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Steve Martin’s secret to success

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons

“I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.”

So writes Steve Martin, one of my favorite comedians, in the opening lines to his short and entertaining biography, Born Standing Up.

When we look at a comedian like Martin, we see a natural with comedic genius cooked into his DNA. What we don’t see is the messy reality that preceded all the fame.

For Martin, there were no short-cuts. No “8 strategies to hack your way to stand-up comedy” guides. It was years of grueling work, performing in empty rooms, getting booed and heckled, with despair wafting off the stage. He would then show up the next day to do it again—for fourteen years straight before he achieved fame.

Given that experience, when people ask him for advice on how to make it in show business, his response is simple: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Martin explains that being good, counterintuitively, is harder than being great: “Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking,” he writes. “These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”

But that’s not the answer that people want to hear. Those who come to Martin for advice want a step-by-step guide to how to get an agent, hit it big, and raise a golden statue in no time. Kevin Hart echoes the same sentiment: “Everyone wants to be famous. Nobody wants to do the work.”

Our culture of instant gratification is in part to blame. If we can stream any movie with the click of a button, get groceries delivered within an hour, and swipe right to get a date, why can’t we do the same for finding meaningful work?

In my seven years as a law professor, I’ve had numerous students come to my office to lament about an internship experience because they “didn’t make an impact.” Impact, of course, isn’t something you make after three months of part-time work.

Jeff Bezos underscores the same point with a story in his 2018 letter to Amazon shareholders (which are always fun reads, despite appearances to the contrary):

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.”

I almost quit blogging for the same reason. When I first started my platform, I read numerous “Get 10,000 email subscribers in six months” guides by writers who didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Day after day, I chased false visions of glory, dismayed at the number of subscribers on my list. It was only when I abandoned chasing short-term outcomes and began to focus on the process of delivering value every week that the email opt-ins followed.

When it comes to doing meaningful work and creating long-lasting change, there are no silver bullets. As the venture capitalist Ben Horowitz put it, “we’re going to have to use a lot of lead bullets instead.” So, go ahead and bite that lead bullet, turn up the volume on your perseverance, and become so good that they can’t ignore you.

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