N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is Seth Godin, I’m the author of 14 books, the newest one comes out tomorrow and I have a company called squidoo.com that’s the 76th biggest website in the US. I write a blog now and then and I’ve been doing this for 25 years.
I went on your Amazon profile and you talked about Vanna White. What’s the story with that?
First, what’s not there was that I used to be a Dorm Room Tycoon in 1979, I co-founded the largest human ran business in the US and ran it out of the dorm room university with my partner for a couple years. We had 40 divisions and 400 employees.
In 1986 I became a book packager which is different than being an independent author in that I would think of ideas for books, sometimes like my first book, putting my name on them and other times just organizing them so they would come out. We did Almanac, we did books on personal finances, etc.
And the Vanna White story, I didn’t think they knew who Vanna White was in the UK, but she was a game show host and my publisher who paid $5,000 for my first book published her book too and it came out at the same time. He was so taken by her that he paid no attention to us unfortunately and the book went nowhere.
Is there a similarity with publishing and doing startups?
Well, the magic of being in the book business is that the publisher’s pay in advance before you do the work so it is as close to a poor business idea as you can have. If your idea is good then you get money but then you have to do it again. I was born to be a writer, I did it because it was an easy way for a 24-year-old to start having an impact in the real world without raising money.
The big shift now is that the number of publishers who are able to give you enough money is small, the number of books is high and so a book is much more likely to be a way to build credibility than it is a way to make a living.
What book are you coming up with?
It’s called ‘We are all Weird’ and it's being launched simultaneously in five languages around the world. It’s a short manifesto about the end of normal and the rise of the fringes.
What do you have against the system?
I have nothing against the system except that it’s broken. The system was based on scarcity of manufacturing which led someone like Henry Ford to have a plant that could make him a lot of money and I was glad that it was driven by scarcity of money to buy mass advertising, so if you bought enough ads for your product you could win.
Then it was scarcity of retail space so Marks on Spencers could do very well because they have a store and someone else didn’t. And now the only thing that’s scarce is attention and in an environment where there is a scarcity of attention making more noise doesn't help you, having a factory doesn't help you, having a retail store doesn’t help you. The only thing that helps you is having an interesting enough idea or a loyal enough tribe that people will choose to pay attention.
This is really good news for someone just getting started because it means all the things that were advantages to the other guys aren’t advantages anymore.
How did you create your tribe?
Well, I think the tribe was already there I just showed up in time to lead it. And I think Bob Marley did the same thing with the Rastafarians and the Beatles maybe with teenagers though I wouldn’t compare myself to the Beatles. But the key point is the population of frustrated, merged in a hurry, eager connected people who want to make a difference in the world, which was not invented by me but I have 4,000 blog posts and 14 book later consistently showing up and saying, ‘Why don’t you take a look at this?’
What’s more important, standing out or being a master of your craft?
I think that standing out without being a master is useless and being a master without standing out is sort of useless because you are wasting your talent. That’s why you have to do both.
Both of them require a lot of time, how do you do both?
No, both of them require guts. And guts and time commitment are two different things. If you stopped going to meetings and stopped watching television you would save seven hours a day. Gladwell states that you need 10,000 hours to master your craft and if you take a smaller craft to start with maybe you can do it in 3,000 hours. Three thousand hours divided by seven is…do the math, 400? So 400 days after you start by spending seven hours a day on your small craft you will be a master at it and then if you have the guts to speak up, if you have the guts to stand out, if you have the guts to lead then you’ve done both and you’ve done both in less than two years.
A lot of people don’t have that platform though. So let’s say they have the guts to make a statement, so you make the statement but how do you get your message heard?
Well, you could do what I did and file an application with the department of platforms and maybe the platform people will decide to give you one but generally speaking the way you get a platform is you earn it one person at a time. My blog only had fifty readers when I started it. Gary Vaynerchuk had one twitter follower when he started and it only took him a couple of months to have a million. So please don’t tell me you don’t have a platform, that’s the most bogus excuse I’ve heard today.
Okay, so tell me what you’ve learnt from blogging when you started. Where did you see the growth? I know that’s not important but for somebody that’s starting out now, that’s all they’re concerned about. I know you mentioned in your book that people are concerned about followers and the traffic that they are getting and it’s not important, but when you are starting out I think it is. It’s sort of proof that you are doing something valuable, right?
Maybe we practice these questions in advance then you give me something to disagree with. It’s like saying, ”What I really want to do is end up as a widow and inherit a lot of money from my dead spouse, so therefore I’m going to go and get married.” That’s not a good reason to get married, right?
The reason that you start a blog is because you have something to share, the reason you start a blog is because the craft of sharing your thoughts and your ideas and your writing is worth something to you intrinsically and if people want to read it, fine.
