“I don’t give a f*ck if I get first or not.”
The World’s 4th Best Yo-Yo Player.
What is it feel like to be world class at an incredibly obscure sport?
Plateauing at 4th place in the World Yo-Yo Contest in 2011, he has become a full-time vlogger and performer on Youtube with no eagerness to jockey on stage for a higher rank.
I spoke to him about his history of performing and his future while he was stopping in Tokyo during a tour performing all around Asia.
BEN CONDE: My name is Ben Conde, I went to DePaul University with Riley in Chicago and after I graduated I moved out to LA to learn about the entertainment industry. Now I’m traveling around the world and performing yo-yo. I’m a professional yo-yo player.
RM: You’ve been a world class yo-yo player for a long time, but last I heard you had a full time job. How did you get to taking it full time?
BEN: I’ve been playing yo-yo from when I was 4 years old, I got really damn good, competing, performing and being sponsored by brands. Yo-yo has became part of my lifestyle, and once I grew out of competing, I wanted to understand how to position myself in the market.
I always valued the idea of pursuing a life you wouldn’t regret, as cliche as that sounds, and ever since I discovered a lifestyle of not being afraid to go after what you want and living each day like it could be your last, [I’ve thought,] “Why not go after a life that makes you happy?” To me, that means impacting others and feeling like I’m helping them.
Moving out to LA, the idea was to learn about how I could bring yo-yo into the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry impacts the entire world, so the plan is, I go out to where the entertainment industry is and I see where my expertise fits in.
RM: What do you mean when you say you grew out of competing?
BEN: Once you hit a certain level, putting in all these hours in and reaching a high ranking in the world, you understand what it feels like to be [at the top] and that drive to compete and try to win starts to go away because the feeling just gets repetitive.
Like, no matter whether you get 1st or 4th place, in reality you only really matter to the yo-yo community.
Maybe you’ll catch a break here or there, but you’re really not affecting society that much because a yo-yo is just a toy to society. So that started to get me to rethink, “How could I contribute [to society] and satisfy my creative self through yo-yo?” I ultimately turned to Youtube. I understand how to video edit, I understand marketing and that’s basically what Youtube is. If you can market your channel — people will watch.
RM: That’s an interesting thought — you say that now that you’ve competed on [the world] stage it’s boring to you — but many people never experience that feeling [of being the best at something] in their lives. You’ve had the benefit of experiencing it a very young age.
BEN: What if you made 10 million dollars?
You’re rich as hell. You can get whatever you want.
Now what if you made 100 million dollars?
How much richer are you than the guy with 10 million dollars?
You essentially get the same shit.
When you get to a certain point in competing and understanding what it feels like to do well on stage and impact others, you almost grow numb to it and you want something more you know?
You’re like “I’m young like this can’t be the rest of my life… This can’t be what I’m living for.”
RM: What’s interesting to me is just that feeling that you’ve reached the peak of something.
BEN: Yeah… Not necessarily. I’ve never won a world championship but I know…
RM: But like you said, 10 million dollars [compared to] 100 million dollars. You feel like you’ve reached the top of a field, which is a feeling that most people can’t truly understand. The closest experience for someone our age is the feeling of getting cum laude [in University], “I studied harder than everybody else and I’m part of the 10%” — that’s the closest many people will ever probably get.
BEN: Once you accomplish something, tomorrow happens and everyone else goes on with their life, so I like how Youtube is a platform where people [come regularly]. If I can lighten [someone’s] day and allow them to forget about their troubles for like 10 seconds, then I feel like I’m contributing to society… And it’s really fun to experiment with marketing, video editing and yo-yos — it’s like everything I’m interested in falling into place — but it’s a lot of work.
RM: You’re looking for the satisfaction that comes from making things that last versus the ephemeral satisfaction of winning competitions?
BEN: Yeah. The way competitions are run, they’re just for the yo-yo community. To be honest I’m not like, that crazy into yo-yos…
Or I guess I’ve just grown out of competing.
I’m still into yo-yos, I still think they’re cool I think I just have so many other interests that I like the feeling of growing and feel like you’re getting better … I like to just experiment with other industries, other things…
RM: But that is one thing that I’ve been thinking about, the beauty of experimenting with things versus the beauty of focusing on one craft for a very very long time — and the benefits of both.
Just for example, you’re moving away from competition and experimenting outside of yo-yo, but you still haven’t ever won a world championship title. Does that bother you?
