glasses that were in his pocket. And he goes, “Hey.” And he takes my glasses and he looks at the paper and he says, “Hey.” And he snatches it away. I said, “And I really don’t think you should read that without the proper ID.” And then he reaches in his pocket and he realizes he doesn’t have the credentials. And the other guy’s laughing very hard at him.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sure.
Apollo Robbins: And he said, “I’m not going to be the only one.”
Tim Ferriss: “Ooh, Dad’s not going to be happy with that when he finds out.”
Apollo Robbins: And so he says, “You’re going to do this to the other guys.” So he got on his mic and he starts telling me to go to the other teams. So I now have an advocate and an in to approach the other teams because this guy’s sending me because he didn’t want to be the only one.
But that’s kind of why I was mentioning about the jazz. I mean, I didn’t know, I’ve never stolen with somebody with a presidential itinerary and credentials and glasses in that combo before. But I have to ad lib with what I find and how I give it back. And it is a unique thing that he knows is the only time I’d done that is with him until I did it to the other guys.
Tim Ferriss: So what was the significance, if any, of that whole evening to you or your career? Maybe it was indirect in the sense that it increased your confidence, that enabled you to do X, Y, and Z. But if there was significance, what was the significance?
Apollo Robbins: I think “legend” is too strong of a word. But there are things —
Tim Ferriss: Nothing travels like a good story.
Apollo Robbins: It does. It gives people a story to tell. And it did. And it was one of a handful of legends or lore, I guess, lore is a better thing, that traveled beyond me. And I found that lore can take you so fast so far, but also it can encapsulate what people think you are versus what you are. And it can be hard to underpromise and overdeliver when people have this expectation of what you can do.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Apollo Robbins: Because it spread into, “Oh, you stole their bullets and you took out the bullets out of their guns.” And I’ve heard all sorts of variations of that. That I began working for the government from that day forward.
Tim Ferriss: “William Wallace, 12 feet tall. He shoots flaming lightning out of his arse.”
Apollo Robbins: It was much better when people underestimated me because working against over confidence was a great way to play. But at that —
Tim Ferriss: Pros and cons, right?
Apollo Robbins: Pros and cons, yes. And I was asked to speak for the Secret Service. It was around a time where there was a shooting at the Pentagon and there were two officers outside and a gentleman had approached and he drew firearms and both of them missed it, even though they thought they were watching for his hands. But they were both tasked on a similar thing.
There’s an interesting thing in psychology called inattentional blindness. Dan Simons and Chris Chabris was his partner. They did a book called Invisible Gorilla where you watch a basketball being passed —
Tim Ferriss: An incredible video.
Apollo Robbins: And I like to refer to that as task blindness. I think it’s a more approachable term. But when someone is tasked, they often miss other things. And at that time I was asked to come speak to the Secret Service afterwards. So I was like, I’m not being arrested, I guess this is a good thing, but now I’m traveling to DC and I’m going talk to the Secret Service. And I was asked about that, about task blindness and inattentional blindness.
And this overlapped into two fascinating neuroscientists that I met, Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde. And they had been studying magic and visual illusions, but they were also very interested in cognitive illusions. And in that space they wanted to see what could be done with attention. And they approached me and said, “Can we do an experiment? Do you have any ideas?” And at first it was like a little session where they had different magicians that were legends, Penn and Teller, specifically Teller, talking about theories. And they were saying, “Is there anything there to pull research out of?”
And I posited that I think we only have two sight lines. And this circles back to my early days with animation. And I said, “I’ve noticed when I’m stealing that if I move in a straight line that there’s a transition point from A to B, that when something is no longer at A, that people expect to be there, they bounce back, their attention bounces back like a rubber band to B. But if I move in a half circle from A to B, when we get to that destination point, nobody ever looks back at the point of origin.” I said, “So I sense that there’s two types of sight lines and there’s a kind of suppression that happens during those. And I think that that’s an interesting place to experiment with.”
And they said, “Yes it is. We could do that with eye tracking software.” And we did. And it turned out to be right. And that was the change, that was the flip of a switch because then I — it was part of a paper that they published in Nature Journal. And then I was asked to speak at the International Society for Neuroscience, 10,000 neuroscientists.
Tim Ferriss: It broadened your lane.
Apollo Robbins: It did.
Tim Ferriss: Or you gained more lanes.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. And when it realized that it wasn’t just me stealing, but that that same concept of psychotic versus smooth pursuit eye movements and their impact on different things started to branch out in other areas. And then I was asked to speak on attention and the current models of attention at MIT and Harvard and other ones. So it all changed right there.
Tim Ferriss: How did you connect with the scientists? Just so I can connect the lore, the stealing bullets from midair with the Secret Service, to connecting on the scientific side, how was that connection made?
Apollo Robbins: Teller from Penn and Teller.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that was Teller.
Apollo Robbins: It was Teller. Teller said he was approached about this. And at that time, him and I had become pretty good friends and we spent a lot of time together. Penn was also a friend. Teller was interested in the research side of it on the backside. And he asked me to come join at that effort.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. Okay. I want to pick up a couple of micro gingerbread topics that I’ve let alone, that I’ve committed to myself I would return to. So the first is, in terms of making the coin levitate into the other hand, did you ever figure that out?
Apollo Robbins: I did.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. And I don’t know —
Apollo Robbins: A lot of blood, sweat, and calluses, but yes.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I think that gives me the answer that I’m looking for. Because we have a mutual friend, Simon Coronel. And I don’t want to speak out of school, so I’m not going to get into the how of it, I suppose, but I’ve seen him do this. And rest assured it is so much harder than people think.
Apollo Robbins: It is. It’s something that your body wasn’t trained to do, you’ve never had a use for that. And to train it to be able to do that, to make something animate, is a combination of unusual muscles that people wouldn’t usually use.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it is so much harder than people can possibly imagine. Which makes me think of, speaking of Teller, a presentation that he gave, I think it was at the Entertainment Gathering, and he said, “I’m going to show you a video,” and I think there was a balloon involved, or a ball.
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And he shows the magic trick, let’s call it the performance on video. He says, “All right, now I’m going to explain how I did it.” And he explains it. And then he shows it again and he says, “Now are you more or less impressed?” I’m paraphrasing here tremendously.
Apollo Robbins: But it was a love story, right? It turns into a love story with an effect. That’s what I thought was the greater lesson of him showing it and exposing it was this beautiful piece of him coming and spending time with this effect and giving part of his life to it.
Tim Ferriss: The second thing I wanted to ask about, you have thousands, tens of thousands of repetitions because you’re doing four people every, what was it, 20 minutes, 10 minutes?
Apollo Robbins: 10 minutes, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Multiple times an hour, over and over and over again. So you’re getting a lot of reps. What do you do when it doesn’t work? What’s your recovery or how do you handle that? Because I can’t imagine, as you’re experimenting, you must push the envelope, and I imagine, I mean, with any skill, it’s not going to be a hundred percent hit rate. So what do you do? Even at let’s say for instance the Magic Castle, it’s like you see how people recover when things don’t work out exactly as planned.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: For me, that’s part of the art. I mean, it’s fascinating. So what do you do in those circumstances?
Apollo Robbins: I think there’s a subtext to what you’re asking that is unique to the way that the context in which I steal. In that I have a different social contract with my audience than a thief does on the street. So because I can talk to someone, I get a different access to their body, I can justify what I’m doing more like — it functions more like sparring in martial arts, that if they start to pick up on a thing, there’s a feedback loop that I can see. And the cost of them fixating on that catch comes at the cost of them losing something else. So as soon as they start to detect one thing —
Tim Ferriss: Right, if they cover their head, you go to the body.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. And once they catch that one thing, they might find themselves three pounds lighter in other places because they’ve lost all these other things. But there is a very real — so it changes the definition of fail. Is fail getting caught stealing a watch or a belt or glasses? I was pretty good at rolling with that and improvising with those things. And realizing that if they started to catch that, I could turn it into another situation. And I would load strange things on people. Like I loaded a bag of oregano on a grandma and I said, “What’s this for, Grandma?” And it’s like —
Tim Ferriss: Hold on. This is actually the perfect place for me to just read an excerpt profile of you, which was by Adam Green in The New Yorker. And the title of this, I recommend everybody read this, and if you have anything you’d like to correct in the piece, we can cover that too, but “A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins.” So this is one of my favorite paragraphs —
Apollo Robbins: Fairy tales, yes.
Tim Ferriss: “When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse.”
Okay. So hard for me to even make any sense of half of that. But you’re loading things on people is where you were.
Apollo Robbins: I am. Yeah. I take things off, I switch them, I alter them.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re creating for yourself options also, right?
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not like you have one trick you’re executing and if you flub it, the trick is done?
Apollo Robbins: No. Yeah. That’s why I [inaudible 01:26:51] sheet music versus jazz. They don’t know where I’m going, so we can always change the path. And in fact, when I used to work in situations where I would just walk around with a group, which I miss, because I don’t really get to do that, I’m mostly a keynote speaker now. But I used to do a lot of corporate type of events where I would move through a crowd and I would walk up to the guys and say, “So guys, you know why I’m here, right? I’m supposed to steal everything you have.” And so I’d just say that up front. It stops most conversations. And I’d say, “You got anything on you?” And you just see them check, they would just bump their wallet or that sort of thing, and I’m just clocking. It’s like, “Okay, so I’ve got the keys here…”
Tim Ferriss: You know exactly —
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, so I’m making a mental map, and now I’m about to move into the circle —
Tim Ferriss: They telegraphed all of their possessions.
Apollo Robbins: Yes, because they don’t believe it’s true. They just — we’re having a conversation. And now I’m making that effect. It’s like, okay, that seems to be a room key here, that’s over here, this is what here. And as I move through them — in real pickpocketing, they call it fanning. Small movements with my elbow or my hand can give me an idea of what things are in a breast pocket or other things. And I can now —
Tim Ferriss: It’s like a shark taking little nibbling bites, feeling things out.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And just taking inventory, you could say. Yeah. And now I’m crafting, okay —
Tim Ferriss: Or a feeling out round in boxing, same thing, right?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Where people are gauging distance, they’re seeing how people react.
Apollo Robbins: What’s their pattern, what’s their go to?
Tim Ferriss: What are their defenses?
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: What are their vulnerabilities, yeah.
