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An Apology to Seth Godin

by Bob Lalasz on January 8, 2011

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A little more than a year ago I wrote a blog post attacking Seth Godin, one of the preminent marketing gurus in America, for professional ignorance and stylistic heresies. I was responding to what Godin had just written about the timidity of non-profits, especially in marketing, and how stupid that timidity is in an age when a) it costs virtually nothing to communicate your message, and (b) so very much is on the line, both for non-profits and for the world.

At the time, his post seemed out of touch with what a lot of non-profits were actually doing online (including the one I worked at), and it set what sounded like an absurd measure of success for brand awareness — why hadn’t a single non-profit broken into the top 100 of Twitter accounts for followers? he asked. So I wasn’t alone; lots of social mediaistas working for non-profits ripped him that week.

But I ground some special axes. I accused Godin of sliding into banality with his daily posts of marketing and life wisdom, which I called horoscopes, gnomically exploiting people’s workplace angst with rebellious little maxims that would give you the courage to change your life…for five minutes. I called him a hypocrite about Twitter (I embedded a video of him calling the vast majority of social networking “fake networking”). I made fun of his glasses, his baldness, his Typepad site. It was quite a little performance, and posting it reminded me of the sneaky little graffiti pleasures of blogging. It also gave me a small hope that maybe I could make some hay making social media pronouncements. Shooting a man and then using his body as a bridge to somewhere nice: that should have clued me in to what I was doing.

I was wrong. Not because Godin wasn’t in a patch of mediocre posts back then (I still think he was, but he turned it around quickly). Not primarily because I was snarky — although the snark was embarassingly cheap. The deeper shame of it is that I had been blinded by whatever idea I had had about becoming a social media guru that I couldn’t read his post properly. (Reading it now, I admit it: He’s spot-on about the culture of non-profits, which is what the post is really about. Their timidity is the #1 subject their employees talk about, every day. I’ve been in those rooms, watched those enormous lists of reasons to say no to things being drafted in blood.) Also: Ashamed that I had attacked him because he wasn’t being quite as useful as he had alway been, as I sought advice every day for changing my life.

Finally: I was wrong because, although I didn’t know it at the time, Godin was about to help me enormously, by publishing his new book Linchpin.

So, Mr. Godin: I apologize. Let me try in a very small way to make this right, by talking briefly about Linchpin and how relentlessly useful it was for me.

Linchpin is a self-help book, literally. It has no methods, no tricks; it has diagnoses and inspiration, and it’s up to you to use and combine those to find your own way. (You do borrow a lot of ego — as therapists say — from Godin in order to get to the point of helping yourself.) The evaporation of job security in Western societies has been written about to death, but I’m not sure anyone has said “It’s about time” in the way Godin does here. He has special venom for the public educational system in the United States, which was invented to turn out quiescent workers who got 40 years of stability in the same job doing the same thing for their bargain. That’s gone, obviously (although the educational system is still with us). Most of us are fearful and on our own. We have no map for what comes next.

The solutions Godin suggests — redefining yourself as an “artist,” seeking out opportunities to be generous, making change in others the object of your daily work, cultivating your everyday courage in the face of that absent map, prioritize shipping over perfectionism — sound so squishy in summary as to be beneath contempt. In fact, this is the hardest-headed book I’ve read in some time, and an essential book for anyone trying to thrive in the madness of consensus and control that seizes so many non-profits. He leaves you nowhere to hide, hunts down and systematically tries to kill off all of your resistance to transformation — it’s a great work of therapy and enforced maturation, among other things.

In order to survive and thrive, he says, many of us will now have to create our own economic lives. But to do that, we need to develop new emotional and psychic skills for making more out of the jobs we have. We’re not talking about whistling while you work, and this is not a work of Randian smugness or social Darwinism. Linchpin is clearly written out of pain and empathy for the fix so many people are in. But, if you’re stuck working at 7-11, you still have a choice: You can be mad, or you can use it as a dojo where you spread generosity and work on yourself, which is of course also the best way toward eventually working someplace and on something better.

I’m doubtful that we can base an entire economy on linchpins, but that skepticism doesn’t invalidate the book’s force for me. This is really a book about interpersonal ethics, and your relationship with yourself as you work, and how a praxis on those things is your best chance at increasing both your economic opportunities and your happiness. For those who would say that that leaves out politics — well, it does leave out collectivism. But the kind of self-empowerment Godin is preaching has a profound relationship to power dynamics. The style of American prosperity we saw from 1945 to 1970 isn’t coming back. We need to find new ways of creating dignity, and the process starts with the way we treat each other and ourselves.

The truth is, even after I wrote that snarky post, I never stopped reading Godin’s blog. I was in too much pain about being in precisely one of the situations he talks about in “Linchpin” to stop seeking his advice. By the time the book came out, I had already moved toward creating a new position (at the same company) that gives me enormous creative freedom, the daily opportunity to work with brilliant people, and the chance to reach audiences with compelling content about a very good cause. But it took a long time to punch through institutional resistance to that position, and I had a lot of days of despair. Linchpin perfectly described what I was fighting against and told me I was right for fighting it, and gave me a lot of ego to borrow for the struggle. It also inspired me to start a blog curating the best soccer writing online, which, although I’ve taken a break from that project, was a wonderful school in the myriad self-disciplines (and pleasures) of shipping daily.

I’m reading Linchpin again now, and happy to find out that I’ve ingested a lot of it. And, weirdly, happy that I still have a lot left to ingest, as I continue to push against walls that are no longer there.

So Seth: I’m sorry. And thank you.

(Image credit: cyberdees/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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