Every year for the past decade, Mert Iseri has chosen a new skill to learn. This annual challenge has taken him from a magicians’ club to chess tournaments where he’s competed against eight-year-olds. In this episode, Mert talks about chasing the joy of being challenged just the right amount and what he’s learned from being an enthusiastic beginner.
- Mert Iseri on Twitter - 2:49
- Basecamp's Continuing Education Allowance benefit - 3:22
- SwipeSense - 4:45
- The Game of the Century - 8:24
- Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley - 9:15
- Pioneers Palaces - 10:03
- Garry Kasparov's seminar on MasterClass - 10:14
- Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - 14:49
- Lillstreet Art Center - 21:44
- It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson - 24:33
- Chicago Magic Lounge - 28:59
- Chicago Magic Round Table - 30:00
- Free Solo - 32:56
- Max Maven performs B'Wave - 38:52
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is software that helps you organize the work you need to do, the work you want to do, and the people you’re working with. Learn more and try it free at basecamp.com.
Mert: [00:00:17] I brought an envelope with me, that I want you to hold on to.
Wailin: [00:00:20] Okay.
Mert: [00:00:21] Don’t open it yet. In this envelope there are four cards. They’re the four jacks in a deck. You’re familiar with a deck of cards, right? Jacks, kings, queens. The four jacks are in that envelope. And do you happen to know the suits that exist?
Wailin: [00:00:35] Spades, diamonds, clubs, and…
Mert: [00:00:39] Hearts!
Wailin: [00:00:40] Hearts.
Mert: [00:00:42] Most people know the hearts, but not the others. You are the other way around. That’s fantastic. So there’s the red suits and the black suits. Now I want you to imagine… our audience can follow along with this. I want you to imagine in your mind, I’m going to remove two of those cards. Either the two reds or the two blacks. Which two would you like?
Wailin: [00:00:59] The reds.
Mert: [00:01:00] So the two reds. So we have the two red jacks in our hands and the red jacks is the jack of hearts and the jack of diamonds. One of these, I’m going to reverse and put it back in the deck. Would you like the hearts to be face up or the diamonds to be face up?
Wailin: [00:01:18] The diamonds.
Mert: [00:01:18] The diamond. Now, later today, you might go home and say, what if I picked the hearts? Now is the moment. Do you want to change to the heart or do you want to stick with the diamond?
Wailin: [00:01:30] I’m gonna to stick with the diamond.
Mert: [00:01:33] I will take the envelope and very slowly open. And Wailin, I want you to sort of describe what you’re going to see in this envelope.
Wailin: [00:01:39] Okay? Mert is pulling out the cards. They’re face down in a little stack. Looking at the back of them.
Mert: [00:01:45] And there’s one.
Wailin: [00:01:46] One.
Mert: [00:01:47] Two.
Wailin: [00:01:47] Two.
Mert: [00:01:49] And three, and what is the third card?
Wailin: [00:01:50] The third card is the jack of diamonds and it’s turned face up. It’s the only one, and I was holding this envelope in my hot little hand the whole time.
Mert: [00:02:02] Now, this is very interesting because I actually, before I came here, I kind of knew that you would pick the jack of diamonds. Do you know how I knew?
Wailin: [00:02:08] How?
Mert: [00:02:08] Because the three cards are face down. What color are they?
Wailin: [00:02:12] They’re blue.
Mert: [00:02:12] They’re blue. The jack of diamonds is the only red card in this little stack. But you know, I actually kind of knew that I didn’t even need any other jacks with me.
Wailin: [00:02:26] The cards are blank. The jack of diamonds is the only one that was printed on. That’s.
Mert: [00:02:35] I don’t know how.
Wailin: [00:02:37] Oh my God, what just happened? [00:02:39] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:02:39] Welcome to Rework, a podcast about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:02:44] And I’m Shaun Hildner. The magician you heard at the top of the episode is Mert Iseri. He’s a Chicago startup founder and Wailin, you’ve wanted to have him on this show for a while now, but not to talk about his business.
Wailin: [00:02:58] Right. So I met Mert a couple of years ago at a dinner and I noticed he was doing card tricks, which, I mean, who does not enjoy a card trick. And then I found out that Mert likes to learn something new every year. He picks a skill like close up magic or salsa dancing or woodworking and he throws himself into it for a full year, which I think is really neat.
Shaun: [00:03:18] Here at Basecamp, we are also big believers in learning new things just for fun. One of our benefits is a yearly education stipend that we can spend on any kind of class. It doesn’t even have to relate to our jobs. Have you actually used yours for anything?