Apollo Robbins: Which is interesting because now that I don’t have that, I’ve gone back to martial arts, because it was one of the few places I could get that feeling. And I was studying a Filipino style of martial arts, and as I was new in it, one of the things that I could do in the first part was they would go to draw a secondary weapons, sometimes like a trainer blade, and it wouldn’t be there. You can’t do that trick a lot. But it’s a great trick when they go to draw and then it’s not there. They’re very surprised. And now —
Tim Ferriss: I’m sure they’re very surprised. All right. So following this gingerbread trail, I just wanted to address a couple — all right. Your wife.
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned I think that she’s the most important influence or the biggest impact on you, your career. How so?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, and on life in general. She brought — I think when you’re a specialist in an area, it’s easy to get so fixated that everything in your world revolves around that. And mine was all around con artists, thieves. And I had a soft spot for those guys. I knew a lot of those guys, were intimate friends of mine that had done things that — you would think of like Ocean’s Eleven, where they pulled heists on casinos and switched out devices and things. And I knew those guys well. And that was my world. It was my cadre of team.
And around that time I had this weird inquiry to do a TV show about picking up women. Just because as a side thing people said, “Hey, you seem to be really good at this thing.” And I wasn’t ever a person who did notches on the belt, but it’s another thing, the perspective taking, it’s related to that and how you establish rapport and things. And there’s a friend of mine who was taught hostage negotiation. He had a special forces background. He says, “Hey, why don’t we do this book together and we’ll go shoot this video and we’ll ask women how they would like to be approached. And then we’ll put hidden cameras on them and see when people approach them, how ridiculous people do approach them. And then we’ll talk about that.”
And I said, “Sounds like a great idea.” And he calls me, he’s got a film crew coming in and some models and other things, and he says, “Hey, we’re having this thing, late night, at a party in Las Vegas, at a all night spot.” He says, “Come.” I said, “It’s too late for me.” He says, “No, just come.” And when I show up, he’s talking to a group of women. And I thought they were probably escorts at that point.
Tim Ferriss: Professionals.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Because they were close to the VIP section. And it was a small group, younger women, some older guys at the table. And I’d seen that a lot in Vegas. But when I get closer and I’m talking to them, and one of the ladies in the group, as they were introducing themselves, she had a background in psychobiology, she had just graduated with a degree in that. She was working as a crisis counselor on a hotline talking people off the cliff. She would do some pretty intense stuff and studied abnormal psych and very kind of intense and playful. And he said I was a thief when he introduced me to this group of girls. And I stole —
Tim Ferriss: It is a hell of an intro, you’re going to get a conversation.
Apollo Robbins: It does. One of them said, “Can I…” So I stole the girl’s engagement ring with the thing, and I did a thing with that and gave it back. And this lady, that later turned out to be my wife, she asked me, “Can you steal something me for me?” I said, “What would you like?” She says, “A chocolate-covered strawberry from that table over there.” And she points at this table nearby, a VIP section. I said, “Got it.”
So I grabbed a menu, walked over, pretended to be with the staff, asked them if they’re being taken care of, stole the chocolate strawberry under the menu. And then I walked to her and then I threw it over my shoulder to add a little flair, I caught it. And went to hand it to her. And when she went to take a bite of it, I put it in my mouth and I just winked at her. So she’d have to kiss me to get the strawberry. And it’s that playfulness I think that’s the important thing.
Tim Ferriss: It’s bold. Bold. I like it. But it worked.
Apollo Robbins: It is. Yeah. But it almost didn’t work because her advocacy and her academia, and it was the opposite, it was too slick. And she felt that pressure from the group. She gave me the kiss, but we ended up leaning against the wall talking about psychology. And that dove into a deep thing. She said, “Have you ever thought about this…” Long phone conversations later on. But she said, “Have you ever thought about all this stuff you’re learning and how it applies to bigger problems in the world?”
And she was the one that encouraged me to do the event with the neuroscientist. She was the one that encouraged me to take the piece with The New Yorker, which I didn’t even know what The New Yorker was at that point. I turned it down twice. Adam Green would tell you. I was like, “Here, somebody better over here.” It wasn’t my thing. I didn’t even barely knew who the politicians were. It wasn’t my world. I didn’t think about that.
She said, “Let me have you watch a debate.” And when I saw my first presidential debate, I went back to Teller, I said, “Teller, you’re a Latin professor, what was that?” I said, “Why do I know all those things? They’re so similar to this thing that the Yellow Kid used to do or Titanic Thompson used to do this thing with this.”
Tim Ferriss: Wait a second. Meaning you observed a lot in the debate that paralleled what you had learned.
Apollo Robbins: Very similar concepts. And he said —
Tim Ferriss: Can you give an example?
Apollo Robbins: There is a term called Gish galloping. I forgot the guy’s name for Gish.
Tim Ferriss: Gish galloping.
Apollo Robbins: Gish was a debater who would often do a package of assaults on a person, or of their human character, where it should be. He’d say, during his three-minute window of a debate, he would say, “My adversary, my opponent, would have you believe this, this, this, this, this.”
And then the opponent, his countermeasure for that, becomes, “Well…” They’re overwhelmed. And they don’t know how to respond, because they’ve got three minutes, and he posited a lot of questions, and they don’t have three minutes, functionally, to answer those questions.
And that, very similar to me, was a noise-to-signal ratio piece that’s used to overwhelm people inside of a cash exchange with shortchanging. And I recognize that as one approach.
Tim Ferriss: Shortchanging. Giving somebody change, but less change than they should get back?
Apollo Robbins: And overwhelming a cash register attendee at that time. And using ambiguous statements with different ways that they could take that as for — and I can clarify more on that later.
But a counter to that Gish gallop, for example, back to equivoque for equivoke. If somebody were doing a series of personal assassinations of — they also, what they’re doing, is diluting their argument.
Because now, if I say 10 bad things about you, or you said that about me, then I’d say, “As you can see, he’s very impassioned about what he says.” But notice there’s a central theme between all of those. That central theme is X. And that’s the equivoque.
I can take all the things that you said, repackage them as another thing, and because you diluted all your points, because you put them all into the one bracket,. so the countermeasure to that is to dilute that down, give you one point back, and I hijack the narrative.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So you’re talking to Teller about this.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And he was a Latin professor.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. That wasn’t — I thought that was a euphemism or a joke. He was an actual Latin professor?
Apollo Robbins: He was. Before, in his career, I said that, “You know more about Socrates and Plato, so can you tell me?” And he says, “Yeah, you need to go back, read Plato’s Republic. You need to study about Socrates.” And he started prompting me to go back to learn this root.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing. Yeah. Back to the classics.
Apollo Robbins: Back to the classics.
Tim Ferriss: So, from the strawberry in the mouth to broader applications in psychology, or at least harnessing psychology, recognizing maybe the common threads across multiple domains that you’d already been exposed to, and had polished in your craft — to presidential debate, to then reading Plato and Aristotle.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And the driver of this was, back to that, was my wife. We had this unusual thing in that she moved to Las Vegas pretty quickly after we started dating.
Tim Ferriss: Where was she?
Apollo Robbins: She was in Los Angeles. And at that point —
Tim Ferriss: Was it hard to get her to move to Vegas?
Apollo Robbins: It was a negotiation. Because she didn’t want to come visit and be under an obligation. And so when I asked her, I said, “Please come visit me.” And she said, “I have a lot of work that I’m doing here, and I don’t currently have the money to do that.”
And I said, “I understand. Can I ask? When you write, what is your per page fee?” And she said, “My per page fee is usually about this amount.” I said, “So, if I asked you to help me write this bio and some other portions for me, I would actually be getting a discount by paying for that, by paying for your airplane versus paying for the writer’s fee.”
And she said, “Yeah, I guess so.” And I said, “All right. So come help me write my bio, and I’ll buy you a plane ticket.” When she came out, she helped me have a different direction, that I wasn’t solely focused on entertainment. And she also, just because of her counseling background, she really broke apart a lot of my early childhood. And she had had these complexities, too.
She had moved from Vietnam. And she had grown up — her father was incredible. He would wear police uniforms and help people smuggle things in and out of the country while she was growing up. So she had these really interesting engagements with deception, too, that she was trying to manifest through psychology.
And at that time, I was consulting for a mentalist named Derren Brown in the UK, doing some things for him. She was fascinated by that with her training in psychology. She says, “Well, that’s not exactly what that is.”
And then, at that time, I had this group of thieves around me that were professional criminals, and she kind of became a den mom to all them. If the FBI was watching, or the NSA watching our house, they would’ve seen all these guys coming in and out. And she was the den mom of all them. And she really helped take us all for a turn.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Okay. All right. This is off the map. This has nothing to do with the questions that I’ve written down. But I’m curious. When you’re describing, for instance, the semicircle A to B versus the linear A to B, it makes me think of sports and exercise science. And how the practitioners, the people on the field — the top coaches, the top athletes, are always a few years ahead of the literature and the science and so on.
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Which is not to denigrate the science. It just takes a while. People need to write grants, typically. They need to really pick and choose their shots. And a lot of what’s experimented within the field doesn’t work. And that’s okay as long as a few things really work.
And I’m curious if, given that you have this broader awareness, and you’ve had these interactions with neuroscientists and so on, if there are any beliefs you have based on your experience as a practitioner, around attention or perception, that has not yet made its way into the scientific circles.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: But you’d be willing to say, “You know what? I can’t say it with 100 percent certainty, but I would bet that…” A, B, or C.
Apollo Robbins: I think, in order to validate the research, they have to go after low-hanging fruit, which is single variable. Real life has context, and multivariable.
So when you go out in the wild, the reason why it’s sports, or — between Kahneman and Gary Klein, they did a lot of research on first responders to smoke jumpers and other things. The context of an expertise is hard to boil down in a lab.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Super hard. Also, really hard for replication with animals. And, say, animal learning, chimpanzees. Project Nim, for people who are interested, highlights this. Very hard.
Apollo Robbins: Fascinating. And the society aspect of that, for example, and the replication of that, tend to show the same darkness of an ideal society. And what does that mean, to manufacture one?
In the space where I find fascinating probably with the current research, I’m really interested, like an armchair social psychologist, that — I really read a lot in that space. That harkens back to my dad and my childhood. Which is, I think that there’s a really interesting place right now, when people focus in politics on the left and the right, that there’s a bigger problem with how people engage with uncertainty.
