Four Life Lessons from Jerry Seinfeld, Master Craftsman

What qualities do the world’s great performers possess that the rest of us don’t?

It’s a great question, and our usual instinct is to answer the question by listing characteristics, as if they were ingredients for baking a cake.  (Start with passion. Stir in determination and great coaching; cook 10,000 hours and Voila!)

Unfortunately, this is exactly wrong. Not because those characteristics are not present in great performers. But because listing characteristics is the wrong way of thinking about the question. What makes great performers is not ingredients. It’s their approach.

Approach, meaning the interlinked pattern of strategies, habits, and methods for the daily process of getting better. It’s not just what you do — it’s how you go about doing it.

Few people on the planet have a better approach to craft than Jerry Seinfeld. To see why, read this wonderful story by Jonah Weiner and click the above video. Listen to Seinfeld approach the process of writing a single joke — which took two years. Look at how many lines he’s crossed out, shaving syllables, perfecting beats. Listen to the clinical/carpenter-like way he talks about “connective tissue” and “jigsaw puzzles;” how he refers to a comedy set as a “workout.” Most of all, see how much he relishes the process.

If you were to distill Seinfeld’s approach into a few guidelines, they might include:

  • 1) Embrace revision and repetition. Realize that nothing is ever completely right on the first try, and probably not on the tenth. (To prepare for his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Seinfeld did two hundred reps of his routine.)
  • 2) Be creative and ruthless in self-testing. Create challenges and seek out obstacles Seinfeld prefers tiny, difficult audiences to large, adoring ones. Because that’s the best way to expose weakness — which is exactly the point, so you can see what’s working, what’s not, and where to go next. They are your lab.
  • 3)  Learn from parallel crafts: in the space of this piece, Seinfeld compares his joke-writing process to baseball, high-end car design, samurai, calligraphy, and the art of cricket-cage building. The point is, he’s constantly trying to view his profession through different lenses, in order to understand it more deeply.
  • 4) Be obsessively, monkishly habitual about methods and tools. Design your workspace for simplicity and focus. An unabashed creature of habit, Seinfeld always writes material with a Bic blue clear-barrel pen on yellow legal pad, longhand. This works, because the more you automate the  non-meaningful elements of the process, the more you free your brain up to focus on what matters. As Flaubert said, “I am orderly and disciplined with my daily life, so that I may be savage and original with my art.”

I have to confess that, as great as this article is throughout, there’s one paragraph I like best of all:

When [Seinfeld] can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

I like it because he’s referring to this article I wrote back in 2007 which served as the starting point for the research that became The Talent Code.

So I’ll tell you what Jerry, since you liked the article, here’s an offer: I’ll send you a copy of the latest book, if you send me a loaf of that delicious marble rye you “borrowed” from that lady on Episode 121.  Whaddya say?

Happy Festivus, everybody!

UPDATE:  Here’s what Jerry had to say about myelin, talent, and comedy, from this NYT Magazine blog (FYI, the “Dean” he refers to is Dean Robinson, the Times magazine editor who wrote the entry.)

OK. I am a thousand per cent sure there is not one other Comedy/Science Super Geek out there like me interested in myelination of comedianization.

But I do love this subject and must comment here as it is the only time this is ever going to come up in the Universe.

Just to clarify, building your myelin has nothing to do with being funny.

You could have my myelin. It won’t help. (As evidenced by the suggestion that the connection between these two articles could be ‘grist’ for comedy. Oh my god, Dean, I can’t even believe how unfunny that is.)

But here is how myelin works in comedy.

Being a comedian is two basic skills. One, being funny, which is a soft skill. Two, performing a comedy bit, which is a hard skill. The second part is where the myelin comes in.

Any comedian will tell you when they do two shows in one night the second show is almost always better. Why? You’ve got more myelin.

Doing a joke is very similar to any sport that is mostly repetitive action fine motor skills.
It’s a set of mechanical brain commands the body executes almost exactly the same way every time.

Myelin doesn’t make the funny, it makes the recreating of the funny at a time and place of someone else’s choosing possible. Which can be a cool career if you can do it.

But most people have experienced this myelin/comedy effect.

Ever hear a joke and then tell it to every person in your office? The last few recipients always hear the best version and laugh the most. Why?

Practice, polish, myelin. And that’s why it was very helpful for me to learn that being a male stand up comedian in his fifties and being a young Russian female tennis player are exactly the same thing.