Harry Houdini, Lock Picking, And Entrepreneurship

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Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

It’s summer here in Silicon Valley, and for my column this month, I’ll try to finally polish and publish some of the old posts that have been collecting dust in my “drafts” folder. Usually, I try to make the column timely, but not this time. Almost two years ago now, my wife and I visited a museum in San Francisco to an exhibit called “Art of Magic,” honoring Harry Houdini. I dragged my wife to the museum to see this because I had been watching “Pawn Stars” (favorite show!) on the History Channel and was obsessed with the program. In one episode, a customer came in with original handcuffs and a straightjacket used by Houdini. The show’s characters all marveled at the legend of Houdini, the nostalgia, the myths. While all this information is available on Wikipedia, the art exhibit highlighted an interesting theme: Houdini’s masterful command of new mediums and platforms to manipulate and leverage his audience’s deepest hopes and fears.

Reflecting on that experience, and as it’s the annual time for Defcon, where the art of lock-picking is a time-honored tradition, I wanted to cast Houdini in a different light and showcase how some of his techniques could, in fact, be leveraged by modern-day entrepreneurs. It may be a stretch, but please bear with me.

The common thread weaved through most of Houdini’s famous tricks seemed rooted in the juxtaposition of his audience’s fear of death versus their hope for liberation. The part of Houdini’s history that impresses me most is how and why some of his tricks became iconic signature moves. For instance, he rose to fame as the “Handcuff King,” setting up elaborate schemes to unchain himself from all sorts of iron shackles, but he didn’t just adopt handcuffs as some ruse — it turns out that, as a young boy growing up poor, he took a job as an apprentice with a local locksmith to earn extra money for his struggling family.

Houdini also became famous by taking himself handcuffed and dipping into water, invoking a fear of drowning — he had studied old waterboarding-like contraptions used to torture people in the middle ages, and knew the audience would be captivated by the sight. Or, randomly, Houdini visited a psych ward early in his career and happened to see a few patients violently trying to free themselves from their straightjackets, and after practicing escaping from a similar jacket for nearly a decade, he finally unveiled his new trick, usually in public squares, hanging upside down, his head dangling above the crowds, freeing himself and stretching out his hands in victory.

I am still processing why Houdini is so fascinating to me. Pictures like these, where a crowd fixates on him with their undivided attention, are truly incredible. I think Houdini interests me because, as a performer, he captivated his audience and was so precise with his choreography, enabling him to tap into very deep parts of the human psyche with a scalpel’s precision. In a way, this is what the great entrepreneurs do. They are deeply motivated and practice for years. They are in tune with their customers hopes and fears. And, there’s a bit of magic in all of the myths they create. It’s why pictures of a young Steve Jobs sitting on a wood floor with one light stand and some books still continue to fly around the web and evoke both nostalgia and disbelief.

The reason I originally drafted this post is because, almost two years ago, after visiting this exhibit, I was hanging out with an investor and former founder/operator in the Valley who used to go to Defcon as a teenager and pick locks all the time. I told him about Houdini, and he shared stories about how lock-picking was one of the first types of hacks he did as he began to fiddle with computers over two decades ago. We traded a few emails that week and, in one exchange, he asked me what entrepreneurs and investors could learn about Houdini’s background, his rise, his creativity, and his stage presence. Because, in a way, to the crowd, great entrepreneurship looks like magic, a mix of light-bending and mirror tricks that together form a new reality. In this way, magic and making are more alike than they are different.

Here was my email response to the question:

  1. The Power of Cumulative Effects: Houdini’s lock-picking as a boy, his experience in the psych ward and seeing the straightjackets, and his research around the magic and fear of drowning all led him to craft a product (his “act”) that combined all three to prey upon primal fears and hypnotize his audience. In retrospect, Houdini’s signature acts now seem obvious, but one has to wonder if he could have brought all the elements together without having those strong experiences earlier in his life.

  2. Developing Expertise Through Focus: Houdini was a student of magic, amassing over 4,000 books on the subject, the largest ever collection of that genre in the world. It reminds me of when DJ Shadow was becoming famous, how he would scoop up and buy vinyl record collections and build a stockpile years ahead of his competition.

  3. Idle Hands Are The Devil’s Play Things: Even as a child, Houdini could’ve futzed around, but given his family’s financial troubles, he remained active and enterprising, eventually landing an apprenticeship in a profession (locksmithing) that would lay the foundation for his signature moves. He kept moving, kept occupied, and kept in motion.

  4. “Win The Crowd” – Houdini’s genius was in combining all the elements, physical and psychological, to put his audience into a trance, to fixate all of their attention on him. That is what the greats do, their work draws in all of our attention, and we stand in awe watching instead of doing. It is what separates the few greats from everyone else. Houdini was a master at winning the crowd over. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from a movie. In Gladiator, Proximus says to Maximus, “I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.”

Photo Credit: tmolini / Creative Commons Flickr