“You’ll figure it out,” Rodney Dangerfield informed a young, aspiring standup comedian who sought his counsel on “something in comedy.”
Rodney Dangerfield was being dismissive is the first thought that comes to mind when we read that Dangerfield quote. Fellow comedians knew Rodney Dangerfield’s legacy well, and they regarded him as one of the foremost experts on the trials and tribulations involved in succeeding in the field of comedy. As such, we can guess that they approached him all the time with questions regarding their personal struggles. Thus, when this now famous comedian approached Rodney when the comedian was in an early stage of his career, Rodney probably said whatever was necessary to convince this comedian to leave him alone. Either that, or Dangerfield found the answer to that question to be so loaded with variables, and so time consuming, that he didn’t want to go down that road with yet another aspiring comedian.
For all we know, Rodney sat in the audience during that comedian’s act and decided that he didn’t know how to fix it. We can guess that he didn’t think it was so bad that he didn’t know how to fix it, but that that comedian’s act was so different from Rodney’s that that might have been the reason Rodney didn’t know how to fix it. Rodney might have even loved the comedian’s act so much that he couldn’t wait to see how the comedian would fix it with all of his individual fixes. Perhaps he was a fan, and he didn’t want to meddle with another man’s act. Whatever the case actually was, “You’ll figure it out” seems dismissive, but as with all good advice and all perfect strawberries, it becomes tastier the more you chew on it.
Some advice is more obvious and usable. Major League Pitcher Randy Johnson once talked about some advice fellow pitcher Nolan Ryan offered him. Nolan informed “The Big Unit” that the finishing step of his pitching motion should end approximately one inch further to the left. Randy said that that presumably trivial piece of advice changed his whole career. He stated that he wouldn’t have accomplished half of what he did without it. He even went so far as to say he owed Nolan Ryan a lifelong debt for that career-changing piece of advice. Some of us have received such advice, but for most of us, advice is more oblique and requires personal interpretation.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard combines an acknowledgment of the struggle to succeed with a notice that the recipients of such advice must find their own way to apply it. The best advice I’ve ever heard does not involve miracle cures, quick fixes, or the elusive true path to instant success “That can be yours for one low installment of $9.99!” Most of the best nuggets of information I’ve heard, such as “You’ll figure it out,” are so obvious that the recipient thinks they’ve wasted everyone’s time by asking the question.
The underpinning of “You’ll figure it out” suggests that there are no universal methods to achieving true individual success. A struggling individual can watch a how-to video or read a training manual. They can study the various expert techniques and the experts’ interpretations of those techniques. They can internalize the advice offered by everyone and their brother, but at some point, individuals who hope to achieve true success eventually have to figure it all out for themselves.
Instant success is as rare in the arts as it is in every walk of life, but if an individual is lucky enough to avoid having to figure it out, they’re apt to find the level of success they achieve meaningless when compared to those who experience failure, adjust accordingly, and struggle to carve out their own niche.
In the course of my employment, I worked with a number of flash-in-the-pan employees who didn’t want to figure anything out. They considered themselves Tom-Cruise-in-shades naturals. They were the high-energy, fast-talking, glamour types who focused so much energy on their new job that they burst out of the gate to thunderous applause. Trainers and bosses love them. “Look at Bret!” they say, high-fiving Bret in the hall, hoping to inspire everyone within earshot to be more like Bret. The one thing the powers-that-be do not see, or won’t admit, is that these high-energy, fast-talking, glamorous, flash-in-the-pan types often burn out after reaching the immediate goals that define them as successful.
Those who experience a measure of instant success are often the darlings, or studs, of the training class. They can answer every question, and they often enter the training seminar with quotes on success from the famous and successful. They treat training as a competition, as one would an athletic event, and they’re not afraid to do touchdown dances soon after the release of the initial productivity numbers. They wear the clothes and drive the cars to foster the image. They may even go so far as to have someone in authority catch them reading a personal success guide that one of them may read to chapter two. Most of them won’t read that far, however, because most of them aren’t in it for the long-term.
