Interview with Linchpin Author Seth Godin

Author Seth Godin talks about the necessity of artistic thinking in the modern workplace


In his latest book, “Linchpin,” Internet maverick
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Cool Hunting: How does this unconventional approach to PR illustrate what you’re talking about in Linchpin?

Seth Godin: My thesis—just to start from the beginning—is that we got tricked for 50 or 100 years into believing that the way to succeed was to keep calm and carry on, to fit in, to do what we’re told, to be a cog in the machine. It’s what the system works best with, at least in the short run. And what has shifted is now that everything is a click away, now that anything that can be written down in a manual can be done cheaper, and now that we can outsource and diminish repetitive work quite easily, this model is showing some cracks in it.

The people who are succeeding, particularly online, are not those who fit in but those who stand out. My book is designed to sell people pretty hard on the idea that they need to overcome some understandable fears and take a leap into doing things that are worth doing and making a difference.

So what I tried to do in terms of marketing the book (and I’ve always tried to take my own advice with my books) is bypass the established media, who tend to like a certain kind of book and tend to exert power in a certain sort of way. I think those people are fading away, their jobs are anyway; their power is fading.

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What I said instead is, what would happen if I went directly to the people who now have power, which are the linchpins online, which are the individuals with blogs or Twitter followers or Facebook pages that other people trust. What if I asked them to be the reviewers and asked them to spread the word instead of somehow persuading someone at The New York Times to do so. So that was the plan, and so far it’s working beautifully.

We started by offering a review copy to the first three thousand people who gave a donation to the Acumen Fund, which is a charity I support. And it didn’t take very long to have more than 2,000 people do that. We raised $100,000 in about a day and a half, exceeding our goal. So those books went out yesterday. We also sent 250 people who live internationally a shorter digital version (about a fifth of the book) so that they wouldn’t have to wait for shipping. It’s already showing up on Twitter. It’s already being reviewed. Some people don’t like it, some people like it a lot. What will end up happening, my prediction is, that between 500 and 1,000 reviews of one sort or another will get posted online, which will certainly reach far more people than a review in The New York Times ever could.

My principle goal is to leverage personal interactions so that this book reaches the people it needs to reach, the people who are open to hearing what it has to say. If I wanted to reach as many people as possible I’d pay one of those talentless celebrities a thousand dollars and she could just Tweet it, but it’s not gonna work.

In some ways, a linchpin sounds like Malcolm Gladwell’s connector. How is it different?

Well, I’m not sure that I want to use myself as an example but what I would say is a lot of what Malcolm says about a lot of things are true, but the linchpin has little overlap at all with the connectors. A linchpin is an artist, a linchpin does work that you can’t predict. A linchpin makes a difference, changes people, does something that needed to be done that no one else knew needed to be done. So Pablo Picasso was a linchpin, Bob Dylan is a linchpin, and Jonathan Ive at Apple is a linchpin. Donna Sturgess, the woman who invented Aquafresh toothpaste, is a linchpin—they’re in most successful organizations.

If you see the pilot walk out of the cockpit on a long flight, on a JetBlue flight, walk down the aisle and comfort a four year old kid who’s crying, he’s a linchpin, at least in that moment. Because he’s doing something that you couldn’t just write down, you couldn’t just systematize.

So online if you’re going to spend time reading someone’s blog, if you’re going to spend time reading someone’s Tweets, if you’re gonna spend time interacting with someone, it’s probably not someone who’s just like everyone else, because what would be the point of that?

I guess my argument then is if I looked at the pages of Cool Hunting or lots of other sites on line that highlight the remarkable and the exceptional and the things worth looking at, everything that you’re talking about is the work of a linchpin. The question is, are you going to work for someone like that as a replaceable cog, or are you going to be someone like that, someone that we can’t live without, someone that we have go out of our way to please.

You encourage people to “start giving gifts that change people,” which seems like a huge shift in thinking, almost bordering on spiritual.

