Career Lessons From Seinfeld
The two things I love most -- other than my wife Laurie Lauria, of course -- are business and comedy. It's natural for me to find the comedy in business situations ... and just as natural for me to watch a situation comedy and think about business. So, when I saw this piece on BuzzFeed 21 Pieces of Career Advice From “Seinfeld", I decided to take it deeper. After all, behind all good comedy is truth, and Seinfeld was the best. I wondered, what could we truly learn about career success (both "do's" and "not-to-do's") from the four main characters, Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine?
So, being a mind-mapping aficionado (that's the other thing I love), I took it upon myself to track and map the careers of each of the characters through the nine-season run of the show (See mind map: Career Lessons From Seinfeld). It was a labor of love -- and laugh. I laughed out loud when I specifically reviewed each key episode. I share with you here what I learned while I was laughing. Each character personifies a specific trait that is helpful in business success. And, since anything that can be done can also be overdone, I present the downside of having too much of that trait.
Jerry Seinfeld: Focus
When we track Jerry's career over the course of the show, we can't help but notice that it never changes. He is ALWAYS a stand-up comedian. Sure, he has ambitions to create his own TV show, "Jerry". And from time to time, he is talked into pursuing a few sidelines -- like bootlegging movies for Kramer's friend Brody, or filling in for Newman delivering mail. (Actually Jerry "over-delivered", and when people realized they got all that mail because Newman failed to deliver the mail, Newman lost his transfer to Hawaii.)
Jerry rarely complained about his work, seemed to be earning enough, and was pretty good at it. While all the other characters on the show had their ups and downs on the career path, Jerry stuck with what he was good at -- being funny. We can only assume that during the nine season course of the series, Jerry just kept getting better and better, using that single-minded focus to get the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary for mastery in his book, Outliers.
There is a potential downside of such single-minded focus, and that is -- having no Plan B. What if his observational type of humor stopped being funny? What if HE stopped being funny? Only once did a Plan B actually come up, when Kramer and Jerry's parents discussed Bloomingdale's executive training program as a possibility. Jerry never gave it a first thought, and stayed focused. Consider that the very last Seinfeld episode ends with Jerry doing stand-up -- in prison.
And the lesson is: Specialization is in, and being a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none is out. Be single-minded in focus ... and ... have a plan B too.
George Costanza: Stretch
What can we say about George, except he was always stretching? Whether he was bending the rules about when it's OK to eat something out of the trash, or when it's OK to have sex with the cleaning lady on the desk at work, George was always stretching the limits of the acceptable, and the unacceptable.
He stretched credibility, taking "fake it till you make it" to the extreme. ("Jerry, remember, it's not a lie if you believe it.") He dreamed of high-status jobs, and when they didn't manifest, simply made them up. Some of the careers George didn't have were: architect, marine biologist, importer/exporter. He even cited his non-job at Vandelay Industries as a reference. When he did get his dream job working for the New York Yankees -- which he got only after vowing to do the exact opposite of what he'd always done -- he stretched his luck by trying to get fired so he could take a scouting job with the Mets. This "firing" backfired when the Yankees "traded" him to the Tyler Chicken Company in Little Rock, Arkansas.
George's overreaching almost always led to underachieving, and this led him down the corporate ladder until he ended up at Kruger Industrial Smoothing, where his boss was even more blithely incompetent than he was. Finally, George Costanza had a boss he could look down to!
Of course, the downside of over-stretching is failure, and failure was George's greatest area of success. And his greatest competency was in having his failure go undetected for as long as possible. He once told Jerry, "When you look annoyed all the time, people think you are busy."
And the lesson is: As the poet Robert Browning said, "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?" This is certainly true. Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without risking beyond what seem to be one's capabilities. However, when one is stretching beyond one's grasp, the one thing that should be grasped is -- reality. This overreaching and under-grasping quite often took George not to heaven, but to hell.