That there needs to be a lot of work done on the study of the tolerance that people have for uncertainty. And we’ve had the pandemic, we’ve had the craziness, we’ve had the economy. And I think it’s really interesting if you look at that as the — instead of left and right.
If you look at that as north and south, that you have people from both sides that need an absolute answer when they’re confronted with something unusual, and that need to fill in the gap, that need to have an absolute answer for something that they’ve seen happen — versus a tolerance for uncertainty, I think could help inoculate people from some of the problems that they’re running into.
There’s going to be a future where, with the arms race — people think of it as arms race of technology when they think about AI, deepfakes. But it’s our arms race of imaginations. And tends to be, thieves will beat you to it.
They’ll be innovating in that space pretty quickly, and they are right now with deepfakes and other things. And it’s useful to see how people are going to deal with having something that looks very real.
You’re now in this very interesting time that all the research historically for mankind, with deception, tends to be on spotting a lie, spotting something that’s fake. And I think we’re on a cusp where that’s going to flip over, and we’re going to have to try to spot the truth. And what does that mean in the future?
Tim Ferriss: Terrifying.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Where you’ve got to spot the truth, and how do you deal with that? And I think that’s really — there needs to be a lot more research on how we develop comfort with uncertainty, how we authenticate all those types of things.
And there’s books and literature that’s starting to come out of that space, and that’s definitely — I’m leaning into that, too. Because, I feel like since my job is distorting perceptions and creating erroneous sense making, then I should really try to lend a helping hand if I can.
Tim Ferriss: We may come back to that. But I want to first return to something that we discussed briefly, but didn’t really flesh out. And that is, let’s call it, for lack of a better term, your style. Before we get to your style, what is the significance, if any, of that ring?
Apollo Robbins: This ring is made from a silver coin. And my magic used to be based around silver. And it’s unusual. If you talk to a magician, professional magicians tend to —
Tim Ferriss: A very pretty ring. And for people who aren’t watching the video, I’ve been watching you play with it, and manipulate it, and take it off and put it back on. And I would imagine, given what you do, that you might choose your adornments with some thought.
Apollo Robbins: Yes, all with a purpose.
Tim Ferriss: That’s why I ask. All right.
Apollo Robbins: Everything has a purpose. There’s lots of things that can be done with this. Actually, when I pickpocketed Penn Jillette — I met him the first time, and he’s a big guy, six foot six, at least.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Big guy.
Apollo Robbins: And he had heard about, historically among magicians, pickpockets are a kind of a fake. There’s a lot of people that say, “Give me your wallet before the show,” and then they’d steal it out. And I didn’t have that background. I came from a different lane. And he had heard from a friend that I could really steal.
So he put me on the spot in front of a bunch of people, first time I met him. He just walked up to me, he says, “So you can steal stuff.” And I said, “Yeah, sometimes I can.” He says, “Then steal something from me.”
He held out his arms. And I remember him wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt and some shorts. And he had a Montblanc pen that was clipped inside of his shirt pocket. And he said, “Steal something from me now.” And I said, “That’s kind of like saying ‘Be funny now.'”
He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Let me tell you about something that happened to somebody one time. If I steal a watch from someone, it’s one plus one. You say, ‘Oh, you’re fast. You got my watch. I didn’t notice.'”
I said, “But one time I was talking to a guy, and during the conversation I stole his pen and I took the inside ink pen, the refill of his pen out. Put his pen back together, put it back in place, and later I was asking him to sign something. And when he went to sign it, he couldn’t. He realized he couldn’t. He went to write it down.”
And he says, “Okay, yeah. Are you going to steal something from me?” I said, “Can you draw a circle around this ring for me?” And he pulled out his pen to go do it. And he stops and he stares at me, and he realizes he’s the guy in the story. And he just sat back and he opened his pen and saw that the refill wasn’t there. And he goes, “Fuck you.” And I said, “Now, Penn, isn’t that better than taking your wallet?” And I threw his wallet on the table.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. That’s amazing. Now, why is that made of a silver dollar?
Apollo Robbins: Silver dollars in coin magic, silver has a unique property, in the way that it feels on your skin. The way it’s soft, the way it can move. And also, the sound that it makes. But specifically, for sleight of hand, silver works very well for sleight of hand.
As a memory of that, even when I’m not performing, I had one converted into a ring. So they punched a hole and rolled it into this ring. And it’s a reminder to me of where I came from for that.
Tim Ferriss: Very cool. Very attention grabbing, also. Which I would imagine helps with what you just described.
Apollo Robbins: It can be used. It can be used as a level of confidence I can talk to you about. And I’ll show you something with that, actually. Because it does mean a lot to me. Do you have anything in your pockets right now?
Tim Ferriss: I do, yeah. I have a hotel key. I have some credit cards.
Apollo Robbins: Okay, great. And I appreciate you letting me know where those are. If I asked you right now, and this is something we could just —
Tim Ferriss: I just fell for it. “Got you, bitch.”
Apollo Robbins: Set your pen down for a second. And take my ring, and put it in one of your hands.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Apollo Robbins: And now, whether under the paper, behind your back, put in one of your two hands so I can’t see which hand it would go in.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I’ll do it behind my back. It’s going to be a little tight.
Apollo Robbins: Sorry about that. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s all right.
Apollo Robbins: You got it? So you put in one of your hands. Now, don’t do the third option, which is putting it in your pocket.
Tim Ferriss: No, not going to do that.
Apollo Robbins: Okay. Bring both your hands out. Now I’ll try to guess which hand. Right now it’s in your right hand. Correct?
Tim Ferriss: It is in my right hand.
Apollo Robbins: Can I see?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Apollo Robbins: Okay. Do that again.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Apollo Robbins: Okay? Just bring it back out. Now it’s in the left hand.
Tim Ferriss: Correct.
Apollo Robbins: Is that right? Let me see.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it is.
Apollo Robbins: You try that with me. Okay?
Tim Ferriss: All right. Yeah, I was trying to think, logic through this sort of like Rock, Paper, Scissors. Because I was like, “He would expect me to probably go with the same hand, because I would maybe think I should switch it.” I sort of overcomplicated it for myself. But yes —
Apollo Robbins: Which is Princess Bride all over again.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It was Princess Bride all over again.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Try it with me and see what your process is. Okay?
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Apollo Robbins: All right.
Tim Ferriss: Right hand.
Apollo Robbins: It was pretty fast. Did you peek it, or how did you get it?
Tim Ferriss: No, I was looking at the body language.
Apollo Robbins: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, shit. I already —
Apollo Robbins: You’re distracted? I’ll do it again. I’ll do it again. Hold on. All right, so we’re doing a second time. There you go.
Tim Ferriss: Left hand.
Apollo Robbins: Left hand. It’s a big move. Because fixation would say “Stay there.” You’re now assuming that I took the same pattern as you. I switched to the other hand. I could try to talk you out of that to go back to the wrong choice. But you made the right choice. I need you to miss so I can make my point. Just one more time. All right, one more time. Which hand?
Tim Ferriss: Right hand.
Apollo Robbins: Would you like to change?
Tim Ferriss: No.
Apollo Robbins: So, this is not a minimalism effect, or it’d be much better.
Tim Ferriss: But I also have 50/50 chance.
Apollo Robbins: 50/50 chance, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But I want you to be able to make your point.
Apollo Robbins: Well, so in this, that’s a little mini con with a little ring. And we often hear people talk about biases, like confirmation bias. But when you embody a real interaction like this, you would never associate what we just did as confirmation bias.
Tim Ferriss: I think I have an advantage over you, also. Because you’re angled to me.
Apollo Robbins: Oh, okay. You were able to see, kind of, when my hand came out.
Tim Ferriss: I didn’t see your hands. But I think it’s easier for me to observe your body language in a sense, because you’re angled that way. But that might be wrong. I don’t know.
Apollo Robbins: No, it’s an interesting hypothesis. But I think that that’s the interesting thing. That if it was never in my hand, and you were wrong every time, you might think I was cheating. Yes?
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Apollo Robbins: Because when we lose, we’re more curious. And when we win, we’re less curious about why we’re winning. Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Okay. So now, for those people who are watching, now you have identical rings, one in each hand. Okay, got it.
Apollo Robbins: A very unique, special ring that you started the conversation on. You found your own path. So in that, that’s little metaphor for a con. Right? That one little ring. Because that whole story that you jumped into, that little rabbit hole with asking about the ring, is a great baseline that now people assume there’s one, and there’s that baseline piece.
But to me, that is that greater question that when we’re succeeding, we’re often not curious why we’re having success. And it’s a very unusual thing for us to say, “Well, let me check out the other hand,” when you win. Right?
Tim Ferriss: When you win, yeah.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. But that’s confirmation bias. And it’s really helpful —
Tim Ferriss: 100 percent.
Apollo Robbins: — to know what that is. And it’s very easy. You didn’t jump into the hole like most people do. Most people will say, “Well, I’ve played poker with my grandma since I was four. I’m really good at reading people.” And they walk away with this confidence. And that’s the con aspect of that. But in this one —
Tim Ferriss: Right. Confidence.
Apollo Robbins: It is.
Tim Ferriss: Confidence man, confidence.
Apollo Robbins: You see me playing low status with that. I need you to miss, in order for me to be able to — but that kind of thing, everything is about helping people get to that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. All right. That was a great demo. And that actually ties into the question of, can you elaborate on what makes your style. How is it different from what people think of as magic, maybe what they’ve seen growing up?
Apollo Robbins: I’ll give you an experience one time. Where I had — I’ll let you just see kind of backstage. One time I was performing for a corporate event in Las Vegas. And it’s similar to the one where I had the broken watch piece, but this is a bit later in my career.
And it was a new agent, and I was talking to her off to the side. And I met a couple of the people that were there, one of the ladies who ran the thing named Lisa, several other people.
But then this other guy came up. Well-dressed guy, and he said, “So, I heard you steal things. Is that right?” And I said, “Yeah, something like that.” “So steal something from me.” I said, “I’m sorry. What was your name?” He says, “Jamal.” I said, “Nice to meet you, Jamal.”
And before this, let’s go back. That I walked into this event thinking, “I don’t want to do anything I’ve done before, exactly.” There’s some little components, and you’ll hear some things coming back where I just talked about with Penn.
