Steve Martin possessed no natural talent or show-stopping abilities starting out as a comedian. Though Martin’s comedy routine would heavily involve singing, dancing, and acting—he himself could not sing, dance, or act. He admits to being pretty good at running around on stage shouting at people and that’s about it.
One should not look at a lack of natural talent as misfortune when perseverance is an excellent substitute—Martin’s key token of wisdom shared in his personal memoir, Born Standing Up.
Continuing to take the stage again and again without any so-called “talent,” is the most essential building block to manufacturing one’s own talent and a way to discover the innate special gifts that you didn’t know existed.
Martin spent 18 years doing stand-up comedy. He achieved stand up success only during a short four-year span while the remaining 14 years were spent learning, experimenting and refining his act.
The comedian refers to the early years of learning and refining as “more plodding than heroic.” Many hours were spent in misery and “concomitant depression” when exiting the small back-alley clubs after his fledgling comedy routines. He once performed at a drive-in movie theater…during the day and next to a salad bar which he joked was good because he could eat in between jokes.
The aspiring comedian toyed around with just about everything from a juggling act, to strumming the banjo on the street corners for tips, to executing magic tricks—all while using any means necessary to turn out smiles and laughter from the faces of spectators.
Through Steve Martin’s journey to stardom chronicled in Born Standing Up, we learn 5 nuggets of wisdom as a result of perseverance.
1. Creativity Welcomes Naivete
Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.
Naivete is defined as having a lack of experience, wisdom or judgement. To be unworldly, unsophisticated or artless. Most folks will not admit to being naive due to the negative connotation.
Lately it seems there are no more naive individuals left in the world. Everyone appears to be so worldly; so cultured; so informed; so cosmopolitan—or at least that’s what we are led to believe when scrolling through social media feeds.
It’s ok to be naive—to be “unsuited” or unprepared for whatever new creative endeavor you are about to embark on. Sometimes you just have to hop up onto the center stage shouting and juggling bowling pins until you figure out what works best.
2. Larger than Life
Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.
Don’t be afraid to sprinkle yourself with delusions of grandeur when things are going right as you envision yourself at the pinnacle of success.
3. Education Through Experimentation
In this netherworld, I was free to experiment. These out-of-the-way and varied places provided a tough comedy education. There were no mentors to tell me what to do; there were no guidebooks for doing stand-up. Everything was learned in practice, and the lonely road, with no critical eyes watching, was the place to dig up my boldest, or dumbest, ideas and put them onstage.
Sometimes we need to put down the books and exit the classroom in order to begin execution on our ideas. It is with both practice and experimentation that we are able to ”dig up our boldest or dumbest” ideas to present to the world.
4. You Will Use Everything You Ever Knew
I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. On one of my appearances, after he had done a solid impression of Goofy the cartoon dog, he leaned over to me during a commercial and whispered prophetically, ‘you’ll use everything you ever knew.’ He was right; twenty years later I did my teenage rope tricks in the movie, Three Amigos!
All of the juggling, banjo strumming, magic acts, and even the annoying shouting eventually came full circle for the comedian. What may have seemed like obnoxious antics in the beginning, turned out to be the culmination of Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy greatness.
A college major you never put to use; the silly startup idea that failed miserably; studied subjects that have no interest to you today; the soul-sucking odd jobs worked—there was something gained from each learning experience, whether subliminal or not, that helped shape the person you are today.
5. Stop Living in the Past
Martin and his painter friend, Eric Fischl, compared psychoanalysis with the making of art. Psychoanalysis is a set of therapeutic techniques and theories related to the study of the unconscious mind.
But there is a fundamental difference between the two. In psychoanalysis, you try to retain a discovery; in art, once the thing is made, you let it go.
He was right. I had not looked at or considered my stand-up career until writing this memoir; I had, in fact, abandoned it. Moving on and not looking back, not living in the past, was a way to trick myself into further creativity.
Martin quit stand-up comedy altogether at the peak of his career and never looked back. Not living in the past transformed Martin into a successful actor, author, playwright, pianist and banjo player. Well into his 70s now, he continues to produce works of art and shows no signs of slowing the imagination.
Steve Martin is now considered a multitalented entertainer with worldwide fame. He mentions while seeking comic originality, the fame just happened to fall on his lap as a by-product. The ascent to stardom would not have been possible without his unrelenting drive and focus in pursuit of originality.