Linchpin: An interview with Seth Godin on fear, change and the importance of making art everywhere

author/marketer seth godin speaking

That Seth Godin has a new book coming out is generally a cause for celebration. Seth has a knack for teasing out one big, necessary idea and illuminating it in a way that makes it seem obvious, post-reveal, without ever coming across as obnoxious. That, my friends, is a gift.

So, too, is the way he chooses to share his gifts with the world. Seth regularly throws his weight behind people and ideas worthy of support, and has a special fondness for the Acumen Fund, an innovative, can-do nonprofit with a similarly iconoclastic chief executive, Jacqueline Novogratz. Moreover, he combines his various loves and interests in innovative ways, modeling the very behavior he describes so well in his books about marketing: for his latest book, Linchpin, he offered 3,000 early review copies to his readers willing to donate a minimum of $30 to the Acumen Fund; so eager/loyal are his readers, he hit his mark just 48 hours in, raising over $100K for Acumen.

In a further example of walking the walk, Seth reached out to a group of his regular devotees (or, in my case, an irregular one) to assist with promotion: would we read even earlier, advance portions of his book, and interview him about the material on our blogs, and post them all on one day in a big, glorious, central round-up of semi-anarchic, semi-choreographed promotion?

Uh, yeah. Yeah, we would do that.

So here is my interview with Seth on the themes of his latest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? The interview questions are based on the advance pages I read; I've since read the entire book, and could have a whole other interview based on the chapters about Resistance and "There Is No Map." Who knows? Maybe I will!

But don't wait: buy your copy now. Like The Dip and Tribes before it, Linchpin is one of those "must-reads" that, thankfully, doesn't read like one.



Colleen Wainwright: It seems like a central theme of your book is that we've fallen asleep: as creative beings, as free thinkers, as true individuals. Do you have any practical tips on waking the hell up? Or accurately gauging whether or not you're asleep?

Seth Godin: We haven't fallen asleep, we've been put to sleep. Actively brainwashed and hypnotized by industrialists in search of compliant factory workers and eager consumers. Of course, our genes were complicit, but please don't blame yourself.

And we're all asleep. Some are more awake than others (Spike Lee or Shepard Fairey or the guys who started the Four Seasons). Still, we stick with the status quo way more than there is any reason to. We do this because the system has persuaded us it's the only way.

As you guessed, the theme of my book is not to tell people what to do, but to identify the hypnosis and give us words and concepts we can use to wake each other up. Either that or we can keep shopping at the mall, driving an SUV and figuring out how to pay for our McMansion while we stress out doing by-the-book work at our by-the-book company that's getting its ass kicked by some startup with no overhead.

You say flat-out that one doesn't have to quit one's job to start effecting meaningful change. My own experience with trying to do that, back in advertising, was akin to banging my head against the proverbial wall. Does it only work for certain industries? For people higher up on the organizational food chain? Isn't there a point where we have to say, "Nope, not gonna happen here," cut our losses, and move on?

I think there may very well be times you need to quit, but most people never even get close to that. Most people say "my boss won't let me" and give up because they've bought into two myths: the first is that (as we saw above) the safe thing to do is play it safe, and the second is that your boss is crazy enough to take responsibility for your art. Why would she? You can't go to her and say, "I feel like doing something remarkable, if it doesn't work, will you take the blame?" Not the way it works. It turns out that if you start smallish and do remarkable stuff every day... make connections, be human, do the work, focus on things that matter, go the extra mile... then every day you'll get more chances to make things change.

Sure, it's possible that your boss will fire you. But if she does, is that the place you wanted to be anyway? Fired for delighting a customer? Fired for making a difference?

Odds are, not only won't you get fired, you'll get asked to let others in on your secret.

I love the concept of "emotional labor": that it's both mission-critical and wildly difficult. Also--and possibly even more significant--is that emotional labor is the Rodney Dangerfield of efforts, rarely garnering respect. How do we change that? Or does everyone signing onto the program have to get down with being the nutty Van Gogh of their endeavor or organization, only (if ever) appreciated after the fact?

There's not nuttiness on the table here. I'm proposing that you embrace the fact that the only thing you get paid for (unless you're a brilliant programmer, chemist or race car driver) is doing emotional labor. Bringing guts and ideas and love to work when you and others don't feel like it. That's your job. And the people who do that the best keep getting rewarded for it. Dishwashers don't get to whine about their chapped fingers, and white collar workers like us shouldn't whine about how hard it is to be generous and creative and flexible.

Speaking of "emotional labor," your statement that "Work is nothing but a platform for art and the emotional labor that goes with it" may be my favorite phrase you've ever coined (and you've coined a lot of good ones). It's basically saying that *anyone* can create art with what they do, right? But is that true? Can you be a corporate cog--a very small piece of the machinery, with a very unsexy job--and make art? What does that look like?

If you work for a company that truly prizes cog-hood... say you're an insurance actuary, or someone assembling pacemakers... I'd argue you should get out, now. Why? Because every day you spend there is a day where you give up value and a bit of your life. On the other hand, at just about every other job there's a chance to lead and make change and connect and create tiny breakthroughs. Which lead to more than tiny ones. I know people at giant famous companies that get to do this all day, every day. How'd they get that job? Because they started, and they continued and they pushed until it was their written role.

So, for example,

  • Laurie Coots at Chiat Day spends most of her time causing trouble, disruptions and the creation of opportunity.
  • When Robyn Waters was at Target, her job was to transform the organization from a K-Mart wannabe to Wal-mart challenger by bringing style and art and color to the inventory and mindset of the company.
  • Donna Sturgess gets to do similar work at GlaxoSmithKline. She finds high bars and encourages people across the organization to jump over them. She makes art and change for a living.
  • And at Starbucks, Aimee Johnson runs the group that developed both the high-end coffee maker they acquired and the new line of Via coffee.

I've met similar people at banks (!) and even General Electric.

Okay. Let's talk about fear, one of my least favorite (and most consuming) topics. If lizard brain, the thing that makes us react in the scared, small, self-preserving way, that just wants "to eat and be safe", is the source of resistance, it's pretty important to resist succumbing to it. How does one do that? It's not like you can sit down and have a heart-to-heart.

My other goal here is to scare you to your toes. To scare you NOT of standing out, but to scare you about fitting in. To scare you about your diminished role if you refuse to do emotional labor. To create a new fear, a fear that's greater than the fear of being your artistic genius self. Boo.

Giving, "free" and the honored Native American tradition of potlatch are all good, but where does it stop? We may no longer equate dying with the most toys as winning, but a gal's gotta make a living...right?

The more you give away, the more you get. This is actually a secret plan to have what you want and need and hope for, because the market (bosses, hiring companies, the market) love free stuff, and they'll stand in line for more... they'll bid for more... they'll pay for more... if you're the one who can deliver it. Be generous, make art, make connections, do work that matters and you don't have to worry about making a living. The secret of potlatch was that the big chief could give away EVERYTHING and he'd be even richer the next week.

Image by jurvetson via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.