Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

A Useful Reminder: Louis C.K. Was Bad Before He Was Good

February 26th, 2014 · 26 comments

louisck-475

The Evolution of Louis C.K.

I sometimes listen to a stand-up comedy channel on Pandora. Driving home the other day, it served up an old clip of Louis C.K.

Here’s what surprised me: he wasn’t that good.

His material wasn’t original (one of his gags was about wearing adult diapers) and his pacing was rat-a-tat-tat night club style.

Louis C.K. today, of course, is an exceptional comedian — arguably the best stand-up in the business at the moment.

I bring this up, because American culture (similar to ancient Greek culture) likes to attribute significant accomplishment to outside sources. Whereas the Greeks attributed moments of great heroism or creativity to the presence of the relevant God, Americans love stories of prodigies imbued at birth with stunning talent, or people driven with clarity to their destiny by an unmistakable passion.*

These stories are compelling, but I’m more drawn to narratives like Louis C.K. — narratives of people who polish their craft deliberately, night after night in crappy clubs and hothouse writer rooms (C.K. honed his asburdism writing for Conan O’Brien), then, one day, look up and are surprised to realize that they’ve become a star.

#####

* Please don’t, at this point, tell me that Louis C.K. persisted only because he had a clear passion for comedy. This necessity-of-pre-existing-passion fairy tale is common but I think just as absurd as depending on a Greek God to guide you. Work and life is complicated. Comedians like C.K. suffer from extensive insecurity and doubt. They don’t wait to feel like they are doing the right thing, they work hard to make it the right thing.

26 thoughts on “A Useful Reminder: Louis C.K. Was Bad Before He Was Good

  1. Harshit Saini says:

    Bang on!

  2. Ryan says:

    Louis CK gave a tribute honoring George Carlin that gives good insight into his process of transforming from his old style of comedy. It was not just passion comedy that led him to success but taking steps to get out of his comfort zone and really push his comedy in a unique direction. It is telling that there are allegories to deliberate practice in his method. Link below (note NSFW)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37zkizucPU

  3. chris says:

    With regards to “pre-existing passion”, the issue that I would love to see explored is identifying the common threads for how people like Louis CK are able to stay devoted to honing and perfecting a particular craft. How does one decide what that thing is that they should spend the hours per day to become good at.

    The role of passion in my mind, is NOT that it makes you pre-disposed to be good, but rather that it helps you make yourself choose to spend “another hour” practicing because you are excited about the potential outcome.

    In an effort to deflate the over-inflated role of passion, I wonder if we sometimes overlook its proper role and value.

    1. Melvin says:

      ” the issue that I would love to see explored is identifying the common threads for how people like Louis CK are able to stay devoted to honing and perfecting a particular craft. ”

      +1

      1. Daniel says:

        I’m not sure how you’re using “passion,” but if it means “a strong and barely controllable emotion,” I can’t see how that is useful in pursuing rare and valuable skills.

        In fact, using its dictionary definition, it seems that the more passionate someone is about learning or getting something, the more likely they are to burn-out in the pursuit of it.

        “Diligence,” however, is very useful—indispensable even. But this often demands that whatever you’re feeling “passionate” about in the moment be relegated to the sidelines.

        Looked at in this way, Cal has already written a ton on that topic.

        (For example, see the posts on why getting started is overrated, the importance of walks, the reason he doesn’t use Facebook,
        the importance of planning every minute of the day, and so on.)

    2. Study Hacks says:

      The more I study this issue, the more I am convinced that the decision to stick with something is more messy and idiosyncratic than we might hope. Some people are obsessive. Some have the right mentor. Some get the right feedback at early stages. Some have a snowball effect where little gaps in skills push them to broader gaps. Most have some combination.

  4. “Please don’t, at this point, tell me that Louis C.K. persisted only because he had a clear passion for comedy.”

    Of course I won’t. Hard work absolutely mattered.

    But I also have no doubt that Louis CK enjoyed the process of working hard. What he had a passion for wasn’t comedy — it was learning new skills, getting better at stuff.

    “The verb of my life is learning.”

    It’s not that passion doesn’t matter. Passion does matter. Stephen King had passion for becoming a better writer. Louis CK had passion for improving his craft.

    Sometimes you present improvement as a slob, a willingness to put up with the absolute worst. What I think you miss in your writing, sometimes, is that the sort of careful, slow improvement can be a joyous act of its own.

    1. CK says:

      I agree. Passion is what you enables you to endure the hard work necessary to master something, without making it ever feel like hard work. All the skills I’ve developed to the point where someone will pay me to apply them were skills I never had to try to develop. Those skills just developed naturally as I pursued my passions, doing whatever felt fun and interesting.

      Having followed the passion path, I’ve received multiple job offers from several firms. I worked at one for a few years and gained unintentionally gained recognition for my achievements, even though I was just trying to solve problems I deemed interesting. I then aced the GRE using skills I developed in math classes I took for fun and gained acceptance to a decent graduate school. When I look at the other students in graduate school, they all ended up here by simply doing what they loved and hoping it would pay off. Some of them are “grinds”, but most are just passion followers.

      Not once during this entire process was I grinding or trying to get better. I Just blindly followed my passion and kept landing at good places.

      1. Just for clarification:

        I wasn’t defending the “passion” hypothesis, at least not in the way that it’s traditionally put.

        I don’t think that Pursue Passion X is good advice, because (as Cal has taught me) a passion for any particular job is rare, and often the product of professional success instead of its driver.

