In 2007, Steve Martin stopped by the Charlie Rose show.
For those who don’t know, Martin got his start as a comedian, and he later built that into a career spanning across television, movies, music, and even writing. He is known for his offbeat and eccentric style.
He had recently released Born Standing Up, a very personal memoir and the conversation with Rose centered around how Martin first found himself in front of a stage, the relationships in his life, and the rest of his career.
The interview is both touching and funny, but it’s perhaps most fascinating when Rose asks Martin to explain the following:
“Somebody once stood up in the audience and asked you how to become successful, and you said that you have to be undeniably good at something.”
Martin looks at him for a second, nods a little, and then shares:
“Well, people always ask me how do you make it in show business, or whatever. What I always tell them, and I’ve said it many years, and nobody ever takes note because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. 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.’”
Simple and somewhat obvious, but also very profound.
You can’t fault the advice. In fact, Cal Newport wrote a book about exactly this topic arguing why developing skills and optimizing yourself to be good at something is a far better career path than waiting for your passion.
That said, I think it can be further supplemented.
The Limitations of Good
The world we live in today is heavily dictated by the attention economy.
There are far more stimuli in our average environment than there has ever been at any point in history. Our senses are constantly bombarded with noise.
This is particularly prominent on the internet, where the amount of information and data produced continues to grow exponentially, but the digital reality is far from the only place where this is true.
Think about the buildings, advertisements, and attractions of the average large city in the world and compare that to how it may have looked 50 to 100 years ago. The chances are that you wouldn’t even recognize it.
What this has done is that, with so much competition for our attention, it’s put a premium on dedicated engagement. Indeed, to many companies, our attention is the most valuable metric to measure such engagement, and this fact has perpetuated a cycle of even more noise.
While it’s true that the market rewards what’s good and valuable over time, with the increasing noise, that time frame is getting longer and longer.
In the words of legendary economist John Maynard Keynes:
“Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.”
Very broadly speaking, being good alone isn’t enough. We live in a world where being able to signal that competence is almost as important.
Marketing yourself in some form is a necessity.
The Power of Interesting
The best marketers in the world don’t tell you they’re marketers.
They tell you a story, they engage you with genuine excitement, and they mostly treat you like the human being you are rather than a number.
It goes beyond that, too, though. Doing these things will take you far, but even so, in a noisy world, there is a particular quality that rewards some people over others. It’s why they are able to capitalize on their competence.
To be sure, tactics and hacks often do work in getting someone to pay attention to you, but building long-term trust in your competence takes more than that. It takes a degree of interestingness.
The term interesting is fairly broad, but that’s exactly its strength in this case.
In order to get the attention you deserve you not only have to be “so good they can’t ignore you,” but you also have to be so interesting they can’t ignore you.
Interesting is what makes you stop and look twice. Interesting is what inspires you to dig deeper. Interesting is how you stand out in the noise.
Once you capture interest, your competence can do the work for you.
The beauty of using this term is that it describes an output that always gets a response, but it can be accomplished through a multitude of inputs.
You don’t need to know the depths of every marketing hack in the book, nor are you circumstantially confined. All you need to do is optimize whatever it is you’re selling, whether it be yourself or a product, for interestingness.
More often than not, that’s done by capitalizing on what makes you unique.
The World Made Easy
While what we’ve talked about is most relevant to careers, all of this is far broader than that if we loosen up our definitions a little bit.
Most people have a very narrow view of marketing because they’ve been forced or tricked one too many times into having their time stolen.
When you really break it down marketing is just the psychology of getting someone to give you a moment of their focus. Nothing more, nothing less.
When you’re giving a presentation at work or school, you’re marketing.
When you’re at a bar hoping to make eye contact, you’re marketing.
When you’re telling someone a personal story, you’re marketing.
In each of these instances, you’re vying not only for someone’s time but also their attention, with the hope and possibility of something more.
The only way they are going to give you something more, however — whether it be their money, their company, or their empathy — is if something about you makes them take a second look. Something that makes them pause.
How good you are at something isn’t always visible even after the first glance. To get someone coming back enough times for them to notice your competence, you have to add a bit of intrigue.
Be so interesting you can’t be ignored.
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