The Seinfeld Productivity Problem, and the Power of “Nothing”

When you think about Seinfeld, it’s likely you think of his perpetually rerun TV show by the same name. His comedy was built on seemingly offhand observations, which came off as effortless but belied an incredible amount of hard work.

Love it or hate it, Seinfeld’s sitcom “about nothing” reportedly managed to earn him a cool 267 million dollars in 1998 alone, according to James Clear—and it turned him into an icon. Bee Movie aside, his name still carries a certain cachet.

For instance, perhaps you’ve heard of the Seinfeld Productivity Program?

James Clear quotes software developer and aspiring comedian Brad Isaac about a chance encounter in a comedy club, wherein Isaac had a chance to ask advice from the comedy legend and future animated bee himself:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
It’s an appealing story. There’s just two problems.

First of all, there’s no indication it worked for Brad Isaac. If you google his name with the word “comedian”, the first four pages of search results are nothing but various other people referencing the story of his inspirational brush with Jerry. There’s no comedy website, no reviews of his shows, no clips on YouTube—indeed, not much evidence he ever tried his hand at stand-up. This brings us to the second problem:

It likely never happened. As James Clear himself acknowledges, Seinfeld denied the incident in a 2014 Reddit thread. “This is hilarious to me,” Seinfeld wrote, “that somehow I am getting credit for making an X on a calendar with the Seinfeld productivity program. It’s the dumbest non-idea that was not mine, but somehow I’m getting credit for it.”

In fairness to those still telling the tale, neither detail necessarily means that the method itself is without merit. Many people will tell you that persistence is the key to success. Besides, it’s not the first time a well-known idea has been misattributed.

As we saw in a prior post, “Einstein, the Janitor, and Ockham’s Razor”, 14th century logician and friar William Ockham was long-dead by the time Sir William Hamilton came along in 1852 to coin the term “Ockham’s Razor.”

Banking on someone else’s celebrity is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Marketing people like to call it branding.

In the end, you might argue that it shouldn’t really matter where an idea or strategy comes from as long as the content is sound. So if your intentions are pure and your goal is to get ahead, you might consider Seinfeld’s Razor. It shaves nothing, costs nothing, and does…well, that’s up to you.

Sacrifice, Mastery and a Deal with the Devil

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, in examining the lives of Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Martha Graham, and Mohandas Gandhi, suggests that there is a certain Faustian bargain to genius level mastery that is often required, sacrificing other important things in your life in order to harness your full focus and attention towards your passion:

“My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal experience.”[1]

That idea has been forever immortalized in the story of bluesman Robert Johnson. In 1935, Robert Johnson went to a lonely crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become the greatest blues guitarist of all time, or so the story goes. Prior to Johnson’s storied Faustian bargain, famous Delta bluesmen like Son House claimed Johnson had been ‘embarrassingly’ bad on the guitar and a general pain in the ass around Robinsonville Mississippi, pestering anyone with a guitar to teach him how to play.

Eventually Johnson left town, and legend has it that when he came back three months later, after making his deal with the Devil, Johnson was the best damn blues player anyone had ever heard.[2]

The likelihood of what actually happened is probably much less spectacular but no less interesting. Some historians suggest that Johnson left town for considerably longer then three months and studied extensively with a talented bluesman named Ike Zinnerman.

We can speculate that under the mentorship of a presumably highly skilled player like Zinnerman, and given Johnson’s rage to master, he found himself in the perfect deliberate practice laboratory, of tutelage, practice and performance. Combine this with the fact that music appeared to be his true desire and his sole means for carving out a meager existence and we might say he was doubly inspired to succeed. 

Johnson spent the rest of his life playing guitar and singing on street corners and juke joints. He never had a permanent address, traveling anywhere at the drop of a hat where people would listen. Performing consumed his life.

