Essay

Critical review of Linchpin by Seth Godin

By Eric Normand on July 22nd, 2010

History is gifted with great thinkers who have produced prolific works of thought and depth. When Kant published a book, a flurry of talk and excitement rushed across Europe. Every thinker in the world wanted to understand, discuss, and critique Kant’s ideas and thought processes. The ideas were tested, holes were found, but respect for the work remains. It is the very act of critiquing, probing, and stressing the ideas of the book that shows it respect. If Kant had been read but not analyzed, it would be an insult to his ideas.

Seth Godin has recently “shipped” Linchpin and has created a sensation around the world. There has been a lot of buzz and praise of the book. In order to pay respect to the book, we must understand it, pick it apart, and analyze the ideas presented in it. This analysis might uncover holes, inconsistencies, and problems in the book. This is to be expected. Even Plato is not free from inconsistent thinking, yet he remains well-respected.

My aim is not to cut down the book, but to offer it to critical review because it has received so much attention. Enough people have praised the book that some reasoned analysis is in order.

This review cannot possibly cover the entirety of the ideas presented in the book. I wish only to start a fair and grounded discussion around the ideas, if only because Seth Godin is such an influential figure.

Synopsis

I will divide the ideas into the following areas and present the main definitions and arguments Godin presents.

  • Definition of linchpin
  • Why you want to be a linchpin
  • Why we are not all already linchpins
  • Advice for aspiring linchpins

Definition of linchpin

The idea of a linchpin flies in the face of traditional conceptions of exceptionally successful people. The traditional view is that successful artists, businessmen, or workers are outliers. They are in the top league at whatever they do.

Seth Godin disagrees with this and says that people are exceptional (linchpins) not because of being exceptional at their main skill, but because of an ability to operate in the chaos of the world without instruction.

The art (as Godin uses the term) of a linchpin is this ability to deal with the unknown with creative solutions which finally change the world. Changing the world is your work.

Why you want to be a linchpin

Godin presents a compelling reason to become a linchpin: the economy has changed. Companies view workers as interchangeable drones who follow instructions set out by management. Downsizing, automation, and outsourcing all compete for the drone’s job. The solution to this problem is to “become indispensible” and do what needs to be done that cannot be put into an instruction manual (art) but adds value to the company by changing things in a positive way (your work).

Put another way, taking risks is undervalued and linchpins are those who can take necessary risks.

Why we are not all already linchpins

Godin uses the term the resistance to refer to the thought process that we all have that attempts to keep us from being linchpins every moment of our lives. The resistance has two causes: an anatomical region of our brain (the amygdala or the “lizard brain”) and our upbringing.

The amygdala is afraid of risk and non-conformity and can override the more creative and rational parts of the brain. The linchpin has learned to quell the lizard brain enough to perform his work.

Our educational system is designed to enhance our conformity and rule-following behavior, ostensibly by training us to listen to the lizard brain. The linchpin has avoided or overcome this training.

Advice for aspiring linchpins

The internet provides us with means of reaching out to many people for very little money. This ability has given rise to a return of a gift economy. Gift economies are characterized by the fact that the most highly esteemed and powerful people are those who give away the most. Because power on the internet is based on attention, and hence reputation, it bears many similarities to a gift economy. Linchpins would be wise to use the power of gifts to bond people together to do their work.

Besides using the power of the internet, linchpins are advised to persist even in the face of failure. Because the linchpin takes risks, there will inevitably be failures. A good linchpin will try another of his abundant creative ideas.

Linchpins should also keep in mind that their work doesn’t count unless it actually changes the world. Ideas that don’t see the light of day are worthless.

Godin also explains that businesses that are able to be run without a linchpin will also be able to be duplicated by someone else. These businesses should be avoided because competition could reduce the product to a commodity.

Finally, the linchpin is advised to outsource and automate what tasks can be standardized. This leverage will extend his reach.

Discussion

Now that the main ideas of the book have been explained, I would like to move on to some of the shortcomings of the book.

