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Try, Try Again

I just finished reading Steve Martin's short memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. It's a great (and very fast) read that traces the path he took from his childhood in California (a hard family life, extreme anxiety and loneliness, his love of magic) to becoming a mega-star.

The book offers an intriguing inside look at Martin's creative thought process, his efforts to become not just a standup comic but to completely reinvent comedy, and the remarkable tenacity it took to succeed. Martin also shares the many missteps he made along the way and the moments of dumb luck that helped propel him to the top of a crowded field.

I was most struck by how much Martin developed over the years and how deliberate and calculated it was. In the earliest days of his career he worked at a magic shop in Disneyland and, later, as an actor in hammy stage shows at Knott's Berry Farm. He played banjo. Comedy wasn't always easy for him and he cribbed a lot from old joke books. But at the peak of his standup career in the late '70s he was filling stadiums with tens of thousands of people who could barely even see him on stage, and he was credited with creating a whole new comedic form free of the standard punchline formulas.

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Usually, by the time we find out about an artist/actor/musician, they've honed their craft and we see only the best of the best. We forget that they probably stunk at one point. So you listen to Steve Martin's album A Wild and Crazy Guy or see The Jerk and it's a bit deceptive. Is it the work of a genius or someone who just tried really, really hard, produced way more than he needed and shared only the best parts?

It's a question you can ask of any of your favorite artists. For me I'm thinking of the Beatles. (That'll be the only reference to music in this post).

Anyway, it all leaves me wondering this: can anyone who's willing to work hard enough have moments of brilliance like our greatest artistic heroes and succeed (assuming they also have the same dumb luck and are at the right place at the right time), or are they fundamentally different from the rest of us the moment they leave the womb?