I was fortunate enough growing up to be friends with Steve Spangler, scientist, educator, speaker, teacher, magician and performer—I could go on and on—he’s that talented. Steve, as you may know, has a super popular website ) that provides science learning lessons and kits for teachers, kids and adults, which makes teaching science fun and exciting. Steve has made it his life’s work bringing the magic of science to millions of elementary, middle and high school kids and teachers through his website, by his work as a science expert for channel 9News, KUSA-Denver , through the zany science experiments he’s performed on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show where he’s a frequent guest, and through multiple social media platforms where he makes science accessible and fun for fans everywhere.
Like I said, Steve and I have been friends since we were teenagers hanging out at the Denver magic club being geeky magicians together. We had a blast! (Shout out to the Mile High Magicians! ) Whenever we get together we have a great time talking magic tricks, remembering how geeky we were, and whatever else we feel like. Often we share business advice since we’re both in the motivational speaking industry and are entrepreneurs who have successful small businesses. Although Steve’s various businesses might not really be categorized as small. (I’m not jealous. Really.)
Steve came on my video blog the other day and we got to chatting as we always do. Steve and I could probably talk for weeks without running out of stuff to say. Anyway, I kicked it off by admiring Steve’s dress shirt, and telling him about the Zoom shirt phenomena, which he somehow missed out on hearing about over this past year. Steve doesn’t have time to read the news much. Steve remembers his grandfather always wearing a suit whenever he went anywhere, from the grocery store, to work, to the golf club. Steve is so used to being on video for Tiktok, Youtube or whatever, that even during the pandemic he’s always ready for film, so he usually always has decent clothes on. Steve remembers a magic meeting, a “nerd meeting” as he calls it, where the magicians there had a huge discussion about appropriate attire for a magic show performance. There was a range of opinions on that topic, of course, with the older guys insisting that tuxedos were the only thing appropriate, and others arguing for a more casual approach. He remembered that I argued that magicians should be allowed to dress as casually as the audience they were trying to attract do, like the teens or twenty-somethings. But Steve’s parents, who were also magicians and who introduced Steve to magic, insisted that it was a tux or nothing. Those were the days of the frilly tuxedo shirts with ruffles and fancy cummerbunds.
Steve talked about seeing Doug Henning on tv in the 1970s who wore jeans and a rainbow shirt, and that for him, Henning redefined what stage magicians could wear. But even a short while ago, Lance Burton, a magician both Steve and I really admire, started his shows in Vegas wearing tails. So really anything goes depending on what statement you’re trying to make. Think David Blaine in ripped jeans and a leather jacket.
I’ve always been admiring of Steve’s wardrobe. He’s always wearing the coolest stuff. Once I showed up at a gig for Microsoft wearing a brown corduroy jacket which I thought was really hip. I took one look at those 30-something software engineers and sales dudes wearing their super expensive business casual clothes and knew how uncool I really was. Great times.
I asked Steve if he’s ever felt the Imposter Syndrome effect. He said sometimes, although not really for magic performing. When he did magic he felt very comfortable, since he grew up with it. Steve’s dad was a successful magic teacher with a famous magic school here in Denver. Famous magicians would come through town and hang out with his family. However, when it came to having a career, his dad advised against being a full-time stage magician—it was too hard to make a living. So Steve went into doing science “magic” shows, meaning he realized he could make science look like magic and thus interest kids in it. He started out by teaching elementary school assemblies, and he felt good about it. But when he went on to speak to college kids, he felt very awkward and wondered if they would see right through him.
One of Steve’s mentors was the incomparable Dr. Earl Reum—he got Steve into the educational leadership circuit. Earl left a message on his message machine, saying, “I need you in New Orleans, it’s going to be great. Come do the science thing for some of my friends who talk about student leadership.” Well, his friends turned out to be a giant room of leadership workshop directors—they booked for student councils and leadership camps. If Earl told them to book you, they booked you, and Steve managed to get into the business that way, because Earl believed in him. Steve felt like he didn’t have any leadership wisdom to offer, but they booked him, and so he did it. But he felt like he was hacking his way through, especially following people like Mark Scharenbroich, a leader in the business. Steve said he would call Earl literally crying to say how bad he was doing, but Earl would say, no, you’ve got this, you can do it. Meanwhile Steve would throw up before some shows, especially if the guy ahead of him killed. It was a rough time.
But Steve persevered. And really, this is what sets successful people apart from those who are not as successful. You just get up and keep going. Steve said he realized he’d have to log hours and hours on stage before he finally felt comfortable. That’s the 10,000 hour thing that Malcolm Gladwell talks about. You just do hours and hours of whatever it is you want to master, and then finally, one day, you get good enough. And the Steves of this world stick through all those hours.
I have done shows where sometimes the clients who hired me turned out not to like me or what I offered so much. If you do enough shows, at some point that will happen to any motivational speaker, comedian, or any type of performer. I wondered if Steve has had that experience, and did it leave a mark? And of course, he’s had those times, because he’s done a lot of shows. When he started in front of the college market he felt overmatched and out of his element. Even with business audiences today he doesn’t feel like he would be the right fit. But he has realized that he’s got a lot of on-the-job business experience that he could share that people could learn from. He’s had a company that was on the rocks, where he was up at night worrying about whether he was going to make payroll. Those are the kinds of experiences he could share that would resonate with an audience even though he doesn’t have a book or an MBA or anything like that. The “MLE,” I call it. The Master of Life Experience.