Wailin: [00:03:30] Yeah, I didn’t use it for years and then last summer I took an adult chamber music class, which was really fun. I even did the recital, which if you know my history in music education, I have a very dismal recital track record, but I sucked it up and did the recital. And then just a few weeks ago I took a one day workshop on how to conduct oral histories at Columbia in New York. How about you?
Shaun: [00:03:55] Well, I took banjo for a few years and I took this knife throwing class that turned out to just be a couple of hippies down by the tracks with a case of beer and some very sharp knives. But we’ve had coworkers who have taken classes in botany, improv, cake decorating, and woodblock printmaking. Somebody even got their real estate license using the stipend.
Wailin: [00:04:13] It’s a rare treat to be able to pick up a new hobby or skill as an adult, and there’s also so much value in learning how to do something you’ve never done before to be, as you’ll hear Mert call it, an enthusiastic beginner. I really enjoy talking to him about what he’s learned about learning and self-improvement and how it relates to his day job as a CEO. Here’s our conversation.
Mert: [00:04:37] My name is Mert Hilmi Iseri. I am from Turkey. I’ve been living in Chicago for 11 years now. I’m the co-founder and CEO of a company called SwipeSense. That’s my day job. We fight to eliminate harm and waste in medicine. I get very, very excited talking about healthcare, talking about equity in healthcare, transparency in healthcare, but today’s not about that. Today we’re going to talk about something very, very actually personal of mine.
[00:05:02] I do this thing where I pick a new skill to challenge myself with more or less every year. It can be a little longer, it can be a little less, and when the year’s over, it’s not like I just quit and throw it out the window. I just don’t do it as intensely. But I put some framework around this to make this a little bit more fun, a little bit more efficient, and a little bit more productive.
Wailin: [00:05:20] When did you get the idea that you wanted to learn a new skill every year? Was that even the premise that you started with?
Mert: [00:05:28] It wasn’t actually. So for me, a lot of this journey that I’m on right now that I, by the way, hope to be on for the rest of my life, was more or less me putting a framework around what I was already doing. And I should disclose this, before I share anything about the skills that I’m learning is I am no more than a humble beginner in all of these things. It’s very easy to come off as pretentious or douche-y because we’re going to talk about chess and dancing and all of this. And these are skills that take literally not years, not decades, but lifetimes to master. So I would never pretend that I’m good at any of these things. I’m just a proud jack of all trades and master of none. I think life is just a little bit more colorful if you sort of push yourself to be on the stage and say, okay, now sing an opera. It’s a difficult place to find yourself in. But it’s very, very humbling and it’s very, very enriching. So it’s been, it’s been very, very fun for me for the past more or less decade.
Wailin: [00:06:26] So this started around the time you moved to Chicago.
Mert: [00:06:26] Yes, it started when I was a student actually, and I was studying engineering and you know, studying engineering is very rewarding and exciting, but it’s sort of one thing. You’re learning to build efficient things and things that scale up and all of that. And I felt sort of limited in that world of… well, there needs to be more. And you know, just like any other college student, I got involved in student groups and stuff. I would sign up for dancing and do ballroom dancing and I’d never danced my whole life, but it was sort of like a place where it was okay for you to have never danced in ballroom dancing before. And you know, it was like four dudes in a group of like 50 people. So I was like, this is great.
[00:07:12] No one’s going to judge me here, which a lot of this, what it comes down to is actually it’s you who… you’re judging yourself, not other people when you’re trying to pick something else up. Then I moved on to learning this martial art, aikido that I got obsessed with and then I dipped my toes into Zen Buddhism. And these things, basically, once you get started, it’s very easy to realize for you to be any good, you have to put serious time in it. This is basically what I do in the in the evenings and weekends. I try to master this one thing that I picked and over the years I’ve done things around. I played semi-professional chess. I did Renaissance sculpting, I did woodworking, I did card tricks. Now I’m learning rock climbing.
Wailin: [00:07:52] So with the chess, how did you figure out how you wanted to approach chess?
Mert: [00:07:59] Most of these things that I pick, they’re sort of figments of my childhood. In elementary school, I was in the chess club and then I got to high school and I thought that wasn’t cool anymore because I wanted to play basketball. But after many, many years, I discovered this thing called YouTube. I actually remember this particular moment. I watched this chess game that was played in 1963 between the former world champion Bobby Fischer, American prodigy, and Robert Byrne. He was a very good player in his own right but it’s dubbed as the game of the century. And if you know the rules of chess, you don’t need to be any good at chess. But if you know the rules of chess, you watch this game and it is pure harmony. It’s beauty with 64 squares. And I remember just feeling like my jaw just dropped, and saying, I would love to understand how to even get close to something like this.