The single most important fault of the book is that no explicit definition of linchpin is ever given. The linchpin is described in many different ways, but none of the descriptions is specified as the definition. This leaves us to hunt for a definition ourselves.

In the Contents, Godin says “[Linchpins] are people who own their own means of production, who can make a difference, lead us, connect us.” This statement describes the linchpin in terms of vague abilities (“[able to] make a difference” and “[able to] connect us”). The statement cannot be used as a definition. Similarly vague statements are made throughout the book.

Is a linchpin defined by risk-taking behavior? What if the person is incredibly unlucky, and none of the risks pay off? Is being a linchpin predicated on success? If this were the case, then only successful people would be linchpins. But what differentiates a successful linchpin from a successful non-linchpin?

Success cannot be used as a test of linchpinhood because that would exclude linchpins that have not yet achieved their success. Godin says that linchpins will fail many times for every success they see.

Perhaps a linchpin is defined by being “indispensible” or not replaceable by automation or outsourcing. Godin often describes the linchpin as someone whose work cannot be defined because he is operating outside of the manual. The work of the linchpin is by definition undefinable. Using this definition, it may be possible to identify linchpins by asking their colleagues if they are indispensible to their organization.

The reason it is important to be able to identify linchpins is to test the central thesis of the book–that you are better off being a linchpin. Does the average linchpin have a higher quality of life than the average non-linchpin? Perhaps linchpins enjoy higher social status. Or they have more peace of mind. They could be paid more. Any number of metrics could be used, but unless a metric can be found, the hypothesis is unsupported and it’s of no measurable value to be a linchpin.

Let us imagine that Godin’s assertion is correct–it is better to be a linchpin–but no solid evidence can be found because of the linchpin’s undefinable behavior. In this case, the idea of a linchpin would be better considered an inspirational story that reveals the values underlying a society. The reason it rings true is because it expresses some shared belief.

This would make sense of why the book–a business book that gives very little information about how to make money–is so popular. It merely rehashes popular ideas about success and happiness. Be creative, be confident, and make your dreams a reality. The American archetype of the indispensible creative is as old as Benjamin Franklin. He was obviously a linchpin (indispensable to the American Revolution), by Godin’s descriptions, but not all of the pre-industrially-educated masses of his day were linchpins.

For another way to look at the story of the linchpin and to see how it is nothing new, consider the similarities between Linchpin and the story of The Matrix:

A normal corporate cubical worker leads a sad and unfulfilling existence until a bald man appears and tells him his life is a lie. He’s been brought up to think that he should follow instructions and obey rules. He has to make a choice: continue his petty existence as a factory drone or take a risk and enter the unknown.

After deciding to be different and risk losing his uncomfortable but known daily life, he eventually learns that he is a genius able to perform miracles and save his organization. He needed to learn to disconnect from what is at the back of his head. All of his rote training and skills are commoditized. Only an indescribable ability to work outside of the rules can set him apart. It is his ability to believe in himself and decondition himself that can make a difference and change the world. He takes risks and perseveres, and finally, after several failures, he sees things how they really are, and he is able to change the system and be indispensible.

We now see the second shortcoming of the book: there is not much new in it. The central premise, that creative people are vitally important, is not really under dispute. Factory work is known to be tedious, boring, and replaceable. Calling a confident and creative person by a new name is not significant. The fact that we all tend toward conformity is nothing new, and neither is blaming our school system.

Which brings us to the third point: is our school system really training us to be replaceable cogs? I went to public school. For every time I was taught to follow instructions, I was taught to follow my dreams. For every command to conform, there was a command to think creatively and explore. I doubt if my experience was much different from others’.

Seth, at one point, describes a two year-old named Zeke. “He spends the entire flight standing, walking around, poking, smiling, asking, touching, responding, reacting, testing, and exploring. Is it possible that you were like Zeke? What happened? Somewhere along the way, we baked it out of you.” Does school bake out this childish exploration? Or do people just outgrow it? Are adults in other cultures without school so hyper-active? I doubt it.

