“Say something funny”

Patrice O’Neal dealing with a heckler

Great comedians bomb on new material all the time. That hilarious HBO special wasn’t just random, clever observations from the last month, but the product of years and years of filtered and practiced work. Thousands of hours and ideas boiled down into perfect timing to a continuous laugh fest. To get there, lots of not-funny shit had to be flushed.

The same goes for anyone trading in ideas. REWORK, the book about business that I cowrote with Jason Fried, has now sold roughly half a million copies. It’s less than half the length of a normal business book, but it still took about a decade to write. Thousands of blog posts made candidacy for inclusion, less than a hundred made the cut, and all of them were further refined and polished.

Being funny or insightful is as much a function of labor as it is ability. Much more so, actually. But that’s not how it looks from the outside. Most people just see the highlight reel and extrapolate that every idea coming out of that person must be a perfect pearl.

I remember sitting at a standup club in Copenhagen many years back. The comedian on stage was a veteran trying out some new material. Two bits bombed in a row, and some heckler followed up immediately with a taunt: “Say something funny!”. I’ve never seen a veteran decompose so quickly, so uncomfortably. He went on to spend the next 10 minutes trying to pin down the heckler.

But I get it. The pressure to be funny on command can crush even the strongest comedian. I get emails or meet people in person all the time who expect that I’ll have the perfect insightful answer or solution to their specific problem or domain. I’m sorry, I don’t.

This is part of why I’ve never personally been so eager to meet my intellectual heroes. All the best ideas from all the best people are already readily available in books, blogs, tweets, and talks. Whatever insight these people could provide for my particular situation would likely just be a watered-down version of some of that. Why bother with that? Take the pure goods and cut it yourself.

Most brilliant people aren’t brilliant most of the time.

That’s both a disappointment and a liberation. Disappointing when you hear someone you thought was a perfectly brilliant bulb being a bit dim about something. Liberating when you think that you too could be brilliant despite also being a bit dim much of the day.

Products, like people, sparkle best when the seed of a good idea has had the tender love and care over many years. We’ve been nurturing Basecamp for more than 13 years now. That’s basically an eternity in software. I’d love for you to take a look: It’s the saner, organized way to manage projects and communicate company-wide.