Demetri Martin, the 39-year old standup comedian and alumnus of The Daily Show, published the sketch above in his book, This Is a Book. It’s been making the meme rounds on Twitter for a few months now, finding a welcoming audience among the business illuminati. They are glad to have a champion who can convey the wisdom (with such brevity and clarity) that the path to success is a tangled and circuitous mess, not the simple story that we so often hear of ascension in a straight line.
With these few scribbles, Martin betrays an insight into the nature of success that seems to be best understood – strangely enough – by standup comedians. As we’ll explore below, they must all hone their craft through constant tinkering in the control setting of comedy clubs. The best of them never quit this testing mindset. They allow themselves plenty of little failures. They don’t wrap themselves in the success label, considering it something to strive for continuously rather than a status to defend.
In other words, they don’t get caught up in “being a success.” We’ll call that the success mindset. They keep experimenting, keep pressing the envelope, and keep finding new ways to make their customers laugh.
There is something here to be learned by entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Let’s consider Steve Martin. He seemed like an overnight success when, in the mid-1970s, his King Tut routine on Saturday Night Live catapulted him to stardom. Wrong! He had been toiling away in dingy night clubs for nearly 10 years leading up to those early SNL appearances.
In the clubs he tested an approach to comedy that was unconventional for the time. Rather than rattle off joke after joke in the typical format of lead-in, build-up, and punch line, Martin would create moments of uncomfortable tension with bits that hardly seemed like jokes at all.
Many of these attempts bombed miserably. They were failures. They left the audience more perplexed than amused. But Martin treated them like mini-experiments and learned from them, incorporating the lessons into his next performance and introducing even more tests into his act.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Over the course of a decade, he methodically crafted a unique approach to comedy that audiences came to appreciate as novel. It was a truly creative alternative to the product being offered by his run-of-the-mill comic contemporaries. And it was only possible because Martin’s testing mindset helped him push the envelope.
Chris Rock provides another interesting case study. He is best known for his blockbuster HBO standup performances which are highly anticipated, reach large audiences, and earn him bundles of cash. When you watch one, you’re left with the sense that Rock strides across the stage and unleashes a torrent of humor that just comes naturally to him. He makes it look so easy.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Rock has a legendary work ethic. Before each show he spends more than a year touring the nightclubs, testing each joke on a live audience, and tweaking every aspect of his routine to prepare it for primetime.
That joke that sounded so good when it popped into his head? It’s never a keeper until it’s been forced through the gauntlet of a live, slightly inebriated audience with high expectations for being entertained and the looming threat of a heckler.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Chris Rock tests and refines until his product is hilarious and his delivery appears effortless. (You can get a good feel for it by following his Twitter feed. You’ll see how he uses the same jokes over and over with slight variations as he tests them out. Some are duds. But even the duds get refined over time and might leave you doubled over in laughter after a couple iterations.)
But the remarkable thing is that he has continued this approach despite reaching the pinnacle of his profession. Despite earning tens of millions of dollars. Despite being a “SUCCESS.”
Chris Rock’s continued success comes both from this continual testing process and from the refusal to get stuck in the fixed mindset of success.
Carol Dweck and the Fixed Mindset
Among my guilty pleasures is a habit of trolling through the literature of social psychology. Why do people act the ways they do? Why do they make the decisions they make? Fascinating stuff. For example…
Carol Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford University best known for putting puzzles in front of kids. She starts them with an easy one to solve, then ups the ante with progressively tougher ones. All the while she monitors their reactions to the challenge.
Dweck uncovered an interesting phenomenon through her experiments. A high IQ child might sail through the easy puzzles but refuse to even try the harder ones. While a lower IQ kid would struggle with the easy puzzles but take such relish in the challenge that she was eager for the next (tougher) one. The lower IQ child would eventually master the tough puzzles because she worked her way through them. She got better. She developed a new skill. But the “smarter” kid, despite his higher IQ, stagnated because he wouldn’t even try.
The outcome had nothing to do with intelligence. It had nothing to do with innate puzzle-solving skills. Dweck found it had everything to do with the child’s mindset. If he thought of himself as “smart” (usually because someone was telling him how smart he is), he became protective of appearing smart. Solving a puzzle with ease demonstrated he was smart. Struggling with a puzzle – and potentially failing to solve it at all – would make him feel like he wasn’t very smart. So rather than try a tougher challenge and risk failure, he would opt to defend this image of himself as smart.
Dweck calls it a “fixed mindset.” In this case, the child believes “smart” is something you have or don’t have. It’s a fixed trait. It’s binary…you’re smart or you’re not.
The opposite is the “growth mindset.” This is the less intelligent child who enjoys a good challenge; who likes to learn. She believes she can get better at solving puzzles by practicing, by testing how all the little pieces might fit together, by struggling with it. She’s engaged in the task, not worried about what its outcome (success or failure) might say about her being “smart” or “not smart.”
She keeps testing and learning, developing new skills as she goes. While the higher-IQ child stagnates defending his need to appear smart.
Avoiding Success As a Fixed Mindset – Always Be Testing!
There’s a corollary here with professional success. We get a taste for the trappings of success – the titles, the money, but mostly the prestige – and we become more interested in protecting the image of ourselves as successful people than in investing in the sorts of activities that brought us that success in the first place. We avoid those activities for fear that in trying them we might fail from time to time. We turn success into a fixed trait rather than a product of all the little tests (and failures) that brought us down that tangled path in the first place.
Now, if we fail, we are no longer successes. Right? If we can’t solve the puzzle, we are no longer smart. Right?
So we just stop trying the hard stuff. We stop testing. We stop improving. We become stuck in the mindset of success as a fixed trait.
Imagine if Chris Rock – having reached the summit of his profession – stopped honing his skills, stopped practicing new routines in the night clubs, stopped gauging the reaction of audiences to see if his latest material is actually funny. He would stagnate. He would live off his old jokes for a while, and he would then begin to fade into obscurity.
When this happens in business, you run the risk of becoming obsolete. There will always be an eager buck out there, hungry and determined to make a name for his business. He is not yet stuck in the success mindset. He is testing, refining, and has no fear of little failures. At some point he (or one of his many clones) will find the right combination of tests that produces a better mousetrap, a better cost structure, a better set of competitive advantages.
How do you protect against that? ABT – Always Be Testing.
This is Dweck’s growth mindset applied to business. You refuse to think of yourself (or your business) as a success in the fixed sense. You look for opportunities to improve. You create a culture that embraces new ideas and runs test after test in the market place to see how the ideas fare when being put through the gauntlet.
And most importantly, you accept that – in this process – there will be plenty of little failures…tests that didn’t work out how you anticipated. But that in running them, you are learning, improving, and continuing to head down Demetri Martin’s squiqqly path.
That’s success as a growth mindset.
(Let me make a hat tip to Cal Newport, author of the recent So Good They Can’t Ignore You for bringing the Steve Martin example to my attention. His own blog is very much worth reading. You can find it at calnewport.com.)