When Jerry Seinfeld was first invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, he practiced his set hundreds of times beforehand while jogging around Manhattan listening to the “Superman” theme song to pump himself up.
After working for decades as a comedian, it’s fair to think Seinfeld could waltz on stage and work an audience for an hour without much effort. Certainly, a collection of his favourite jokes would be able to fill the time slot. But for Seinfeld, that’s not enough. The legendary comedian — whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million — is always fine-tuning his jokes, sometimes tinkering with a single one for years until he gets it right in his mind.
“It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he tells The New York Times Magazine. “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.”
Whether they’re comedians, athletes or academics, the elite performers in the world are always practicing, because in their eyes, they’ll never be good enough. For people like Seinfeld, it’s not about the awards, money or fame—it’s about the craft. The pursuit of perfection. Concert pianist Stephen Hough writes that his teacher used to say, “In practice a perfectionist, in performance a realist.” While on stage the laugh and applause is the reward, in practice, these performers work to surpass their own expectations.
And when Seinfeld can’t work on his jokes, he gets anxious.
“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,” said Seinfeld in the same interview.
This broadband is created when you’re in a challenging routine. Many goals in life can be lofty — learn this subject, tone muscle, make this much money, live in this place — and sometimes the only way to move there is slowly.
In this fast-paced world, it can feel inefficient to work and rework a project incrementally, piece by piece, but it’s one of the best ways to refine and optimize your process.
And if you’ve set standards for yourself like Seinfeld, you’ll never stop moving.
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