I have always found something strangely fascinating about listening to old comedians rehash their early days playing dive clubs for pennies, shacking up with seven other guys in a New York studio apartment, or getting their first big break opening for a comedic legend. Thus, discovering Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee was like realizing the neighborhood bar serves my favorite draft beer. Jackpot.
It’s not a complicated premise. Seinfeld picks up a fellow comedian in a rare automobile (always a different car for each new guest), drives him or her to a coffee shop, and chats about life for approximately twenty minutes. Seinfeld is funny. His guests are usually funny. So it makes for an entertaining experience. My favorite episodes are when Seinfeld chats with a comedian he broke into comedy with back in the late 1970’s. The stories are amazing. These millionaire superstars (Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Louis C.K.) were all once unknown, dirt poor, and depressingly undateable.
But that’s not where the fascination ends. I love listening to those guys rehash old memories because of where they are now. They did it. They made it. Seinfeld, Leno, Letterman, Stewart, Rock, Louis C.K. … all remarkable success stories. And the best part? They worked for it. They worked hard for it. They put in long hours. They sacrificed by cramming into tiny studio apartments. They ate Ramen Noodles every night for years. They failed over and over again, but kept improving their skills. They got booed off stages. They got heckled. But they kept fighting and persevering and working. And now look at them.
The world is different today. Fame is too readily available for anyone with a video camera and computer. Reality television takes people with zero talent and turns them into celebrities for acting like buffoons in front of the camera. And, honestly, that’s fine. I’m entertained by some of the nonsense I watch on television, so I don’t want to judge anyone for enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. It just makes me respect the heck out of the people working their rear ends off to hone their crafts.
I walked to Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati recently to get dessert and experience Reggae Wednesday. While listening to the band cover a Bob Marley song, I noticed a girl (I’m guessing 15 or 16) hula hooping. She was amazing. I tweeted that she’s better at hula hooping than LeBron James is at playing basketball, and it wasn’t much of an exaggeration. I was mesmerized by the sheer skill involved. As I watched, I realized that girl must have spent hundreds of hours honing her craft. Some adults might argue the value of spending so much time hula hooping, but forget about that part of the equation. Anyone who dedicates that much time to becoming an expert at anything in life deserves our respect. She certainly got mine.
We are a culture that loves shortcuts. I don’t want to read books, I just want the knowledge hidden inside. I don’t want to work, I just want someone to hand me a million dollars. (If you don’t believe me, swing by a casino sometime. Or visit a gas station the next time your state’s lottery jackpot reaches nine figures.) Too many people want fame and fortune without earning them. Every successful person I know worked for his or her success. No matter what MTV tells us, the shortcuts to stardom aren’t worth traveling. The long, narrow road ultimately takes you to the place you want to be.
In a recent episode of Mad Men, in the midst of a meltdown while searching for a shortcut to regain his place at the top of the corporate ladder, a friend gives Don Draper some simple advice that rattled my soul. He said, “Do the work, Don.”
Wherever it is you want to be, do the work to get there. Whatever your dream, put in the necessary hours. If you want to be a writer, then get writing. Try, fail, try again, fail a dozen more times, but keep working. If you want to be a comedian, then find a stage. If you want to make movies, then go buy yourself a camera and hit the record button. Hone your craft. Be excellent at what you do. It may take decades to achieve your goals, but there’s only one way to start making your dreams come true.
Do the work.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Tony Fischer