By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK (Reuters) – If you had to name just one person on Earth who is living his or her best life, David Copperfield would have to be among the finalists.
From his childhood in Metuchen, New Jersey, he has spent his whole life immersed in the world of magic.
Copperfield, 60, has become the world’s foremost illusionist, with a show currently at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. Besides the world’s most valuable magic collection, he owns a string of private islands in the Bahamas.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Copperfield talked about how the rest of us can create magical lives.
Q: Did you earn money with regular jobs as a kid?
A: I don’t think I have ever made a penny at anything other than magic. Even as a teenager, I was published in an encyclopedia about magic and by 16 was teaching a course on it at New York University. So I was good at magic but sucked at everything else.
By 10 years old, I was taking the bus to Manhattan’s Port Authority, alone, and would sneak into Broadway shows and hang out with magicians. Eventually I started going to parties with people like Andy Warhol and Stevie Wonder.
It was an amazing time for a little kid, and for some reason my parents trusted me, even though at the time New York City was pretty rough going around 42nd Street. That taught me a lot about survival.
Q: How were you able to translate that passion into a lucrative career?
A: It was hard. Even my mother told me that I couldn’t do it; she was really against it. My father was the one who told me to live the impossible. He had given up his dream so I could live mine. He wanted to be an actor but ended up running a clothing store.
Q: Once you began seeing some success, how did you handle the money coming in?
A: I lived beyond my means at first, which was a bad mistake. I had my first TV special at 19, moved to California, rented (songwriter) Carole Bayer Sager’s house and had big cars. And then all of my hard-earned money disappeared. I had literally nothing left.
But it was the best thing in the world that it happened, because that fear has stuck with me ever since. I learned that it is OK to pursue your dreams, but you have to do it in a thoughtful way.
Q: Did a business manager help turn things around?
A: I figured it out myself. Even people with business managers can end up with nothing. I watched a whole lot of famous and successful people repeat the mistakes I just made, living hand-to-mouth.
My instructions to my financial people were to be very careful. I learned that it is hard enough to make money and even harder to keep it. I didn’t want to have to worry about the heating bill ever again, wondering how much longer I could last.
Q: So your investing style is pretty conservative?
A: Crazy conservative. I prefer to invest in myself and the things I can control. That method is not right for everyone, but it works for me. For that reason, I like real estate as a good place to keep money. Look at Bob Hope: He had an amazing fortune, and he bought a lot of California with it.
Q: Was it that love of real estate that led you to purchase islands in the Bahamas?
A: That was a dream and a passion of mine that many people share. But it is also a complicated, challenging road. At any moment, a hurricane could come along and wipe all your hard work away.
Q: How do you manage your charitable giving, both in time and money?
A: One program is called Project Magic, which teaches magic in hospitals as a form of therapy. It helps patients regain dexterity, gives them new skills and boosts self-esteem by teaching them sleight-of-hand tricks.
As for financial donations, I keep that stuff very quiet. I try not to announce it. It makes me happier that way.
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn)