SPP: Seth would you mind taking a moment just to give our listeners a little bit of background about yourself and explain to them how you got to where you are today.
Seth: Okay. Well I got to where I am today by failing relentlessly and then failing some more. I started my entrepreneurial career when I was 15 or 14 in high school and a high school band needed me to help them raise some money. The t-shirts were not on strike in my brand new high school, which had no cafeteria.
So I of course called up from the Yellow Pages an ice cream sandwich company and had them deliver $20 dollars worth of ice cream sandwiches. And I sold them all that afternoon to a room full of hungry teenagers, took all the money I made and bought $80 dollars worth of ice cream sandwiches the next day, and by the end of the week I’d sold like a $1000 dollars worth of ice cream sandwiches.
And the thing about it was t hat it never occurred to me that what I had done was unusual in any way. And that sort of led to this fearless freak of starting things, figuring out why they worked or didn’t work and then doing it again. When I was in college I cofounded what became the largest student run business in the country. We had about 25 divisions. We sold birthday cakes and bagels door-to-door and we had a travel agency and a ticket agency and a coffee shop. And I was wrecked after that because there was no way I was going to be able to go get a job working for some Fortune 500 engineering company, which is extensively what I was trained to do. Anyway fast forward a little bit, I went to business school then I was really fortunate to get a really great job working at a tiny company that got bigger than tiny called Spinnaker’s Software. And I was the 30th employee. I launched a bunch of products out with people like Michael Creighton and Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clark. And after that I realized it was going to be very hard for me to work for anyone again.
So I went out on my own I became a book packager. We developed about a book a month for 10 years. Along the way I did an internet company that grew pretty fast. Sold that to Yahoo! and every since then I’ve been on my own writing about a book a year, I think I’m on Bestseller Number 13. And I also run an internet company called Squidoo.com.
SPP: One of the books that I wanted to talk to you about was your book “Linchpin”. And a funny story about this book it actually showed up on my doorstep through Amazon. It turns out a buddy of mine had sent it to me saying that this book could help push me in the right direction, help motivate me. I started reading it. I still remember the exact second that I knew I’d be completely invested in this book, and it’s when I came across the sentence that you said “That we need to stop complying with the system and draw our own map.” Now this turned out to be a very simple but powerful message for me. Can you explain a little bit about what the system is, how it broke down, and why we need to draw our own map?
Seth: Sure. The system has only been around for about a 100 years. A 100 years ago just about everyone on earth was living as a farmer and factories were just coming into their own. But factories mass production interchangeable parts this notion that owning a machine could add productivity. It’s brand new. And it brings with it enormous benefits. Basically the reason that almost everyone in the world is rich. Certainly everyone in the United States has more resources and more leverage than the King of France did 300 years ago.
And the reason is that productivity explodes when you add machines and a system that the productivity of 400 people working together to create insurance or make cars or run a yoga studio is enormous. And this productivity led to wealth and this wealth led to an addiction to the productivity. And what we built was a system that says if you comply, if you do what you’re told, if you fit in color inside the lines, and are cogging the machine we will reward you.
And so what the system said if you are cogged in the system we’ll take care of you. We’ll give you a job for life, you’ll be respected in your community, you’ll be able to buy a new car every two or three years, and you’ll be able to send your kids to school so they can do what you did. And we built it deeply, deeply into our psyche that that is the right way to be. And just in the last 10 years the system has failed and it has failed not just for a little while but forever.
And I can explain it in detail why it failed, but the short version is that we can’t keep growing productivity because machines can’t get significantly more efficient. And mass marketing, which was the counterpoint to the system it doesn’t work without mass marketing. You can’t have mass products if you can’t sell them. Mass marketing fell apart because of the internet and clutter and a whole bunch of other factors.
So what we ended up with is a new regime and that regime rewards not people who are compliant to the system, but in fact the opposite. It rewards linchpins, it rewards individuals who are willing to stand up and do something different and worth seeking out. And what those people have in common is not that they’re following the map of Stanley Kaplan and the state University of New York at Albany, and public school, and compliance, and the unemployment office. What those people have in common is they’re drawing their map. They are figuring out what to do next.
And if I could just add one other side on my little rant here Portugal in 1600 made it a significant crime, a felony to share their map of the world, but the map that the Imperial Powers kept in the King’s castle was so valuable that sharing it was a crime. And what is going on now is that there’s this scramble, all these people looking for a Dummy’s Guide for a step-by-step approach for the 12 things to do, and the nine things to do, and the six steps to follow. And what I am saying much to their chagrin is there is no map and the minute someone writes down a map that map isn’t worth anything.
SPP: There is a 10 Step thing to do something then everybody would be the same and average I guess in that sense.
Seth: Yep. Exactly.
SPP: Now Seth what do you say to those who understand the concept but don’t necessarily have the confidence or belief that they were born with those skill sets? Because that definitely takes a unique person who’s willing to stand out and become the linchpin. I know you talk about that some in your book, but what are some simple things that people can really take to heart and use as practical advice to developing those skills?
Seth: Well the first thing to do is get out of the habit of talking about unique people, because there are no unique people when it comes to being able to make art, everyone is capable of doing this. The only thing the successful artist of our world have in common is that they are successful. the only thing that Paul McCartney has in common with Michael Dow, has in common with Steve Jobs, has in common with Bill Gates, has in common with Neil Young, has in common with Alison Kraus is that they’re successful. And it doesn’t matter where you were born and it doesn’t matter where you went to school and it doesn’t matter who your parents were, it matters how you’re going to deal with your fear.
And society has been amplifying your fears since you were born. We have expressions like is everything okay? What a bullshit thing to say. Everything is never okay.
SPP: I could not agree with you more. Yeah.
Seth: Why do we even ask that question? So true leaders when they come home at the end of the day and someone says “How was your day” they never say “Fine.” Because what it means to be a leader, what it means to be someone who draws a map is that you’re constantly failing and you’re constantly confronting things that don’t work the way they’re supposed to. And some people think that that’s an exception and we have to survive it to get back to normal. And my argument is that’s the real thing and that is normal, and the exceptional thing is a few minutes in a row where everything goes the way you hope it will.
SPP: In the book you mentioned fear, and more specifically the fear of art. And for humans it’s the fear of being laughed at or the fear of standing up for something, standing out for a cause, or whatever it may be. Why do you think we’re engrained wit this natural fear and what can we do to overcome it?
Seth: Part of the fear is genetic and the genetic part comes from our amaygdala, our primitive lizard brain, and that’s the part that a dog has that doesn’t like it when you stare it down. That’s the part that a wild animal has that makes it run away. The human beings are hardwired to not be ostracized, make fun of, stone to death with rocks, thrown out of the village, eaten by saber tooth tiger, all those things help us survive.
What we have put on top of t hat though is this cultural norm that says that “If you don’t wear the same jeans as everyone else does in eighth grade you will be made fun of and you will never be popular again. And what we’ve overlaid on top of that is the entire school system, which is about passing a test instead of learning how to solve a problem.
And so I’ve never been able to get rid of the prehistoric stuff and I probably never will. But what I can do is use it as a compass. What I can do is say “When the part of my brain that freaks is freaking out I’m probably on to something, but if I’m doing work and everything is calm in the back of my head I’m probably not pushing myself hard enough.”
SPP: That’s a great point. There’s a lot of days that I know I come home from work or other friends of mine come home from work, and I feel like everything went well. And when I really sit down and I go to sleep at night I’m like, you know what something’s wrong because everything did go so well. And I think that’s a key point that I really latched onto that if there’s not this sense of fear and this sense of urgency that I guess couples fear sometimes when you’re trying to tackle business objectives that it’s probably not going right. You need to have that sense of fear in the back of your mind. Have that sense of urgency and keep you on point.
Seth: Right. And what I’m arguing is that that’s actually an economic function. That artist who copy other artists don’t succeed because there’s surplus of copycats and the scarcity of original voices. And when I talk about artists I’m not talking about painters, I’m talking about anyone who does human work that is designed to touch another human being in a way that makes a difference.
SPP: One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I consider myself a procrastinator. You point out in your book that some people can’t push through the fear of completion unless they create a greater fear of failure.
SPP: Is it a fair assumption that procrastination is really a common by product of fear?
Seth: Well I think we see it everywhere. Let’s look at the endless emergency of poverty. It’s easy to raise a $1 billion dollars to save a whole bunch of people from dying and hard to raise a million people to get better seeds sold so they don’t have to worry about dying. That we tend to respond to emergencies. And I in this particular case was trying to get at the emergencies we create for ourselves. And just about everyone does it. We do things like refuse to get ready for the party to just before it end up being late. We push and push and push to work on trivia, as opposed to digging deep and doing the hard work long before it’s due. And as a result things get rushed.
Lauren Michaels for Saturday Night Live is a legend and what people don’t understand of his genius is this. Saturday Night Live in 25 years has never missed going on at 11:30 on Saturday night. If you think about it it’s live and it always happens, they never broadcast dead air. And during that week in and week out without having a nervous breakdown is an act of heroism. Because what you do is you say “This is my job. My job is to shift great work every Saturday.” And once you signed up for that you figure out how to use your Tuesday’s well. You don’t sit around doing nothing until Friday night and figure oh I’ll just ask for an extension.
SPP: You mentioned that real artist shift. Can you elaborate on that? Specifically you mentioned the example of Lauren Michaels and Saturday Night Live and how they produced a show every Saturday no matter what they have ready. And a lot of times it’s not the best show but they’re still being creative and still putting something out there for all their fans.
Seth: Sure. I mean the real artists ship is a quote from Steve jobs. He was a couple of days away from shipping the Mac and one of the programmers wanted to just polish a piece of code. And he said “Look Steve, this is art and I need to make it really polished.” And Steve grabbed the software out of his hand and said “Real artists ship and they put it in the world.” And if we look at the reviews of every Apple product and every Apple software release they are filled with criticism that it is not polished enough or perfect enough or right for the market yet.
And that is what artists do is they go for it. They don’t try to hide by pretending they’re trying to make it perfect, because perfect is meaningless if no one sees it. The Killer Bees and the Cone Heads and Weekend Update and all those other things, none o them were prefect and yet they’re part of our culture.
SPP: Right if you strive for perfection that might just be the fear of actually putting forth your art because you’re sitting there waiting to have it be perfect, whereas it’s in reality never.
Seth: I’m not going to let you get away with might. I would say it always is.
SPP: Fair enough. I wanted to talk to you about how the internet has changed learning and access to knowledge. You mentioned that you no longer need to go to a specific school to learn things. You have access in a wide variety of knowledge out there on the internet, whether you want to learn coding or whether you want to learn web design or anything else out there. Can you elaborate on the amount of knowledge that’s now available to us?
Seth: Well let’s go back a little bit further.
Seth: What’s 18 squared? What’s the capital of Illinois? What’s Planck’s constant? We should spend zero time teaching those facts to kids. SPP: Right.
Seth: Because what we’re not doing when we’re busy doing that is we’re not teaching them public speaking, we’re not teaching them conceptual problem solving, we’re not teaching them how to look up Plancks constant, we’re not teaching them sophisticated ways to become lifelong learners. We’re not giving them the habit of reading a book a week. A 20-year-old that reads a book a week is going to be 700 books into the system, which is way more like $500 bucks more than the difficult kid who’s 20 years old.
So what we do is we confuse ourselves by thinking that we need to teach kids all these facts because access to facts used to be limited. If you end up after a dozen years of school knowing how to do lifelong learning then teaching yourself how to program, how to get a 4 on the AP Computer Science Course test without taking one class, isn’t particularly hard. Finding somebody through Stock Overflow or somewhere else will help you when you get stuck with a particular testing hierarchy and ruby isn’t particularly hard.
What’s hard is seeing yourself as the kind of person who could teach themselves ruby and seeing your as the kind of person as David did who could invent ruby. And invent all program language and put in the world. We don’t teach kids at all that they have the power to go do that. So what I’m really worried about is that we change the rules of what’s accessible but we’re not teaching anybody how to be organized for that world.
SPP: Seth I’m not going to lie that’s pretty powerful stuff. And it relates a lot to some debates that Jon and I have actually had about the fundamental education you get as you come through the system as you relate to it, compared to somebody who would not be getting public or private education as they come up. And as you compare two individuals of like age, pick 25 years of age for this example, one that grew up through the system of education and one that did not and just pursued their own means of learning, how could you compare their problem solving abilities at that point and time?
I think one of the big things that intrigues me is this concert of collective intelligence that’s growing over the past few years with sites such as Wikipedia and you have large sums of people putting information into one location so that multiple people can have access to it. Could you talk a little bit more about that? How people can evolve those skills themselves outside of the system, and then also how mechanisms of collective intelligence will impact the need for linchpins?
Seth: Well I would like to say that I think there’s collective data, and maybe even collective information, but I don’t think there’s collective intelligence. I think that what we need to do is think about what it is to be educated. I was in Kitale, Kenya a couple of weeks ago and there’s no question that the typical person there doesn’t have the book smarts that someone growing up in the Cleveland School System has, but in both cases I think it’s irrelevant what I’m looking for is data smarts.
I’m looking for the smarts of knowing what to do with the information that’s now being given to you for free. Knowing what to do with the opportunities you have. And if you are raised believing that you are stupid, or you are raised believing that you do not have access to the market, or access to the power to do something about it. And it’s almost certain that you ever overcome that but if you are raised to believe that there’s all these door that are opening really fast and you can go through them because the cost of being wrong is so low, then I think that’s where we’re going to see the people who choose to make an impact in the world. I’m not sure that there’s anything written down that says that person can make an impact and that person can’t other than the story we’re telling ourselves.
SPP: I wanted to shift the conversation real quick. There’s a point in the book that I really wanted to thank you for because you definitely opened my eyes up to something. And that is focused around Twitter. You mentioned that there’s always another tweet to be read and responded to, and this causes that endless cycle of something never being closed, and definitely lowers ones productivity. In my example do you see this as a fear of completion that I may have?
Seth: I think that’s part of it. What’s really happening here I think is I’m guilty too. There’s days I’ve gone home and realized that all I did all day was answer email. And the reason that that’s so seductive is email is a small solvable problem. Thirty seconds after you start an email you have finished it and you can declare victory. You probably responded to that email in a way that doesn’t frighten you and in a way that gets you props from the person you answered.
Well that works fine if you do it for five minutes a day, but if you do that or Twitter for eight or ten minutes hours a day now it’s the worst kind of procrastination. Because at least with real procrastination if you just sit at your desk and do zero it’s clear to you and to everyone else you did nothing.
Seth: But Twitter is just socially acceptable form of procrastination where you can be proud of yourself that you have 900 Twitter followers and that you took care of them all day. Yeah but did you do anything scary? And did you do anything that we would miss if you were gone? And did you do anything that leaves a legacy, even a legacy of just a week? The answer is probably no. That if you go back in the Twitter timeline and read a day of tweets, or name whatever prolific tweeter you want, out of context they’re worthless.
This is not the equivalent of Glen Ghoul sitting down and playing Bach on the piano. This is not the equivalent of David Mamet writing “Speed the Plow”. It’s a totally inane waste of time that’s hiding from doing work that’s extremely provocative and that’s going to get you in trouble.
SPP: One of the biggest takeaways that I took from your book was the quote that you mentioned “Transferring your patience to your job is a lot easier than finding a job that matches your passion”. I know that myself and some of my friends aren’t happy in the jobs or careers that we have right now and we’ve been trying to figure out what it is we want to do. And I believe this is truly great advice for those of us not happy in our careers.
Seth: Yeah. I mean let me tell a story of Robbie Naish. Robbie Naish is a surfing kid in Hawaii and there were lots of those. And then they invented the windsurfer. Now obviously he has no genetic predisposition to windsurfing because it hadn’t even been invented when he was born. And yet three weeks into it he was the best windsurfer in the world and it would be easy for him to describe that this was his passion.
