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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Famous Writers Who Trusted Their Instincts and Made It Big

Never before in history have authors been so readily accessible. If you google “writing advice,” you land 605,000,000 results. Like all things technological, this is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the wisdom of millions of writers past and present is at your fingertips. On the other hand, it’s dangerously easy to lose yourself trying to follow the countless, and often contradictory, advice of writers who may or may not be anything like you.

What can save you from getting lost in this muddle is paying attention to how other writers have learned to trust themselves, even when who they are goes against the grain of what’s expected. For example, a fellow writer said:

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney.

That writer is Marilynne Robinson. She published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980. She didn’t publish another novel for over two decades. Then, in 2004, she finally published Gilead . . . and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Another writer said:

[An] iPad was given to me at a reading . . . It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.

The writer here is Louise Gluck and the book she is referring to is The Wild Iris, a compilation of poems she wrote after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues. It also won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m not saying that all writers who trust their instincts will win the Pulitzer Prize. I’m also not saying that the Pulitzer Prize is the only definition of success. What I am saying is that success is capricious. Most of the time success has no rhyme or reason for dismissing one talented writer and choosing another. But if you want it badly enough, your best chance at getting it is to work hard at figuring out who you are. Louise Gluck’s personal motto is follow your enthusiasm:

When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.

Real writing, Gluck says, will not show itself until we are living authentically:

I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have any children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.

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On Rejection: What If There Was No Dr. Seuss?

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was published just a year before Dr. Seuss’ death and captures his indomitable sense of optimism and hope. If Seuss had ever meant to write an autobiography, this book would be it.

He was born Theodor Seuss Geisel. The name Dr. Seuss (actually pronounced “zoice”) began both as a cover story he concocted after getting caught drinking gin during Prohibition and as a joke directed at his father who always wanted him to get a Phd.

Ted to his family and friends, Seuss wrote his first children’s book in 1937: A Story No One Can Beat, which he later renamed And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Seuss attributed his now-famous style of lighthearted rhyming to his mother who would soothe him to sleep when he was young by “chanting” rhymes she remembered from her own childhood.

But success did not come easily to Dr. Seuss. The exact number is unknown, but somewhere between twenty and forty publishing companies rejected his first book. In fact, according to Seuss himself, he became so discouraged that one day he was walking home to burn the manuscript when he randomly ran across an old college friend who had connections to the publishing industry and helped him get the book published.

After this first long-awaited success, Seuss continued to work tirelessly throughout his writing career, locking himself in the studio of his old observation tower and writing at least eight hours a day—sometimes literally wearing a thinking cap. It wasn’t unusual for him to throw away 95 percent of his work and spend up to a year on one book.

Seuss’ hard work paid off: He earned two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and the Pulitzer Prize (among many others). To this date, his books have still sold more than J. K. Rowling’s and Stephenie Meyer’s.

But it wasn’t his fame and fortune that Seuss was most proud of. His greatest achievement, he said, was replacing the boring “Dick and Jane” books with fun, silly, and imaginative books. His greatest hope was to instill a love of reading in children.

Today, one in four children receive Dr. Seuss as their first book, and Seuss’ birthday (March 2) has been named National Read Across America Day.

Dr. Seuss became Dr. Seuss because he didn’t give up.

Who will you become if you don’t give up?