The fact is that we have been indoctrinated by our society and by school. But it has indoctrinated both an ability/desire to follow rules and the ability/desire to be creative. How many times in American public school do you learn about, in a positive light, the ingenuity of Americans? I’m no big fan of the current school system, but to blame it for beating out your creative spirit without admitting that your education also fostered it is negligent.

Yes, the school system was modeled after factories: bells indicate lunch time or the end of the day, you are taught to follow instructions, and to do the work they tell you to. But that does not mean that we would be geniuses if we hadn’t gone to school. I have met people who have had literally no schooling, and they are not creative geniuses. Not even close. They could not even follow instructions. They could only follow basic commands yelled at them, and only if there was a threat of violence involved. Like an animal.

I was also disappointed by the lack of expansion on some of what I considered the most promising points. Godin, in one section, describes a framework for thinking about how a gift economy can be profitable. He says there are three circles, one is your friends, two is your paying customers, and three is all of the people who are touched by your art but don’t pay for it. Because of the internet, we are now able to have a very large third circle. Somehow (there is no explanation, only an example) by enlarging your third circle, your second circle will grow, and you’ll make more money. This is one of the only points where he gives practical advice on how to actually make money by taking advantage of the gift economy, but it is unfortunately very short and incomplete. I would have liked to know more about that.

Far from being a groundbreaking book, Linchpin seems like more of the same values business schools have taught for decades: be creative, take risks, and be nice (which I believe is called “customer service”). He presents his material juxtaposed to the other, more factory-oriented concepts they teach in business school, such as automation, commoditization, and metrics. The linchpin becomes an enlightened hero who fights alone for humanity against the evils of managers and beauracracy. While it’s a compelling story, it doesn’t quite match reality. Corporate creativity gurus have been hired to give seminars for years. Creativity is deeply rooted in our corporations and for this reason is taught in schools.

The other premise, that most jobs are about following instructions and doing what your told is probably a myth. Sure, factory jobs are like that, as are many other commoditized forms of physical labor. But don’t people talk of “taking initiative” or “standing out from the corporate crowd”? No one has ever like the office brown-nose. And people have always appreciated secretaries that anticipate your needs and bring a human touch. He gives far too many examples of linchpins in the book for it to really be something new.

I’d like to mention one final fault before entering into more positive aspects of the book. The best example of a gift giving organization he gives, one where the gift-giving is crucial and beneficial, is Alcoholics Anonymous. But since, as he mentions, AA does not accept cash, it is hard to see how it can fit into the framework of a for-profit enterprise. It is a great story, but how is a business supposed to model themselves on it? A commercial example of gift-giving is lacking.

The examples he does give are of exceptional artists who give away their music free online. This doesn’t quite fit his proposed model, which says that you don’t have to be exceptional at your job–that in fact there is an unrelated quality that makes the linchpin. He points out that Radiohead gives away their music online, and kudos to them, but Radiohead is a world-class band that has had a lot of marketing dollars poured into their brand before they started being generous.

Even with all of these faults, I still found the book helpful. It made me rethink a lot of situations in my previous job where I was asked to do something I knew was a waste of time. I relented and did the task anyway, grumbling the whole time. I knew that I was afraid to say something, but thought it best not to. Now, after reading this book, I think I should have risked my job and told the boss that I wasn’t going to do it. It would have taken guts, but the project would have been better off.

The book, although it is business-oriented, is also critical of the corporate tendencies to treat employees as cogs and offers a real solution to it: stay at your job and stop being a cog. If they fire you, the job sucked anyway. If they don’t, they might promote you. With all of the layoffs that happen, you might as well go out on your own terms.

Conclusion

Seth Godin’s book does much to inspire people to take necessary risks, find creative solutions, and bring humanity to our business interactions. While these are all positive aspects, I have trouble finding something truly novel in his ideas. At best, I would consider it the missing work manual. It is for tentysomethings who never worked for a boss who could explain to them that they wanted them to take initiative. Or it’s for refreshing a sense of creativity after decades of habit have got you falling into old routines. It gives a satisfying biological account of conformity and authority. The school system aspects of this hypothesis do not survive scrutiny: if the school system conspired to make factory workers out of us, the longer we were in school, the more conforming we would be. Is there any evidence of this?

