The Art of Hustling: America's Got Talent's star mentalist on goals and persistence

Oz Pearlman has delighted audiences with jaw-dropping mind tricks and sleight of hand for over two decades, and his current run on America's Got Talent has sparked national interest in his gifts. Oz shares how he keeps his cool on live television and the hustle it takes to achieve any goals.
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Oz Pearlman has surprised and delighted audiences with jaw-dropping mind tricks and sleight of hand for over two decades, and his current run on America's Got Talent has sparked national interest in his gifts.

In my interview below, Oz shares how he keeps his cool on live television and the hustle and perseverance it takes to make any goals achievable.

This is probably the biggest moment in your career to date. What do you think is the trait that got you here today?

I would say that the feeling that I could always be doing more and persistence are the two traits. Say you know someone, and you want to be more like them. Very few people actually take the effort to reach out to that person; not pester them, but reach out. I've had people do that to me and now they're some of my closest friends and trusted colleagues.

The best way to find out how to accomplish something is from someone who's already achieved it. Most people are willing to share, but nobody thinks to ask. When a magician asks, I'll tell them what worked, what didn't work, and I try to inspire them. What I tell them is, to me, obvious, but it's only obvious because I went down those roads that were dead ends and came back. I've learned from experience. A lot of my successes are because of past failures. Everyone is still learning. No matter how successful you are, there's always someone more successful than you at the same thing.

Is there anything business leaders can learn from the art of magic and the principles and regimens that you practice?

There's something to be said for making goals and really sticking with them. "I want x, y, and z." It's breaking down goals into achievable units, and that's a lot of what I've done with my career. When it comes to business, I'm all about initially building a relationship and then layering off of that. Everyone shuts down when they feel like they're being sold to versus if you can become a friend. When I first got to New York and was doing this on the side, I knew success wasn't going to fall in my lap. My plan was very simple: every week, I was going to either call or visit one event planner or catering hall and pitch. I was going to do some magic for the manager, and I was going to try to convince them that they need me at their establishment.

My advice: build a rapport where people don't feel uncomfortable, don't try to sell them anything right off the bat. Try to do more listening than just waiting for your turn to speak. That might be the number one mistake people make when they approach a business conversation. They know what they want to say, so when others are talking, they're not listening, they're just waiting for their own turn to get their point across.

It's so important to listen in business and life in general.

Some people fear if they act that way, they'll appear insincere. The truth is, make-or-break decisions come down to a gut feeling inside. Small businesses and big corporations are built on relationships where at the end of the day you want to feel like you trust and like this person.

In social settings, people often struggle to overcome the fear of rejection. As a performer, what are your thoughts on this?

That's the only thing holding people back. The fear of rejection. People fear rejection because rejection feels very personal. When I walk up to a group, there's no nervousness because I'm not presenting myself. The person that you've seen, who is unbelievably confident and over the top, is me performing my character. My character when I perform is not the real me. Does that make sense? I'm a different person, but because I'm dressed the same and look the same and overall act the same, you think that's just me. It's a very exaggerated version of me where I can highlight certain things and just absolutely dominate. If I just walk up to somebody in a social setting, I will not at all be the same person. I will still feel confident, but I'm not nearly as outgoing or extraverted.

So how can someone who isn't a performer adapt that ability?

I take myself out of the equation so I can't feel rejected. These people don't know me. They're meeting Oz the performer. Take out the part of you that feels the rejection and imagine if you were representing somebody else. When you walk up to a person, try to find a way to differentiate what the best things are about you, and imagine that you're not at a job interview but representing someone else, who just happens to be you. That will allow most people to assume this character, without being false or fake. The character is very similar to you, but... you have to take your ego out of it and not be hurt if something goes wrong.

When you walk out onto a stage, especially the stage at America's Got Talent, do you ever get nervous?

The most relaxed moment is when I get on stage. That's the best part. That's when everything I'm going to do is about to happen, versus the waiting to do it, when you dissect in your head what could go wrong. I do a lot of positive visualization. I don't script my show. I don't write anything down that I'm going to say. You go with the flow. There are moments you can't see, moments of trepidation. There was a moment where I thought things had gone very wrong with Howard Stern (see clip above). Right when I was about to reveal Oprah Winfrey, for about two seconds, I was thinking "this might have just failed utterly," and then I realized it didn't. You can't see it, but I can watch myself on TV and know that I was absolutely freaking out internally for about two seconds.

What happens if Howard didn't name Oprah?

In a non-TV environment, there are ways to undo what you've done. The same way a fighter gets punched but rolls with the punch. In a perfect world, I can deflect and prove that I actually knew it, so you might not ever know things actually went wrong. We have a very limited format on America's Got Talent; two minutes, do-or-die. In this situation, you take risks: big risks=big rewards. That's going to definitely be the case in the next round because I'll be doing stuff that's riskier, bigger, better, and things I haven't done 100 times before. There are things I'm doing now for the first few times because the stakes are higher.

When auditioning for a major show like America's Got Talent, you have to pull out your best acts to impress the judges. Are you worried you'll get further down the line and, for lack of better words, run out of tricks?

I'm brainstorming every day. I can't just take my act, which plays well and audiences love, and put that on TV, to a large degree because of the fact that so few of the things I do are less than two minutes. You only have that much time because it's a live show. My act is a little different than the majority of acts because it's interactive. I don't know what will happen or how the judges will react. I've got to have a little wiggle room, but at the same time, it needs to deliver. Each upcoming performance is going to be more and more impressive and involve more of the judges.

I've known you for quite a few years and have admired your hustle. No management. No advertising. Doing this by word of mouth and you've been very successful. How did you get on America's Got Talent? Did you pitch this by yourself, or did you meet the right person?

I auditioned for AGT maybe four years ago, and I was invited to audition (by a producer). The experience was vastly different than what I had this year. I walked into a room where they were expecting me. I waited maybe 15 minutes. I went into a room, and they videotaped an audition. I did not get accepted.

How did you turn it around?

Hustle and persistence. This time around, I went through an open audition, a "cattle call." There were six or seven thousand people at a pier in New York. You go in there, and you play by their rules. I did the audition, made it through the large casting call and got the call back. I knew that I was going to be going and performing. For that part, there's a bit of swallowing of humble pie. If you hold yourself at a high regard, like "I've been on this TV show and that TV show, and I'm not willing to do all of this," you won't make it. I put all that aside and went there, where anyone could show up. A lot of people did show up, and I got through.

So as you get ready to take the stage at Radio City Music Hall tomorrow night, what would you say to those who aspire to do the same?

Set goals! Most people have goals in the back of their head, like daydreams. It's fun to daydream, but then there's reality and looking at your life and saying, "What are the things I want?" and deciding how to make those happen and laying down the foundation to do that. That ties back into talking to people who've already achieved these things. How did you do it? Tell me more about what you did. All these things kind of go full circle.

I don't think anything happens over night, but with persistence, most people could do a lot more than what they're already doing.

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8/7c on NBC. Watch live for your chance to vote Oz Pearlman on to the semi finals.

Oz Pearlman will be performing at two Influence Group events this fall, RetailSpaces and the Senior Living Innovation Forum.