The path that led me to Jordan and the insight he represents began with a 2007 episode of the Charlie Rose show. Rose was interviewing the actor and comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up. They talked about the realities of Martin’s rise. “I read autobiographies in general,” Martin said. “[And I often get frustrated]… and say, ‘You left out that one part here, how did you get that audition for that one thing where suddenly you’re working at the Copa? How did that happen?’” Martin wrote his book to answer the “how” question, at least with respect to his own success in stand-up. It was in this explanation of “how” that Martin introduced a simple idea that floored me when I first heard it. The quote comes in the last five minutes of the interview, when Rose asks Martin his advice for aspiring performers.
“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’
“In response to Rose’s trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice: “If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.”
This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something too good to be ignored. “Comedy at the time was all setup and punch line… the clichéd nightclub comedian, rat-a-tat-tat,” Martin explained to Rose.3 He thought it could be something more sophisticated. Here’s how Martin explained his evolution in an article he published around the time of his Charlie Rose interview: “What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax?”4 In one famous bit, Martin tells the audience that it’s time for his famous nose-on-the-microphone routine. He then leans in and puts his nose on the microphone for several seconds, steps back, takes a long bow, and with gravitas thanks the crowd. “The laugh came not then,” he explains, “but only after “they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.”
It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. It’s clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut to his eventual fame. “[Eventually] you are so experienced [that] there’s a confidence that comes “out,” Martin explained. “I think it’s something the audience smells.”
Be so good they can’t ignore you. When I first heard this advice, I was watching the Martin interview online. It was the winter of 2008 and I was approaching my final year as a graduate student. At the time, I had recently started a blog called Study Hacks, which was inspired by the pair of student-advice guides I had published, and focused mainly on tips for undergraduates. Soon after hearing Martin’s axiom, however, I dashed off a blog post that introduced his idea to my readers.5 “Sure, it’s scary,” I concluded. “But, even more, I find it liberating.”
Excerpt from ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love’ by Cal Newport, 2016