Getting good at any craft takes a long time, be it deal making or trading or mastering a game or programming. However books/articles,etc. out in the world are stufffed with "get rich quick", "get smart quick","get skills quick" kind of messages. I can’t speak of other fields but programming books, that implicitly carry these messages, are always in majority, be it in the offline and online bookstores. ‘Learn XYZs language in 30 days’, ‘Become an ace coder in X weeks’ etc. For all such coders who believe such books and coding something for 30 days is going to transform you, make your venture the next instagram, this book has a lot to offer. Steve Martin gives a biographical account of his life where he claims his achievement is not a result of some sudden random event that got him to spotlight and has since then remained in spotlight. Far from it, its a story of sweat, tears, rejections and occasional acceptances, smiles and rewards . Steve starts off his book saying
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. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic. I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented. I didn’t sing, dance, or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself.
The book gives a background of Steve’s father whose career ambition to be an actor made the family move from Texas to Hollywood to California. Amidst the various road trips, car radio introduced Steve to comedy. Later TV shows hooked him on to comedy. Meanwhile his father’s acting gig was going nowhere and he reconciled to working in real estate, yielding to the pressures of raising a family. He was forever against Steve’s interest in comedy as he thought it was flippant job. So, Steve’s childhood , despite a doting mother was a troubled childhood. Somewhere in the book he remarks,
Thanks to his father’s decision to move to Inglewood, California, Steve finds himself a job at Disneyland, the fairy tale place for any kid. His job was selling guide books. His job used to get over by noon and he had a free admission in the park. During this free time he came in contact with magic and he was enthralled by it. At the age of 10 being a regular employee at Disneyland, he learnt magic tricks from a fellow named Eddie Adamek. He was completely fascinated by one, Wally Boag, a performing artist at Disneyland. Slowly he starts attending every show of Wally Boag and tries to absorb all aspects of his performance. This stint in Disneyland comes to an end, thanks to poor sales of guide books. Steve then works on an ad-hoc job for an year before knocking the doors of local magic shops and he gets a job at one such shops. Thus, Steve began his show business career at the age of fifteen in 1960. He stood behind a counter eight hours a day, shuffling decks, manipulating Wizard decks , Mental Photography cards, and performing other magic tricks. This practice for 8 to 12 hours each day made him better and better at magic. He also developed a keen interest towards comedy after seeing Wally Boag’s performance. He also starts reading various magic books and devours for magic tricks that he can use at work.While performing his magic tricks, he realizes that audience loved it when some tricks didn’t work. This is when he faces a choice in his life, either be a magician or do comedy. Given that advanced magic tricks required more money, stage lighting infra etc, he takes a decision of somehow mixing comedy and magic so that he stands out.
At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent. Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.
He also starts learning banjo. Magic by itself might be a common place. Comedy by itself might be a regular event. But mix magic , comedy and banjo, you get a combination that will make a person stand out in any performance. That’s exactly what Steve aimed for. When he picked banjo he had no teacher, he literally learnt by slowing down banjo records. When asked in a Charlie Rose interview, about his thoughts on banjo, Steve remarked,
In high school, I couldn’t play an instrument, I remember getting my first banjo, and reading the book saying saying his is how you play the C chord, and I put my fingers down to play the C chord and I couldn’t tell the difference. But I told myself, just stick with this, just keep playing, and one day you’ll have been playing for 40 years, and at this point, you’ll know how to play.
Steve started working at ‘Bird Cage Theatre’ at the age of eighteen with no specific skill set, except an ambition to become good at comedy. He worked at Bird Cage Theatre four years mastering the craft.He worked steadily on his magic act, six minutes at a time, four times a day, five on Sunday, for three years. That’s a ton of practice. Even though he relied less on magic in the later years, he says that the ability to judge audience reaction from all those magic shows was priceless. At Bird Cage Theatre, Steve starts using banjo in his act and tweaks his show sometimes to rely purely on comedy.While working at Bird Cage, he also starts doing part time at another theatre, ‘Prison of Socrates’. About these formative years of experience, Steve remarks
My act was eclectic, and it took ten more years for me to make sense of it. However, the opportunity to perform four and five times a day gave me confidence and poise. Even though my material had few distinguishing features, the repetition made me lose my amateur rattle.
Steve consciously starts restricting magic to one specific act so that he doesn’t carry of risk of being called a magician. He wanted to be a comedian and not a magician. Really Amazing, the kind of clarity he had at such a young age. Well , he had a parallel life going on too. He got himself enrolled in a state college and started reading about Philosophy, ethics , logic. Not surprisingly, he found content for his comedy acts in these courses. Like they say, if you want to buy a car, you suddenly start noticing cars on the street. In the same way, Steve’s liking for comedy made his courses on syllogism , philosophy etc, a wonderful source for his comedy acts. During these years where he was doing multiple things, he had two illuminating moments, one he decided he would write his own comedy and second, he met Nina Goldbatt who had a significant impact on his professional life. Courtesy Nina, he later got a break in the then popular show, Smother brothers show. It is not a fairy tale story after this break at Smother brothers show. Steve met with a lot of failures, experimented a lot as the material was getting obsolete very quickly. He continued to study, despite the hectic schedule and that kept his mind afresh. He could rely on the study time to energize him to come up with creative content for his acts. He improved on the comedy format where he cut off the reliance on punch lines to make the audience laugh. He improvised and developed his unique style where the act free flowing in nature.
My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other’s sense of humor, you had to be there. And for the next eight years, I did that
After this eight year stint, Steve left television writing and hit the road, literally. He went on a string of road shows designed by a local agency and here is where he honed his skills as a comedian. The anonymity made him brave enough to experiment in colleges and small towns. This was also a time when he was away completely from his parents and sister. This act of doing, experimenting, getting feedback, learning from it and improvising is the classic "deliberate practice act", that he went through, during his years on the road. He also emphasizes the role of solitude in those years and says that it was a crucial element for becoming good at his craft.
The travel isolated me. Friends were available only through costly phone calls, and contact with my parents and sister spiraled down to a pinpoint. 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 on stage. Because I was generally unknown, in the smaller venues I was free to gamble with material, and there were a few evenings when crucial mutations affected my developing act. THE CONSISTENT WORK enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. 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.
So, these years spent on creating, refining, experimenting the craft made the Steve Martin that he is, today. Starting from a job at ‘Coffee and Confusion’ where he had to talk to empty chairs just to attract passerby, he went on to doing comedy act for as large as 45000 jam packed auditorium. I have not been able to touch upon a lot of other subtle aspects that are mentioned in the book, that one can apply to developing skills in any craft. I guess one needs to read this book to get all the flesh and bones of the story.
The basic theme that one can infer from Steve Martin’s story is Diligence. His diligence played a pivotal role in his success. Diligence not just in terms of persistence, but also in the ability to ignore unrelated pursuits.