Well, let’s start by breaking this into little bits. What’s a gift? If I see a Chuck Close painting in a museum, I didn’t pay for that painting, I just get the benefit of seeing it. If I see a Karl Lagerfeld outfit walking down the street, it didn’t cost me anything to see it. If someone takes the time to use a beautiful Bodoni typeface kerned properly, it doesn’t necessarily communicate the words more clearly, but there was a gift element associated with it. We need to start with this idea that there isn’t just a transaction every time—I do something, I get money, we move on. What gifts do is they create a connection, because they’re not even. Someone gave me something, I couldn’t give them anything in return. We’re not even-steven.

That connection is the first step to doing art. I’m arguing that art has nothing to do with painting. Art has to do with humanity. Poetry is clearly art, but so is product design, so is good writing, and so is giving someone a hug who needs one. So where we need to go, where I’m pushing people, is this—some people will be afraid to do this and they will persist in being low-paid cogs in the system. Others will see this as an opportunity to be artists who give gifts, gifts that change people. And once you set out to do that, what you discover is that it’s easier than ever to be generous.

The way you talk about art also stands out as a new way to define it. Why not call this new approach to work something that has less baggage?

Well, you know, I grew up in a museum in Buffalo, New York—the finest contemporary art museum in America, according to Smithsonian magazine—called the Albright-Knox art gallery. You know, modern art has been in an identity crisis for fifty years. The people who like it have no clue what it is. Clearly, a long time ago, art and painting diverged.

There’s a village in China called Dafen where they paint a third of all the oil paintings in the world every day, and they’re clearly not artists, they’re doing paint-by-number in volume. So, I am taking advantage of the fact that we have an emotional connection to the word art but we have no idea what it means.

My argument is that if you go to TED, and watch Elizabeth Gilbert give a great speech, there was an art to that. I think we can all agree that in that moment she is being an artist. I don’t think art has anything to do with how much money you have. I think art has to do with whether you are operating at the highest level of what it means to be a person. The good news is that the media available to artists now is huge compared to what it used to be.

A lot of this reminds me of art critic Dave Hickey’s metaphor about the ’60s pulling out the tablecloth from underneath consciousness and we’re trying to put it back together. What parts of the old way of thinking are valuable if any?

Well, you see, I’m getting very excited talking to you because it’s opening some thinking that I hadn’t had before. What did YouTube do? YouTube said that anyone who wants to be a film director can be a film director, you don’t need a permit anymore. And the internet has opened all these long tails. But what I’m saying is you don’t need to hang in the Mary Boone gallery to be an artist, and you don’t need to be approved of by ArtNews to be an artist. You just need to decide to do art. Some bad art is going to be created as a result of that democracy, but we don’t have to like that stuff, we can move on. A lot of amazing art is created because someone can look us in the eye and will to change us in a positive way, whereas at McDonald’s you do that and you get fired because you’re not moving fast enough. It’s hard for me to think of any job that anyone would want to have where you’re not gonna be able to do art.

Those kids—the ones who are trying to sound just like Metallica or Bob Dylan, or anyone in between—they need to stop, because it’s not art if it’s a replica, it’s not art if you’re trying to fit in. Just because you have artistic tools doesn’t mean the stuff you’re making is art. That’s why it’s so annoying to see people say “this is the way you must have a blog, this is the way you must use Twitter.”

What they’re doing is creating a new status quo that ensures that most people will be mediocre and average, and that is worthless. We’re gonna see lots of people create stuff, but the bar is gonna be raised as to what it takes to create something meaningful. We saw this in the painting world twenty years ago and in the fashion world in the eighties, that once someone has already gone out to the edge, going out to the same edge is worthless.

So it’s getting better all the time?

I think that “better” is the really loaded term. Art makes people uncomfortable. I think that lots of things are going to get more uncomfortable faster, no question about that. Then the question is, what will we do about it and what will society reward? We’re so wealthy as a culture that we’ve been able to spend a lot of time and money amusing ourselves. The question is, will we continue to be wealthy and, if so, then we’ll be willing to amuse ourselves. Or, will we need to spend all our time and money feeding ourselves and sheltering ourselves, in which case there’s gonna be a lot less room for this kind of art I’m talking about.