Cosmo Kramer: Hustle
Kramer was a hustler. He always had a dream or a scheme, and was always selling something. Think of his frenetic movements, always on his way somewhere, mooching food from Jerry, making his entrance to announce his next brilliant idea -- from bake your own pizza to selling Cuban cigars to the Bro/Manssiere (the bra he and George's dad came up with for chesty men). Other times he operated a horse-and-carriage business that unfortunately failed because he fed the horse Beefarino (you can figure out the joke), was a chaperone at a Miss America Pageant and worked as a department store Santa. Whatever Kramer did or didn't do, he seemed to lead a charmed life. After all, who else could have convinced a publishing company to publish a coffee table book about coffee tables?
Kramer also had the ability to hustle up partners on his questionable ventures -- Newman with the bottle return scheme and rickshaw service, Poppie with the pizza, Frank Costanza with the Bro. How did he do it? It was his energetic air of self-confidence -- which was so completely unfounded! No matter. Kramer believed, that's all that was needed.
On the other hand, Kramer's approach was shotgun, with no follow through. Every one of his hustles was great fuel for comedy -- from being an extra in a Woody Allen movie to acting out diseases for medical students -- but ultimately dead-end. And that's the difference between being self-confident and just hustling.
And the lesson is: Having lots and lots and lots of options -- and the confidence to pursue them -- is a trait for success. You might call it hustling, or you might call it persistence. Think of it this way. Have you ever known someone hugely talented, who was never able to fulfill that talent? And, can you think of someone else who didn't begin with a lot of natural talent, but over time learned to be competent, and then excellent? The Kramers of the world tend to land right-side-up because like that bunny, they just keep going and going.
The downside of hustling is in follow through -- or lack thereof. The reason Kramer had so many opportunities is that his incompetence manifested almost immediately. No problem. On to the next thing. When your mantra is "Ready ... fire ... aim," get ready to get fired for firing aimlessly.
Elaine Benes: Show Up
Ah, Elaine. Here we come to a true puzzle. She came from a good family (her father was a novelist), attended the finest schools (a French literature major at Tufts), and when we first meet her, she is an editor at Pendant Publishing. However, through the course of the show, Elaine -- even more than George -- manifests downward mobility. She gets fired from her prestigious publishing job for indirectly causing the company's demise. She loses her job as a personal assistant to Mister Pitt when he thinks she is trying to kill him. She is fired from her final job at J. Peterman's for not liking the "English Patient".
So, with all of these "losses" and very few gains, what career lessons can we learn from Elaine? Perhaps the answer is in a quote by Woody Allen: "Showing up is 80% of life."
The one thing that Elaine does is show up. For one thing, her character wasn't even part of the original Seinfeld show. When producers at NBC insisted they needed a woman "pal", Elaine showed up. And throughout the entire nine-year run of the show, she continued to do so. She showed up in Jerry's apartment in just about every episode, and even showed up in Florida when Jerry went to visit his parents. She showed up every day at her jobs -- until they were no more.
If Elaine showed up so consistently, and showing up is a factor in success, what accounts for Elaine's lack of success? Why did she lose every job she had? Why did her bosses always seem to prefer Kramer's wacky off-the-wall ideas to hers? It’s the other 20%—the part that makes a boss ask, “once you’ve shown up, then what?” The qualities of focus, stretch, and hustle account for the rest of success -- and Elaine had none of those. She had no single-minded focus, rarely seemed to think beyond the next move, and wasn't persistent enough to sustain a hustle.
In terms of success, Elaine gets an 80 -- barely a B. Enough to get by, but not enough to make the A team.
And the lesson is: Showing up will get you in the door, and performance is required to get your NAME on that door. Elaine's "laissez-faire lady" attitude kept her around just long enough for her employers to discover she sadly lacked all the other qualities for success. Or as Confucius didn't quite say, "She who has no drive ends up in neutral -- and then reverse".
(Of course, maybe "Elaine" had the last laugh after all. After being a success also-ran for nine seasons, she was rewarded in the afterlife by being reincarnated as President of the United States Selina Meyer in the TV series VEEP.)
OK, Seinfeld fans. What career lessons did YOU take from the show? I'd love to get your comments.
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