If you are writing so that lots of people will then send you money, the writing you're going to do isn’t going to be the kind of writing that they are going to show up to read. So it’s an inherent contradiction in this notion that you should start publishing yourself because there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Well, that’s the assumption. That is the motive of a lot of people, am I wrong to say that?
Primarily the motive of people who have failed. If you go to an art museum you will see almost no painting by fine artists who set out to do this to make money, right. Maybe Jeff Koons but not very many other people, Damien Hirst, two, but everybody else is painting because they love it and they make money as the side effect. There is no book that says ‘How to make money as a painter for dummies’ because it’s a dumb way to try to make money and so is blogging, and so is tweeting.
Let’s talk about creating more creators because I think that’s a recurring theme in your books. How do you make that switch from an environment where you are used to taking orders and an environment where it’s full of routines?
But this is the knob of the matter and the art of where we can actually get useful. Which is the reason that people fit in, the reason they go to meetings and do what they are told and slog through the whole day and then go out for beers on Friday because they are afraid. That is the only reason, they are afraid.
There are successful people in every field who were born in Manchester and who were born in Birmingham, and who were born in London and who were born Nairobi. It doesn't matter who your parents were, what matters is, are you afraid? Are you afraid to fail and are you afraid to be criticized and are you afraid to stand out? Because if you are afraid there are a million great excuse available to you, but if you are not afraid, if in fact the opportunity is true, that you have no choice but to put a dent in the universe and you’re willing to do the hard work and do what that it takes to master your craft and you will do the scary work that it takes to stand out and you will keep doing it until you have put a dent in the universe. My whole point is you need to dispense with the excuses, take one path or the other and get to work.
What is the lizard brain?
You feel the lizard brain in action when turbulence hits your airplane even though you know consciously that turbulence doesn’t make airplanes crash. It’s the one that makes you change your outfit three times before a blind date even though all three outfits are just fine. The lizard brain is at work all the time
The first step is to know that it exists, to give it a name, to recognize the tone of its voice, to understand when it shows up and to figure out when it’s bluffing you.
You need to take those steps if you are going to get to the next step, which is befriending it. That when the lizard is telling you that you are being a nut, when it’s telling you that you're risking everything, that’s how you know you're on to something. That’s what artists listen for. Artists listen for that voice in the back of their head that says, ‘This is a bad idea.’
And artists are just following that?
It’s a compass, right? It’s the compass that tells you what to do.
You mention that having depth of knowledge is not enough, you also need judgment, can you elaborate on that? Because it seems that if you acquire all the knowledge, that would be sufficient but you are saying it’s not.
Sure, because knowledge doesn’t bring with it taste. And taste is what most of us have to sell, right? Michael Dell and his team know plenty of things about how to buy chips cheaply, and they know how to build computers quickly and they know how to run direct marketing ads that work. But because they didn’t have taste they came out with MP3 players that no one wanted to buy, and they came out of the laptop that people didn't cross the street to look at, and they could have built a tablet but they didn’t. These aren’t challenges of knowledge, these are challenges of judgment, of understanding what will resonate with your audience, what the whole view of your audience is like and what story you can tell them.
If someone can write down the answer you could just read it, but they can’t and therefore you have to learn the difference between an ugly dress and a beautiful dress. And you have to learn the difference between a good TV show and a not good TV show. You have to figure out how to sell to various kinds of people and that’s all about your judgment.
How do you develop that? On a day-to-day basis, how can someone develop his or her judgment skills?
There are two parts to it; one part as you point out is knowledge. If you know the history of dresses for example, then when you see, if you are Diane von Furstenberg who studied the history of dresses for 20 years when the ‘wrap dress’ shows up you can say, “Yes, I believe in that”.
Then the second thing is that you have to fail, you have to fail a lot. I have failed more than anyone listening to this podcast, if you can keep failing and survive, then you get to play again. And the person who fails the most wins.
How do you keep on going when you are just failing? Tell me about one of your experiences and what kept through the dip, as you call it?
My first year as a book packager I got rejected 900 times in a row. I sold my first book the first day and then I didn’t sell anything for a year, I’ve launched businesses that other people have taken the idea and gone on to do big things with, I’ve launched businesses that were just stupid ideas, projects, things inside of projects, blog posts that didn't work.
For me, let’s assume that you are going to have 70% success ratio, which is absurd. But let’s say you’re aspiring to that, that means you have to fail three times before you can get your next success. So you just say, “Great, I learned one more thing, I’m still in the game, what’s next?” and that notion of being allowed to keep playing the game is fundamentally different than saying, “I’m going to win today and then the game will be over.”
