A Lesson in Leadership from Jerry Seinfeld

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I recently read a New York Times Magazine article that says that in the late 19th century there was a theory about how human beings improve in their activities. The theory said that a person “could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, which he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.” In other words, there’s a point for each of us where we can’t improve anymore.

Turns out that’s not altogether true. Current research, as the article points out, shows that our level of improvement “often has much less to do with our innate limits than with what we consider an acceptable level of performance.” To put it another way, we work at something until we get to “good enough.” And this is where the average people simply stop.

Let me tell you what the above average people do.

When I was producing my TV show, I had the pleasure of working with Jerry Seinfeld several times. The last time he appeared on our show, his own groundbreaking show, Seinfeld, was already on the air. It hadn’t yet become the ridiculously huge hit it was eventually to turn into, but it was clearly heading in that direction.

That evening, on my show, Almost Live!, Jerry did a comic routine I’d seen him do before. But it was better somehow. I couldn’t put my finger on it, so later, backstage, I asked him about it.

“I’m glad you noticed,” he said to me. “I’ve been working on that routine. About a month ago I was doing a gig in Kansas City and I videotaped the performance. Afterward, as I was watching the recording, I realized that wasn’t being physical enough—I was pretty much just standing there. So I’ve been working on adding some more physicality to my performance.”

That was it—that was the difference. He was moving more. But that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is this:

This was Jerry Seinfeld! A guy who was on the cusp of attaining legend status with what TV Guide would eventually call “the greatest TV show of all time.” A guy who was currently the number one stand-up comedian in the country, if not the world. A guy who was absolutely, indisputably at the top of his game!

And he was videotaping himself to see how he could get better.

Now keep in mind, this particular routine—like all Seinfeld’s routines—was already working. In fact, it was killing! Audiences had tears running down their eyes when Jerry performed this routine. And here he was, trying to make it better.

So if Jerry Seinfeld—at the top of his game—is still trying to improve, then who in the world are you to settle for “good enough”?

By 1965, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were already being proclaimed as the greatest songwriters in history. Had they stopped improving at that point—had they decided that “good enough” was good enough—we would have never had Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper, or The White Album, or Abbey Road. We would have never heard the songs Imagine, or Let It Be, or Hey Jude, or Maybe I’m Amazed.

The truth is, we can never stop improving—not if we want to stay competitive. Jerry Seinfeld knew it, the Beatles knew it, and, if you’re honest with yourself, you know it as well.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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  • Eric Chester says:

    Great post, Bill.
    What separates the ‘one hit wonders’ from the legends in any art form–including business–is the dogged determination to never be satisfied with where you are, and always seek ways to improve.
    The Marx Brothers would practice the same skit 500 times in front of a live audience and when they finally thought it was good enough, THEN they’d make the movie. This is a far cry from people today who have an idea in the shower, slap a logo on it, and start selling it like it’s the cure for cancer.

  • I wish I would have never read this for now I know why I have just been mediocre all this time. Okay, fine, I’ll get out and there and start practicing. Thanks Bill… I think.

  • Waldo says:

    Well done Bill. I posted this to my site.


  • Great post, Bill. I saw Jerry Seinfeld at a small comedy club in New York in November. He was a surprise guest that night and, you guessed it, he was practicing new material.

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