I was 16 when I first performed stand-up comedy at an open mic in San Francisco. I performed (pretty terribly) about five times over a couple years, and it eventually dawned on me that I liked aspects of the profession, but with some tweaks: I wanted to get paid, do a lot more gigs (roughly 180 per year), with a guaranteed audience, where stealing material is encouraged instead of frowned upon, and where getting laughs is seen as a surprising bonus instead of a constant necessity to stay employed.
Five years after my short-lived stand-up career began, I became a teacher and have stayed in the profession ever since. Given that history, I think it’s safe to say I’ve thought more about the parallels between stand-up comedy and education than most. Still, learning about Chris Rock has shown me that the parallels are even more plentiful than I thought.
Rock entered my professional world a couple years ago via some semi-required reading in my school organization about innovation, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. The first anecdote of the book is about how Rock workshops tons of jokes in a low-stakes way (with small, unannounced shows), failing frequently but productively. From Little Bets:
“Rock deeply understands that ingenious ideas almost never spring into people’s minds fully formed; they emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process.”
Rock more or less reiterates this in a recent interview with Frank Rich. He’s clearly a student of his craft, putting in time to learn and practice:
“When I started doing comedy at Catch a Rising Star, I used to get there at 7:45 and leave about two in the morning. That’s six hours a night watching comedians for a good six years straight. Just watching, watching, watching… There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it.”
The lessons here apply so perfectly to my current profession (and really any profession). Great comedy doesn’t happen overnight; neither does great teaching. Great comics aren’t born; they’re made, with observation, reflection, and a ton of time and hard work. Teachers are the same. We know that if you’re trying to be a comic, it helps to have a good sense of humor; but we also know plenty of funny people who would make terrible comics. In education, good content knowledge does not a good teacher make.
Rock’s approach is a perfect case study for the frameworks that have risen to prominence in education and other industries recently. While we usually discuss Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset as “the thing we need to instill in kids,” the research applies just as much to the growth of teachers as professionals. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours also comes to mind, as well as Angela Duckworth’s research on the importance of “grit” (like growth mindset, grit is something we often talk about for kids, but ask anyone who hires teachers and they’ll say, in one way or another, that grit is among the most important things they look for).
Shipping beats perfection
Bottom line: Even if it doesn’t seem it, those at the top of their games are having small failures all the time and are constantly making tweaks. Doing so is far more manageable (psychologically and practically) than trying to create perfection. In fact, letting go of perfection was one of the hardest and most important learnings of my career. I wish I’d started my teaching career keeping careful track of my micro-experiments in lesson design, classroom management, grading and so on. Teaching is full of trial and error, but much of it can be productive.