The book, precisely because it is so highly regarded, should be analyzed and understood. Much of it is sensational and much cannot be adequately subjected to scrutiny. The ideas are very disconnected and couched in metaphor. It is written in a very mythic and epic style. No doubt this helps it appeal to the readers. Who would refuse to be a self-styled superhero? But I suspect that, after buying into the idea of the book, the linchpin aspirant will later turn back into the book for concrete advice, and find very little of help. Metaphors can only be stretched so far. If all he is saying there is no map, why read the book?

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51 Responses to “Critical review of Linchpin by Seth Godin”

  1. I haven't read the book, but when I heard the title, I thought I knew exactly what it referred to. A linchpin is a cheap but essential component that holds all the more expensive parts together. A linchpin's return on capital is extremely high. And while the first one in is critical, the second one is worthless.

    The successful blogger is the quintessential linchpin, when they make their living by quoting and commenting on the work of traditional media. And for every such successful blog, there are one thousand also-rans, whose chief mistake was not to be first. Nobody ever acknowledges the importance of luck and timing though–it sounds better to tout passion, courage and creativity.

    So that is what I thought he meant…but I guess he meant something else.
    My recent post If Street Fights Were More Like Final Fight…

    • @ericnormand says:

      > Nobody ever acknowledges the importance of luck and timing though–it sounds better to tout passion, courage and creativity.

      I want to defend the absent here. I've thought a bit about this statement. I think in fact that Godin is saying luck plays a very important role. He says most of the things you try will fail. But you increase your chances of hitting on something that succeeds by trying many things. I think this is really good advice: play the numbers. Don't wait for an idea that is certain to succeed. Try ideas that have a chance to succeed. With any luck, one will.

      The hard part is that it is totally ambiguous when something is a failure or you just need to try harder.
      My recent post Lying is natural

  2. I really appreciate this kind of thorough, respectful critique (in fact it may even improve my writing!).

    I haven't read the book, but would like to add my comments to the discussion anyway, based on this review. For the purposes of these comments, I'll assume Eric N. has accurately portrayed Linchpin.

    people are exceptional (linchpins) not because of being exceptional at their main skill, but because of an ability to operate in the chaos of the world without instruction.

    The art (as Godin uses the term) of a linchpin is this ability to deal with the unknown with creative solutions which finally change the world

    This is interesting because it fits perfectly within a notion I just read from Slavoj Žižek, that of "the infinitely plastic “creative” capitalist". The kind of "world changing" being advocated here is more of the same global corporate capitalism, with all of the attendant problems that come about from the structure and system. This may be better in some ways–more creative work for white-collar information age workers in developed countries, for example–but for those of us concerned primarily with social justice, this creative capitalism doesn't even begin to address the problems in the world that need changing.

    • Companies view workers as interchangeable drones who follow instructions set out by management. Downsizing, automation, and outsourcing all compete for the drone’s job. The solution to this problem is to “become indispensible” and do what needs to be done that cannot be put into an instruction manual (art) but adds value to the company by changing things in a positive way (your work).

      Notice that the proposed solution isn't to create a stronger social net through better unemployment benefits, stronger labor unions, etc. but a hyper-individualistic, hyper-competitive solution…to a problem that comes about from hyper-competition!

      Why have companies treated employees as interchangeable drones? To maximize the bottom line for an elite few stakeholders in an extremely competitive marketplace. As Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Bright Sided, management consultants encourage laid off and displaced workers to "think positive" in response to the mergers and acquisitions they have orchestrated that disturb the lives of their employees. And many of these high-level deals, while profitable to the executives who make them, don't in fact make the companies more efficient or productive.

      There are of course other possible solutions to this problem, but they require setting more limits on what kinds of business can take place, a kind of solution that requires challenging the libertarian/neo-liberal agenda.

