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The Effort Makes the Magic
Women's work can feel unbelievable
This Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of a vocation to motherhood that isn’t limited to natural mothers.
I appreciated this essay (“Embrace the Grind”) by Jacob Kaplan-Moss, a software developer and co-creator of Django, on how magic can work. (The post and the quote below involve explaining how a trick works).
There’s this card trick I saw that I still think about all the time. It’s a simple presentation (which I’ve further simplified here for clarity): a volunteer chooses a card and seals the card in an envelope. Then, the magician invites the volunteer to choose some tea. There are dozens of boxes of tea, all sealed in plastic. The volunteer chooses one, rips the plastic, and chooses one of the sealed packets containing the tea bags. When the volunteer rips open the packet … inside is their card.
The secret is mundane, but to me it’s thrilling. The card choice is a force. But choice from those dozens of boxes of tea really is a free choice, and the choice of tea bag within that box is also a free choice. There’s no sleight-of-hand: the magician doesn’t touch the tea boxes or the teabag that the volunteer chooses. The card really is inside of that sealed tea packet.
The trick is all in the preparation. Before the trick, the magician buys dozens of boxes of tea, opens every single one, unwraps each tea packet. Puts a Three of Clubs into each packet. Reseals the packet. Puts the packets back in the box. Re-seals each box. And repeats this hundreds of times. This takes hours — days, even.
The only “trick” is that this preparation seems so boring, so impossibly tedious, that when we see the effect we can’t imagine that anyone would do something so tedious just for this simple effect.
I’ve had some of these moments, when my willingness to just sit down and do the work clearly felt shocking to others. (And I’ve been on the other end of it, too!). The essay, which is worth reading in full, is about how much work maintenance takes—and how it rarely has the triumphal payoff of a successful magic trick.
It reminded me of the Lawrence of Arabia scene below:
The trick is, there is no trick.
The same goes for a lot of work that falls, by default, to women. I remember when, at one office, a man asked for help finding the paper plates, and one of my coworkers posted in the women-only slack channel to urge everyone to stiffen their spines and not answer.
There was no trick to us knowing where things were in the office, just our willingness to get up and look. She wanted our co-worker to go out and learn the effort under the trick himself.
Outside the office, much of the world around me that appears to operate by magic is secretly running on effort. Some food can only be picked by hand. The curved seams of women’s clothes are almost always actively sewn by a worker at a machine. Notoriously, the one-click ease of Amazon runs on the efforts of workers plucking products and placing them in boxes.
When we see something magical, we should look for the deeper magic: the dignity of effort.