When I first met the magician Criss Angel, I thought he would play a trick on me.
A slight of hand, a playing card pops out of my ear--I wasn't sure what to expect. Would I levitate off the ground? Disappear in a flash of burning embers?
"Hi, I'm Criss Angel," he said, greeting me with a firm handshake in the hallway at the Planet Hollywood hotel in Las Vegas in early 2019. An unassuming guy from Long Island--he looks like a cross between an adult Harry Potter and Ace Frehley from the band KISS--Angel doesn't present himself as a showman, or an entrepreneur, or a celebrity.
Of course, he is all three.
His show, called Mindfreak, was about to officially debut after months of work. (He told me he's been working 22 hours a day for six weeks straight.) He now offers over 2,000 products, many of them magic tricks available at his online store. Millions have watched his reality shows, watched him perform, and witnessed a live levitation.
Yet, over the course of about a 90-minute conversation, a genuinely likable guy emerged, someone who chatted frequently with his staff and knew every person's name by heart, who knew every brand of lighting in the auditorium. He has a rockstar vibe but not the kind that's distant or aloof. Nothing seemed to faze him or surprise him.
"My whole mantra is to put positivity out in the world," says Angel. "It's to be a positive force in a sometimes negative world. [The performer] Criss Angel is not special or different--if anyone has a dream and they are willing to put in the energy, they can accomplish their goal like I have. I'm not different from anyone else I just work really hard to accomplish it."
That's a message every entrepreneur needs to hear, one that can give you hope if you are struggling to create a useful mobile app or build a consulting business.
Angel spoke about the real purpose of success, and his views might surprise you--especially if you are struggling to figure out your place in the world.
The fight against cancer
It didn't take more than 10 minutes for me to realize what makes Angel tick. He mentioned how his son Johnny (age four) had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2015 and had recently completed a final round of chemotherapy.
Since 2001, Angel--whose real name is Christopher Make-A-Wish Foundation.Sarantakos--has worked with various charities to help fund cancer research. He says he has now "taken the baton" from Jerry Lewis and has also become a spokesperson for the
"My goal and the reason I've been successful beyond my wildest dreams is to be a voice for these children who don't have a voice," he says. "My goal is to raise awareness and to try to raise enough money so that one day we can make pediatrics cancer disappear."
A theme emerged. My takeaway from Angel, after spending time with him and seeing a rare backstage tour, is that he is driven by a higher call. You can't look into the eyes of one of your own children stricken with cancer and not feel a sense of real responsibility.
Many entrepreneurs struggle with this issue of internal motivation. The truth is, merely making more money is not enough of a driver--it won't compel you enough. Neither is seeking fame or recognition. Once you have the BMW you will say--what else is there? Fame doesn't last, and once you've tasted it, you feel like there must be more.
Instead, it's much better to have an external motivator--something that goes beyond your own achievements. It's an engine that propels you forward.
I know a lot about this topic. After being downsized from my corporate job in 2001, with four small kids at home, I decided to become a writer. I remember sending out 100 emails a day for weeks on end, pitching story ideas. I needed to support my family. It wasn't because I wanted to see my name on a masthead somewhere, believe me. It wasn't because I had a burning desire to test gadgets in those early days.
A higher purpose
For any entrepreneur, finding a higher purpose is crucial. Often, it's a sense of responsibility that comes after connecting with actual living and breathing customers and fans. An entrepreneur who tastes some financial success is one thing; one who creates a product that is useful to others suddenly feels a sense of purpose.
Angel seems to understand this responsibility.
"Being an entrepreneur is a blessing and a curse," he says. "It's a blessing because I get to do things that are on my mind. I have an incredible group of over 100 people who work for me either directly or indirectly. I don't have to farm things out so it is all done in house."
Yet, he says entrepreneurship is not about personal wish fulfillment.
"If I can fly all over the stage, maybe fans can accomplish their goal of being an actor or a singer," he says. "That's really it for me--creating these experiences for others. You have to have that unique drive. You have to be relentless and sacrifice everything, and that's what I've done. I never cared about money, I never do projects because of money. If you work with love and passion, typically the money and fame will come as a fruit of your labor."
In the end, the external motivations are what really matter. A true passion to connect with an audience, a drive to make an impact, an energy that is beyond yourself.
After the tour, Angel walked out into the lobby. He chatted with one of the ticket-takers for a few minutes, then did a group photo with some of the staff. I asked him the inevitable question about showing me how one of his tricks works (it's required in journalism). He did draw my attention to his left hand and seemed to move air around for a moment.
I was surprised how strange it felt to see this slight of hand up close.
There's a similar feeling when you think about life. It can seem like an illusion--what we can squeeze out of a job, the work we produce. Yet, if there is no meaning or purpose, if the only goal is to add more digits to a paycheck, we will all end up unfulfilled.
I asked Angel one last question about what drives him, and what advice he would give to other entrepreneurs, especially those in the entertainment and media business.
"You have to keep evolving," he says.
Let's hope he keeps doing that. The beast of cancer is still on the prowl.