I understand what you are saying but when you are in the trenches it’s completely different, you know?
I do know. I was poor for a really long time, I almost couldn’t pay rent for years and years. And number two is you have to learn to accept the fact that the failure isn’t you failing, it’s your idea failing, and you and your idea are two different things.
Because your idea can probably be run over by a bus and you can still go out for dinner, right, but your idea is dead. You are not dead, your idea is dead and yes, it does hurt, but we are judging your idea.
It’s like if someone takes a bad, out of focus picture of you and submits that picture to a modeling agency and they don’t interview you for the job, do they attack you, criticize you, or the picture? It’s the picture that they rejected.
So detach yourself?
Yeah. Your idea is just a picture of you and maybe it’s out of focus, maybe you didn’t present it the right way but it’s just a picture, it’s not you.
When is it appropriate to quit?
Well, what I wrote about in the book is that most people quit at the wrong time. If you are in a cul-de-sac, if you are involved in something that is just going to keep getting worse you should quit immediately. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, if the typical person going through this process never comes out other end, then you're wasting your time investing in something dumb.
For example if you are a gambler and you go to pari-mutuel horse races all the time hoping to hit it big, you should quit now. Because the odds are against you, statistics are against you and no one goes through that and comes out ahead.
On the other hand there are plenty of things like going to medical school, where you are doing something that’s horrible, that’s mind grinding, that is really difficult, that most people quit while they're doing it and you should never quit. Because the dip is there for a reason, and the reason is to wipe out most people so the few people who are left are happy.
The stupidest thing in the world is to start something and then quit it in the dip, which is when you should never quit.
Why does the system need quitters?
I think the system seduces us into starting jobs or careers or projects because they are squeaky and fun but if we refuse to quit them when their date ends we end up giving up our most precious asset, our time, our energy and our attention, just because we don’t have the guts to quit and go do something else.
Do you think people should just blaze new trails, create new paths? What if you get inspired to just work for a company like Google?
I think for a lot of corporates overvalue their employees potential, they are getting paid more than they are worth and they should hold on to it. But generally I would say this, someone like Jonathan Ive, the guy who designed the iPad, and the iPod, if he was on his own, he would be wasted. This job he has is a job where his talents are leveraged.
I think if you were a greeter or a bell person at a fine hotel and you have a chance to use your skills of charming people, helping people, connecting people and making people welcomed, and you are paid fairly you should take that job and you should run with it. I'm not saying everyone should be self-employed, I'm saying everyone should stop blaming their job for hiding.
How do you make that choice between the corporate world and doing your own thing?
I think that goes back to the notion of judgment and taste. Nobody knows your situation better than you and if you keep making bad decisions about how you are going to spend your working days you are going to pay the price. Part of the art of being a grown-up is learning to make good decisions about that.
About your working day?
In terms of time management?
And commitment, right? So, it used to be that if you spent 30 years working in an iron company you were a hero. Because you did what industrials wanted and you were a key member of society. And now if you do that you are a fool because what you’ve done is you’ve let the system take advantage of you when you could have been doing something bigger than that.
How do you manage thing on a day-to-day basis? How do you remain productive, or try to stay productive?
I think my advice is irrelevant. It’s like asking Richard Branson what he had for dinner last night, it doesn’t matter what he had for dinner last night, he does his work his way, you should do your work your way. You are not being held back because you don't have the right David Allen get things done system, you are not being held back because your model isn’t tough enough, you are being held back because you are afraid. And asking people how they do it is just one more manifestation of your fear.
True. It’s a good way to put it. Why do we have so much fear though?
Well, because a stray tiger might come out of the jungle eat you and you’ll be dead, you might get a horrible disease and die. We evolve to not like situations that are fraught with change and risks because it decreases the odds in the prehistoric era that we will not have children and pass on our genes.
So we are on alert to all sorts of things that feel threatening. But in modern culture the things that feel threatening turn out not to be threatening and that is the script of our time. That if your grandfather stepped into the depth of molten iron he was a dead man. But if you post the wrong thing on your blog and a hundred people make fun of you, you are not dead. You just learn something, big difference and we are still confused because it feels like we are going to die but we are not.
What is the message that you want people to hear?
If it’s not coming out to people who read them I’m an abject failure. My aim to people who haven’t read my books, is to tickle their interest just enough that they’ll try one or go read my blog. I don’t actually care about selling books but I’m trying to get people to stay quiet for thirty five minutes and think about how they are going to spend the rest of their lives. And if I can help them see some things that I have noticed I am glad to offer that service because my goal is to take people upper quantum level not just a little but to a whole new orbital so that they can see things differently. And I'm lucky enough that millions of people have taken me up on that and it seems to be working.