Harry Houdini said…

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”

Harry always wore the good chains when company was over.

Harry Houdini – magician, performer, debunker. And, most importantly for our discussion today – escape artist. No chains could hold him, no lock could keep him down. Just when you thought that he had gotten himself stuck, he would reappear. Though he courted death many times in his escape artistry, it would not be this that finally did him in. Though his death was a surprise, he died free.

I found his word choice interesting – “My brain is the key that sets my mind free.” He seems to be treating his brain and his mind as two distinct things, the latter served in some way by the former. Why would he do that, and what did he really mean by it?

As with so many catchy quotes, finding the context can be really hard, and in this case I couldn’t quite pull it off. I’m going to have to improve my Google-fu if I’m going to keep this up. But since we can’t know what he was talking about at the time, we must only speculate. What is clear when you start researching escapology, however, is that it cannot be done by luck or by brute force. It requires a keen and disciplined mind – or brain, whichever – that allows you to not only create an intricate illusion capable of fooling even the best audiences, but that will allow you to do that while submerged underwater or buried alive.

In order to figure out where this quote is going, we need to consider the three elements contained within. The mind, first, is a fleeting, ephemeral thing. It wanders and drifts, flies up into the clouds and sometimes sinks to depths unimaginable. We have some control over it at the best of times, but most of the time our minds go off and do whatever they feel like doing.

For an escape artist, that is the best way to get yourself killed, or at least to tank your career. Houdini said of his work:

“My chief task has been to conquer fear. The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear… no one except myself can appreciate how I have to work at this job every single day, never letting up for a moment. I always have on my mind the thought that next year I must do something greater, something more wonderful.”

Houdini had to impose rigid discipline upon his mind in order to do what he was so good at. He had to use his brain to find patterns, to remember systems and techniques and tricks. He had to know which locks were easy to open, and where you could put in a false panel that no one would see. He had to be able to keep track of time under duress and make sure that he could keep himself from succumbing to the panic that is perfectly natural when you think you’re trapped.

The final part of this quote, the only part that can make it work, is the idea of a “key.” Where there is a key, there must also be a lock. In Houdini’s case, that lock may have been natural human fear of confinement. It may have been the ignorance of how escape artistry works. It may have been the more philosophical fear of failure. Or any number of other things that would have prevented him from doing what he loved to do. With the extensive training he underwent, his brain allowed him to defeat those locks and let his mind and imagination go free into the world.

So what does this mean for those of us who aren’t trapped inside milk cans filled with water? Well, in its most obvious form, the quote is a call for education. Get your brain in shape so that it can seek out patterns, remember important information, analyze data, and synthesize it into something new. Once your brain is on your side, there’s really no limit to – and no telling – where your mind and creative spirit may go.

Mind you, some doors are going to be harder to open than others…

More subtly, though, the quote suggests something that hearkens back to the previously-discussed Feynman quote: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps Houdini’s use of his brain was not limited to his tricks and illusions. Perhaps he turned his brain on himself as well, unlocking the doors within that otherwise would have held him back. By knowing himself for who he was – good and bad bits alike – Houdini would have been able to let his mind go anywhere it wanted, without fear of what it might bring back.

In the same way, we can train ourselves and discipline ourselves in such a way that we can give our minds freedom to explore and discover, safe in the knowledge that we have the tools, the skills, and the wherewithal to go with them. And if we should encounter another lock?

Just fashion another key.


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