Are You Indispensable? An Interview with Seth Godin
25 January 2010
Seth Godin‘s new book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, comes out today. As with all of Seth’s books, it’s a quick and inspiring read – if you aspire to make a difference in the world, you’ll find this book thought-provoking.
I recently caught up with Seth to ask him a few questions about the book – I think you’ll find our conversation quite interesting…
Josh: First, let’s discuss the essence of the idea: what does it mean to be indispensable?
Seth: Today’s economy places little value on showing up, filling a cube, answering the phone. We can get people to do that cheaper than you, that’s for sure. Now, white collar workers, MBAs and executives are judged more harshly, or they’re replaced or outsourced. The job disappears.
So, to be indispensable is to do work your boss couldn’t imagine. It means that you’re human, an independent actor, an artist, someone who connects and makes a difference. These people have genuine job security, because what they do is scarce.
Josh: It seems like there are a million ways a person could potentially be indispensable. Are some forms of indispensability better or more valuable than others?
Seth: You’re right, there are. But we’ve been brainwashed not to think that way. Look around you. When times got tough, what did most people do? They pulled back and worked hard to fit in, not to stand out. It’s like Purple Cow for people. The obvious thing to do is average stuff for average people, with a lot of hype. But what works? Exceptional work, unexpected insights and genuine connection.
Josh: Can you figure out whether or not you’re already indispensable in some way? If so, how? Are there clues or characteristics to look for?
Seth: Do people come to you or do you go to them? Do you need a resume or do your references speak for themselves? Do you initiate or react? Do people seek you out and ask you to do something outside of your to do list? When was the last time someone asked you to come give a speech?
Josh: The world is a big place – if you’re not already indispensable to someone or some group of people, do you have any recommendations about who or what to focus on serving?
Seth: This is the really cool part of the opportunity – because just about all the interesting jobs didn’t even exist a little while ago, no one is obviously more qualified than you. So first, figure out what you love (not the industry, the work) and then go do it. And second, decide to love what you do, because that’s a big part of it too.
Josh: Is becoming indispensable an achievement, an ongoing process, a little of both, or something else entirely?
Seth: No way is it an achievement. You don’t stay indispensable for long. One day they’re scalping tickets to see you for $250 in the street, the next day you’re in the discount bin. The challenge is perpetual re-invention.
Josh: It appears to be far easier to become indispensable if you choose to walk your own path and consciously break away from the norms of large systems that seek stability and predictability, like schools, governments, and big companies. Is that true? Can “cogs in the machine” become indispensable?
Seth: If you work for a company that prides itself on anonymous cogs, then success there actually means life career failure. That’s a sucker’s game. But I think there are more and more companies that pride themselves on building entire groups of indispensable people, linchpins, people who seek to make a difference.
Josh: As you note in the book, our ancient “lizard brain” is always instinctively searching for pleasure, safety, and security. The process of becoming indispensable is often uncomfortable and feels quite risky. Do you recommend ignoring these instincts, or is there some way to use them to our advantage?
Seth: Here’s what I do: when I hear the lizard brain, the scared voice, what Steven Pressfield calls the resistance… I do precisely what it is afraid of. It’s my compass, but backwards.
Josh: Generosity seems to be a major theme in the book. The general approach to becoming indispensable seems to be giving away significant value; the more you give, the more indispensable you become. At the same time, the defining moment of every self-supporting business is the transaction – no sales, no business. At what point do you transition from giving to trading?
Seth: I think the transition becomes easy when the thing you want to sell is naturally scarce. If you need custom work, fast work, exceptional inspired work… that’s what you’re going to pay for. Before you pay for that, I demonstrate to you how hard it is to live without it, because you’ve already seen what I can do for others (or perhaps for you).
Josh: I love the connection you make between businesses that matter and art, which you define as “a personal gift that changes the recipient.” What do the most successful businesspeople and artists have in common?
Seth: Art has nothing to do with painting, and everything to do with change, emotion and connection. And isn’t that what smart, growing businesses do? We now pay for surprise and delight and productivity. Where do those things come from? Not from a manual. Not from a marketing textbook. They come from an artist.
Josh: Craftsmen and artists, more often than not, hate to compromise – even when their vision requires working with others, who may have different values or priorities. For example, changes to a building’s budget may impact an architect’s vision for the space. When is it better to walk away from situations that compromise your ideals? Is there a time and place for making tradeoffs to ensure the work becomes real? Does accepting tradeoffs make you any less of an artist or craftsman?
Seth: This is a spectacular insight, and I don’t know the answer. Certainly, there are artists that are so cocky and imperious and so afraid to work with someone else that they have no work at all. The challenge is to balance the trade offs. Not easy to describe, I think, but worth trying to do.
Josh: A strong mental association many people have related to the idea of art is the image of the “starving artist” – a person who chooses to live a life of material want in favor of living their ideals, which are often anti-commercial. Does commerce cheapen art? Is the business artisan destined to live a life of relative poverty?
Seth: Commerce cheapens art, because art is a gift. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get paid for the souvenirs, for appearances, for the work you do that creates value… at the same time your generosity completes your art by adding a gift element. More complex than I can go into here, but in the book I try to outline precisely why a culture of gifts creates the connection that makes art actually happen.
Josh: In the book, you say that art is the product of “emotional labor,” which is always difficult and guaranteed to provoke inner resistance. How can you tell the difference between something that’s difficult because it’s important and something that’s difficult because your plan isn’t working? Where does The Dip fit into the picture?
Seth: Difficult in this case only refers to the internal dialog. Hard to smile when you don’t feel like smiling. Hard to delight a customer when he’s a jerk. Hard to serve someone who is mocking you while you’re asking questions. But it’s that difficulty that creates real value, it’s what we get paid for.
Josh: Self-education and self-improvement are subjects that are near and dear to both of us. What encouragement or advice would you give to someone who is determined to become indispensable and make the most of their life without the benefits (and detriments) of formal schooling or advanced certification?
Seth: Don’t pick a job that likes cogs.
Don’t pick a job that insists on advanced degrees.
Don’t look for safety.
Fail in public.
Try to find things people will criticize.
Learn from your mistakes, with eagerness.
Do difficult emotional labor that others fear.
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