Between 1936 and ‘37 Johnson recorded 29 songs for the American Record Corporation. Under their Vocalion label a total of twelve of Johnson’s songs were released.[3] Those twelve songs are now part of the canon of American music with titles like, “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Terraplane Blues,” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” Recorded by a whole host of artists including Bonnie Rait, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Allman brothers and the Rolling Stones.[4]

Keith Richards hearing Johnson’s recordings for the first time reportedly asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?” believing Johnson was accompanied by a second guitarist. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself.”[5] Richards told an interviewer, “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”[6]

Eric Clapton is quoted as saying, “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”[7]

Johnson’s need to travel and perform meant he eschewed close relationships and unfortunately, Johnson had an eye for the ladies, married or not. In 1938 it was said he was poisoned with tainted whiskey by a jealous husband during a break in one of his performances. He died in relative obscurity at the age of 27.

The good news is that a bargain with the Devil is not a prerequisite for pushing yourself to the edge of your abilities, but as Gardner reminds us, there is no getting around the fact that the time commitment and level of intensity and focus necessary to achieve expert level mastery creates a certain amount of sacrifice in your life.


 

[1] Changing Minds, by Howard Gardner

[2] The Country Blues, by Samuel Charters

[3] 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own By Edward Komara & Greg Johnson

[4] RobertJohnsonbluesfoundation.org

[6] Myers, Marc (April 22, 2011). “Still Standing at the Crossroads”. Wall Street Journal.

[7] RobertJohnsonbluesfoundation.org

Caffeine: Friend or Foe?

One thing’s for sure: Americans love their coffee. According to the National Coffee Association, we drink an average of 3.1 cups a day and spend a total of 40 billion dollars every year on it. We depend on our caffeine, for that boost in the morning or for an after-lunch second wind.

What you might not know is that the buzz you feel after slamming a latte is not actually the caffeine.

Adenosine, the circadian rhythm hormone that helps usher in sleep, starts as a slow trickle when you wake up in the morning and slowly builds in your system so that by nightfall, you’re ready for a little shut-eye. Caffeine is adenosine’s doppelgänger, essentially mimicking its shape and grabbing up all the adenosine receptors when it hits your brain.

Once the adenosine supply is cut off, the naturally occurring stimulants dopamine and glutamate act like a couple of kids with mom and dad on vacation, which is to say: it’s party time. That surge of energy is just your dopamine and glutamate going wild.

Caffeine hits your adenosine receptors within fifteen minutes of ingestion and remains in the bloodstream for a full 24 hours. It has what’s called a six-hour half life, which means a cup of coffee after lunch will still retain half its potency by bedtime. Although it might give you a temporary pick-me-up, enough of it can greatly disrupt your REM cycle sleep, leaving you emotionally spent the next morning. Your solution? Another cup of coffee.

Once your brain catches onto the pattern, it starts producing more and more adenosine receptors to offset the caffeine. This means you have to keep ratcheting up your intake to get the same high. You are now in a mini arms race of escalation, doing battle with your own brain.

It’s like any other addictive drug. In “Caffeine: The Silent Killer of Emotional Intelligence”, Travis Bradberry explains what happens when people try to quit: “The researchers at Johns Hopkins found that caffeine withdrawal causes headache, fatigue, sleepiness, and difficulty concentrating. Some people report feeling flu-like symptoms, depression, and anxiety after reducing intake by as little as one cup a day.”

When it comes to sleep, caffeine is not your pal.

But stop the presses. As Gary L. Wenk writes in Your Brain on Food, coffee itself is an excellent source of phenols, substances that function as both anti-oxidants and anti-carcinogens. He cites preliminary studies that suggest 3 to 5 cups a day (decaf counts) has a positive effect on Parkinson’s disease and prostrate disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Two or three espressos can also get the job done, he notes. Of course, two or three espressos can also keep you up all night, smoking cigarettes and ordering truckloads of ShamWow.

In the end, it looks like coffee might be a much better friend than caffeine alone will ever be, and decaf might actually be your BFF.