But I knew that I could figure out how to put something inside of a bag of M&Ms, and then reseal it in real time without anybody noticing. And I thought, “What could I do with that? Let’s just find out.”
And that’s where it started to become a jazz. So this interaction with this guy, Jamal, when he just came up, he says, “So, you can steal something from me?” And I said, “I don’t rightly know. What was your name?” He goes, “Jamal.” I said, “How do you spell that, Jamal?” And he said, “J, A…” I said, “Could you write that down for me?”
And he pulls out his pen and he goes to write it down, and his pen wasn’t working, as we’ve heard before. And up to this point, my stuttering, the break of my speech, the break of my sight lines with him, has been very low status.
Tim Ferriss: Break of your sight lines meaning eye contact?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. I didn’t keep straight eye contact with him very much. I asked him about his suit, “That’s really fancy.” It was all low status. And then everything just changed. Then it’s this thing. I said, “Would this help you out, Jamal?”
And it’s straight eye contact, and it’s the refill to his ink pen. And he had way underestimated, and stepped way too close, he realized suddenly. And when that moment happened to him, you saw him holding his pen with one hand and his refill with the other. And he was just looking, and he’s stunned.
He’s in this cycle of trying to make that — because the only solution it could be is the one he didn’t want to accept. So he’s canceled out the truth. Where is he going to go from there? That I had stolen it, taken it apart, put it back together, and put it back on him.
Couldn’t be that. So what else could it be? Pausing time, time travel. So in that, now at that moment, while he’s in that bewildered state, I just said, “Well, at least you didn’t lose your money or your wallet.”
And when I did that, I just glanced down. Because I noticed he has his watch on his left wrist, so he’s probably right-handed. So he’s probably going to keep his wallet in his back right. So I just glanced back, toward his back right pocket. And he jumped on that big.
He reached in, pulled out his wallet real quick, checked to see if he had everything still in his wallet. And I laughed, and I saw his attention shift back to the pen. And I pushed down his hand. I said, “You still have everything.” And he put it away.
And he says, “You’ve got to do this to Lisa.” I said, “Yeah, great to meet her.” I just looked over his shoulder to where I thought Lisa might be. And he took off to go get Lisa. Comes back, and he shoves this lady towards me, and this agent. And I’m —
Tim Ferriss: “Dance, monkey. Dance.”
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Well, I’m there to perform.
Tim Ferriss: No, I know. I know.
Apollo Robbins: And I’m talking to the agent. I have a drink. And this is an important thing, the drink, just because it’s a part of the style. It’s not alcohol, it’s just water.
But it’s that I don’t need anything from him. I’m not being validated. And a lot of performers will try to spoon feed the audience. But it’s letting them bring a thing to them. Letting them have a reaction without you needing to feed back off of it. And letting people have this experience for themselves.
So when he pushed the lady up, I didn’t quite look at her at first. I said, “Sorry. It’s nice to meet you.” I looked over and I said, “What was your name?” She goes, “Lisa.” And she hadn’t quite come close to me at all. She said, “What’s happening?”
I said, “Sorry, Lisa. He wants me to steal something from you.” She says, “What?” I said, “Do you like chocolate?” She says, “Chocolate?” I said, “Yes. There’s some chocolate in your purse.” She said, “What?” She opens her purse, and she finds a bag of M&Ms in her purse.
And he’s reacting very strongly to this. And he’s watching this third party, he thinks. And then she said, “How did those get in my purse?” And I said, “The same way Jamal’s driver’s license got out of his wallet.”
Now he’s jumped back into the equation. He rips his wallet out again, realizes his license is missing. And he goes, “Where in the fuck is my driver’s license?” And I said, “It’s in the chocolate,” as I take a sip of my water. And I just walk away.
So I let them piece it together themselves. She tears open the M&Ms, and she finds the license in her thing.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. If we zoom out, then, amazing story. I would have to think 100 percent, maybe 99.999 percent of people listening, have never experienced something like this. What are the ingredients? You mentioned some of them. Are there other ingredients that you can call out explicitly that are some of the hallmarks that differentiate?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. And part of that that’s quite different in magic, is it tends to be that they’ll have a set of effects that are linked together. In that one, I walked in trying — I had a set of skills that I could do, but I hadn’t pieced them together.
And I take advantage of the movement, like you would if you were sparring in that way. When he leaned in forward, I stepped back with my left foot. And I said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
But at the same time as my right hand comes up, with the back of my hand, I kind of put my hand towards his chest as he came in a little bit too close, my left hand came up underneath the sight line and slipped inside of his jacket, and took out his pen really quick.
And I went down the line of my arm and into my pocket, so he couldn’t see anything being extracted. And then I stepped back. And then I removed the pen, took it apart, and I find another reason to come back in to put it back there.
Tim Ferriss: It’s so outrageous that you can do any of this. It’s amazing,
Apollo Robbins: But it’s a strange thing. And then, each one of those moments, on the backside of that, is I didn’t know what was going to happen. But what I saw is when his attention locked to that pen, and he was spinning.
And you can think of attention as being external or internal, inside your head or external, aware. And you can think of it as being broad or narrow. And on those axes, it’s very useful of, “Do I want him to be broad/external or do I want him to be internal/narrow?”
And how do I flip somebody from one of those to the other? And I’m very attuned to doing that, of moving people between those four stages. So that was a big part there, was to do that to him. And when he pulled that out, and he thought he had the money, I just copped his driver’s license out of his wallet and let him put his wallet back.
But he was already still thinking about the pen, so I could see he was thinking about the pen. So when I pushed down his hand, I just took the wallet out. The problem is his train of thought would go straight back to it if I reveal, “Oh, I’ve got your license,” he would go straight to it.
So I thought, “I guess I’m going to put this license inside the M&Ms. Let me see how I can do that.” And as I’m thinking about that, he said, “Well, you should meet Lisa.” I was like, “What a great idea.”
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And I think she’s the one I met. Maybe there’s more Lisas, but let’s see where he goes. And I said, “Yeah, that’d be nice to meet her.” So he goes off, and he takes off to get Lisa. I see another Lisa that I have met.
So just in case, I put it inside the M&Ms, and then I walk over while this other lady, Lisa, is talking to these people. I open her purse, drop it in there, put it there, and then I go back to where I was. He doesn’t know this.
Tim Ferriss: So it was the right Lisa.
Apollo Robbins: It was, lucky for me. Otherwise, I’d have to be doing some introductions.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So, I have to ask, what is it like for your wife to have a fight or argument with you? Because, it could be, seems like it could be a total nightmare. Or she would have to become such a master in your craft to be able to mount a defense.
Or that she would be like — I have some friends who are therapists, and sometimes their kids will say, “Stop therapizing me, Mom.” And they’ll be like, “I know what you’re doing.” And they’re like — so, what does that dynamic look like?
Or is she like, “Weapons, badge on the table. Take your tools, put them away. I don’t want any of your horseshit. We need to have a talk.”
Apollo Robbins: It’d be easier to have game on, game off. I think we don’t. We do use it in our social interactions with each other, as well. But she does it, too. Her career path, she became a mentalist. She left her career as a psychobiologist.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, all right. This is non-trivial. Okay.
Apollo Robbins: It’s huge. She studied mentalism after meeting Derren Brown. She went deep down that. She started performing for companies. But she had the background to science that I didn’t have. So she’d translate for me.
We had a daughter together a number of years later. And in between those, we had these unusual experiences of going in very dangerous places with different criminal groups, to learn about them together. Me and her on these adventures around the world, in different strange places.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you do that? To learn what types of things?
Apollo Robbins: Well, it’s easy to say that a magic trick comes from this book. It’s a different thing to say, “But where did this really come from? Where did this idea really come from?” A certain type of pocket, or a certain type of thing.
And there were legends of people doing things in certain places. There’s these group of women called the 40 Elephants that used to be in the UK. And around probably 1890 to the 1940s, they ran a criminal group there. And they could steal large amount of things by altering their clothing, and doing a variation of what’s called boosters or boosting.
And that’s my world, an encyclopedia of things like that. And who’s the people that are doing it now? There’s a resurgence of footage showing up, now that YouTube is so pervasive with security cameras, of women doing things that are like that.
Where they’re stealing a flatscreen TV, 32-inch flatscreen TV, and putting it underneath their dress, and walking without changing their gait. Or taking 10-pound cases of beer or wine, and just making it vanish in their clothing. And walking without changing their walk.
There’s a very interesting thing there that it becomes, “How is that knowledge being transferred?” It probably goes back to at least the one data point I know, the 40 Elephants. Usually, when I interact with different cultures of these, I track back through signals that they use, or language or terms that they use. And I try to track where they learn from. And we chased after that. Eva and I did that a lot.
So, to your original question, how do we, as a couple, we both are fascinated by that space. We now have a kid. And I’d say it’s more interesting, probably, for our kid, of trying to teach her.
We don’t teach her that it’s bad to lie. We try to talk to her that deception is a social lubricant. It happens all the time around us, from the moment we put on makeup to something else. So, whether it be a defeat for cancer by using decoy cells, there’s all these things that have a reason. But it’s about your intent, and that’s the big thing.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say more about that? Because that would be very heretical to, I’m sure, some people listening. Like, “Wait a second. No. Deception bad.”
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Right?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: No exceptions. Black and white. That’s the dark side of the Force. Could you say a bit more about how you teach your child, your children, about deception? Or if you want to tackle this a different way, is there a pro-social or a positive use of deception, and a way to frame that for people?
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely. And that’s definitely the flag I fly under now. Is I think that there’s value in learning about deception. One of the reasons why we have critical thinking is to counter deception. And it’s helpful now when people say, “We need more critical thinking,” to understand what was the original reason for it.
Why did we need this reasoning process? Inside of a communal culture, we need to understand the role of deception. And there’s been chases in the history of the study of the psychology, of deception. Of trying to say, “Well, let’s catch somebody in a lie.”
Or, “Lying is all bad,” but it’s not. We use lies and levels of disclosure on our first dates. It’s funny if you hear me now, versus what my father’s thinking would’ve been as a child. “Sorry, my son is advocating for deception.”
But what I’m advocating for is an awareness of what deception is, and expanding the horizons of what people think it can be. And I’ll give you an example. Take the concepts that are used. If I can make — here’s a concept: I’m going to make someone think that they have acted when they haven’t. That’s a very generic concept.
