Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #109: “Linchpin” and Other Books by Seth Godin

Dear kids,

Seth Godin is a force in the marketing world. He’s a topsy-turvy brain with a largely straight, businessman audience, which makes his blend of exaggeration and passion even more surprising. He’s written a ton of books that overlap heavily in their ideas, so I’ve just chosen Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? to highlight here. Hopefully you get a sense of this man’s passion and intellectual rigor from these.

Selected Quotes:

  • The cause of the suffering is the desire of organizations to turn employees into replaceable cogs in a vast machine. The easier people are to replace, the less they need to be paid. And so far, workers have been complicit in this commoditization. This is your opportunity. The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.
  • If your organization wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for?
  • No, the competitive advantage the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion. All of these attributes are choices, not talents, and all of them are available to you.
  • You could do Richard Branson’s job. Most of the time, anyway. I spent some time with Sir Richard, and I can tell you that you could certainly do most of what he does, perhaps better than he does it. Except for what he does for about five minutes a day. In those five minutes, he creates billions of dollars’ worth of value every few years, and neither you nor I would have a prayer of doing what he does. Branson’s real job is seeing new opportunities, making decisions that work, and understanding the connection between his audience, his brand, and his ventures.
  • The law of linchpin leverage: The more value you create in your job, the fewer clock minutes of labor you actually spend creating that value. In other words, most of the time, you’re not being brilliant. Most of the time, you do stuff that ordinary people could do. A brilliant author or businesswoman or senator or software engineer is brilliant only in tiny bursts. The rest of the time, they’re doing work that most any trained person could do.
  • One of the most powerful essays in the book describes how Ben changes the lives of his hyperstressed music students by challenging each of them to “give yourself an A.” His point is that announcing in advance that you’re going to do great—embracing your effort and visualizing an outcome—is far more productive than struggling to beat the curve. I want to go farther than that. I say you should give yourself a D (unless you’re lucky enough to be in Ben’s class). Assume before you start that you’re going to create something that the teacher, the boss, or some other nitpicking critic is going to dislike. Of course, they need to dislike it for all the wrong reasons. You can’t abandon technique merely because you’re not good at it or unwilling to do the work. But if the reason you’re going to get a D is that you’re challenging structure and expectation and the status quo, then YES! Give yourself a D. A well-earned D.
  • Being as charming as Julia Roberts or as direct as Marlon Brando or as provocative as Danny Boyle—that’s way easier than playing cricket better than anyone who ever lived. Emotional labor is available to all of us, but is rarely exploited as a competitive advantage. We spend our time and energy trying to perfect our craft, but we don’t focus on the skills and interactions that will allow us to stand out and become indispensable to our organization.
  • Why do so many handmade luxury goods come from France? It’s not an accident. It’s the work of one man, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. He served under Louis XIV of France in the 1600s and devised a plan to counter the imperialist success of the countries surrounding France. England, Portugal, Spain, and other countries were colonizing the world, and France was being left behind. So Colbert organized, regulated, and promoted the luxury-goods industry. He understood what wealthy consumers around the world wanted, and he helped French companies deliver it. Let other countries find the raw materials; the French would fashion it, brand it, and sell it back to them as high-priced goods. A critical element of this approach was the work of indispensable artisans.
  • Consider the way a pilot walking down the aisle can change the entire afternoon for a restless kid on a flight. Or the way a doctor taking just an extra minute can change her relationship with a patient by pausing and caring. The opposite of being a cog is being able to stop the show, at will. What would it take for you to stop the show?
  • When you do emotional labor, you benefit. Not just the company, not just your boss, but you. The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show—these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.
  • Are you indispensable at home? Would it fall apart without you? What about at work? Why are you easily replaceable at one venue but not the other? Are you charming when you go on a date or meet a handsome guy at a party? But not at a meeting at work? I’m wondering why we’re so easily able to expend emotional labor off the job, but uncomfortable expending the same energy on the job.
  • If there is no sale, look for the fear. If a marketing meeting ends in a stalemate, look for the fear. If someone has a tantrum, breaks a promise, or won’t cooperate, there’s fear involved. Fear is the most important emotion we have.
  • By forcing myself to do absolutely no busywork tasks in between bouts with the work, I remove the best excuse the resistance has. I can’t avoid the work because I am not distracting myself with anything but the work. This is the hallmark of a productive artist. I don’t go to meetings. I don’t write memos. I don’t have a staff. I don’t commute. The goal is to strip away anything that looks productive but doesn’t involve shipping.
  • The Grateful Dead puzzled industry pundits for a long time. Why didn’t they want to sell more records? Why didn’t they want a gold record? Why didn’t they want to get their music played on the radio? The answer is simple: they were playing a different game, a different tune. Instead of buying into a system that would tear them down and corrupt their vision, they built their own system, one that was largely resistance-proof. One concert a night, night after night, for decade after decade. Play only for people you like, with people you enjoy. How can the lizard brain object to that? The result is sneaky and effective. When you haven’t set up a judge and jury for your work, you get to do art that doesn’t alert the resistance. And then you can leverage that art into the next thing.
  • Linus Torvalds worked hard on creating the Linux operating system. He did it for free and he did it largely for his friends. The Internet permitted him to jump to a third circle, a hundred million or more people around the world who benefit from his art, who participate in his tribe and follow his work. As the third circle grows in size, the second circle takes care of itself. Linus and the core team responsible for Linux will never need to look for work again, because as you give more and more to the friendlies, the list of people willing to pay you to do your work always grows.
  • As we’ve seen, if there is no gift, there is no art. When art is created solely to be sold, it’s only a commodity . . . If flight attendants charged extra for smiles, or helping you with a bag or entertaining your kid, that wouldn’t be a gift and it wouldn’t be art. It would be emotional labor for hire. If I give you a piece of art, you shouldn’t be required to work hard to reciprocate, because reciprocation is an act of keeping score, which involves monetizing the art, not appreciating it.

Love,

Mom

Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.

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