Bullet-point, large idea minds have no patience for the time it takes to figure out the minutiae the rest of us will pine over in the agonizing trial-and-error process. The instantly successful don’t heed Rodney Dangerfield’s advice to “figure it out,” because they already have it figured out. Either that or they’ve done so much to foster the image of one who already has that they don’t want to stain that image with new knowledge. They seek the quick-learner perception, and most of what they attain after the flurry-to-impress stage lies in either the knowledge they dismiss as something they already knew or inconsequential minutiae. They just know what they know, and that’s enough for the show.
They are also not good at taking criticism, as most constructive criticism calls for a restart, and they’re much too smart for a restart. To be fair, some of this criticism is bestowed on quick learners by jealous types who enjoy feeling they have some authority on the subject, but some of that criticism is constructive. It falls upon all of us to figure out whether we are receiving helpful criticisms or competitive insults. Some criticism should make us wonder if we’re deluding ourselves with the belief that we’re as accomplished as we think. Some suggests that to find success in our craft, we should humbly consider doing it like someone else. In some cases, the criticism is correct, for there’s nothing wrong with following a proven path to success. That advice can be right or wrong for us, but that is just something else we have to figure out.
“Do you have any tips on how to keep writing?” a fellow writer once asked me. My first inclination was to tell him about a book I knew that covers this very topic. I empathized with the idea that writing has few immediate rewards, and I enjoyed the perception of being a writer who knows what he is talking about when it comes to writing. I never read that book about writing, but I was sure it was loaded with all the usual ideas: “Keep Post-it notes on hand, so you don’t miss out on those little inspirations that could turn into great ideas.” Another solid idea they offer is, “Write a story that occurred in your life, for your life is an excellent cavern that can be mined for constant gems.” Then there is the ever present, “Read, read, and read some more.” I could’ve told that writer about that book I never read, but even if I did take the time to read it and I found it invaluable to me, my recommendation would have been half-hearted. Experience has taught me that true success in writing requires nuanced ingenuity and creativity, and the writer has to figure these elements of the process out for themselves. If they don’t want to go through that time-consuming and laborious process, they should go do something else. This idea would form my addendum to Dangerfield’s quote: “You’ll [either] figure it out … or you won’t, and you’ll figure that out too.”
I’m quite sure this aspiring comedian, otherwise known as Jerry Seinfeld, sought Rodney’s advice, because he knew all about Rodney’s well-documented failures. Seinfeld likely knew that Rodney was so frustrated with his inability to achieve anything in the field of comedy that he just quit, and he didn’t try again for almost twenty years. Seinfeld probably thought Dangerfield could give him a shortcut out of his personal cocoon and transform into a bona fide star. “You’ll figure it out!” the answer Rodney Dangerfield offered to the young Seinfeld, alluded to that struggle a butterfly goes through in its efforts to escape its cocoon. Yet, as any nature lover knows, if an outside influence cuts the butterfly’s struggle short, it will not gain the strength necessary to survive in the wild.
On that note, some critics grow frustrated with the amount of self-help charlatans moving from town to town in their Miracle Cure stagecoaches, who promise placebo elixirs to those seeking advice. They should direct these frustrations, instead, at those seeking shortcut exits from personal cocoons. When Seinfeld approached Dangerfield, and the aspiring writer approached me, they sought an alternative to learning from experience and failure, but Rodney’s advice suggests that he never found one. “You’ll figure it out,” might sound dismissive, but it also speaks to learning from experience and failure, and the resultant, almost imperceptible adjustments a craftsman must make to separate their final product from all of the others. The final answer for those seeking a quick fix is that there is no perfect piece of advice that we can give another who is unable or unwilling to display the temerity necessary to endure the necessary elements of failing, learning from that failure, and making all of the frustrating, time-consuming, and tedious little adjustments that must be made along the way. The final answer is that the struggle provides the answers. The struggle informs the craftsman whether or not they are capable of fixing what is wrong with their presentation and if they are desperate enough to figure out if they are willing to do what is necessary to carve out some individual definition of success in their craft, and if they aren’t, they’ll figure that out too.