Steve’s ideal audience is to have 300-500 educators in a room; with that kind of group he knows that it will be a blast. He remembers being in the bathroom after he performed once for a group and they were talking about him in not a super flattering way; that really brought him down to earth. Now oftentimes during breaks in his conferences, his wife Renee sneaks off to the bathroom to find out what people are saying about him. Once she overheard women talking about how his pants weren’t hemmed right. Now, his pants are always hemmed correctly.
Over the years he did so many school shows he felt like he was doing the material while asleep. So he decided to start focusing on what the teachers were doing during his presentations. And that was so instructive. He would see them reading the newspaper, or grading papers. So then it became a challenge: he would watch them to see when he could get them away from their distractions. Steve remembers doing what he thought was a really fun show, and he noticed a teacher who was obviously agitated while watching. Afterwards he went up to her, and she snarled at him. She says something like, “Well you come waltzing in here with your bunch of tricks, and think you know so much, but really you’re just a circus clown. You’re not a real teacher.” That was a reality check. So Steve looked at her, said thanks for your feedback, and that was pretty much it for him doing elementary school shows. He realized that what he could be doing is coaching teachers on their classroom “performance”, meaning how to be engaging in the classroom so kids will be learning rather than sleeping. That simple conversation changed his trajectory, and led him to deciding to teach teachers. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!
That goes back to my earlier point about perseverance. People like Steve keep going, even in the face of negativity. Instead of bagging it, he changed it up, created an awesome program and has really influenced teachers the world over.
I told Steve that he is one of the most accomplished people I know, that he always works hard, and always goes for the A+, which is reflected in his awesome career. I wanted to know if that is taxing for Steve. Does he wish he could go for the C sometimes? Steve said he always has a list of things that he should be doing, and usually feels bad when he can’t get to that. But he just cannot do less than his best. He had a company called Be Amazing Toys; not Be OK Toys. He likes to jump all in. For example, hobbies like drumming, and even magic, he can’t devote enough time to to be the best. So he doesn’t practice often because he can’t be perfect, which sometimes he regrets. He doesn’t think he’s great at everything, but he does have pride in his work.
I asked, “Who encouraged you, Steve?” Earl Reum, of course. But he also remembered when he was in high school and found out about this chemistry teacher who was awesome with chemistry tricks that he would do in the classroom. Like the baking soda volcano trick we’ve all seen. This teacher did a trick with chewing gum, and Steve managed to recreate it for him. The teacher was amazed and they became lifelong friends. He’s even hired him to help him with his company now.
I was honored that Steve credits me as one of his oldest friends and for being honest and open with him. He gets tremendous encouragement from that, and keeps it real for him. Amazingly enough, motivational speakers (really, any kind of speakers) have a lot of ego. But it’s the ones like John Sileo and Mark Scharenbroich who are honest that keep him grounded and push him to be his best.
I asked Steve about something I’m interested in, whether or not compliments need to be authentic to be valuable. Or can they be like when Earl Reum would always give someone a compliment, even when things didn’t go so well. Earl always was about waving the banner. He wasn’t being inauthentic. He knew that people needed the encouragement and activation energy to get them over the hump, and Earl felt like that was his job. I now understand that Earl was encouraging enough to keep me going and didn’t want to give the step by step critique. Steve remembered how Earl called a list of people every two weeks to give them encouragement. Steve has an old answering machine tape from from Earl that he listens to now and then to give him a lift when he needs it.
We talked a little more about mentoring, which was Earl’s superpower. Steve said he doesn’t actively look for someone to mentor, but it’s in the back of his mind. Earl saw in Steve and me that we were serious and so gave us the encouragement and direction we needed at the time. Steve now tells people who ask him for advice that after they’ve done their 100th show then he’ll take them out to breakfast to talk business advice. Then he knows they’re serious if they follow through with that. He says (and I agree) that it’s frustrating when people come to him for advice and don’t even take the tiniest bit of it. Maybe that’s why Earl never gave specific advice—he knew that what people really wanted was general encouragement.
I asked Steve the question I ask everyone at the end of my podcast, and he gave a great answer. “What gives you hope, Steve Spangler?” He said that sitting around the table with his college-age sons and listening to them talk, he often realizes that he doesn’t understand some things they’re talking about. They know so much, and have learned so much, they can have serious conversations about important things. This makes him hopeful that this young generation can fix some of the things going on now that are messed up in the world. He sees young people being so much more serious about the world’s problems than he was at that age. Young teachers too, they are so passionate and do things their own way. This sense of caring and energy from the next generation gives him hope. Young people always ask if the decisions they make will be for the greater good. They are smart, compassionate and caring, and that gives Steve (and me!) hope.
Thanks Steve Spangler, science whiz extraordinaire, for sharing your time and wisdom with us. I encourage you to listen to the whole podcast because I only summarized some of it for you. But it’s packed full of wisdom from one of the best educators in the business and one of the best speakers in the business. Thanks for reading and listening!