A Year of Stories: “My First College Gig”

Brian Miller - A Year of Stories - My First College Gig

Posted by on May 1, 2016

I was just out of college, and having made the decision to turn down a PhD offer in favor of pursuing entertainment, I moved from New York to Connecticut for a fresh start. I crashed with family for a couple of months before getting a small, low-income apartment with a friend who was just starting grad school. By August I was running out of savings and still struggling to find paying magic gigs.

The only thing I had going for me was a referral from the Director of Campus Activities at my former college. Months earlier, as graduation approached, he passed my name along to the owner of a national college entertainment agency, who had agreed to test me out.

When I finally got a call for my first college gig with the agency, I was on cloud nine. The contract arrived in my email inbox and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The pay was four times my regular gigs. I could make two months rent and afford to eat on a single show!

I assumed that it would be some tiny college in the middle of nowhere, just to test me out.

It was Penn State.

I guess their philosophy was “sink or swim, my brave young magician.” I was determined to swim.

Driving from Connecticut to Pennsylvania I took stock of my life and where I wanted it to go. I had the kind of attitude that only comes with youth and inexperience: confidence coupled with blinding fear. In my mind the future of my entire career was riding on this one show. I had to prove to my parents, my friends, the agency, and to myself that I had made the right decision to abandon grad school.

At Penn State student leaders escorted me to the event space. I set up my show (a pitiful looking stage in those days, when all of my supplies were put together from cheap stuff at Wal-Mart).

Brian Miller live at Penn State Behrend College

I was filming the show of course, hoping to get great footage to make my first proper college promo video. The world of entertainment was changing fast, and my agency predicted that the future of getting booked was all about the promo video. They were right.

As students filed in, I peeked out from behind the curtains. What I saw was crippling. There were well over 600 out there. It was standing room only. And in less than 10 minutes I had to capture each and ever person’s attention and hold it for an hour. Who did I think I was? I can’t do this!

“Give a big round of applause for Brian Miller!”

The orientation student leader’s overly enthusiastic voice ricocheted from wall to wall in the packed room as I walked out on stage to deafening applause. It wasn’t for me, of course. It was for whoever happened to be walking out on stage. But in that moment I thought it was for me, and it was all the courage I would need.

The show itself was a blur, but here’s the gist: I knocked it out of the park. It was a killer show for that time in my career as a developing entertainer. By my personal standards today it was a sub par performance. But I wasn’t seasoned back then. I didn’t have thousands of hours of stage time. Truthfully I had no idea what I was doing. In the words of David Simms from the 90s golf-comedy Tin Cup:

“Well, I didn’t have much craft back then. Just a little native ability.”

We can only ever measure ourselves against our current set of skills and experience. Trying to measure yourself against more veteran performers, or the ideal you hold in your mind, is a sure-fire way to feel like a failure. Always seek to be better, and strive to achieve that ideal, but don’t measure yourself against it.

The video from that Penn State gig became the crux of my first decent promo video. In those days I was still trying to marry stand-up comedy with magic. It never quite worked, and I cringe when I watch it now, but it secured bookings, and it was an important early stepping-stone to success.

Your life will be made up of many small challenges, and they will far outweigh the “career defining moments” you see in movies. If you cringe when you think about who you used to be, that’s a good thing: it means you’re moving forward.

Keep moving forward.

Until next time,


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Brian Miller

Brian Miller

Brian Miller is a Connecticut youth motivational speaker who travels the country sharing his message and magic with high school and college students . His TEDx talk "How to Magically Connect with Anyone" is one of the most popular in history.
Brian Miller

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