[00:08:51] So I got an account on whatever chess.com and it turned out, like my close friends were also former chess players when they were kids. And for as a pastime, we started playing and it turned out that my cofounder Yuri, who is also one of my very good friends, was also into chess and he kicked my butt and that was not okay. So I had to get better. So I emailed the Grandmaster, Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and I said, Hey, would you, would you be okay with tutoring me? And surprisingly he said yes.
Wailin: [00:09:19] This is a cold email to a grandmaster
Mert: [00:09:21] Cold email to a… to the grandmaster Maurice, who is considered one of the legends of the game of chess. He was the first African-American chess grandmaster in the world, which is remarkable and unremarkable at the same time as he puts it. But he agreed to become my teacher and I would take… over Skype, I would learn this. Which, by the way is a very good sort of intro into why this is even possible now. I mean, you couldn’t do what I’m doing 20 years ago.
Wailin: [00:09:48] Sure.
Mert: [00:09:48] Apprenticeship and learning from people who are true masters of their craft simply wasn’t available. So if you, I mean, if you wanted to learn how to be any good at chess in former Soviet Russia, there were literally these pioneer houses and you had to be a prodigy to even get in to even get any kind of tutoring. Today you can get 15 bucks per month, you can sign up for Masterclass and the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, whom you couldn’t like touch from afar, will give you hours of personal tutoring, which is just unfathomable that this is the case now.
[00:10:23] So that’s how it got started. And I started playing in tournaments and so on and so forth. And I, you know, I still do this. I actually have a tournament that I’m playing this weekend.
Wailin: [00:10:31] So then was it a virtual chessboard and you screen shared or did you have a physical chessboard and he had a physical chessboard and you would just kind of mirror.
Mert: [00:10:37] Virtual chessboard and a lot of chess training formally is actually a forced exercise of reflection. You play games and then you go over them afterwards and you try to sort of rewire your brain about what you were thinking at the time, why you were thinking at the time and why you won’t think this way anymore because it led to your demise. You got checkmated. So when you’re doing this reflection, it is extremely helpful to have someone who’s been through that path before, to be by you, not to judge you, not to just tell you what to do, but to be that guiding voice. It’s sort of the Morpheus to the Neo, if you will. You know someone who’s going to continue to push you but not going to be a dick about it, basically.
Wailin: [00:11:16] How did you decide to enter your first chess tournament and what did that feel like?
Mert: [00:11:20] It was Maurice’s idea because I always thought my goal in chess was just to beat people that I know, preferably Yuri who was my arch-nemesis in chess. But then Maurice sort of sat down and said, well, that’s kind of like a low bar because that’s not real chess. I mean you’re playing for fun. I mean that’s all, that’s all good. But wait till you go and play with the wolves. There’s people who, again, devote their lives to this and until you meet that level of talent, you haven’t really been humbled because just beating your friends in chess is actually, it’s quite achievable after a couple of months of training.
[00:11:59] So I showed up, I showed up at my first tournament. And for folks who aren’t familiar with how chess tournaments are structured, these are called scholastic tournaments. They’re open tournaments and there’s a certain rating system. Which, by the way in your, whatever skill you’re choosing to learn is extremely important to have a consistent level of measurements.
[00:12:14] And, I’m 31 years old now, my skill level is more or less a talented child. So the first folks that I would get paired up with were like seven, eight-year-olds. And let me tell you, there’s very few feelings in life that is more humbling than an eight-year-old absolutely demolishing you over the chessboard and you feeling like I’m going to fall off this chair because I just got shook by a little child.
[00:12:39] And this is another wonderful things about the skills that I choose to sort of immerse myself in is I like the idea that I can do something when I’m eight years old or 80 years old. Like I would love to be an 80-year-old with a deck of cards in my hand and a chess player on the other end. Like tens of skills I’ve collected over the years that doesn’t necessarily expire. And in chess, more or less, you’re always going to get better. Yes. At the professional level, there’s sort of an age window where there’s peak performance, but yeah, as an amateur, it’s only gonna get better. And this is a very good thing because by the time I’m 80, I’ll have been playing chess for 50 years. I mean, that’s a phenomenal thing to be able to say. I’ve been a chess player for five decades.
Wailin: [00:13:17] Yeah. In the chess tournaments, there’s a time element to it.
Mert: [00:13:20] Yes.
Wailin: [00:13:20] Okay. And did you feel like you were better at maybe the mental game than a child or do children actually have like incredible psychological will and strength as well?
Mert: [00:13:32] The focus and the obsession of a child is actually something to be marveled at. So it’s actually quite scary how good they are. And the only thing that separates them from someone who’s been doing this for for many, many years is just years. It takes years to get good at this stuff. But no, they’re incredible. And it’s actually quite remarkable after the game. I don’t know if I have many conversation topics to sit down and actually exchange ideas on with an eight-year-old, like what are we going to talk about? But after the game you have this analysis period where you sort of go over the game and you try to explain well I made this move because of this. Like, over the chessboard, it’s war. But afterwards it’s, you’re both trying to learn and how to play a better game. It’s an amazing experience to actually exchange concrete ideas with an eight-year-old, which is very, very surprising to do in any other context. And you can be 80 years old or eight years old and it’s the same language that we’re speaking. So it’s quite an amazing feeling to experience this in the context of, in this case, chess.
Wailin: [00:14:28] Yeah. When you were playing chess, did you ever catch a hint of that harmony that you felt when you were watching the Bobby Fischer video?
Mert: [00:14:39] Absolutely. Of course, I would never claim to be at that level, but the feeling is, actually, I’ve reflected on this quite a bit and it’s the feeling that books have been written on. It’s called flow. I think it’s the original idea is credited to a scientist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or something. It’s a very hard last name. But the idea is an optimal match between a challenge and a skill. If a challenge is too hard, you’ll quit because it’s a bit frustrating. It’s like climbing a straight wall. If a challenge is too easy, like just hopping over a curve, well, it’s not really meaningful. This match between something that’s just a little harder than what you’re comfortable with and the sense of success and the feeling you get of fulfillment once that challenge has been overcome is very, very evident in chess because you get typically paired with people of your, simply your close enough skill level.
[00:15:29] I felt that feeling a couple of times in chess and it’s just, oh man, it’s such a joyful feeling. This is one of the reasons why I do this, because this feeling is very, very addictive. You know, not every addiction is bad and I found myself sort of chasing this kind of an emotion for the good part of the rest of my life, I hope.
Wailin: [00:15:48] Yeah. Because that idea of flow, of finding something that challenges you just the right amount to be really satisfying, that is something that you bring with you on each new endeavor. Right?
Mert: [00:15:59] Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, that’s what you’re, that’s what you’re chasing after. And hopefully, by the way, that this artificially created sense of flow kind of follows you in the rest of the things that you do in life. I mean in your relationships, in your work, in your professional. My day job is I’m an entrepreneur and I really care about what I do. So yes, I change this annual skill once a year, but my craft as a CEO remains constant and I approach it the same way as a student of this overall video game that I’m trying to sort of level up in.
Wailin: [00:16:28] Do you always do private lessons for these skills?
Mert: [00:16:32] Actually, a much bigger part of this is peer learning. If you surround yourself with other people who are also really into cooking, well that’s wonderful because you’re going to teach each other. There’s going to be a sense of community and you’re going to find people who are a little bit better than you, or a little bit worse than you and everybody is looking at the same direction. They’re not looking at each other. They all want to be a better cook. They all want to be a better chess player, a better dancer. This is way bigger of a learning environment, from peers who more or less are with you in this journey.
[00:17:03] In addition, it’s very helpful if you have sort of this, I call this the Library of Alexandria. There’s tremendous amount of tutorials on climbing on YouTube. I mean just Google like bouldering on YouTube and there’s literally weeks of content. You will never be able to get through all of this. This is very good to be able to find something that’s enriching as this. Another component is affordability. I mean, you know, a chessboard is 20 bucks on Amazon. Chess tutorials on YouTube are free. The idea is that you should pick something that you can overdo that’s not necessarily bad for you. So for instance, I considered learning how to play poker. I enjoy watching whatever poker tournaments and whatever. But it’s kind of bad if you overdo poker. I mean, you can, gambling addiction is a serious problem… So I steered away from that. But if you overplay chess, well you know you play chess for four hours. It’s not the end of the world.
[00:17:49] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:17:51] After the break Mert talks about finding time, staying humble and how this part of his life intersects with his day job. But first, Shaun, you’re in Japan right now.
Shaun: [00:18:00] Well, sort of. I mean right now I’m in the same room as you, but at the time this comes out, I’ll be in Tokyo for a little vacation and obviously I planned the whole thing with Basecamp.
[00:18:10] So there’s about seven of us going on this trip. Just a bunch of friends and neighbors and we have a bunch of stuff on the schedule. Like reservations at the robot restaurant and the Pokémon café. Mostly food-related that related—
Wailin: [00:18:21] And robot related.
Shaun: [00:18:21] And robot related. Mostly. Yeah, it’s mostly food and robots. I’ve made a to do list of all the neighborhoods we want to visit and then organized the rest of the stuff by neighborhood. So when we’re there we can just bring out our phones, click on the to do item that has Shinjuku and it’ll list all the things we decided we wanted to do in Shinjuku.
Wailin: [00:18:41] Can you find the snack food that our coworker sent me a picture of. It’s popcorn that tastes like bubble tea.
Shaun: [00:18:49] Gross, but sure. I will try my hardest.
