If the greatest first line in movie history comes from Rounders (If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you’re the sucker), then the equivalent award for a book’s first line goes to Steve Martin.
In “Born Standing Up”, Martin condenses his stand-up career in one sentence: “I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. 10 of those years were spent learning, 4 years were spent refining and 4 were spent in wild success.”
It’s interesting that Martin broke down his career in this way. During much of the first 10 years, Martin was performing 10 hours per day as a teenager and 3-5 shows per night as he graduated to nightclubs. His original shows consisted more of magic than stand-up comedy and he progressed throughout time. He barely made enough money to get by and was shown almost no signs that his career would really take off. As he put it, he was fortunate that “persistence was a great substitute for talent.”
To describe his final four years as a “wild success” is almost an understatement. For the first time ever, a comedian was selling out arenas. When he started, there weren’t even comedy clubs, let alone someone selling tens of thousands of seats. He was consistently booked a year out and became a national celebrity. His show was on autopilot mode. He made more money than he ever could have imagined doing what he loved.
They were also the most miserable four years of his stand-up comedy career.
Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like An Artist”, notes the counterintuitive nature that obscurity can have as you begin a project. It’s a time to test the boundaries, try something new – throw as much shit against the wall and see what sticks. Obscurity is a valuable resource that, like time, you simply can’t get back once you lose it.
For Martin, this meant trying magic tricks, writing songs, wearing unique costumes and ultimately creating a show that simply never existed before.
That’s why your favorite band’s second album is never as good as the one that made them famous. That’s why the company that was once lauded for its unique culture seems so black and white now. Success creates rigidity and a conformation to the norm.
Look, we all want to be successful. We want to make it big. The bright lights are an appeal that can help jump-start us out of bed each morning.
I’m not immune to that. I see people with large followings, people that are making money out of their ears, and that seems to have a magic touch with every project they take on. Some days, I spend more time thinking about that stuff than actually writing.
But we have something these people don’t have: obscurity.
We can take chances. We’re not answering to shareholders or an agent. And that’s got to mean something.
So if your Etsy store is slow on sales or your recent song on Spotify tanked, embrace it. Lean in. Find a new way to do things. You’re lean, you’re agile, and you’re more creative than your competitors.
Although spectacular, we know that Martin’s story is not unique. Most people that are masters of their craft spent years – or decades – honing their talent, fighting the good fight.
Soccer star Lionel Messi said it took him 17 years to become an “overnight success”. Those previous 17 years were spent grinding, working on his craft, getting shit done. He wasn’t spending time stuck in interviews or photoshoots like he has to after becoming a star. He had tunnel vision.
There’s a common saying that the journey is the destination. As the Philadelphia 76ers put it, “trust the process.”
More bluntly, the truth is that although the 14 years that Martin spent struggling are guaranteed, the 4 years as a wild success are not.
The struggle is guaranteed, the success is not.
And that goes for each and every one of us.
So check your watch. How long have you been at it?
Don’t wallow in your obscurity, take pride in it.
And then go do something about it.