To make you laugh, a comedian has to convince you that their punchline is believable. Jerry Seinfeld is the master. He makes millions not only believe his punchline but say, “I can’t believe I never put it like that.”
He takes you there. He describes exactly how you feel, and he makes it all very funny. This is his craft. He’s a master technician. A true master of his domain. And the lessons he shares about his work are universal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer or a comedian. A custodian or a CEO. His approach will help you create the best work of your life.
Here’s Jerry Seinfeld’s 12 rules for doing your best work:
- Find the thing people want you to spend a lot of time on wastefully.
The amount of time Jerry spends thinking about what most of us consider trivial things is staggering. But he finds his best work comes when he’s wasting a lot of time on stupid things. The more stupid, the better he feels about it. Your work should feel unreasonable for anyone else but you. You should spend time on details that others don’t see.
- Every year, get rid of the bottom 10–20% of your work.
Jerry makes his work keep getting better by getting rid of the bottom 10% every year. This means that every 4–5 years he has a whole new act. And it continues to evolve forever. Your work should grow with you. You should constantly be looking to improve. Start with what you consider the bottom 10%. Never settle.
- Time your work perfectly.
Jerry methodically calculates timing in his work. He likes the first thing he says in a joke to be funny right away and for the funniest part of a joke to always come at the end. How our work is experienced through time is often forgotten. Think about how you can not only deliver your best work but also deliver it at the right time.
- Connect good ideas tightly until you have a smooth whole.
Jerry weaves his jokes together as tightly and seamlessly as possible. He relates it to a jigsaw puzzle—shaving seconds off jokes and counting syllables—to make sure his next piece fits just right. Are you making sure your next piece is perfectly tailored to follow your last?
- Just try to be one of the people you look up to.
Jerry always wanted to be like the comedians he grew up watching. Instead of shying away from admiration, he was proud of this attitude that was a part of his success. Pick the top masters in your field, and follow their example.
“Once I stepped on stage for the first time, that’s it. I’m now one of those guys.”
- Make your work keep resurfacing in people’s brains.
Jerry’s jokes go deep into your brain and keep coming back. He picks common topics that he feels have a special twist and tries to plant that twist into his work. If you don’t feel something that’s unexplainable about your work, nobody else will either.
“When I hear a good bit, I think about it constantly. There’s some bits I heard over 10 years ago that I still think about at least once a month.”
- Find the vessel that gives you the best chance.
You might have wondered why Jerry doesn’t do movies. He thinks the size of that content doesn’t lends itself to great comedy. He knows the limitations of his craft and he tailors his work to it. Find the shape that suits your work and gives you the best chance.
“To me, the funniest things are shorter, so I think with TV series or Comedians in Cars, I have a better chance of making you laugh.”
- Never stop practicing.
Ever hear a joke and tell it to every person in your office? The last few recipients always hear the best version and laugh the most. Why? Practice. When you practice something a lot, a nerve pathway in your brain expands to contain more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins to shrink back down. Jerry continues to practice his material in front of small crowds before going on tour.
“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.”
- Work should feel generous.
When you’re doing your best work, it’s an act of generosity. It makes people’s lives better. Keep that in perspective—it’s essential to a long life in your craft.
“If you’re doing it for them you’ll be fine. If you’re doing it for you, you’ll have problems. They’ll know it, feel it, and they won’t like it. When you’re making people laugh you feel like you’ve done a nice thing. You come off feeling much more like you gave something than if you got something.”
- Find the torture you’re comfortable with.
Jerry keeps doing standup. It’s not because he enjoys it. In fact, it’s torture. That’s why a lot of comedians stop. But Jerry hasn’t. He’s decided to feel comfortable with the torture because it makes his work better. Instead of trying to avoid all unpleasantness, seek the right amount of it in your work.
“Your blessing in life is when you find the torture you’re comfortable with. That’s marriage, it’s kids, its work, its exercise. Find the torture you’re comfortable with and you’ll do well. It’s no different than when you’re 30 minutes into a workout. You’re okay. You don’t wanna wake up early, you don’t wanna get dressed, you don’t want to go to work, but once you’re there, it’s okay. Once you get going, it’s fine. That’s life. You master that and you’ve mastered life.”
- Trudge your ass in.
Jerry believes writer’s block is a phony, made-up excuse for not doing your work. The way to be better at comedy is to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes is to write every day. It’s the same for you.
“I realized construction workers don’t want to go back to work after lunch. But they’re going. That’s their job. If they can exhibit that level of dedication for that job I should be able to do the same.”
- Bust your ass, pay attention, and fall in love.
Only good can come from working as hard as you can. People don’t absorb enough of the world around them, despite the fact that you can learn everything from what’s around you. We don’t stop to say how great something is. Stop and take that moment because it’s not always great. Fall in love when it is.
“Every year, get rid of the bottom 10–20% of your work.”
“Connect good ideas tightly until you have a smooth whole.”
“Find the torture you’re comfortable with.”
Want to read about Jerry’s formula for accomplishing anything you want in life? Check that out on Robert’s website, Let’s Workshop.
This post was originally published on Medium.
I wrote a short book on writing emails that win you more clients in less time called: Emails That Win You Clients. I also run a service for design and development shops called Workshop, where I find you clients to email every day.