Well how could that be? Are you saying that passion comes from what you discover after you get good at it? So in fact Robbie Naish’s passion is being good at something. That’s his passion and he probably has an adrenaline fix as well. But in general you can’t say that my passion is completely tied up with oh I only make iPad apps. IOS is my passion and I can’t possibly do that thing. Well that’s ridiculous.
So I think that what we need to get to the hard of what passion means and I think that what passion means is some very primitive basic things that make us happy. Things like being accepted, solving interesting problems, standing up in front of other people and getting positive feedback, helping people anonymously. Those are the kinds of things that we can argue are our passions.
SPP: You mentioned that you love giving free advice so I’m going to ask you something selfishly.
Seth: Well I really need to clarify that because no one has brought this up until two weeks ago, even though the book came out awhile ago. What I wrote needs to be in context here. When people send me an email saying “Please solve this business problem for me” I never answer it, because it doesn’t scale. I can’t do that all day long. What I was saying is if I’m sitting with you at a cocktail party we don’t have to talk about sports we can talk about what I write about, because I love this thing. This is my passion. I’ve adopted it as my passion.
And I’m always sort of stunned when you’re sitting there with a dermatologist that are part in dermatologist says the guy next to me “No I’m not going to tell you what that thing on your hand is.” Well do you love what you do or not? And I get the fact that it’s annoying to have people talk to you all day long like you’re at work. But the heart of what I was trying to say there is that even things that feel like they should just be work a day jobs, like thinking about how marketing works, can be things that can be objects of passion. So there you go. I just hope that your listeners don’t start sending me emails because I promise I’m not going to write back to it.
SPP: Don’t worry I’ll put a disclaimer in here saying that Seth won’t answer all questions on every single topic out there. I do have a selfish question for you though. So when Chris and I started the podcast we had a decent amount of success because we were put on the front page of iTunes, we got a lot of new subscribers, things were looking good, we were getting way more downloads than we thought we were, and now we’re just trying to figure out how we keep growing our community. Do you recommend us to just keep releasing content no matter how many people are listening, and just put something out there that we believe in?
Seth: Well actually I think it’s more complicated than that. I’m going to start by saying why do you want it to grow? How many listeners before you’re happy? Why is more the better answer here? That’s the first thing I would say. Like I’ve stopped trying to get new people to read my books.
Seth: There’s a lot of people in the world 99.9% who have never read any of my books or my blog, and that’s okay. I don’t work for them I work for the other million or two million people who read my stuff. And as soon as I stopped trying to do a dance for strangers and instead tried to sing along with my friends my work changes. And I think it changes for the better. So a lot of people are stuck in this endless cycle to get bigger when maybe they should just instead think about what’s the point of the work and why are they doing it.
That’s the first thing. The second thing is I did a blog post a few years ago called First 10 and my argument is that if you choose to grow the way to grow is to tell 10 people your idea. And if it’s really good they’ll tell their friends, and then they’ll tell their friends, and the next thing you know you have a lot of people. This notion that you need to yell your idea to 1000 people just to get started doesn’t make any sense to me. If your idea isn’t good enough for 10 people to be amazed then maybe you need a better idea.
SPP: That’s awesome advice. Thank you so much. Well I told you I only wanted to keep you on the line for 25, 30 minutes and we’re right about that time. So I wanted to make sure that you got all your information out to our listeners. Do you want to go ahead and plug your other books and your Web site?
Seth: Well the short version is I don’t wake up in the morning trying to sell more books I write books if people want them. My blog is free if you type Seth into Google there it is. There’s 4000 posts to read. My most recent book it’s called Poke the Box” and it’s short and cheap, and you can get it from Amazon. But mostly what I’d like people to do is pick themselves and figure out how they can do their art in the world, and make the difference that they were born to make.
SPP: I truly appreciate it Seth. You’ve been awesome. Your books are amazing. Thank you so, so much for being on our show.