Tim Ferriss: Make them think that they have —
Apollo Robbins: Acted on something. Taken an action when they haven’t. I’ll give you two contexts for that. If I, as a pickpocket, steal from somebody in another country, and they are not too familiar with the language, and I run away, their response will typically be to yell for police.
One way of stopping that is to have a second member of my team come up to them while they’re emotionally charged, and to take a police report. Give them a ticket, and they think they have acted when they haven’t.
They have a peace of mind that they’ve taken some action. And while they’re emotionally charged, what do they need to see? Maybe a clipboard, a badge, a couple of things. And I don’t need to show them much.
But that concept, if you can distill the concept of that, how do I fight malaria? It’s female mosquitoes that bite, that create the transfer of the germ in malaria. But if I can release a hormone to a female mosquito, to make her think that she has mated when she hasn’t, I make her think that she has behaved, taken an action when she hasn’t taken the action. And you can stop the spread of malaria.
It’s the same concept. So this use of deception is really the broader aspect. How do we deceive a cell? How do we deal with the coronavirus? It can be used in medicine; it can be used in different areas.
Using truth to deceive, that’s a very powerful thing. It’s the difference between malinformation versus disinformation. Malinformation is the use of true facts to deceive. And paltering is the name for it in business, of using it in advertising, of using a series of true statements to mislead.
Tim Ferriss: Can you give an example? I’ve never heard that term before.
Apollo Robbins: Which, paltering?
Tim Ferriss: Paltering, yeah.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, paltering. If I said —
Tim Ferriss: It doesn’t have to be a business example, but what would be an example of using the truth to deceive?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. Well, if I release a series of true statements in a certain order, you are going to connect those and tell yourself a story. If you vet any of those true elements, they will show up to be true. But because they were delivered to you in a certain order, they’ll create a belief. And that’s the bigger thing. How do I craft a belief in you? That’s been done a variety of ways on both sides of the political spectrum that we could say. It’s done in advertising as well. It was done — there’s a great book on propaganda by Eddie Bernays, where he explored it with doing a study on the most important meal of the day. It was at that time, I think, funded by the pork industry. They found that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.
He said, so the all-American breakfast, bacon, eggs, and toast, is the most important. That wasn’t part of the original study, the bacon and the eggs to become part of the all-American breakfast, but repackaging that in there as well. A smaller thing, if I want to convey an implied statement to you, if I said, “Do you believe in ESP?”
Tim Ferriss: Sure. Yes.
Apollo Robbins: Then I don’t have anything to do.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Let’s say, let’s go with no, then. Not sure where this is going!
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, so if you say no, I “Say some people don’t believe in ESP.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
Apollo Robbins: “And soome people don’t believe we ever walked on the moon.”
Both those statements are true by implying a third statement that now if you don’t believe in ESP, that you’re similar to the people with conspiracy theories who never believe we walked on the moon.
Tim Ferriss: Right. You’re making a false association.
Apollo Robbins: Association. By using true statements. So it’s also as a legality, it’s a lot harder thing to grab onto. If I want to pull back one layer further.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s slippery.
Apollo Robbins: It is.
Tim Ferriss: I mean there’s a lot of room for deception in advertising and product marketing also. So I didn’t know that term, but there’s a term called puffery, which is, it’s an implied structure or function claim. You can’t make structure or function claims, for instance with dietary supplements or in shampoo because then it would be governed by the FDA. It would be, and I’m simplifying this, but classified as a drug and therefore you would have to go through all of these different steps and studies and so on. To avoid that, so puffery is the use of words that have basically no meaning whatsoever.
Apollo Robbins: Okay. Gibberish.
Tim Ferriss: So if you sell shampoo that is a hair volumizer, no agreed upon or legal definition of a volumize, but it conjures an image.
Apollo Robbins: It does.
Tim Ferriss: Of a very distinct effect.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: It’s total bullshit.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: When you have a label for this and you get a few examples, you start to see it everywhere. It’s all over the place, in any case.
Apollo Robbins: That’s exactly to my point. I hope that people expand beyond just trying to catch them in a lie because many of the things now that are impacting people in major ways are going beyond fabrication. They’re going to narratives that craft belief systems. So my push that I think is a nice way to stay off the political phrase just to go after, how about I show you how these things are traditionally done? I’m going to show you the anatomy of those. I’m going to try to familiarize you with those that, like I said, deception awareness.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I see. You’re saying, “Okay, we can talk about politics or a modern incarnation of this type of perceptual shaping, but let’s do it vis-a-vis the 40 Elephants.”
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, because my goal, if I attack a political piece and the outcome of the behavior I’d like is I would like for people to move more center, I want there to be a kind of diplomacy between people, all right, that’s the very nature of politics. So can I get them off the extremes? I believe that teaching them without having to target them with their current beliefs, to use these other metaphors instead of a turtle, I’m using cons and other deception.
To another point of something more ambiguous, I talked about change raising earlier, shortchanging somebody, a cashier. If I want to be softer in that I could just as a sleight of hand artist, I have the ability to change a bill from one bill to another. I can do that very quickly. So do thieves. If I go to a cashier and I said, “Can you give me a hundred dollar bill and I give you 10 $10 bills?” That doesn’t raise a lot of suspicion in the way that a hundred bill would in the other way where they vet that.
Now you take those 10 10s, you put them in the register, you hand them to me and I take the hundred. I just look at the hundred and I say, “Excuse me.” When you look at the hundred, you see now there’s a 10 there instead of a hundred, what is my claim? I just said, “Excuse me,” I didn’t tell you that you gave me the wrong thing. I didn’t make a bolster of a claim. I’m just allowing you to assume a story.
Tim Ferriss: Write your own story.
Apollo Robbins: If you assume the wrong story and think you made a mistake and gave me a 10 instead of a hundred, you’re going to take that back, give me a hundred, and I made $90. If you went the other way and you were highly suspicious, you’re on top of it and you say, “What?” I said, “Could you give me two fives?” So that allows me to go either way. I have this 10, I can take that lane, “Can you give me two fives?” That’s what it means by equivocate. So the equivocation of those things is this ambiguity used to deceive that can be taken in multiple directions.
Tim Ferriss: Although you’re kind of fucked on that exchange, because you —
Apollo Robbins: It helps to be able to have the recording.
Tim Ferriss: All right, so I want to talk for a second about books. So when you were younger, there were these various books. You mentioned a few of them. One of them was J.B. Bobo’s Coin Magic.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, that was the book that Ben Stone gave me. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Had a large impact on your life, your thinking, and so on. Are there books in later chapters that have had an impact on you that come to mind?
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely. Specific points. There was one where some people that I had worked with started to say, it was almost an implication that they thought I was psychic and I wasn’t buying into that. There was an incident that happened. Somebody had stolen something from me at that show at Caesars Palace with hundreds of people. I had a backpack and somebody got there and stole out a set of special coins that I had that were very sentimental to me, inside of a case.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a bummer. Probably of no use to them.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. It was both emotional and significant to me. I had come back up, I just changed in my street clothes and I said, “Hey, was somebody in my bag?” The ticket ladies didn’t know. I said, “What did they look like?” They said, “Yeah, there’s a guy back here.” I said, “Old, young, dark hair, light hair?” They said, “I’m not sure.” I said, “Did he go in the show route or did he go side door?” They said, “Side door.” I said, “So he’s in the Illuminarium,” which is like a couple hundred people in that space now. They said, “Yeah, he’s there.” I was like, oh, man. I said, “Can you spot him if we go in there?” We go in and when I go look for him, I ended up finding this guy out of a couple hundred people.
Tim Ferriss: Because they helped you spot him?
Apollo Robbins: No, they didn’t know how to describe him. I called my boss and I said, “Hey, can we do an announcement? Somebody stole my stuff. Can you do an announcement that we know that they stole it?” He says, “No.” I said, “All right.” So then I went back in and changed in my uniform for the show and I went through everybody’s pockets. I started going through assessing and profiling a few hundred people.
I found the guy and it was just you were eliminating different people. Grandpa’s not going to do this. This guy’s got his family, he’s not going to take that chance. So I narrowed down to couples and other things and then I see this guy and he’s with another girl. I went up to him and I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” He goes, “Slick.”
Tim Ferriss: Slick.
Apollo Robbins: He called himself Slick. I mean, that’s not the thing. As I went by, he was wearing jogging pants and he only had something in his front left pocket. So I tapped the thing, not tap tap, but enough for me to know what it was and it was my case. So then I stole it back from him without him knowing. I went and told my boss, “Hey, I found this guy. Can you call security?” He said, he’s laughing. He’s just like, “No.”
Tim Ferriss: You took the evidence.
Apollo Robbins: He says, “But how can you find this guy?” He says, “What?” He’s telling everybody else. At that time, back to your book’s question, I always get on tangents. I really wanted to understand what was happening there. I was like, is it NLP? Everybody says NLP, is that what this is? It wasn’t that.
Tim Ferriss: What you were doing, or what he was doing?
Apollo Robbins: People were thinking about what I was doing as far as — I didn’t believe it was, I had super skills.
Tim Ferriss: So you were trying to deconstruct what you yourself —
Apollo Robbins: I was pushing at the science. So I found out about Robert Cialdini and his book on influence and different studies on the history of persuasion. I started ordering textbooks from universities and really going into that. Then now my areas of interest, the nice thing is I’m friends with a lot of the authors that I know.
So Dan Simons just wrote a book called Nobody’s Fool, that is going specifically after a problem that I’m very interested in, which is if we posit this idea that we need more critical thinking, we really need to define what critical thinking is. Critical thinking I think is being used as a filler term to fill in the blank whenever we’ve got a problem for reasoning.
I think it needs to be more specific than that to solve the problem. What behavior do we want to change? Do we want people to have an alternate hypothesis to question their hypothesis? When is that the case and when is that a conspiracy theory?
It now becomes the fixation on beliefs. When should we question what we think we know? That’s a very specific thing. So a lot of the things I’m reading right now are how beliefs are constructed. When should we question what we think we know? How often do we update our belief systems? Is there a firmware that needs to be updated? How do we go about doing that? I’m trying to find what my role is in trying to help with that.
Tim Ferriss: Outside of technical magic books, and I’m using magic broadly, could be any facet of that type of performance. What books have you reread that come to mind?