Wailin: [00:18:52] Whether you’re planning a vacation, learning something new every year or doing something boring like organizing the release of a new software product across four teams under a strict deadline, Basecamp can help. Basecamp combines everything you need to manage projects and people in one organized place.
[00:19:08] Check it out for yourself at basecamp.com.
[00:19:14] This process you describe in chess of reflecting on what you just did and trying to go back and visit why did I make this decision and where did it lead me and what could I do the next time that would be different. Is that something that translates to different skills that you pick up? Like learning how to be that reflexive?
Mert: [00:19:36] Absolutely. I mean reflection is how you grow in life, period and there’s a wonderful rap line. I think J. Cole said this, “There’s no mistakes in life, only lessons.” And the idea is it’s a lesson if you reflected and took something from it. Not only I apply this to every skill that I’m picking up, I actually applied it to SwipeSense. Every six months we have this effort where we sort of wind back the clock and say what advice would we give to ourselves if we were there with us from the time machine?
[00:20:03] And it’s okay to be humble and admit that things always didn’t go your way and that’s kind of learning anything new. You have to give yourself this permission to fail, if you will, and understand that that’s part of the journey. There are no mountains without the valleys. It’s what makes it so rewarding. So absolutely, it’s a dedicated effort of reflection and not being embarrassed by it. Not being embarrassed at oh, I made that mistake one time. You should put it on a banner and celebrate that you made this mistake because hopefully by doing so you won’t make it again. That I find to be a big component of all of this, as sort of a value that transcends the skill that you’re trying to learn.
Wailin: [00:20:38] Is it always pretty obvious to you by the end of, let’s say, the year, what you want to do next or have you ever been kind of casting about for something you want to do?
Mert: [00:20:49] I actually can start casting the net around September. And again, now I’m at the point where more or less this does fall into a schedule. So it is kind of an annual thing. A little longer, a little less, but no, what better way to find out whether you’re gonna like something than actually doing it. For instance, one of the years what I wanted to do was drumming. I really enjoy rap music and I figured, oh, I want to learn how to make rap beats and to do that would be how to learn drums and percussion. And I found a little place that gave drumming lessons and whatever, but the teacher and I just like didn’t get along. It wasn’t as energizing. It almost felt like the gentleman didn’t want to be in the room with the rest of us and it was just sort of like, hey look, I’m not doing this out of a favor to you or me, I want to be excited to be here. So that sort of died down. But how else are you going to find that out unless you actually show up at that class?
[00:21:39] Other times it’s completely random. Like the way I got into sculpting is just there happened to be a little art studio outside of our offices called Lillstreet and I would go there for lunch and I saw that their classes for the winter session was beginning around clay modeling, like sculpting. It’s like adult Play-Doh, as I call it. Just Play-Doh for grown-ups. And I thought, well, you know, I used to want to be an architect when I was a kid and it’s cool to build things with you with your hands and what have you. So I just did it. I just took sort of one class one evening and I just immediately got hooked.
Wailin: [00:22:09] Yeah. So it’s like sometimes you’re working with your hands, sometimes it’s full body movement, like with the salsa dancing.
Mert: [00:22:14] Totally.
Wailin: [00:22:14] It really runs the gamut.
Mert: [00:22:16] Totally. I mean there’s many others that I’ve considered that I haven’t even tried yet. So I think super interesting things like gardening would be a phenomenal example for this. Even as simple as learning how to grow bonsai trees, like obsessively trimming the branches or whatever. What kind of a mind does that? That’s very interesting. Or I don’t know, painting. My sister’s an oil painter and I always sort of had this yearning to understand her more and her work more by being a painter by itself.
[00:22:44] This, by the way, there’s a very simple selfish reason why I do all of this is the enjoyment you get out of that activity that you already liked already. Take something like standup comedy, which again would be a good example for an annual challenge. If you like standup comedy, try. Just try to write a joke and you will appreciate the standup so much more. So much more after having gone through the experience of how ridiculously painful and difficult it is to put a set together. A lot of this is that. Is my enjoyment out of the activity that I already liked is amplified by multitudes by actually putting myself on the proverbial stage and getting up from the audience is a big way of doing that.
Wailin: [00:23:25] Does pursuing this kind of stuff seriously take drawing some real boundaries around your work life to make sure that you do protect your evenings and your weekends for this?
Mert: [00:23:34] Absolutely. You have to put in real time. Look, it takes discipline to get good at anything. Putting in real hours is absolutely an ingredient to this and the only way to do that is having somewhat of a predictable means of what it means that’s your professional life and what’s outside of your professional life.
