Friday, January 30, 2009

Success Book Review: Steve Martin: "Born Standing Up"

Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, an autobiographical memoir, is, first, and foremost, a masterpiece. Secondly, it is an authoritative summation of the success principles that appear over and over on this blog. Touchingly written, honest, funny, sad, and inspiring, it's just plain great literature. Anyone who has watched Martin’s brilliant work, especially his stand up work in the 70’s, will be a customer for this book. I, for one, have always wondered what lurked behind the madman/self-parodying/ always-delightful exterior. While we don’t get every last scandalous juicy detail, we get the important bits to piece together the puzzle.

But, beyond that, the book illustrates another point: whether you’re a golf pro/tycoon like Greg Norman, a chess master, like Josh Waitzkin, or a standup comedian, there are common traits and characteristics of many achievers. Startlingly, Steve Martin is, in this respect, amazingly congruent with other high achievers in the manner in which he exemplifies these principles Throughout the course of this blog, I have assembled the success principles I have derived from many outstanding achievers, coaches, and researchers. Here are a few common threads that unite Steve Martin with a host of other successful achievers.

10 Years to Mastery
Frequently in his book the figure of ten years comes up. Ten years between starting his true career till worldwide fame and fortune arrived. It turns out that much research (here and here) has been done on expert performance and, you guessed it, 10 years to mastery is about right. Many a child “prodigy” has, in fact, been hard at work on piano, math, chess, gymnastics, etc for at least 10 years. In fact, Martin’s narrative adds an exclamation point to that research, because we see it is no less true in madcap comedy routines than it is in quantum physics Nobel Laureates.

Deliberate Practice
This is the addendum to “10 years to mastery”. You need to add “deliberate practice”: focused review and improvement of your performance in your key success areas. You can’t just go through the motions. You have to think about what it is you need to do to get better. Steve Martin took plenty of notes after his performances, and, later on, also recorded his act for further review.

Creative inspiration,+knowledge-seeking followed by highly specified activities
This paradigm works everywhere from the Toyota shop floor, to my own previous specialty (commercial music), my current field (coding trading systems), and straight on to Steve Martin’s brilliant career achievement. You have to constantly invent, or search for, ideas on how to get the job done, and then tightly specify the actions needed to implement those ideas. Steve Martin mentions speaking his lines while, at the same time, mentally “living in the future", of his next move, his next prop, his next joke. He also mentions a tighter and tighter focus on “precision”, to the microscopic level: the movement of a finger could make or break a joke, as he tells it. Again, his journey illuminates these qualities, and we can see how they might apply to a baseball pitcher, a race car driver, an Olympic diver, etc.

One more note: mere ideas without precision execution will lead to mediocrity or failure, as does repetitive execution without a constant source of new inputs (either from internal or external sources of creativity).

Networking and Likability
While networking and likability are not mentioned per se in Steve Martin’s book, it is clear that he was able to find, keep, and utilize his excellent relationships with others to move forward in his career. He had long, multi-year relationships with theaters and clubs where he could practice his craft. Friends offered to manage him. Ex-girlfriends got him work. He often sought and received excellent advice from other comics, and even, on occasion, used others’ material, with their permission. You cannot do this without being likable, without building and maintaining your network. I get the impression that people naturally gravitated to this well-spoken, good-looking, freethinking and talented guy. He may not have needed to concentrate very much on this aspect of success, but it is clear he was great at it.

Mental Models
Steve Martin was driven to educate himself. Logic, art history, poetry, and philosophy are only a few of the areas he consciously turned to. Charlie Munger has frequently mentioned having a suite of “mental models” for taking in reality through different perspectives. Martin’s book is loaded with analogies to art. And it is clear that he uses his highly developed mind to “think about what he is doing”. Much as 20th century artists and musicians used “classical” forms and ideas to frame, or "set up" their excursions into new territory, Steve Martin's comedy is “referential”: it is “meta-comedy”, or, comedy about a guy doing comedy. This comes, in part, from having developed mental models to view and re-frame experience.

Success comes on the far side of failure
As Ben Stein puts it, you just have to “stay at the table “ till you win, hopefully enjoying yourself in the process. Just before his biggest breakthrough, when he went from a live audience of 90 to an audience of 40,000, Steve Martin was nearly broke. Reality , and success in particular, is not linear. Breakthroughs can happen right after the most disheartening turn of events. You cannot really put a time limit on success, because things have to “lime up” just right, even though the groundwork may have been laid years before.

The key point is this: Steve Martin is probably the most famous standup comedian ever. And I , for one, have a huge respect for that one-in-a million gift. But , for the rest of us, it is instructive that, as Lee Trevino once said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”. The success principles illustrated by Martin’s meteoric rise to fame (preceded by a mere 10 – 20 years of performing!!!) are actually applicable to success in many areas. His book, besides being a piece of sheer beauty, can help bring out the “star” shining in each of us.

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