What Steve Martin Said After Becoming Wildly Successful
It’ll Help You Manage Failure and Success
Steve Martin spent much of the 1970s becoming America’s top stand-up comedian.
He toured the country with his surreal show, and he sold out arenas to thousands of screaming fans.
Martin wanted more.
His real goal was to break into the movie business.
Martin knew it would take a single-minded focus to achieve this new, larger goal.
So he put his stand-up comedy career aside to concentrate on acting and screenwriting.
In the early to mid-1980s, Martin had a string of hits with films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Roxanne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
He became so famous that Time magazine put him on the cover and declared “Steve Martin: He’s off The Wall”.
Martin finally achieved financial security and recognition amongst his peers.
Yet at the peak of his career, Martin continued to doubt himself.
“You’re saying ‘I’m on the cover of Time, I must be successful.’ At the same time, you’re thinking ‘When is it going to be over?’ I’ve had many of those moments.”
Martin, like many successful artists, has struggled with self-doubt throughout his career, but he found a way to push through those moments and embrace wild and crazy successes.
Don’t be Afraid of Your Mistakes
If you’re at the start of your creative career, it’s hard to conquer self-doubt, much less muse on how you’ll manage success or sell out an arena.
A new writer slaves away on his first draft until it’s perfect. He’s too afraid to release it into the world and face critical feedback.
An artist looks at the blank white canvas with fear and dread. She wonders how she’ll ever paint today, much less ask somebody for advice on what she created.
At least new writers and painters can practice alone.
Aspiring comedians have it the worst. They open themselves up to small public failures, night after night.
Learn How to Fail in Public
Before he became famous, Martin spent years touring dinner clubs and restaurants testing and refining his unique brand of comedy. He said,
“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.
At night, preoccupied by the success or failure of that evening’s show, I would return to my motel room… knowing I had at least two more hours of ceiling staring to do before the adrenaline eased off and I could fall asleep.”
Putting your work out into the world — whether it’s a book, album, film, app or even a comedy show — can feel like you’re walking out onto the street wearing no pants.
How long will it take before someone notices? How will people you know react when they see what you’ve done? And isn’t all this public work just a little embarrassing?
Somebody might notice. And yes, it could feel a little awkward. But you’ll learn only so much from practicing alone in a room.
After a certain point, a public failure is far more instructive than a private masterpiece. Consider Martin practicing his rough-around-the-edges comedy shows on the road night after night.
Like him, you can learn more about your craft and what to do next from the reaction of would-be fans.
Treat Success and Failure the Same
Success is another beast entirely.
If you achieve a goal in the arena or on the pitch or field, will you be happy with the same achievement next season?
It’s natural to want more, just like Martin.
If your business expands, perhaps you’ll have to hire a team to take care of sales, marketing or customer support. Say goodbye to being a scrappy founder and hello to being a CEO.
If fans start buying your art, prepare to deal with accusations of selling out. And what’s more, you’ll need to learn the business behind being a creative professional. Numbers aren’t as sexy as the blank canvas.
If you publish a successful book, you open yourself up to managing your readers’ and critics’ expectations.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert knew she’d struggle to match the success of her 2006 book Eat, Pray, Love.
It’s hard to top selling ten million copies and Oprah declaring
“The story has reached into almost every corner of the world”.
But Gilbert went ahead and wrote the follow-up anyway. And yes, it sold fewer copies. Gilbert even said Committed “bombed”. But that didn’t stop her writing another book that fans loved: Big Magic.
So take a note from the famous English poet Rudyard Kipling. He once said to
“…meet Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same”.
Put Your Time In
When Martin reflected on what it took to make it as a comedian, actor and filmmaker, he wrote,
“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.”
Have you spent eighteen-plus years learning, practicing and refining?
If not, concentrate on the one thing you have control over: improving your craft.
Remember, you can’t control the nature of success. It’s an ephemeral beast that Martin, like many others, learnt to make peace with. He said,
“It was only until the late 80s, I kept thinking I was going to go away. But I never went away. So why am I wasting all that grief? I survived somehow by the skin of my teeth. Some of that is luck.”
Yes, you might need luck. Yes, being in the right place at the right time helps. And yes artists like Steve Martin possess an abundance of natural talent. But it’ll never be over if you don’t get started.
- Steve Martin: He’s off the Wall. Time Magazine. 1987.
- Steve Martin Teaches Comedy. Masterclass. 2017.
- Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. 2007.
- Steve Martin Plastic Surgery via celebrityabc https://www.flickr.com/photos/celebrityabc/21570868558