3 Things You Need to Know to Achieve Your Goals (Or, What I Learned from Steve Martin)

It’s a new year, and with it comes the opportunity to be a new you. What are your dreams? How will you achieve them? Have you set any goals?

It’s too easy, I think, to become cynical of goal-setting, especially if your goals for last year did not go as well as you had hoped. Perhaps you started out energetically but lost steam along the way. Or perhaps you worked your butt off but it seems you got nowhere in spite of all your effort.

In those moments when you want to throw up your hands and say What does it matter if I try anyway?, it helps to remember that we’re all on a well-trodden path. Others have been where you are now. Look to them for guidance—to the ones who have made it out of the thicket and are on the other side. They have a vantage point you do not. Often times what we most need is not a change in circumstances but a change in perspective.

Last month I read Steve Martin’s biography, Born Standing Up. The first two sentences of his book were the most honest description I have found of what an artist’s career truly looks like:

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.

How does someone work that hard for that long without giving up? What does he know that maybe the rest of us don’t?

Here are the three most important things I learned from Steve Martin on what it takes to be wildly successful:

1. Accept that growth is uncomfortable.

The most successful people—the ones at the very pinnacle of their respective fields—accept that they will be uncomfortable most of the time.

On the very first page of his biography Steve Martin says:

Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.

(For more on the importance of discomfort in achieving success, I recommend Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Eric Andersson’s Peak.)

2. Accept that the perfect moment does not exist.

Along with being uncomfortable, successful people also know that their circumstances will never be perfect. In fact, the more precarious their situation, the more they seem to thrive.

Steve Martin says on page two of his biography:

Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern “Is this funny?” Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be. 

3. Treat yourself like an ally, not an enemy.

Despite history’s aggrandizement of a few greats who were hellbent on self-annihilation, I’d say the vast majority of successful people try their best to treat themselves fairly. Yes, they have big dreams, and yes, they have high expectations of themselves, but they’re also realistic about their current abilities and, when necessary, they’re willing to forgive themselves of their shortcomings.

Here’s Steve Martin on page three of his bio:

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 . . . 

Let Yourself Be Great

If you have not yet set New Year’s goals—or if you weren’t planning on setting any at all—please reconsider. Goals are the gateway to greatness. No one has ever achieved anything wonderful accidentally (despite the media’s obsession with portraying supposed overnight success stories). No one will push you over the edge to success; only you can do that.

Expect great things of yourself,

but also be kind;

Dream big—

set your sights high—

but be happy with who you are in this moment;

Love the journey,

live the discomfort,

believe in greatness.

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3 thoughts on “3 Things You Need to Know to Achieve Your Goals (Or, What I Learned from Steve Martin)

  1. Thanks for the encouraging post! I have set a few new years goals and am already making progress toward achieving them. Wishing you luck with your goals as well!


  2. Thank you, Cary. Your advice above is priceless, and you are amazing for so freely giving it to all of us!


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