        However, it seems clear to me that having a Passion for Improving at X is quite different, because pursuing your passion directly improves your skills and professional value. Further, I’m arguing that if you look more closely at some of the profiles that Cal has highlighted (e.g. Louis CK, Stephen King, Steve Martin, etc.) what you see is that they love that process.

        Maybe better career advice than “Pursue your passion” or “Work is hard, dreary and often unfun” is “Pursue what you enjoy getting better at.”

  5. Fabian says:

    Re “ancient Greek culture”: That’s a very broad term and I admittedly haven’t read the book you linked to, but in my own reading of the Classics we have already around 600 B.C. someone like Solon who explicitly makes people responsible for the state of things opposed to the Gods.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I was referencing the Homeric era which would have been earlier.

  6. What has always struck me about Louis C.K is his work to change the business models for distributing his work, too. He sells stuff directly via his website and tries to cut out the middle man and is always trying to be innovative about that. I do think there is something there about his concern about ‘his impact’ that may be a driver for him.

    (Full disclosure: I actually don’t think he is funny at all. I wish I knew why).

  7. Richard says:

    I think you are mostly right about pre-existing passion – people don’t have pre-existing passions for specific things like doing stand-up comedy or researching computer science.

    But there might be broader pre-existing passions (or preferences). For example, I love doing deep intellectual work like programming or mathematics and I get the impression that you are similar. But someone else at my work loves talking to clients, going to lots of meetings, and wouldn’t enjoy doing deep intellectual work. I get the impression that people tend to be somewhere on a continuum of preference between loving deep intellectual work and loving managerial and people-focussed work.

  8. weak stream says:

    The reason why Americans like to think someone succeeded because of ‘genius’ or ‘passion’ is that it makes the person look more like a lucky lottery winner than anything else. A sign of the times. Look at American Idol type lottery shows. Guys like Sting have objected loudly to this type of thinking. In reality one must bust their ass to cultivate a style and audience. It is this difficulty that creates something unique. Americans don’t wish to give credit to hard work and want to look, not up to their heroes, but eye to eye.

    1. Mel says:

      American Idol just looks like a lottery show. It really isn’t.
      Adam Lambert and Kelly Clarkson were already seasoned performers before they went on that show. They just weren’t signed. Adam had been performing since he was in elementary school. Kelly had previously made the rounds in LA but couldn’t get signed, not because of her singing ability, but because of her looks. They actually have busted their asses for years, but you don’t see that on the show. Americans are in much more in love with the idea of overnight successes and luck. Most people don’t want to see the long, messy and difficult process of becoming a master.

      1. weak stream says:

        But performers are a dime a dozen no matter how well they perform. They do other peoples work and sound the same. This is because their purpose is to ‘get a deal’ rather than create unique art. Real artists like Elton John, McCartney etc. would all fail on Idol. Whatever effort it takes to train your voice to sound like someone else, it is a trivial affair when compared to what it takes to develop something unique or genuinely new. And this is what Newport is studying.

  9. Jeff says:

    Excellent points, as usual, Cal.

    While the “average” ancient Greek may have attributed greatness to the intervention of the gods, there was also a strong tradition in support of the formation of virtue or excellence (“arete”) through habits. In fact, Aristotle’s Ethics is mostly about how we can obtain virtue through constant practice, through forming good habits. This idea was later inherited and extended by Christian writers such as Aquinas.

  10. Alvaro says:

    “Please don’t, at this point, tell me that Louis C.K. persisted only because he had a clear passion for comedy.”
    Isn’t you arguing against this pretty ridiculous? I mean, why do you think he got into stand-up comedy in the first place, because he hated it? He of course had to WORK HARD in order to improve but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t “passionate” about it.

  11. I’d like to add something to the conversation. Well, I’m adding it whether you like it or not.

    As a performer and writer, it’s not just about putting the time in and grinding it out. The most successful comics, writers, and personalities across any industry out there all have a clear and inarguable POINT OF VIEW. It takes years to hone a point of view. That’s more the reason why someone’s early standup or performances or even blog content sucks than anything else. You gain a point of view by working through how you feel about the environment around you and that doesn’t happen overnight. Point of view could also be referred to as “voice,” which is one thing that many writers, performers, and businesspeople struggle with daily. And frankly, it has jack to do with “passion.” It’s about IF I DON’T DO THIS I WILL DIE A HIDEOUS DEATH IN A CUBICLE FROM CHOKING ON A CHEETO I WAS TRYING TO WASH DOWN WITH BREAKROOM COFFEE DURING MY EVER-SO-PRECIOUS 15-MINUTE BREAK AT MY SOUL-STEALING J-O-B.

    That’s not passion. It’s a MUST. What’s your must?

  12. Lara says:

    Have you seen this documentary? It’s Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock discussing their craft. Before this I would never have guessed just how seriously these comedians take their work, how hard they work at it.

  13. Pingback: TGIF! (24)
  14. Rob Symonds says:

    * Please don’t, at this point, tell me that Louis C.K. persisted only because he had a clear passion for comedy. This necessity-of-pre-existing-passion fairy tale is common but I think just as absurd as depending on a Greek God to guide you. Work and life is complicated. Comedians like C.K. suffer from extensive insecurity and doubt. They don’t wait to feel like they are doing the right thing, they work hard to make it the right thing.

    Cal, would you say that people invest time in doing things for which a. they have no interest, and b. they have no suitability?

    I think you’re framing the discussion in a very binary way, which loses nuances that are in fact the very meat of the discussion. As you say, work and life is complicated. But it seems like you are trying to simply the conversation to the point where it is not useful outside of the most extreme bounds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>