Apollo Robbins: That I read quite a bit? One that I’m hovering around right now, I say that I’m rereading it, but I’m going to be soft on the title, I think it’s called How Minds Are Changed. It’s an important book that goes into the impact of deep canvassing and is it possible to change someone’s mind in a conversation within any lasting results? What is the process of doing that?
That’s different than in a traditional magic book. Also, when should you and why should you? It poses the idea of questioning your own beliefs and how you arrived at those and how necessary it is for you to update yours. I go back to that quite a bit. There’s a book called The Person and This Situation. I think it’s Nisbett.
Tim Ferriss: We can get all this, we’ll put them in the show notes as well.
Apollo Robbins: I’ll give you a list of those because I do suffer from that when I buy a book, I think I’m going to buy the time to read it. I do have several that I go back to repeatedly. It tends to be that they are for specific functions of the things that are driving me in life. A friend of mine wrote a book called Deception in the Digital Age, and he was with the FBI. His name is Cameron Malin. It’s a fascinating book in that space that I go into a lot.
Tim Ferriss: Does Whiz Mob hold any special place in your heart or mind?
Apollo Robbins: Yes, it did.
Tim Ferriss: What is Whiz Mob?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, so okay, if you go to books as to the spirit of your question, which is what I should have listened to.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t blame you for not listening to my spirit. It’s an acquired taste.
Apollo Robbins: There’s probably, so Bobo’s Coin Magic, right? Then there was the Fitzkee books that Ben Stone tricked me into reading.
Tim Ferriss: God bless that guy.
Apollo Robbins: They still reverberize because it’s magic, and then the study of misdirection. Then Whiz Mob. Whiz Mob was that it was this juxtaposition that there was a professor, David Maurer, who was studying the language of thieves. He wrote two books. He wrote The American Confidence Man, which later became Big Con. It was one chapter of that was turned into the book, or into the movie [The] Sting. That influenced a lot of other parts of that book were turned into elements for other movies that are cons and heist movies. I was very interested in, because he was a language professor who was studying the language of thieves.
Whiz Mob was a specific type of theft. It’s not just a pickpocket on the street. The name of Whiz Mob is this idea that there are thieves that travel and they don’t just work as a team, but there are some thieves that have learned all the roles in a team. They could shift between those roles so they didn’t need the team anymore and they were called cannons.
This term came back from the UK a long time ago. Maurer was tracing that back and he noticed that it was showing up in Chicago and other places that the cannons were around. He started to meet some people that were coming into Louisville, Kentucky for I guess the Kentucky Derby for this event. He found that there were groups of cannons that would find each other internationally and play as bigger teams.
They were fascinating. It was hard for surveillance to catch them because they could change their composition as a team, change their tactics, and they had very different skill levels. That lit a fire for me to try to find a cannon, to try to find Whiz Mob. The New Yorker article that is all about that, of me finding my first cannon.
Then a year ago when I moved to Washington DC, another cannon reached out to me by email and said, “Hey, we have similar interests with Maurer’s work. I’m one of the original Whiz Mob.” I said, “What?” I said, “Well, that’s an easy thing to vet.” So it’s in writing. So I got to vet this guy out. He talked about when he was 14 years old and he was a six-foot-four black man coming to, at that time it was very hard to get in someone’s space. So he had to invent whole new approaches to stealing, also what racism meant in that kind of community.
He was writing a book about that. He wanted to get together with me. He lives in the DC area. We still haven’t got together. So sometime if you want to get together with the two of us.
Tim Ferriss: I’m in.
Apollo Robbins: That is the driver. That’s where I used to spend a lot of my time. That book, Maurer’s book, taught me to be a student of these arcane disciplines and see what I could learn.
Tim Ferriss: So a question on arcane discipline as it applies to the team roles. People may be familiar with the different positions on an American football team or basketball team, probably are not familiar with the different roles that a cannon could take. So what does a team of thieves look like? Or at least what are some of the fundamental roles?
Apollo Robbins: I think a lot of people don’t know the structure of a pickpocket team. They tend to know football, basketball, baseball, very intimately and very impassioned. For pickpocket team it tends to be different. There are names —
Tim Ferriss: It’s their intention not to be seen.
Apollo Robbins: It is, yes. There’s names for them. Historically, the wire, the stick, the shade, the stall, and they all have functions in what people would think is, oh, that’s just a diversion. It’s more than that. As you move from country to country, there’s different approaches of how people steal in one country versus another. It tends to be that you see them move like a school of fish through a crowd. So if somebody’s in an event and they’ve locked onto a target, as that target moves through, whether it’s a casino or an event, you’ll see the thieves move with them as a school of fish.
The roles with that, the wire is kind of embodied in a character from a movie called Harry Never Holds. It was about a pickpocket that would steal from people and he would hand off his stuff because if anybody rolled him up, he’s the quarterback. They don’t want to catch the quarterback, because he’s the most valuable player. That functions as a metaphor. So how would he pass? Who would he pass to?
The other roles in the team become the stalls or the sticks, which they set up a frame, they stop somebody’s elbow from moving backwards and grabbing hold of the thieves hand. They might open a newspaper, they might look at a book if it’s on a subway, but they’re going to be underneath the edge of an elbow so a hand can’t get back. That’s what I mean setting a frame on someone.
Tim Ferriss: Running interference.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. So they came and moved back. Then there’s the shade, the shade is counter surveillance, they’re looking to identify undercover law enforcement. As they scope through a crowd, they’re very good at identifying what they look like and also where the cameras are. There’s a steer who identifies the good targets.
Tim Ferriss: Pause for one sec. So the shade, is that a pre-game activity or is that done real time?
Apollo Robbins: Both.
Tim Ferriss: How do they alert people to an issue?
Apollo Robbins: Well that’s often an indicator of who they are too. A shade might use a physical indicator. Sometimes as different groups go they used to use Nextel phones or they used to — so I’ve seen that happen at a mall when I visited DC a number of years ago. I’ve seen it happen different ways in Japan with kissing noises. In Naples, they do whistles, it’s different sounds. Colombian diversion teams will use a finger up the back of the neck, which indicates that we have surveillance and split.
They’ll do probe testing where maybe as somebody’s going in to do a steal, if they sense they’ve got heat from a surveillance, they might drop their sight line towards a lady’s purse. If someone bounces off their sight line and tracks to that, they know they’ve got heat and so they give a signal to their team to dissipate.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So we stopped at shade, I interrupted. So what came after shade?
Apollo Robbins: Steer. A steer is somebody who qualifies the mark. These are right out of Whiz Mob. As I started meeting different teams, it’s been fascinating to find people on the street that still use variations of these terms because that means somehow they learn those from someone.
Tim Ferriss: What does the steer do?
Apollo Robbins: They qualify the mark.
Tim Ferriss: They do a testing bite and they’re like —
Apollo Robbins: Well think about the cost risk association of if we’re going to make a play on someone, we might go to prison for it. We need to qualify them more.
Tim Ferriss: Or make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How do you qualify?
Apollo Robbins: It’s changed now with phones, but if you have earbuds or any kind of cord going down to a device, I now know where it is and I can qualify that. So for a lot of Eastern European teams and in England and other places, they just know that you’re going to have a phone. So more people become targets just for their phones. They know how to fence those and run those in the market. There’s clever things of what they can do with a phone now. They can run it through your whole bank accounts really quick now. So it’s more than losing your phone.
Tim Ferriss: They can access your bank account vis-a-vis your phone.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. I don’t know exactly this play because it’s not like a zero-day major hack, not like a sponsored state hack. They do have some way of getting into your phone pretty quick. I’ve seen that over the last three years, take a surgence of stealing at a nightclub. It could be as simple as pointing it back at you, get your facial recognition, but some kind of automation that they’re running to be able to run through all your accounts, through your passwords, shut you out, set up dual factor authentication, lock you out of everything and just take you virtually.
Tim Ferriss: Yikes.
Apollo Robbins: So that’s a whole different thing. Back in the day, once upon a time when the steers would go, they’d be more interested when you go to an ATM or a bank and you qualify, they call it peek in the poke, seeing what money is inside the wallet. They had names for all these things. The pit, the kick, the bridge, the fob, uptown, downtown for different pockets. They all had names and they could use them around each other.
They had a lot of — it was a very rich language that has — some of it’s permeated into our culture. It’s a fascinating place. The steer, I think for me, when I’m looking for a team, I often look for the steer. Either the steer or the shade. If I’m in a crowd, I’m looking for their scout because the scout’s moving sight lines. He’s looking, I look for people that are either targets or they’re law enforcement and I can identify those. If I can identify them, somebody else is looking at them. So then I just track sight lines through a crowd to see who’s looking at them. Then I’m going to look for their signals and I can start to identify the group. Then I can start to look at how they’re doing their —
Tim Ferriss: So from a defensive standpoint, someone’s going on a road trip, they’re going to be going through all sorts of countries. They’re going to be in crowded environments surrounded by lots of people. Chances are there’s going to be, if not solo operators, teams in these environments. Let’s say it’s festivals and so on, where certainly teams are at work, much like the Kentucky Derby or you go to Carnival, you can bet your ass there are going to be some pros there.
What can you do? What would your advice be to someone who doesn’t want to get their stuff taken? I guess I would imagine there’s just don’t carry anything you don’t need to carry. There is other preventative measures. I mean you hear about money belts and this, that and the other thing. What are your thoughts?
Apollo Robbins: Just like self-defense, it’s a mindset first. Over the last 30 years I guess that I’ve been doing this, it’s kind of crazy, three decades, I’ve seen society lower their situational awareness and increase their overconfidence.
Tim Ferriss: It’s crazy.
Apollo Robbins: It’s a juxtaposition between that. It’s the pandemic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That it’s this level of unconscious incompetence or this illusion of invulnerability. There’s articles saying that pickpockets don’t really exist anymore, that that’s gone down. I disagree. Pickpockets aren’t the only problem. I just talked about the hacking element of this. Deep fakes is a whole new thing. I mean a recent thing that’s just gotten a case with impersonating, you might have seen this, on a ransom case where they implied that they ransomed a daughter.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So they used a deep fake to quote, unquote, prove that they’d kidnapped someone.
Apollo Robbins: They had the audio of a daughter talking to a mother screaming that she’s been kidnapped. I mean that’s going to drive anybody to take the behavior right away.
Tim Ferriss: So they were able to extract the ransom?