[00:23:54] I believe that it’s an accomplishment of a company to actually say, yeah, 40 hours per week. It’s not that we don’t work hard, we work really hard, we just work very efficiently. And yeah, you look every once in a while we’ll have some crisis. Every business goes through it. You gotta like do it over the weekend, whatever. That’s accepted. And for folks who are listening and thinking, well I would never be able to do this. Well, if you’ve seen every single episode of Game of Thrones, you probably do have time, but you just chose to put it in Game of Thrones versus learning chess. And there’s nothing wrong with watching Game of Thrones. It’s an awesome show. But the idea here is that time is there if you’re willing to seek it and grab it for the things that you want to put into it. And if the work is so overwhelming that you don’t have time for this, make sure your boss reads It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy At Work and maybe it will get better.
Wailin: [00:24:36] Do you find that in your conversations with other adults that it’s maybe hard for them to get into the same head space that you have? Like, as an adult you have so many insecurities. It’s so hard to get out of your own head. It’s so hard to be bad at stuff, especially in front of other people. I’m trying to think about all the things that would prevent me from throwing myself into a completely new activity and it’s all those things. It’s all the like the mental game. Do you think you just have a personality type that allowed you to not have those insecurities really paralyze you?
Mert: [00:25:15] Not necessarily. I think I’ve just experienced them so many times that it doesn’t bother me anymore. And I think more or less, this is the only way to get rid of those insecurities. I mean the noise you’re describing is very real. Nobody likes to be poked at and said, hey, look at this beginner. They suck. They just fell when they were ice skating. Let’s all point and laugh. Well, first of all, if there are people around you who say this, this is a great filter to have those people not in your life because you don’t need that kind of energy from it professionally or personally. Just leave those people behind. But you realize more or less this voice is not really external but internal. You actually don’t want to be seen like this. You are the one telling yourself, ah, you’re a beginner.
[00:25:58] I mean to that voice, I just turn around and say, hey, it takes a long time to get good at anything. I am proud to be a beginner in this and I really hope to master this thing one day that I’m trying very hard at. Thank you very much.
[00:26:10] This is the same mind that’s saying the first thing, right? And you can choose which one of these am I going to feed? Am I going to feed the one that’s doubtful and insecure or the one that is genuinely passionate about getting better at this? And I tried to reflect this to different parts of my day to day as well. Like I said, professionally. And yeah, at SwipeSense, this is one of our core values. We take pride in this kind of approaching new ideas. It’s scary to change your pricing. Hello. Nobody likes it. I mean, what if we lose our customers? What if people don’t pay us? Then what if the former customers are paying…?
[00:26:42] All of that. It’s immediately your head. Always, always, always. How are you going to know if you don’t try? I mean this kind of freedom that you give to yourself also allows you to appreciate the joy of the pride, the pride of completing something beautiful. You know, one of my annual challenges was woodworking and I remember I made this table. And boy this sturdy table that I put my hands on it and it’s because I’d spend like many, many hours sending this top and the bottom and nobody was going to see the bottom. But I knew it was going to be there and this sense of like, I completed this thing and I’m proud of this. Even the parts that no one else is going to see. I know it’s going to be there.
[00:27:20] That’s no different than writing good software. Writing good code is like building that table. Maybe no one’s going to see the comments or the documentation or the proper push notifications that you wrote in, but you know that they’re there. You only get to appreciate this if you actually put yourself out in the arena. And I just point out to the good parts for folks who want to get started in things like this is you get the good parts if you accept the bad parts. If you accept and give yourself the permission to fail and get back up. And so that’s a really fun way to live life that way.
Wailin: [00:27:50] How did you get into magic?
Mert: [00:27:52] When I was a kid, I was that kid also. I was like, pick a card, any card. That was my, that was I guess, along with my chess habits.
[00:28:03] I grew up in Turkey, in Istanbul, and the past time for my parents was Friday nights they would have friends over and they would play cards. And it wasn’t for real money, I think it was like for the equivalent of five bucks or something, but it was sort of a way to socialize. But they would always say no for kids. We had this drawer where all the playing cards were and I would take it out of the drawers and shuffle these cards and feel like, oh my God, I have touched these magical things.
Wailin: [00:28:28] The forbidden fruit.
Mert: [00:28:28] The forbidden fruit is in my hands now! So my way of interacting with cards was doing card tricks and I would read books about these. And again, it’s a solitary exercise. You can spend many, many hours trying to perfect the false cut or a force of a card or whatever it is. And you also feel like you’re in on something that the rest of the world isn’t. There’s a real craft there. I mean, people genuinely spend lifetimes, not just performing, but creating magical effects.
