Jerry Seinfeld’s craftsmanship

It’s easy to think some people are just born gifted, with some divine spark that enables them to accomplish more and at a higher level than everyone else. But if you look closely at the lives of true masters, you’ll see discipline, focus, persistence, and a pursuit of intrinsic rewards.

I clipped this excellent New York Times profile of Jerry Seinfeld last year and have just dug it back up from my Instapaper files. Note what drives Seinfeld:

For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”

When he 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.”

When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” in 1981, he practiced his five-minute set “200 times” beforehand, jogging around Manhattan and listening to the “Superman” theme on a Walkman to amp up.

Seinfeld, an almost-billionaire, is more than set for life. He could stop working now and never want for money, and his reputation as one of the entertainment greats of our era is secure even if he doesn’t ever perform again. But he still works on his craft in small clubs and big theaters and continues to tour. He still keeps polishing tiny bits from his routine and searches for new material. He uses the freedom he’s earned to do more of the work that he clearly loves. I keep returning to this profound Walt Disney quotation that perfectly captures what I think we all should be aspiring to in our work lives:

We don’t make movies to make money. We make money so we can make more movies.

The great ones are motivated by the intrinsic rewards of their work. And work is a key word. You want to be great at something? Find the thing you’re willing to spend lots of time working on without any expectation of approval, applause, or money. And then work like crazy on it.

7 thoughts on “Jerry Seinfeld’s craftsmanship

  1. […] Jerry Seinfeld apparently kept a big calendar on his office wall and crossed off each day on the calendar when he wrote, a daily habit that was a high priority for his work. And he was obsessive enough to not want to break the streak, so the calendar with the red “X”s compelled him to write every day if only to keep the streak alive. […]

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