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Mentalist Jackson Ridd on Embracing the Impossible

How probing the subconscious can inspire exploration and growth.

Shahin Ansari, used with permission.
Shahin Ansari, used with permission.

As a child, Jackson Ridd was fascinated by spirituality, metaphysics, and the subconscious. He explored different forms of magic but eventually found his way to mentalism—an art form that relies on intuition, reflection, and the subconscious—which he embraces both onstage as a performer and offstage in his life.

How did you originally become interested in magic?

I think it was due to my parents. They had differing approaches to the same subject of the subconscious or the inner mind. My dad is kind of a California Hippie. He was fairly spiritual, and we did pendulum swings and played games trying to guess what the other was thinking. My mom is from Hong Kong, and she showed me self-divination rituals through the text the I Ching. Both were targeted at looking at the self in a different way.

When I was older I saw a card trick, and it felt like it was unlocking something in me—I was seeing something I had never seen before. I started performing at age 16 or 17 as a sleight-of-hand magician and formed a magic club at high school. Later I realized that was secondary to what I’m really interested in—how do we process things and what words can I say to make myself and others feel a certain way? Now I focus on that, the human mental experience.

What’s the difference between mentalism and magic?

Magic is about watching a thing. Mentalism is about an idea. It’s about people’s behavior thoughts, and ideas.

What’s an example of one of your acts?

There’s a bit I love where different people put something of their choosing inside of a bag. Then I take out the item and not only discern whose it is, but discern a bit about the person.

How do you figure out whose item is whose?

I analyze the item. I look at their peer group and try to associate the person with who they know. I look for a hint of a smile or eye contact. There’s nuance to how they’re standing, or how they’re holding their hands.

I think the object carries with it a bit of an essence. Whatever someone chooses says something about them—like if you wear a certain color shirt, people will react to it a certain way.

How do you tap into the subconscious?

I equate some of my work to the idea of a coin flip: You think you’re ambivalent but once the coin lands, you realize you really wanted a specific outcome. That non-verbal conduit allows you to access more of yourself. You bypass conscious thought—it’s almost like doing a magic trick on yourself. It’s the ideomotor response, the same thing that makes a ouiji board move—you don’t feel like you’re tugging it but you are.

Do you use mentalism techniques in your own life?

I do some tarot readings for my friends. Sometimes people need help to say “the thing.” That’s why psychics are still in business; it’s not about being “psychic,” it’s about the person asking a question. It becomes a reflection process and they talk it out. It allows them to think about it in a new way.

I give myself readings frequently, especially in big moments where I’m unsure of the right direction. I approach it from a one-eye-open, perspective, where I’m allowing the ritual or the belief, but at the same time I get that it’s a reflection process. It’s easier to make a choice when you have something to bounce off of. If you hear, “You should go really strong on this choice” you might react with, “But I don’t feel like going that strong. Maybe I don’t want to do this thing.” Something needs to agitate you. It’s the little grain of sand that becomes the pearl.

Why do people like magic and feeling like the impossible can happen?

I think so many unexplainable and "impossible" moments occur in our lives, and we can't regulate or process them in real time. Therefore we, as humans, seek signifiers that can help us make sense of all the mysteries of life around us. We may seek out tarot, astrology, psychics, or mysticism to provide tools to interpret the existence we experience. Maybe we mirror ourselves in the role of the magician onstage. If someone or something out there can make sense of all this mystery, all the impossible surprises we face in life, then perhaps so can we.