Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

One of my favorite stand-up comedians of all-time is Steve Martin. The “wild and crazy guy” hit the big time when I was a teenager, and he probably helped to shape my sense of humor. Whether he had an arrow through his head or was wearing a King Tut costume, Steve Martin knew how to make me laugh.

But it was only after he decided to abandon stand-up comedy that I began to more fully appreciate Steve Martin. He began to focus on acting and on music, and I realized there was a lot more to Steve Martin the artist than just the man in the white suit or the sketch performer on “Saturday Night Live.” He was smart, he was strategic, and he was multi-talented.

Martin could write. He got his start as a comedy writer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and later wrote Broadway plays and novels. He could play the banjo … really, really well, often sitting in with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band when he opened for them as a comedian in the early ‘70s. He could dance, and not just the “happy feet” dance he would do as part of his stand-up routine. He could act — comedy, drama, whatever was needed. Maybe he wasn’t Robert De Niro, but he never embarrassed himself playing a role that I saw.

I started to watch for Martin’s television appearances even after he quit stand-up comedy. I wanted to see the person and artist behind the over-the-top guy who gave us the trademark phrase, “Well, excuuuuuuuse me!”

And I liked that person even more than the comic. Martin was — and is —impressively smart. I don’t know anything about his personal life or his politics, and I don’t care to know. I’m interested in the artist and performer. I think we all can learn from him, even if we never get in front of a crowd or a camera. The lessons he offers are much broader and more powerful than that.

In an interview he did with Charlie Rose, Martin explained his approach to breaking through in show business.

He said that one of his goals was to “be so good they can’t ignore you.” That phrase has stuck with me.

So good they can’t ignore you.

While I believe it’s true that nothing can replace relationships in the fishing industry — nothing can create the shortcuts, nothing can save the heartache — being so good they can’t ignore you is a powerful idea that has value no matter what you do.

But it needs a corollary to work, and Martin offered that in the very same interview. Everyone knows him for his comedy and acting, but he’s at least as proud of his musicianship and skill on the banjo. That skill was earned through years and years of practice and trial and error. He worked at it like a job, not like a hobby, and he had a long-range view to his talent.

In the same interview, Martin explained his commitment to the craft that began in the 1960s, saying, “If I stay with it [the banjo], then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.”

It’s an amazing example of patience and perseverance, and one that few can match. It’s probably a big part of why he has been so successful in so many different aspects of the entertainment industry.

When Martin retires (and I hope he never does) people will remember him for his stand-up comedy, for his movies and maybe even for his music. I’ll remember him for his dedication and commitment to being “so good they can’t ignore you.”

If your business or your career is not what you want or need it to be, what are you doing to be that good?