[00:28:56] I got into it because there’s a place in Chicago called the Chicago Magic Lounge. This city used to be known to be a hub for other magicians to come in and practice and improve their craft. So the Chicago Magic Lounge is sort of a remix of that idea. And I went there and I immediately turned into a seven-year-old child. I was like, oh my God, I am an adult and I love this thing. That night I went back home, I went on YouTube. How did he do that? Where did the card come out, whatever, in all of this.
[00:29:26] And for folks who are interested in magic, and there’s a concept in magic, there’s sort of two sides to every magic trick. There’s a method and there’s the effect. Most of us think of the effect. Wow, the magician found the card. [Clapping] Great job. Congratulations. Let’s move on to the next trick. For magicians, this is almost predictable and very boring. For the magician, the method, how did that happen, is much more interesting than the outcome because we know the card is going to be found.
[00:29:52] I became obsessed with the method and I would practice with my friends. I have a peer group. I became a part of this group called the Chicago Magic Round Table and that’s how I decided to spend my year in magic.
Wailin: [00:30:05] Did you find it to be open? It seems like magic is one of these realms where people like to guard it very closely as well and there’s a lot of secrets. But did you find that even as an enthusiastic beginner, you were able to gain entree into this world?
Mert: [00:30:19] Again, it comes down to your genuine passion about the craft. Magicians keep their secrets closely because for most lay people, people who aren’t interested in practicing the craft, finding out how a trick is done sort of kills the whole thing. We want to believe that the laws of physics bent for that one moment and that card came out of that pocket. How in the world did that happen? And this is very exciting and quite beautiful. This is what the art is about. It’s about surprising and this delightful moment of, oh my God, no, that did not just happen. This is wonderful and that feeling gets killed if a trick is revealed.
[00:30:58] That being said, for a magician to meet another magician, it is as open as it gets because we both love the same thing. We love the method, we want to understand how it happened. We want to maybe build on it, maybe take away some parts of it, make it even simpler. This kind of thinking is sort of, I guess similar to software development. I mean software development seems like very closely guarded. How do I ever begin programming? And so on and so forth, but once you get into the open source community, you realize everybody’s sharing everything with each other. Everybody’s Googling problems and solutions and finding them out on their own.
[00:31:28] Finding out a magic trick is actually quite easy. You can just Google the trick and find out the author and figure out the how it’s done and so on and so forth. It’s all out there. It’s actually not closely guarded at all. You could just YouTube a lot of these tricks and find out how they’re done.
[00:31:42] The question is, are you willing to put in the work. If you’re willing to put into work to actually understand, appreciate, practice, people on the other side are more than inviting to make you part of their community. And of course be a nice person. I mean, people like to be surrounded by kind, genuine people and that has nothing to do with whether you’re into magic or not. I mean, if you’re an asshole, well you know you’re not going to be part of a magic group or a tennis group for that matter. You’re just not going to be part of anything.
Wailin: [00:32:09] Did you ever get to perform magic? Do any of these years culminate in a big showcase or performance or is that not usually part of the structure?
Mert: [00:32:19] It is actually a big important component of these things is to make some sort of an external commitment. It’s just kind of keep you accountable. I find that I hold myself accountable much, much more efficiently if I tell others, hey, I’m going to climb that mountain. So, for example, this year is rock climbing and the end of it, I’m going to climb this mountain in France called Mount Aiguille.
Wailin: [00:32:38] Oh, okay, you have the mountain picked out.
Mert: [00:32:38] I have the mountain picked out and it’s considered to be sort of the birth of mountain climbing.
Wailin: [00:32:44] Oh, is that why you chose it?
Mert: [00:32:45] I chose this one and it’s also an easy climb so I don’t have to kill myself to actually do something.
Wailin: [00:32:50] You’re not like, Free Solo-ing
Mert: [00:32:52] No, no, no. That was a big reason why I picked climbing is because of Alex Honnold because I watched it and I was like, oh my God, my mind is blown. I have to understand this a little bit more like how does he get to do this? And you know, I enjoy the experience now.
[00:33:03] But the idea is by putting something external out there, you’re sort of creating a benchmark for yourself and look whether you meet that goal or not meet that goal, it’s actually not the point. What you get out of it is what you put in. So what? You didn’t meet the goal and you didn’t meet the goal.
[00:33:17] Magic for me is similar to that. Most of this is me performing to my friends, like during lunch at work. Like, hey, pick a card, any card. I like to think that people do it because they actually enjoy it. Not because I am the CEO of the company. It gets a little awkward sometimes. So I try to minimize my magic time at work. But the idea here is, I basically told my friends that were having a big magic show in my place. It’s actually scheduled to happen in March. You can come if you’d like to, Wailin. But again, it’s not a formal thing. I’m not going to charge people, dude, it’s just sort of me for me to show for an hour, hey, this is what I gave my year to. And you know how it goes, who knows? But the idea that it’s a performance and it’s something you’ve put in work and you have a script for and something more packaged than just doing one trick here and there.
