Jerry Seinfeld first decided to give comedy a try while standing at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 58th Street. It was the late 70s. He started working the way all comics do. He went to every open mic he could, honing and developing to the point that he was good enough to become a regular at the Comic Strip. Then on to Carson in 1981. Then TV where, with partner Larry David, he made history.
And how about the Beatles in Hamburg? From 1960 to 1962, they played in a large North German city—far from Liverpool—in every club they could manage to get a gig. The Indra Club, the Reeperbahn, Grosse Freiheit, and the Bambi Kino. The last one was notable. As McCartney is quoted:
“We lived backstage in the Bambi Kino, next to the toilets, and you could always smell them. The room had been an old storeroom, and there were just concrete walls and nothing else. No heat, no wallpaper, not a lick of paint; and two sets of bunk beds, with not very much covers—Union Jack flags—we were frozen.”
And why, exactly, did they live in such squalor so far from home? To play, of course. As Lennon described: “We had to play for hours and hours on end. Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud.”
These are two examples of mastery, the theme of this week and the focus of Robert Greene’s excellent book. Neither involve mentors. There were audiences, but no mentors. There was exposure, trial and error, and a dance with reality that we ordinarily term “experience”. Which is quite a fine method of learning. To borrow from the writer C.S. Lewis,
“Experience: that most brutal of teacher. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
In his wonderful book, Robert Greene makes serious effort to explain that we need mentors. There is only so much time, he explains, and only so much energy. A mentor can help direct the time and energy in a way that helps you develop more quickly. A mentor, effectively, is an accelerant. A shortcut.
I don’t dispute the idea. But I do have a question: where are these mentors?
I’ve always wanted a mentor. I have yet to find one. In my 20s, I tried the conventional route, applying to several MFA programs, and was promptly rejected at every turn. I worked briefly with an excellent teacher in undergrad. But then I graduated. I had to move one. I then tried online workshops and that was helpful for a time. But there is a weird transactional undercurrent to that effort, a funny quid pro quo that never feels right.
Then came a long stretch where I simply wrote. Novels, short stories, and a few articles. Toiling away in the darkness, doing my best and sending the work to publications for immediate rejection. My proverbial Hamburg was from 2005 – 2010. In that period, I wrote three novels and probably 200 short stories. Only one was ever accepted for publication. One story. The novels only exist on a hard drive. A lot of work with practically nothing to show for it. Not exactly the same as what happened to the Beatles.
And that’s because 2005-2010 was not my Hamburg. That stretch of time was nothing more than a lonely guy writing in his office for imagined audiences. Not real audiences. I could have shared the work with a community. I could have engaged with readers the way Andy Weir did. Since there was no engagement, no exchange, no sharing, there was no Hamburg.
I mention this because there needs to be clarity to the idea of a mentor. Should we find mentors? Sure. Why not? But no mentor ever be as good as our audience.
Jerry Seinfeld didn’t design his comedy act for a mentor. The Beatles didn’t develop their sound for a mentor. Julia Child didn’t write her book Master the Art of French Cooking for her mentor, assuming she really had a mentor. (She studied privately with many chefs; it’s uncertain that any had a singular, exclusive influence.)
Greene advocates strongly, with great argument, for us to seek and utilize mentors. But that isn’t the top priority. You can lose the signal of what matters most if you don’t read this important line in his book:
By involving other people in your projects and gracefully accepting their feedback, you reveal your comfort with the group dynamic.
“Other people” are the audiences in Hamburg. The group dynamic is Seinfeld and the crowd at the Comic Strip. The feedback is from the people who tasted Child’s cuisine, read her book, and watched her show. “Other people” are not the magazine editors who rejected my work or the literary agents who said my novels “weren’t for them.” Nor is it the excellent teacher who took time to help me as a young college student (thanks for everything, Sage).
I needed something like this. Something like Medium. Just as a budding musician needs Soundcloud and a gig wherever there’s room. Just as a novice programmer needs a IDE.
It’s the feedback loop. Nothing improves our work like the feedback loop. Specifically, the feedback of your audience. The people you are trying to serve. If you can’t deliver for them, then what’s the point? Seinfeld, the Beatles, Child. They developed basic offerings, delivered them to any customer they could, iterated on feedback, and refined a design over time. For the customer. For the audience. Today, we call that “Lean management”, the stuff of validated learning and design thinking. They just called it work.
I have yet to have a real, classic mentor. But I’ve got you. And we’ve got this (this club we call the internet; this Hamburg we call Medium). That’s even better.