BEN: No. It’s never been my goal to win.
BEN: Yeah… I guess growing up and watching yo-yo players, I always knew how like pick and choose who I enjoyed watching, and my style of yo-yo developed [because of] the people I enjoyed watching. That’s was what [I’ve always] felt it was — a performing art versus a competition.
Competition wise, people get up on stage and try to score as many points as possible versus really tell a story and connect with the audience…
I don’t give a f*ck if I get first or not.
If I leave the audience remembering something, or if they can just look back and be inspired by [my] work then I’ll do that. I’d rather be myself onstage than just be just another person [competing].
[Performing is] kind of your heart and soul and i think people connect more with self expression and story than [just] points. Like, “Wow that guy scored a lot of points… Look how difficult his tricks are”. I get that, but at the end of the day, you [still] look like everyone else.
RM: I remember you really idolized Nike and the way people made real emotional connections with the brand. You always came from this angle where [the emotional connection] mattered to you, so I’m not so surprised that you took this route …Taking the leap to do something where you feel like you can really connect people … That’s awesome.
That’s why I’m glad you didn’t end up in an ad agency trying to make people for emotional connections with some car brand.
BEN: Words from a successful man.
RM: Words from an unsuccessful man… But I’m much happier to be unsuccessful and trying to figure out where I’m going than successful and on autopilot while I’m young…. It’s kinda like an artist mentality…
BEN: I don’t want to wake up later in my life and be like ‘ Damn I should have tried that’.
RM: Because this is when we can do it.
BEN: Well yeah…
That energy and drive to experiment in this world…
When will that go away?
That’s a thing I’m always worried about.
This is the age when you can legitimately [not] care about your social security for another few years.
RM: Also, to me everyone in college talked about ‘the power of social media’. but you’ve been able to make a career out of it. You have people like America’s Got Talent, Discovery Channel and CNN calling you because of your social media… You are proof that social media doesn’t mean shit [until] you have something to show on it. You’ve built up a skill over years and years and now social is just your way to show it.
BEN: Oh my god the elections are on tonight, [people are like,] ”Let me voice my opinion while it’s trending”.
Companies don’t realize that [social media isn’t] this bullhorn where everyone’s going to hear you, and kids don’t realize that if there’s nothing special about what you’re going to say then nobody cares. To me, you’ve [got to] hit that sweet spot where you actually realize both how it’s used and you have the means to actually get people to listen to you…
…and that took over a year — That took a good amount of time.
RM: A year is a really short amount of time man.
BEN: I didn’t know it was possible [to make it] until I tried.
When I collaborated with the science channel, the yo-yo industry’s traction increased by 25% through one f*cking video.
That video went viral again on Facebook, and the industry jumped 15% again… One f*cking video … Imagine how many times I [will] collaborate with other big Youtubers… Then what happens?
RM: Yo-yos are a niche industry, but 15%… Goddamn.
BEN: If it’s used the right way yeah, virality is a powerful thing. that’s why BuzzFeed just posts videos every second… Because one of them will work. The social media side is really douchey, but it’s a strong [message] coming from a first person perspective, it’s crazy how powerful it is.
I don’t know… Social media is super powerful but like super noisy as well. So honestly — if I didn’t see it as opportunity, I would [probably] be like, “Why are people on this? What do you have to share? What do I have to share?”
But when it’s like, “Dude people are so interested in what I’ve done with yo-yo”, that’s eye opening because it helps businesses and it helps other people. Being able to receive those messages like “Thanks, this helped me today”…. Every time I look at quitting, where it’s just like “Why should I film today. I don’t feel like uploading like. I can’t do this”, I’ll get a notification on Youtube like, “Yo Ben, thanks for this video. Please keep making videos they’re fun to watch”. That keeps me going, because [vlogging is] a very nonstructural lifestyle.
[I can live like this now ] because in the past, I was open to letting emotional marketing campaigns or emotional messages get to me and I was open to believing that you can live life like everyday was your last…
RM: That belief that you can live everyday with meaning is not easy to build.
BEN: Climbing to the top of a very small community makes you believe that this world isn’t that big.
As I start experimenting with Youtube and see the response there… It’s like, The world is smaller than we think, and if we just jump in we start figuring things out.
By all means I don’t have anything figured out, but yeah it’s cool to have 20 years of experience in yo-yo because then I can look back and tell myself as I keep practicing that yeah…
…You’ll get there. You’re gonna hit a break and it’s going to feel really damn good.