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The Seinfeld Productivity Problem, and the Power of "Nothing"

July 13, 2015

 

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

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