Funny Numbers

10,000 is a funny number.

In most libraries across the country, you’ll find one book that focuses on that number like a hawk. That book, of course, is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell.

The book describes the success of many people, from the Beatles to Bill Gates. The author attributes their success to mastery over their given craft, and posits that this mastery comes from 10,000 hours of deliberate practice; inborn talent is only allowed to grow if the person commits to practicing that skill in a deliberate way for long periods of time. This is not the only piece of the success puzzle that Gladwell posits, but it is a large one, and one that’s being debated.

What’s implied by this theory is that in order for a person to be a success, they must specialize at an extreme level. They must get really, really good at a single thing.

One of the people who’s put in their 10,000 hours is a comedian named Louis CK. He’s been in the stand-up game for quite awhile now; he has a successful sitcom, stand-up specials, and roles in Hollywood films. By any measure, he’s a great success, a seminal figure in pop culture today.

Most successful stand-up comedians have other skills besides stand-up; writing and acting are usually part of the standard skill set. Louie can fill those roles, but he has something further, something that makes him really unique: a mastery of all levels of film making – writing, directing, editing, etc.

He built his talent as a filmmaker with a series of successful short films that he started making at 17. He played these films in festivals across America, one of which made it into Sundance. He even directed a feature film: Pootie Tang. It cannot be said that Pootie Tang was an unjustly ignored gem. It didn’t even make half its money back and Louie himself calls it ‘a movie that shouldn’t have been made.’ But this was a studio production, as well as a film he both wrote and directed.

These film skills have benefited Louie in unique ways. It was one of the reasons he was hired on as a writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He writes, directs, edits and stars in Louie, his sitcom that’s currently in its 5th season. He even oversaw the music for the first season because they ran out of money.

His skills in film also allowed him to produce, direct, edit and distribute the stand up special Live at Beacon Theater.

This was the first stand-up special to be produced independently and distributed online, and the first that counted the comedian on stage as its director. Soon afterwards, comedians began following CK’s lead and came out with their own DRM free specials to be distributed through their websites. This is no passing fad either; Louie just released his second such special, Live at the Comedy Store, and it’s doing even better than the first.

This is a great, unique idea, but in retrospect, it’s odd that it would’ve taken until 2011 for a comedian to do that sort of thing. There were a bunch of big-name comedians who would’ve had the recognition and the fan-base to pull off something like that. They’ve always been contrarians, chafing under the rules of TV and movies. Plus, you have no middle men taking your profits out of your pocket. It seems like a slam dunk.

It was only CK’s skills, though, that put him in position to understand all aspects of that process, know it was possible, and direct the show himself. Comedians without film skills wouldn’t think of doing that. He wasn’t making film-editing jokes up there, although some comedians have done just that, but he was leaning on his own skills to give himself more freedom, and bigger profits, than he’d had before. With Louie, his sitcom, you have a similar situation: taking on so many roles has given him more control over the final product than a comedian has had over any sitcom in history. He doesn’t even get notes or script approval for his episodes from FX. It’s all him. In this way, Louie is utterly unique, and it’s something that’s driven its success.

Overall, his career has benefited immensely from picking up skills in film. He might still be a success without them, but he is a monumental success with them.

These days, to make an impact it seems that people need to be super specialized. After all, if you wanted to be an incredible stand-up comedian, you’d need to pour a bunch of time and effort into that craft, your 10,000 hours if you will. But in truth, if you look at the best comedians, the ones that are really groundbreaking, they’re comedians, but they’ve got other skills as well.

This isn’t easy. The comedian Mitch Hedberg, who was great in his own right, said this:

When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things besides comedy. They say “All right you’re a stand up comedian, can you act? Can you write? Write us a script.” They want me to do things that’s related to comedy, but it’s not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, and they said “All right you’re a cook… can you farm?”

As a joke that sounds silly, but really, that’s what’s demanded. It’s easy to focus on Gladwell’s number and assume that 10,000 hours in a single skill is the key to success. But that isn’t enough. It’s not enough to be a musician; you have to understand business. It’s not enough to be an artist; you have to understand marketing. It’s not enough to be comedian; you have to understand, well, lots of other things. Or rather, when you focus only on one skill, you miss out on the ways that other skills can benefit you.

Nobody would ever go to the library and read only one book; why would a top performer learn only one skill?

Seems funny, when you think about it.

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