Consider the different ways we use the term "perform."
Sometimes we use the verb "perform" to describe the act of executing a task. We also use "perform" to describe the act of playing, pretending, and projecting substance that wouldn't be there otherwise.
Consider a professional athlete like LeBron James or Tom Brady.
When they're playing, they have to perform at a high level; they have to demonstrate their ability to outperform others at their sport, at whatever task is required of them. They are hired to implement a specific outcome, in this case, victories and championships.
After the actual game, when reporters want to talk to them, they perform in a different sense: They project a certain persona, some amalgam of their various selves - something that serves the needs of their coaching staff, their fans, their teammates, their emotions, and their sponsors.
When you perform, you might be carrying out some task that is required for something to exist at all; or you might be projecting something for an audience, real or imagined. The difference can be subtle in some cases, but it's there. These are very different instances of performing.
As an easy and immediate example, the first definition of "perform" applies to my task of assembling this article you're reading right now; I must execute the task of implementing this article into our objective, collective reality. If I don't do it, it is literally not going to be here. The same is also true of the coders on websites that host Magic articles, the hosting work done at Internet Service Providers, and so on. Without these chains of tangibly performed work, you cannot experience reading this.
The second definition applies to very different contexts. Think of a politician smiling for public cameras so they aren't at risk of being perceived negatively. Think of someone that wears red around the office "because red is a power color." On an episode of Seinfeld, George learns that he can fool his boss into thinking he's busy by coming across as stressed. His hilariously misplaced energy is a nihilistic drain on in his workplace environment; it is arbitrarily performative.
Prior to television and popular media, most of the work being done in the world was the first version of performing. Aside from friends, family, and self, there wasn't a lot of audience to perform for. Television began to change that, and now the Internet has made it the predominant norm. Most people don't bother discerning between the two types of performance at all or understand why it matters, but this is a dangerous mistake. Let's talk about why that is and what we can do about it.
The important thing to realize is that the first type of performing happens at levels that interact with reality in a way that is objectively true. Performing work in these realms is done by physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, data collectors, programmers, and so on. It is a harmony in place between an agent and a combination of its tools; it's a way to transform human effort into a reformed environment. It is constructive work that creates order. It is knowledge that tames our circumstances. This is the kind of performance that ends pandemics, performs surgeries, lands probes on distant comets, constructs and manufactures massive amounts of smartphones, and builds the futures our descendants will live in.
It is how good or bad at Magic you are, regardless of how good or bad you think you are.
The second type of performing happens at the level of ego, where anything can be true as long as it's what you want. It is where you "fake it 'til you make it." It is an incoherent and unhinged playground where the local preferences determine what is arbitrarily wrong and/or right. This is the kind of performance done to a mirror before a high-pressure meeting or in a Zoom presentation. This kind of performance is there to tell you what you most want to hear. It induces an emotional reaction in a paying audience. It is the means by which a free agent's most immediate feelings take over and convert what should be a fleshy and capable being to bum steer puppetry. It has great uses, both as entertainment and as an attempt to capture a conscious human state when used toward art.
This type of performance is positively useless when it exists as its own arbitrary purpose. It straight up doesn't actually do anything. It is the Null Rod of what you can do with your identity.
It will tell you you're a great Magic player, even if you hardly play. It will have you considering your brand based on intuitions that haven't had grounding since half your life ago. It will tell you you're a genius while you sink your own battleships.
Picture you and some friends playtesting on Magic Arena. There's an event with good prize support coming up, you all have various podcasts to talk on this week. The group is heavily geared toward working toward true understanding of the nature of the format so it can be accurately modeled, subverted, and conquered. It's a journey you're all going on together.
Now imagine one of you knows a Twitch streamer with good viewership metrics. You bring them in on the project and suddenly the entire dynamic changes. People are checking social media more, they're texting friends to ask if they've seen the new set rumor. Something on reddit is hilarious and suddenly, you're all various levels of drunk and guaranteed to scrub out at tournaments, podcasts, charity streams, and everything else coming up.
I'm not making a judgment. It has nothing to do with work ethic or how people choose to use their time. But aspiring players should understand that the psychology of goals change when a system moves from one instance of performing to the other.
It gets worse.
I think it's hard to keep this important distinction straight for Magic players, in particular. Magic is constantly on the cusp of mainstream awareness but not within it. There's a quiet battle raging all the time between workload performer nerds trying to keep the shape of Richard Garfield's muse's soul in one sustainable piece and a business gentrification performance class trying to figure out which set of switches will turn Jace into Mickey Mouse. That's a lot of really convoluted social signals going toward a culture of players who don't tend to be very good at modeling social reality. I observe this as one such social defective, lest anyone accuse me of stereotyping others or generalizing. (I should do an article on understanding the connection between Magic and nerd culture some time, as I believe it would likely lessen confusion for many.)
Magic players also, for whatever reason, seem to have a really high degree of memory when it comes to Magic features. For instance, Psychatog hasn't been a competitive card in nearly twenty years. There was only a specific place and time it was ever practically relevant in tournament Magic culture and only a fraction of players active right now were even around then, yet you will get reminded of that period and of Psychatog's dominance whenever it appears in absolutely any context. Players are invested in the game in very specific and enduring ways, which is great.
Richard Garfield describing Magic as a game that's "bigger than the box" has always rung true, but this comes with a caveat: we have to remember the inside of the box for everything outside the box to actually matter.
My advice to you today, as a player in a metagame, as a professional on a career path, as a person born into the world, is to know the difference between these two kinds of performing, between performing constructive work and being a performative person. Being able to identify individuals who don't know the difference is invaluable to any project over which you have decision-making ability. It can revolutionize the environment in your Magic playgroup. It can keep your business from drowning in mixed and terrible data signals. And if nothing else, it'll make you a much more productive and discerning person.
Reality is not an arbitrary set of personal preferences. There are levels of non-negotiable truth below the circle of friends any one of us might habitually cling to. Many people have known this a long, long time. There is a real, practical sense in which wishing doesn't do anything, and this includes how we model ourselves.
There is no substance in arbitrary performance. Stop being performative and go perform.
The Indestructible Danny West