“Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïvete. That fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.” -Steve Martin
It’s 1978 and Steve Martin is about to take the stage at Nassau Coliseum in New York. He asks the promoter, “How many tickets sold?”
Martin just released his second stand-up album, A Wild and Crazy Guy which sold two and a half million copies and landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. As of tonight, he is officially the biggest concert comedian in the history of show business.
The night was 18 years in the making. 10 years spent learning, four years spent refining, and four years were spent in what Martin himself called, “wild success.”
But his path was so dimly lit in those first 10 years that he made a promise to himself on his 28th birthday: If I haven’t made it by 30, I’ll quit.
“Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.” -Steve Martin
Creating a good stand-up routine take a perfect storm of Human Creativity. A comedian must first be connected enough to themself and the world to see the humor in everyday life. They must then use the tools of creativity to write their jokes into existence. But then comes the great separator: To bring laughter to the masses, they have to get on stage, over and over, knowing that no one will care, knowing they will bomb, knowing the odds of reaching their dreams are slim, slim, slim.
It’s important to make the distinction between Delusions of Grandeur and Delusions of Possibility. One is used to inflate one’s self-worth to dangerous levels without any evidence. The other is a belief that something is possible despite any evidence.
History’s greatest accomplishments — the earth-shattering, no-way, how-did-they-do-it moments of innovation — all started as an unlikely story in someone’s mind. We always hear icons and titans speak of their success in hindsight, pointing the finger at traits like tenacity, perseverance, and confidence.
But before anyone can persevere or lean into any real, evidence-based confidence, they need a certain level of Naïvete and Delusion to light the fuse. They need to hold onto the wild belief that what they dream for is possible.
Steve Martin didn’t know what the view from the top would look like, or how he would get there. But he believed that something beyond his wildest aspirations was waiting for him.
When his 30th birthday came and he still hadn’t made it, he broke his promise to himself and pressed on.
“The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.” -Robert Greene
Around the age of nine, we begin to form our personal belief system. Psychologists divide this system into two types of beliefs. The first is Instrumental Beliefs — ideas that are easily tested and proved.
Instrumental Beliefs: If I touch this flame, my hand will burn. If I work these hours, I’ll receive my salary. If I have six gin and tonics, I’ll be drunk.
But it’s the second type of belief, Philosophical Beliefs, that propels humans forward and backward in beautiful and terrifying ways. They are the beliefs we keep close not because they are tangibly true, but because they provide us with an emotional benefit.
Philosophical Beliefs: True love lasts forever. I am the greatest painter who ever lived. Everyone is against me. I can drink three more gins and be fine.
Our wild and crazy ideas are born out of our Philosophical Beliefs, but as we gain more experience we naturally become more realistic. Not all dreams come true and our Instrumental Beliefs slowly suck the air out of our Philosophical balloons. We start to protect ourselves from future failure and disappointment by rewriting our crazy dreams into watered-down goals.
It’s true that we need to take our cues from reality in order to check our egos and protect our time. Yet, those reality checks should be used to help us create a tangible strategy to reach our dreams without trimming the magical fat right off them.
We can use this double-edged sword of human nature to our advantage by barbelling Philosophical Beliefs with Instrumental Strategy.
Steve Martin didn’t sit around believing he would wake up one day as the world’s most successful stand-up. He held onto that belief while creating a strategy with Instrumental Beliefs: If I write jokes every day, I will get better. If I get on stage every night, my act will improve. If I get the right manager, I’ll get bigger opportunities. If I just keep going, going, going, something will happen.
“I have decided to give the greatest performance of my life! Oh, wait, sorry, that’s tomorrow night.” -Steve Martin, on stage.
In1981, Martin walked away from stand-up altogether. He’d reached the top of the mountain, looked around, and decided it was time to move on. He left the stand-up stage and set his sights on the movie business.
Everyone thought he was crazy. His team reminded him of the millions of dollars he’d be leaving on the table and the extremely low probability of replicating this level of success in films. He didn’t listen. He knew it was crazy himself, but once again, he charged himself up with a potent mix of Delusion and Naïvete and swung for the fences.
He went on to make dozens of box-office hits and cult classics like The Jerk, The Three Amigos, and Father of the Bride and ultimately became more famous for his films than his stand-up.
Steve Martin’s rise to the top is a great lesson in persistence. But there was another factor pushing him forward. A crazy notion, deep inside, urging him to keep going.
The Delusion of Possibility gave Martin the fuel to not only start his comedy career but to keep going when things looked bleak. He turned it into motivation. His motivation led to more practice, more refining, more nights on stage. That practice became skill. Skill became evidence-based confidence.
And it was the confidence, dedication, and tenacity that allowed him to tap into real-world momentum and meet his wildest dreams.