I just finished Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up in one sitting this morning. It’s a short autobiography of his 10 years learning, 4 years refining, and 4 years of wild success in stand up comedy. Martin is also a stand up writer.
The memoir describes Martin’s analytical approach to becoming very very funny. Any book by such a talent about the struggle to be creative is worth a look. Here are a five take home’s relevant to any young academic.
1. “All entertainment is or is about to become old-fashioned. There is room for something new.”
Remember that all but the greatest theory, and most of the data, collected by scientists will become increasingly irrelevant as it is supplanted by new theory and applicable data. Someone has to provide that new theory and data.
2. “There is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”
It’s OK to fantasize about success. Dream your wild-ass dreams. Creativity is often manic. Just remember that there is a reason folks talk about manic depression. In the end, most of your ideas won’t work out. That’s normal. Creativity is about generating 100 ideas, so that you can recognize one good one.
3. Teaching is, after all, a form of show business.
If you don’t have their attention, you can’t be teaching.
4. It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical. Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.
Good science is about constantly working to perfect your craft. Early success in grad school–be it a prestigious NSF Pre-Doc, or a paper in Science or Nature–has a random component to it. If you are lucky, don’t get complacent. If you haven’t been so far, be patient. Natural selection is, at its core, about staying in the game by producing consistently quality work.
5. You can’t ask a friend to read a manuscript twice.