Mary Rose Cook's notebook

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The mental models of magicians, Freyja


For several years I competed in bodypainting at the highest level of competition in the world. Every year I would fly to Austria and compete in the World Championships and by the latter years I would consistently rank in the top four or five. This wasn’t unusual; I was aiming for first place and never got it, but most of the time I understood pretty concretely what a first place piece would look like. It felt like incremental improvements from where I was at that point; faster painting, more detailed realism; a competent assistant, some element of luck in how my presentation was perceived by the judges and how everyone else performed that year. I knew the styles, strengths and weaknesses of the other people who consistently ranked in the top ten pretty intimately; I often predicted accurately whether they would move up or down in the rankings each year. You could say that my model of ‘how to succeed at a bodypainting competition’ was technically sufficient, and the thing I needed to work on was merely fine-tuning all the pieces until I ranked higher than everyone else one year.

And then came Sanatan Dinda. An Indian visual artist from Kolkata, he didn’t even make the finals the first year he competed, and the next year he placed second with a style that broke half a dozen of the implicit rules of ‘good artwork’ at the competition. He used a monochromatic or even black and white palette. His pieces weren’t flashy, sparkly, or even very ‘pretty’ in a standard sense. He left vast parts covered in brown, or muddy purple, or some other unappealing background colour. But yet the third year he came he won the entire competition by something like ten percent of the total awarded points over the next artist in second place.

His first piece brought people to tears. It was brutal and glorious and technical perfection, but not just that. There was some sort of soul in it that suddenly made all the other bodypaint works seem lacking. His second piece did something similar. I didn’t win that year (obviously; he did) but I didn’t even mind because I was so glad that work like his existed and that the World Bodypainting Festival had, in some way, helped facilitate that art existing.

The thing that confused me though was this – I could not work out how he did it. Like, I had zero mental model of how he created that piece in the same timeframe we all had; how he came up with it, designed it, practiced it. Even though he placed first and I placed fifth and logically we both existed on a scale of ‘competence at bodypainting’ it seemed like the skills required were completely different. You could not simply scale up my abilities and get Sanatan’s. You would have had to step back and build something completely different altogether. When I speak to Sanatan (I haven’t picked his brain relentlessly, but I have asked him a bunch of questions when I’ve had the chance) I don’t get any closer to a mental model that would allow me to paint like that. It seems to require completely different mental inputs entirely.

The feeling I get, as a very good bodypainter looking at Sanatan’s work, is that I am looking at magic. And that, in fact, is my definition of magic – competence so much more advanced than yours with such alien mental models that you cannot predict the outcomes of the model at all. If you asked me to imitate the work of any of the top 20 bodypainters, I could give you a fair imitation, given enough time and access to reference images. With his work I have no idea.

And yet, ten years ago when I encountered the website of the World Bodypainting Festival, as not-yet-a-bodypainter, literally every image on the website was in that category for me. I look at those pieces now and could replicate any of them, but at the time they seemed incredibly complex, technical and inscrutable – I couldn’t break down what steps the artist might have taken or why. I just saw them as unattainable.

One of my heuristics for growth is to seek out the magicians, and find the magic. Often without noticing, your progress in aspects of life or all of it unconsciously becomes linear. You made a certain amount of money last year, so you aim to make some ‘reasonable’ proportion more this year. But you are largely using the same tools to get 2x as you used to get x, and so you end up with diminishing marginal returns as you wring the remaining juice out of the initial strategy. The ‘describe the version of you that seems impossible right now’ trick I described above is largely an attempt to bypass that part of my brain that dismisses the work of magicians as crazy and starts allowing it to make the necessary shifts required to become the kind of magician I am envisioning.

The way to extraordinary growth and changes often involves a fundamental ontological or ‘lens’ shift in how you see the world. Magicians are wearing not just better, but fundamentally differently shaped lenses to the rest of us. And regardless of your skills and experience, it is likely that you are a magician to someone else. As someone who has a well-defined felt sense of how various foods affects their body, and can cook simple, healthy food well, I can seem like a magician to someone lacking a similar mental framework who ricochets between spartan self-denial and uncontrollable junk binges.

Meeting magicians is the first step to becoming one – when you are attempting to learn implicit knowledge that by definition you don’t understand, it is important to have a bunch of examples in front of you to feed your brain’s pattern-recognition systems. This will start to change your worldview without the controlling ‘you’ explicitly approving or denying every new belief or framework. Magicians or their work often seem to have a subconscious glow that I am drawn to, particularly if they use a type of magic that I recognise is on my critical path and thus something I’m currently seeking. Concrete steps I take to find them include asking my most interesting friends to introduce me to their most interesting friends, going down similar rabbit holes with the bibliographies of books that excite me, and generally living in ‘explore’ mode at various points in life, while recognising that not every avenue will lead to a jackpot.