Wailin: [00:34:02] I liked what you said about how in magic you have the method and the effect because in some ways it seems like there’s also this dichotomy between like theory and practice. Like when you were doing sculpture, you could have gone a very esoteric route. Like what is like the theory behind sculpture and it sounds like you went a very kind of practice route, right? It’s like I’m making this thing. Or like in woodworking it’s like I made a table. Right? But it seems like you’re kind of faced with an interesting choice of how far do I want to go down the theory of something versus the actual practice of it.
Mert: [00:34:36] This is a personal preference of mine that I’m so glad you pointed out, too. I’m a much bigger believer in just putting yourself out there and just doing that thing. If you try something out for yourself and you try to improve at it, it’s… the theory makes way more sense. Rather than just reading a book about it. Put yourself out there, fail and then it will make way more sense why certain advice is given. Of course, I’m not saying don’t study these things or don’t find mentors or apprentice methods or peers that are around you because you can also build bad habits if you just pretend that you know all the answers and you do things on your own. So I’m not advocating that for one bit, but the idea that you take a class in magic and never actually show anybody a magic trick, it’s sort of like a pointless exercise and it all exists in your head, then.
[00:35:22] The point of these things is actually experience them in your hands. I’m a very fidgety person. I like having things in my hands and like I like getting hands on. So woodworking is a good example for that. It’s like, you can read a library about how to build a table or you can just get out there and build kind of a crummy table that will break. That’s okay. The next table will be a little bit better. And this sort of humbling trial and error is a wonderful, wonderful approach to picking up new skills.
Wailin: [00:35:46] Yeah. Do you ever feel pressure to monetize any of these interests? I’ve been thinking about this recently, how we’re living in this time now where everyone feels like they need a side hustle. Everyone feels like they need to perform their hobbies on social media or monetize them or open an Etsy store. I feel this pressure, like you can’t just like enjoy something for its own sake. There has to be some kind of like capitalist outcome to it.
Mert: [00:36:15] I could not be further from that. I almost think it taints the purity of what you’re trying to do if you’re doing it to seek outside approval or money. I mean there’s nothing wrong with making a living as a chess player or a magician or a dancer. It’s a wonderful way to practice your craft but I think you only get to pick one craft that you decide that is your life’s craft. For me, it happens to be the CEO of my own company at SwipeSense and I chose it because I, one, genuinely appreciate the craft of entrepreneurship, of actually building something and having it be meaningful and pursue a mission. And our mission happens to be something that’s very close to my heart. It’s literally to save lives in hospitals. There’s a tremendous amount of lives lost and harm caused in hospitals every year due to medical errors. And not just harming people, but we literally bankrupt them because of the amount of waste that exists in healthcare.
[00:37:08] I’ve chosen to build a company that helps to fix that in our humblest contribution. That craft has been going on for eight and a half years and I’m so lucky to have found that calling in life and I want that to be my bread. I want that to be the engine of the car. These skills are the exhaust fumes, if you will. But the idea, hopefully, is, if you haven’t found that calling in life, perhaps picking up a skill or two, will give you what it feels like to have found that thing. And if you’re not feeling that feeling in your day to day job, maybe it’s time to keep searching.
[00:37:44] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:37:50] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.
Wailin: [00:37:55] You can find Mert on Twitter at @MHI and his company is called SwipeSense. Their website is SwipeSense.com. I will link to all this stuff in the show notes for this episode, which you can find at rework.fm. And we are on Twitter at @reworkpodcast.
[00:38:11] Anything else we should plug. Shaun, give a SoundCloud for all your banjo music, like your many versions of “Rainbow Connection.”
Shaun: [00:38:17] Oh man. Wailin, I am very not good at banjo. How about this? If 50 of our listeners rate and review us on Apple podcasts, I’ll come in and play a tune on the banjo.
Wailin: [00:38:27] Okay. Then we’ll let Mert close things out. Thanks for listening and see you next week.
Mert: [00:38:42] We just performed a classic trick by a wonderful, wonderful magician. The name is Max Maven. And Max is considered to be one of the legends of magic, and he invented this. This is my little gift to you.
Wailin: [00:38:56] Does that take a lot of practice, that particular trick?
Mert: [00:38:59] It does and it doesn’t. There’s genuinely just four cards in here. So there’s not a lot of slight of hand involved, but the secret is a little deeper, if you will. But even that takes practice to actually perform well as well. I’m so glad it worked out.
Wailin: [00:39:16] I mean, my mind is genuinely blown. Wow. This has been so fun. This has been so fun. Come back anytime.
Mert: [00:39:29] Thank you.