Jim Henson is my financial hero, because he was a legendary artist who always wanted to do things “for the right reasons.” I really don’t like business very much, but I figured, if Henson did it, so can I. So for two years, I researched Henson’s career to try to see what I could learn. Here is one of the lessons I found.
Part of Jim Henson’s secret was that he was lucky. He was thirty-one in 1967—the perfect age to take advantage of that year’s incredible cultural revolution. Because he was over thirty, he was taken seriously enough to sell TV shows. Because he was only thirty, he still “got” what the youth culture was doing. Even luckier, television—his chosen medium—was still an emerging technology. TV turned eighteen when he turned eighteen, which meant both were amenable to experimentation. While still in high school, Henson found himself in precisely the right time and the right place to change television history.
With all Henson’s luck, it can give you the sense that you’ll never make it. It’s too late for most of us. We’re too old. We didn’t have early success and we missed our shot. I don’t have six years to practice on TV—I don’t have my own show. I am too busy working for a living. There are many advantages I just don’t have.
Malcolm Gladwell states this argument very effectively in Outliers. Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” is both an argument for serving your craft and a justification for why most people can’t. Ten thousand hours is the ungodly amount of time it takes to become a genius at something. The Beatles, Gladwell writes, did their ten thousand hours in Hamburg strip clubs, performing “for 270 nights in just over a year and a half.” According to John Lennon, “In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.” Pete Best said, “We played seven nights a week.”
Beatles biographer Philip Norman wrote, “They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.” The formula seems to work for anyone. Gladwell tells us a study of elite violinists found they had each practiced for ten thousand hours. A founding father of the Internet, Bill Joy coded in a computer lab for ten thousand hours. Bill Gates hacked around in computer club for more than ten thousand hours. It’s empowering to think that hours of practice is all it takes to become a genius, but Gladwell notes that many disadvantaged people can’t afford to spend ten thousand hours:
Ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough.
As a comment on the institutions of society, Gladwell’s point is incredibly persuasive, but perhaps not on the level of individuals. Gladwell notes on his website that he doesn’t mean to go as far as saying “success is something outside of an individual’s control.” “But I do think,” he says, “that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with.” Gladwell is entirely right that our systems should be fairer, and that class advantages play a part in the success of all of history’s great men and women.
However, like Gladwell, I am a storyteller who is very interested in the way stories shape our lives. From that perspective, I believe it is possible for the individual to will the ten thousand hours into existence. Where might they come from? Well, some of them might already have happened.
In the 1972 TV special The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, a group of four animals escape from their terrible masters to become traveling musicians. Their masters embody every specter of the “bad boss.” In a montage, you see them illustrated like a Bosch drawing of sin—one shows anger and poor communication, another sloth and gluttony, another is pathologically fearful and anxious, and the last is miserly and averse to work. The plight of their poor animals isn’t so different from many of us today who are stuck in a job with a bad boss or, more generally, stuck in a life we didn’t choose.
And when the animals escape, they don’t immediately see it as a windfall. Leroy, the donkey, is nearly shot by his owner and just barely gets away. When he does, he has a heavy wagon tied to his back and a big tuba hung around his neck, the loot from the boss’s robbery. The boss had cursed, “This junk ain’t worth nothin!” and so that is what Leroy believes. Chased from his home, Leroy finds himself alone in the world, pulling junk that ain’t worth nothing. He doesn’t seem very lucky at all. But he can be.
Enter the frog.
Leroy laments his condition to Kermit, who happens to be sitting on a fence. “I’m on the road to nowhere,” he says. “I gave ol’ Mordecai eighteen years of hard work, and what do I have to show for it?”
Kermit points at the wagon.
“It’s mighty hard pullin’.” The wagon, he thinks, is nothing but a burden.
Kermit tells him he also has a tuba.
“You mean this big kinda twisty funnel thing? I don’t even know what it’s fer!”
“Oh, it’s fer music!”
“Music? How do you play?”
Kermit teaches Leroy to play, and with stars in his eyes, Leroy sees a better future—as a traveling musician. “They’ll just love me all to crazy!” he fantasizes. He changes his tune:
I’m on the road to somewhere.
Got my tuba all with me.
I’m on the road to somewhere.
It’s a lovely place to be.
Jim Henson could have viewed his early Sam and Friends work as a burden. In fact, in 1958, when he quit the show and left for Europe, he did. He had to create all the sets, puppets, and props himself. He had to write and perform sponsor promos. He had to hire people to help, and he had to do it daily, even when he didn’t feel like it. After a while, he probably felt trapped, locked in. But his problem wasn’t his life up until then—it was not knowing what his life had been fer. Or rather, for.
Everything that had happened before Henson’s European walkabout had been building to something. Henson had been learning to be a boss, he had been cultivating an intense work ethic, and he had developed a home-grown aesthetic. Henson’s shoestring budget resulted in Kermit being fashioned out of fabric from his mother’s old coat, and that in turn spawned the look of a thousand Muppets. His work in commercials led both to a healthy workshop budget and eventually to Sesame Street, whose producers were trying to use the power of commercials to teach. It couldn’t be predicted from the outset, but each part led to the next part, and eventually it added up to staggering success when Henson started to see the shape it might take.
Henson may not have chosen his career up until 1958, but he was able to turn burdens into strengths. “Take what you got and fly with it,” Henson said. Most of us simply don’t know what we’ve got.
Cheryl Strayed’s career took flight when she converted her painful childhood into a kick-ass, no-nonsense voice for the column “Dear Sugar.” She infused her advice with anger and shocked the world by openly talking about her sexual abuse and its effects, and strangely enough, that’s when the world started to celebrate her work. She started to sell mugs bearing her slogan WRITE LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER, had two bestsellers, and is an inspiration for anyone who writes.
If you have some time, try to journal about your past jobs, your setbacks, and the skills they gave you. Then, turn it into a narrative—what does your unique life story seem to be building toward? It’s possible that it’s a job that doesn’t yet exist, as with the Cheryl Strayed job, the Walt Disney job, or the Jim Henson job. It might be a job you have to define yourself.
Rethink the wagon—your experiences that hold you back. They might just be the key to your success.
This essay is excerpted from the book Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career.