Jerry Seinfeld, High Performers and the Power Law

Anybody who knows me, understands I’m a huge fan of stand up comedy. It’s one of the purest art forms with simply a man and a mic. That’s why when Forbes released its list of the top 10 paid comedians, I wasn’t shocked to see how well compensated they are. Jerry Seinfeld came in at 36 million dollars and Dave Chapelle rounded out the list at 7.5 million. It’s pretty impressive numbers considering this all started in the basement of seedy clubs in New York City.

But for all the progress stand up comedy has had into becoming a mainstay in american culture, it certainly isn’t an egalitarian playing field. For every Louis CK or Dave Chapelle there’s hundreds of comedians barely making enough to get by. The high performers take home a majority of the revenue and this is whats known in statistics as the power law, and its apparent in almost every field.

alt Most people when they see charts like this go into diatribes about world economics, inequality and unfairness. I’ll leave that discussion to the smarter crowd of politicians. If you look closely at the world the power law is everywhere and one study even pointed to it being the case in94% of the job market.

So if the power law is so apparent and high performers are so desirable how do you become one.

Traits of a High Performer

In almost every organization, I’ve been in there’s always been one or two people who do vastly more work than everyone else. Its exciting when you’re one of them and frustrating when you’re not. But there’s a few commonalities i’ve seen typically they’re goal setters, they know their domain and they say no often.

Goal Setters

One guy who I worked with early in my career at the World
Bank whenever I talked to him about what he was doing it was always one to two things. At first I thought it was ludicrous who is this guy who can only get two things done a day.

But within a month, I got the point. He set hyper-specific goals and didn’t allow other things to distract him. So his 2 things a day by the end of the week would be 10 things that were critical to the business.

Know thy organization

In every organization there’s somebody who seems to know everybody or what everybody is working on. They aren’t necessarily the most social person but they have an ability to understand what the organization is doing across the board.

A friend of mine I worked with once was one such person. He was one of the most anti-social people you could meet. It seemed like there was a permeant scowl stuck on his face, at least if you didn’t know him But he had started in the organization as an intern accountant, moved to project management and ended up in software. There wasn’t a piece of the organization he hadn’t interacted with and understood thoroughly. It was safe to say that whenever the higher ups wanted something done they knew who to contact first. If they dared disturb him.

For me learning my organization wasn’t as easy not everyone can work in three departments. I started with going to those extra-curricular activities. Every organization has them, whether its a sports team, yoga group or informational workshop. You’ll be shocked to find out how easy it is to find more people from the organization and also how the pieces fit together.

Start Saying No
Like many people I presumed for a long time that I had to say Yes to everybody I worked with. Somebody wanted a new feature in the app, sure why not its only my weekend. Another person wanted a special design for their queries of course of it makes your life easier. And while some of these situations are unavoidable such as your boss demanding it. In general you should figure out the critical 20%. What 20% item is going to generate 80% of the value. If you haven’t figured that out in the project you’re likely wasting a lot of time.

So if you wanna be in the elite group of high performers start setting concrete goals, learn your organization and say no to activities that distract from those goals.

You’ll be shocked at how much easier it is to ask for raises, make an impact and feel more content at work. The work towards being a high performer is difficult but the payoff is a immeasurable. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld, Louis and everyone else on this list.

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