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From Seinfeld to Sushi: How to Master Your Domain

March 4th, 2013 Posted in Inspirational

I recently read a great profile in the New York Times about Jerry Seinfeld written by Jonah Weiner (no relation). In addition to providing a view into the life of one of the most successful stand-up comedians of the modern era, the article focuses on the method behind Seinfeld’s observational comic genius, and specifically, the painstaking process he applies to developing a joke.

I always find it valuable when people at the top of their profession provide insight into how they do what they do, but as a long time fan of the comedian and the show (in my opinion, Seinfeld stands alone as the best sitcom of all time), I found this to be a particularly engrossing read.

I was also struck by the number of similarities between Seinfeld’s approach to his craft and that of Jiro Ono, the 86-year old master sushi chef and subject of the highly acclaimed documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” I strongly recommend the film to anyone interested in watching the pursuit of excellence personified.

Here are my observations regarding five shared practices from two wholly unrelated masters of their domains:

1. Never stop practicing (there is no perfect)

Jiro has been preparing sushi for over 70 years; Seinfeld has been a stand-up comic for over 35 years. Both are widely considered to be among the best in the world at what they do, and yet listening to them, one comes away with the impression they will never be satisfied. They are constantly practicing, honing their work, and seeking to improve.

As Jiro describes it: “All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb to reach the top but no one knows where the top is.”

Seinfeld explains:

“If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “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.”

2. Sweat the details

There is no detail too small. Jiro serves sushi differently to left-handed and right-handed patrons, and once required an apprentice to make egg sushi 200 times before it was deemed acceptable. Seinfeld relentlessly iterates how to word a punchline. As the profile on Seinfeld describes it:

“Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “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.”

In this regard, their approaches are highly reminiscent of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive at Apple, where obsessing over the smallest detail is not just part of their design ethos, it’s core to the company’s DNA.

3. Keep chipping away

Michaelanglo once famously described the act of sculpting this way:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

Jiro and Seinfeld appear to be applying a similar sensibility to their work, i.e. constantly removing the superfluous to reduce the object of their attention down to it’s quintissential qualities.

Watch Jiro prepare a piece of sushi, and you aren’t just watching him adding a piece of fish to a mound of rice, but rather the culmination of decades of trial and error, identifying what improves the taste, look, and feel of the dish, and leaving all else behind.

The same holds for Seinfeld’s approach to mastering a joke as illustrated in the following anecdote:

I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of…’

So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait…The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board…”Here, I’m doing some of the work for you…They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”

4. Work clean

Both the article and film capture the somewhat non-descript, though Zen-like, environments where the two do their work. Jiro’s restaurant is underground, near a subway stop, and seats only ten; sushi is served on a simple black serving dish. Seinfeld works in an Upper West Side apartment described as “Clean, modern and cozy, it resembled some hip therapist’s office: a high-ceilinged, poured-concrete box with a long plushy couch, a little balcony and a kitchenette.”

In their spaces, both masters operate free from distraction and with complete focus on the job at hand. Jiro prepares each dish and then cleans his workspace the instant it’s completed. In the film, a classical score accompanies his motions — it’s hard to draw a clear distinction between where the food preparation ends and the cleaning begins.

Similarly, Seinfeld has his own specific approach to writing a joke: “Seinfeld…grabs a legal pad and a Bic pen and sits at his desk. No street noise penetrates. The pages of the pad are destined for either a wastebasket or a master file containing Seinfeld’s entire act, handwritten.”

5. Be passionate

It’s hard to imagine a person dedicating their life to a single vocation without having a deep love and passion for what they do. That would certainly appear to the case for both Seinfeld and Jiro. From the Times article:

For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.”

He told me: “That’s the wiring of a stand-up. This is my best way of functioning…” He compares himself to baseball players — putting spin on the ball as it leaves his fingers, trying to keep his batting average high — and to surfers: “What are they doing that for? It’s just pure.”

Similarly, here’s Jiro responding to a question on retirement: “I’ve never hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I’m 85, I don’t feel like retiring. That’s just the way I feel.”

One final observation: I’ve found the more I pay attention to the habits of individuals who have reached the pinnacle of their profession, the more I recognize clear patterns between them.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who sees the similarities.

Several weeks before the Times piece was published, I shared the story of Jiro with a few people at a dinner event. A few weeks later, while in the midst of reading the Seinfeld article, I stopped to open an email that had just been sent by one of the dinner’s attendees. The email simply said, “Refreshing last paragraph…your sushi analog in baseball!”

There, in the last paragraph of an article announcing the Yankees had re-signed baseball great Ichiro Suzuki, was a quote from Ichiro that read, “I believe the Yankees organization appreciates that there is a difference between a 39-year-old who has played relying only on talent, and a 39-year-old who has prepared, practiced, and thought thoroughly through many experiences for their craft.”

I smiled to myself at the timing of the email and responded to my friend with a link to the Seinfeld article I was still reading. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I reached the conclusion of the profile:

The game resumed, and Ichiro Suzuki, the lean Yankees outfielder, approached the plate. “This is the guy I relate to more than any athlete,” Seinfeld said. “His precision, incredible precision. Look at his body type — he’s made the most of what he has. He’s the hardest guy to get out. He’s fast. And he’s old.”

by Jeff Weiner CEO at Linkedin

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