Apollo Robbins: I believe so. I know that’s being prosecuted though right now. I think it’s one of the early lessons. There’s also weaponized as far as in the military right now, there was somebody that impersonated the mayor of Kyiv within the last three months that was speaking to other mayors in Europe. It was Russian-based, but they were on a realtime live Zoom call while they were talking to these people, and doing a realtime live deep fake on a Zoom call.
Then a few minutes in there was some kind of glitch or longer than that, they got enough information, there was a glitch. Then they called back to the mayor of Kyiv and they said he hasn’t been on a call. There’s a future there that’s coming that is intense. So a lot of these concepts where I mentioned them from pickpocketing and things, that’s why I noticed I didn’t go to just getting a better money belt. I went to the importance for concepts. The overconfidence will work against people.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You see people in any major city, we’re sitting in New York City right now, the number of people I have seen see a go signal and walk across the street with earbuds in looking at their phones, not checking either direction in this city is unbelievable. I mean, hundreds of them. I’ve seen hundreds.
Apollo Robbins: Two times when I’ve been to Japan, the first time I went there, there was this kind of connection of everybody around. Then the second time, a couple decades later I went back, the latching in of the smartphones. It really does become this kind of, not narcissism, but this kind of egocentricism of through their virtual world they’re exploring out there. While they’re plugged into that, like the matrix I guess you’d say, their physical body becomes vulnerable.
So as a predator mindset of looking at people like that, there used to be a term among thieves called the grift sense. They felt that the grift sense was more important than technique. The ability to extract that from someone and be able to know where their attention was, how much they’re investing their attention on a thing. Now it becomes more salient when somebody is holding their phone and you can see where their attention is and you can see what they’re doing.
Tim Ferriss: So I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but I am curious. Let’s just say you’ve tried to identify the minimum of the essentials that you want to have on you. You’ve got a safe at the hotel. Not saying that’s automatically safe by the way, but for argument’s sake, you’ve tried to leave as much behind as possible. No cash. You’re like, I’ll try to use Apple Pay. You’ve got your phone, where should you put it on your body? Some targets I would imagine some are harder than others.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, they are. So your inside jacket pocket. They used to think that that was the hardest pocket to steal from because they would call it kissing the dog. That was the old term. Kissing the dog meant that I would have to see the mark’s face. With most other extractions, you wouldn’t get to see me. My team would lock you up. I would work in a blind spot angle and I would do an extraction that way. If I had to steal from inside your jacket pocket, I’ve come up with a few ways to extract that without you having to see my face per se. I can show you maybe some of that a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: Headbutting the dog.
Apollo Robbins: Yes, headbutting the dog. Make sure they don’t remember. So inside jacket pocket is a spot. I think it’s more of when you take things out to make a payment, it’s useful to leave something there. There’s a great — a thing that often beats security is what they call satisfaction of search where they’re looking for a thing, an anomaly. They find something that satisfies that and they stop looking. You can reverse that and use that for thieves.
Give them something to find. If you’re going to go make a purchase out somewhere, quarantine a portion of your money. Any valuables that you have, sentimental or other things, don’t wear them publicly. If you’re moving into any kind of isolated spot, it’s not just pickpockets, it’s for being mugged too. You can hide them in plain sight. So for example, what is your EDC? What are the things you carry with you? Now more and more people are carrying —
Tim Ferriss: Everyday carry?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, EDC, everyday carry and definitely a pickpocket’s library. Your water bottle, a coffee cup, those things. If I take things that are of value, sentimental value, an improvised safe could be a coffee cup. I put these items inside of a coffee cup, put a lid on it. Now even if you rob me, taser me, and strip me down, you probably won’t search in that coffee cup. That’s the mindset that I’m talking about. So the idea of treating the unimportant as important and the important as unimportant, you want to simplify it.
I think you can take that to your hotel room. Are you going to buy some kind of stash concealment that looks like after shave or you’re going to do those things? Instead of leave something there in the safe because you need to satiate their curiosity. You need to give the dog a bone to find. You need to, as Herb Simon in behavioral economics, he would call it satisficing. You need something that satisfies their curiosity.
Tim Ferriss: I’m glad I asked. Thank you. What is The Illusion of Knowledge Project?
Apollo Robbins: That is a current effort. So we have a new company that we’re trying to create. I’ve kind of tiptoed into that as we’ve been speaking about because it’s a soft business model. It’s still a shape of what the market is for that. We think it’s important to point the finger at the problem that we see on the horizon. So I’m trying to find — the benefit is I have an amazing network of people that I’ve learned from. It used to be thieves, but now it’s security specialists and other ones, and just specialists around the world that are incredible experts in these areas.
I was saying, my background’s in entertainment. We did some TV works, different things. Can we repackage shows, whether it’s TV or live experience or content that can help people engage with things that they might not think should be important, that they might not think are important, their data, their other things? Can you reverse a room escape and make it a heist? While people are trying to break into a thing they learn about their personal data, these kind of examples.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a fun idea.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, it probably is now stolen that I’ve said it out loud.
Tim Ferriss: We could add in a bunch of bleeps if you like.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, no, leave it in there. It’s just karma for me doing all the things I’ve done. It’s the kind of things that give you those ideas. So we did a project along that, it was a video project called The Illusion of Knowledge. It’s this Daniel Boorstin quote that “The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge.”
That marries so well with my background growing up around cons. Since my job has always been instilling confidence, not just the extraction of personal items from a person, it’s getting people to make other decisions. As I learn about that, I think it’s very important for people to understand that we are all puppets. We all have strings.
It’s a benefit for people to know that about themselves instead of saying, “But I’m not a puppet,” and realize that they do have a string and what does it mean for somebody to pull that string. That awareness of what it looks like in different ways that those strings can be pulled, I think can help bring people so that the flags go up. So we’re creating this project, The Illusion Knowledge Project, to highlight some of that.
Tim Ferriss: Where can people find that or can they not yet find it?
Apollo Robbins: They can’t find it yet. There’s a trailer. We have this website called Equivoke. Equivoke is E-Q-U-I-V-O-K-E. Or they can go to my website. It’s easy. My website is istealstuff.com and it’s easier for people to remember while they’re driving. If you go to that, there’ll be a link to Equivoke. There’s a link to those things, explore and poke around.
I don’t have much content out there that I put as products because right now I’m at a phase where I have two kids. I have one that’s 30, one that’s six. I want to try to do the thing that I can to change the world in the way that I can. So a lot of these are legacy type things that build it first, build business model later, which is probably not the best approach. It’s something that I’m doing right now.
Tim Ferriss: It may not always be the most failsafe approach, but it is, I think the approach that I see aligned with intention and integrity very often in people who are, and I mean this in the most complimentary sense possible, high-level craftsmen or craftswomen. And it’s not impossible to do. It can be difficult to do. But I don’t think it’s an incorrect approach. Does that make sense?
Apollo Robbins: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Because you can, conversely — look, I invest in a lot of, or I have historically invested in a lot of startups and early stage companies and so on. And it can be incredibly profitable to start with a model and then figure out what fits around that.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: However, when you have a craft and when you have the refined perception and ability to operate in the world that you have, that you can expand into these different domains, I think that approach makes a lot of sense. I really do. Because you can corrupt the sincerity of the knowledge you’ve accumulated by forcing it —
Apollo Robbins: Into a model.
Tim Ferriss: — into a model. Yeah. Anyway.
Apollo Robbins: Well said. I think, I don’t know if the right metaphor of spoke and hub, but it is a little bit like that. I have different ways I’ve been able to make a very good living through, whether it’s speaking or doing workshops or doing training or creating things to teach security. And as I’m doing those, since I got my boxes checked, I felt, okay, let’s be exploratory. What else can I use this thing that I have, this network that I have? And instead, can it be something that is using the fun part of where I came from?
Tim Ferriss: So I have to ask, because this is just my brain won’t let it go.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So the 40 Elephants, I just love this name. Are there other historical figures or bands of merry pranksters/criminals who have particularly memorable names or stories for you? If you had to put together your League of Legends, is there a shortlist?
Apollo Robbins: I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a lot of interesting characters, but there’s some that I’ve spent time with and there’s some that I’ve just read about. In the space of famous thieves or con artists, there is the Unsinkable Titanic Thompson who —
Tim Ferriss: Titanic Thompson?
Apollo Robbins: Yep. The nickname was Ti, from those who knew him well. But there’s books been written about him. I think people have talked about doing movies over the years. But supposedly he would advertise he was coming to a town, because he gambled on everything and people were drawn to that. He was a proposition bet hustler. But he had super skills. He acquired a lot of skills.
Tim Ferriss: What’s a proposition bet hustler?
Apollo Robbins: Meaning he bet on things that he would just win. He had special set of skills or support staff, covert support staff that allowed him to make outrageous bets on weird things.
Tim Ferriss: Can you think of an example?
Apollo Robbins: One, he would bet just first on golf, he’s very good at golf. And he would play somebody and he’d be beating him and he says, “Listen, I’ll give you a handicap, I’ll play with left-handed.” And then he would beat him again and they didn’t realize that he was left-handed, but he is that good that he could beat people right-handed.
Tim Ferriss: Back to Princess Bride again.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And so he definitely could switch the hands, but he was very famous for being able to throw things accurately inside of cups from a distance. Other things, he could throw a card from a long ways away through a window. And being above a pool hall was one story where he would be trying to toss a hat, missing occasionally. And side bets on a poker game. And he says, “Let’s bet a grand that I can toss a card through that window all the way down where the window is,” and somebody’d take the bet and throw a card through and then they’d close down the window, he gets a second bet. Then Kenny, he says, “Listen, I’m going to throw it through the window, it’s going to come back, and it’s going to stick to the outside of the window.” What? No, just silly. And it would. And you see those in the literature, but they’re like, “No, that’s like magic territory.”
And then he would, somebody would be eating pretzels and he says, “The pretzel, I’m going to take that pretzel and throw it over that three-story building over there, or that wall line.” And they’d say, “No, that can’t.” And he would and he’d throw a pretzel over a wall. So he seemed like some kind of Robin Hood/superhero. But there’s great books on him, the Unsinkable Titanic Thompson. I have the good fortune of knowing the last surviving member of his team that was the guy who was down below in the pool hall with a fan in rubber cement who painted the window. But he would do amazing things to layer these very intricate cons besides that.