    • the linchpin is advised to outsource and automate what tasks can be standardized

      Instead of being a victim of corporate control and hyper-competitive bottom-line thinking, the advice is to become the ruthlessly efficient corporate master, making others your wage-slaves through outsourcing, and maximizing every last bit of productivity through automation. While frugality and wise use of resources is a virtue, can we be too productive and efficient?

    • In the Contents, Godin says “[Linchpins] are people who own their own means of production, who can make a difference, lead us, connect us.” This statement describes the linchpin in terms of vague abilities (“[able to] make a difference” and “[able to] connect us”). The statement cannot be used as a definition. Similarly vague statements are made throughout the book.

      You've elegantly illustrated how the word "linchpin" is of course an empty signifier–it's a feel-good word that means whatever you want it to mean, like the excessive use of "awesome."

      Notice too the use of "means of production" here, a term pretty much only used by Marxists and sociologists in their analysis of society. No individual employee can possibly own the means of production. The internet for instance is a new means of production that is radically altering economic and labor structures in society, but nobody owns the internet. But by suggesting that a creative, self-lead individual can own "their own means of production," Godin reinforces the hyper-individualistic emphasis of creative capitalism, subverting discussion of which powerful people and corporate entities actually own and control the means of production.

    • This would make sense of why the book–a business book that gives very little information about how to make money–is so popular. It merely rehashes popular ideas about success and happiness. Be creative, be confident, and make your dreams a reality. The American archetype of the indispensible creative is as old as Benjamin Franklin.

      Another way of phrasing this is the "great man theory" of history, that historical change is driven by great men (and women, but more rarely). This theory has been strongly challenged by a number of competing theories, one being that means of production drives history, or that "great men" are merely products of their social environment, and of course the feminist critiques that upper-class men wrote the history books and therefore left out women and the influences of the people (see A People's History of the United States for example). Few historians subscribe to the great man theory anymore, but it continues to be a popular idea among the public.

    • (I would have made this all one long comment, but Intense Debate tends to have problems with long comments.)

      I find the idea that a gift economy can be profitable ludicrous. Gift economies are based on gifts, often non-monetary, given freely and not in exchange for anything! While it's a nice idea that everyone could just give whatever they wanted whenever they feel stirred to do so, clearly gift economies do not function with global capitalism at all. To pay my internet bill, I can't mail Comcast a box of delicious peaches I picked up on sale from the Farmer's Market, etc. Interestingly, the largest functioning gift economy I know of is the Burning Man festival, which has a $300+ ticket price per person, and of course depends on the larger capitalist non-gift-economy to even charge the money for the entry fee.

      The book, although it is business-oriented, is also critical of the corporate tendencies to treat employees as cogs and offers a real solution to it: stay at your job and stop being a cog. If they fire you, the job sucked anyway. If they don’t, they might promote you. With all of the layoffs that happen, you might as well go out on your own terms.

      Given the existing system, this is good advice from Mr. Godin. But just as the rules for an individual's behavior are constructed and therefore changable, so are the rules that govern systems. We need not only look for individualistic solutions, but also collective ones.

      • @ericnormand says:

        We won't have a functioning gift economy until we have hyperabundance of basic material goods or a return to food that cannot be stored.

        Gift economies usually exist to distribute bananas, meat, or other food that cannot be stored. You exchange food for renown and everyone gets fed. Once people can store and hoard grain or dried roots, they realize that by restricting access to it they control others. That's where we are right now.

        The idea that the internet is a gift economy is interesting because it does have a lot in common: attention cannot be hoarded, so people trade attention for reputation. But it is only attention and reputation that get traded. You can't eat attention like you can meat, though you can make an advertising deal if you get enough attention.

        Godin just doesn't explain well enough how people giving stuff away for free online but charging for the box set is the same as a gift economy. It is much more like FM stations playing music for free to promote new albums. Or Coke producing 30 second movies (TV commercials) and playing them for free, hoping that you will buy their drink.
        My recent post Proud to be wrong

    • Interesting review. I don't agree with a lot of the points, but it makes a change to see someone taking a contrary position on the book.