So there’s a handful of those guys. The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson, Joseph Weil, the Yellow Kid. Count Victor Lustig, he’s the guy who sold the Eiffel Tower twice. And it’s amazing, how do you sell the Eiffel Tower? And it is a beautiful con of, he took advantage of the time when the Eiffel Tower [did not have] the significant value that it [would]. It was after World’s Fair and it might need to be turned into scraps. So he put out a bid as a city official to be able to look for somebody who could tear it down. And then as different contractors bid on it, he found a guy who really needed the job.
And meanwhile the wife of the guy says, “I think there’s a rat. I smell something. There’s something up here.” And he had the beautiful turn in a con, which he recognized that the wife had that suspicion, and he answered in a unique way. He just said, “Listen, I’ve got to make something on this. If you guys really want this deal, I’m going to need a cut.” So they decided, “Okay, hey, that’s the rat.” That’s the thing. He is suspicious. He’s a city official who needs a cut,” instead of “It’s a whole fake.” So not only did he get the money he was getting, he also got the extra money as well.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man.
Apollo Robbins: So there’s all these guys, all these interesting lessons of these guys. But I had a personal best friend for 17 years who — Rod the Hop.
Tim Ferriss: Say again?
Apollo Robbins: Rod the Hop.
Tim Ferriss: The Hop?
Apollo Robbins: Yep. And he is significant. If people have ever watched Ocean’s Eleven and they wondered, “I wonder if there’s a real Ocean.” There’s a couple of guys that Ocean’s character would probably be attributed to, but Rod would be on that shortlist. Among thieves at least. He was a legend among thieves and people didn’t know what he looked like generally because of the nature of the work. But he played a lot of different styles. He was a card hustler, card cheat. But there’s a Southern style, a Gardenia style. These different styles of playing long and short games using devices that shoot out your sleeve and grab things called the Joint or Kepplinger Holdout.
He was very good at a lot of those things. I met him when I first moved to Vegas and he offered — he was sitting off in a corner. It was at a thing where some magicians were in, he was off the side of that. And he was playing with plastic cards and he was shuffling them at the table and not in a way that magicians handle cards. And he had an edge that was a little bit more felt like family to me. And I saddled up to him, talked to him a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: So not the way that magicians handle cards in the sense that you recognize more of like a working card mechanic?
Apollo Robbins: Yeah, because mechanics can’t have flourish. They can’t pick up the deck off the table. They don’t shuffle in the same way that they do. All their slides have to be done within the constraints of what the casinos have manifest.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Apollo Robbins: So it would look very mundane on the surface, but there’s a lot going on there. And also plastic cards, magicians would never want to use plastic cards, but poker players would. So when I began talking to him, we kind of hit up a friendship and talked a little bit. And as he learned more about my past and some of the vibe — I was going through a divorce at the time too, I was around 21. He knew I needed some money and he said, “Hey, you want to come play with my team?” And they were hitting casinos or at least side spots, kind of periphery casinos or gas stations and hitting slot machines and things. And he could cheat a slot machine and make it pay out a bonus. But he needed watch guards. He needed me to learn a CODY system and stuff. And I said, “Sorry man, I’ve grown up around some things like this and there’s this line that I know once I step across that line, I’ll always move it. So I can’t, man, but I really appreciate it.”
He says, “Well, how about all these magic books? What are you going to do with those?” I said, “I don’t know. I guess I might have to sell them to get this thing for the divorce.” And he said, “Well, I’ll buy those from you.” So he bought all my magic books from me. And one of his team turned on him and he ended up getting arrested right after that. And I got this box of books back with this little note as a friend just saying, “I knew you wouldn’t take the money unless I did this.” He gave me all my books back. So later when he got out of prison, I said, “I’m doing some new stuff now and I need some friends. You want to be a friend?” And I asked him to join our team.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great line.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. So he joined the team and we had about a dozen guys. Kevin Mitnick, a famous hacker was one of those guys.
Tim Ferriss: The Art of Deception.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. And he was a dear friend who just recently passed away.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. But I saw him right before he passed away last year, I mean right before he got sick last year of cancer. But very dear friends I’ve learned so much from. But Rod used to do heist on casinos. Mitnick had all of his legends. It’s a story for another time. But I’ve been influenced by amazing guys in that way that I’ve learned about.
Tim Ferriss: So what did the team do? What was he doing on the team?
Apollo Robbins: So that was definitely, I can clarify, a bad business model. So that was Whizmob Incorporated, inspired by the book you mentioned, Whiz Mob. And the idea was that we would team guys together and send them out for, as a speaking agency, for security. Maybe team them with their counterparts in law enforcement. Mitnick already had that game going. He was doing full penetration testing, so he just hung out with us as a subject matter expert. It was beneficial to learn what are covert communication systems that pickpockets use versus card cheats versus a second-story hacker or guys that would break into a place like a cat burglar functionally. So all those kind of guys we had in our cadre. And they all had different ways of approaching those things. So it was valuable. Also him and pulling and tugging at social engineering, which I considered very similar to an evolution of con. He had me come in and speak at DEF CON, his company KnowBe4 later. But we learned from each other in those worlds.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to cover? Is there anything you’d like to share with the audience? Ask of my audience? Anything at all before we start to wind to a close?
Apollo Robbins: My daughter’s six, but when she was around three she was learning a lot of new words that I don’t say. And you try to choose what’s a good word and a bad word, and how often. If you use the word “no” too much, do they become numb to them? So maybe use other words besides “no.” And I was always interested in how different experts do parenting and what that might be. But there was a word she asked me, “What does boring mean?” Without really thinking about it too much I said, “It’s a word that’s not a bad word, but it’s a word I don’t use really because I don’t really have it. I’ve never been bored.” But part of it is because boring means that your imagination is broken. So you’ve got to find a way to do it, you’ve got to find something to do, and you’ve got to use your imagination better. And I didn’t realize what that would do, but now I have a kid who’s never said that they’re bored. And that’s a huge thing.
Tim Ferriss: That’s huge. What an advantage.
Apollo Robbins: What happens when we just change a word? What does it do to a behavior? So in all the long drives she’s taken with us across the country, she’s never said, “I’m bored.” She knows what it means, she hears her friends say it. And she doesn’t think of my dad tells me not to say it, because I tell her, “You can say it.” But she chooses not to.
And it’s a thing that I’m obviously proud of her about that, but it’s also to me such a valuable thing of the state of being bored is where creative epiphanies often happen. But what if we just remove that word and think of it in a different way? And we think about as when she is in that state, she says, “I need some help. I need to think of something to do.” And she’s just doing that. And I said, “Well, there’s so many things and you only got so much time. Where do we want to start?” And I said, “Should we go this way? That way? What?” And it becomes a different thing. So I said, “Do you want to do something that you want me to help you generate, come up with some ideas?” She says, “No, I just want to think for a little while.” So she’ll just look out the window and think. And so it’s a fascinating thing to look at how long her attention span is compared to a lot of her friends.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think that that has helped her despite not having, I assume, not having had the Forrest Gump braces to become a better watcher in the same way that you became a good watcher?
Apollo Robbins: I think so. I think that is one of the contributors. Also, I’m a big proponent of — I used to call it covert learning strategies of the Miyagi aspect of I’m going to do covert learning to repackage the hard lessons as something else.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you want to learn how to levitate a coin? I think it’s in —
Apollo Robbins: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: These three books.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you only read volume one? I think it’s in two or three.
Apollo Robbins: And there’s two things. Because if somebody has a big ego and they don’t think that they need to learn something, or you have learned helplessness where people don’t think it’s possible for them to learn it. So what if I hide that? Another pro-social application of deception. Maybe I can use that to help them learn a thing they thought was irrelevant. And secretly I’ve taught —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, or impossible.
Apollo Robbins: Yes. And now, by the way, you can do it. And so I’m really interested in that space. And we do that to her all the time that now if she says — trying to teach her a memory system, can I repackage as a series of other things that now this little tour that we took was secretly a mind palace and now she learns how to do that. So what are the different ways that you can package —
Tim Ferriss: Trojan Horse.
Apollo Robbins: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Apollo, what a gift. What an incredibly fun conversation. I think we may stand up and try to do some things. So for people who are interested in some more visual, you can go to Tim Ferriss on YouTube and we will hopefully post some goodies there for you. Where are the best places for people to find you online?
Apollo Robbins: I’m on Facebook, although there seems to be like five or six of me that isn’t me, as imposters do.
Tim Ferriss: Sort of appropriate.
Apollo Robbins: So I haven’t canceled them out. But there’s one me on Facebook. I’m on Instagram, not very active, but I’ll probably be more. I haven’t engaged with the new version of Twitter. I haven’t fully jumped onto the next —
Tim Ferriss: Can’t bring myself to say X.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. TikTok, I’m not coming close to. Just my security mind won’t let me even touch it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, don’t do it. But on Twitter, @ApolloRobbins.
Apollo Robbins: Yeah. So pretty much @ApolloRobbins across the board.
Tim Ferriss: A lot of my audience, some very, very interesting folks are on Twitter. So it’s worthwhile mentioning that, just because that might be fun to see how things come out of the woodwork. And then as far as websites go, best website or websites?
Apollo Robbins: Well, they’ve funneled through the same thing of apollorobbins.com or istealstuff.com.
Tim Ferriss: I steal stuff.
Apollo Robbins: They’ll take you to the same place. But this other new one that is going to be a separate thing is Equivoke. And that one will be probably a combination of an entertainment blog with other video content and other things where we’re going to try to point to tools that are important in this space. There’s a guy that I think is amazing that studies deception, Simon Henderson. He’s from the UK. Him, Anthony Pratkanis, my wife Ava Do, all them as a collective, will be doing interviews, videos, and other things for those guys.
Tim Ferriss: Fun.
Apollo Robbins: So if you want to come play in the space, learn a little bit about cons, we won’t attack your political beliefs, but we will attack what you believe.
Tim Ferriss: What a great place to end. Apollo, thank you for such an incredibly, not just entertaining but educating and invigorating conversation. I’m so glad that you made the time. And for people listening, you can do more than you may believe you are capable of doing. So Apollo and I, and hopefully you, will seek to prove this out. And we’ll put links in the show notes, as always, to everything we talked about at tim.blog/podcast. And as usual, I’ll say it again. Until next time, please be a bit kinder than is necessary, not only to others but also to yourself. And thanks for tuning in.
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