      I hate to be pedantic, but can't resist pointing out that the statement re "being exceptional at their main skill" is not an accurate representation of what Godin says about the Linchpin. "Possessing a unique talent" is one of the 7 attributes of the Linchpin listed in the final chapter:

      "If you're not the best in the world (the customer's world) at your unique talent, then it's not a unique talent, is it? Which means you only have two choices:

      1. Develop the other talents that make you a Linchpin. [Which include 'Providing deep domain knowledge' and 'Delivering unique creativity.]
      2. Get a lot better at your unique talent."
      My recent post What Do You Want to Know about Becoming a Linchpin

      • @ericnormand says:

        I wish I still had my copy of the book so I could point out the passage, but I put that statement in there because he himself states that Linchpins are Linchpins not because of their exceptional skill but because of their ability to be artists. He contrasts the traditional view of the exceptional artist with the idea of the Linchpin. Traditionally, the exceptional artist is an outlier. The Linchpin is different because he is exceptional at some orthogonal skill, such as connecting people or leading people.

        Even the passage you have quoted says that you don't need to be an outlier to be a Linchpin. The best at something is the uninteresting case, because only one person per world can be that and because that is the traditional view of exceptional people. The interesting case is case #1, where you have to develop those extra skills. This is what is innovative about the book.
        My recent post Life and what to expect from it

        • He doesn't say exceptional skill has nothing to do with being an artist. You're muddying the waters by mixing up several terms here – skill, artist, outlier, linchpin. I don't think it's that complicated.

          The basic point is that a Linchpin is someone who becomes indispensable because they bring more to their work than is specified in the contract. He lists several ways you can do this, including knowledge, skills, creativity and handling complexity. I don't find it too difficult to conceive of different types of Linchpin who are indispensable in different ways.
          My recent post Do More Great Work- an Interview with Michael Bungay Stanier

      • @ericnormand says:

        He's basically saying you either have to be the best (follow the traditional model of excellence) or become what he calls a Linchpin.
        My recent post Life and what to expect from it

  3. @femmefrets says:

    Thank you for this. I had a very love/hate relationship with this book as I read it, which eventually faded into ambivalence. I like Seth's work, and find it inspirational if nothing else, but I thought this one was more a way for him to reflect on what he'd been reading lately (most notably "Outliers" and "The War of Art"). If you hadn't read either of those, too, you might get a little lost at times, as he gets mighty referential.

    I think my biggest letdown was that in the end, he admits its just a crap shoot. Maybe that "thing" your such a linchpin at, that you've built up so much expectation for, that you've made yourself the best at so you become indispensable–maybe that thing isn't necessary at all, and you're just destined for a fancy hobby.

    But at the same time, I enjoy his personal style of writing, and the fact that he might not be saying much new, but it's not *wrong*. And sometimes it's good to hear it again, that passion, hard work, customer service, and creativity really do matter the most.

    And great point about Radiohead. Oh how I wish these non-music biz people would quit ranting about what a great business model that is. Newsflash – that's how the proverbial "long tail" of indie artists got so long. There's plenty of free stuff out there. It's getting through the static to make yours stand out when you don't have the background Radiohead has had. That's the whole point.
    My recent post 14th Birthday Bash Special Day 3!

    • @ericnormand says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You say that what he says is not wrong, and I have to agree. But it's easy to make statements that aren't wrong but are trivially right. One technique used by Godin is to say "sometimes you need one thing, sometimes you need another." This contains a little information (that one of the things is not sufficient all the time) but not very much. Example: "Know when to hold em, know when to fold em." Unless you give some hints as to how to distinguish between when to hold and when to fold, the statement is trivial.

      Another technique he uses is to cite successful examples, then say why they were successful. He will say "Fred was successful because he managed to lead his tribe." It looks like he is giving a way to look at the success so that you could repeat it. But when you look again, he is just renaming the success.

      I wanted to go deeper into this, but the article was getting too long.
      My recent post Proud to be wrong

      • @femmefrets says:

        I'd love to see a part II of the article, as I definitely think it's worthy of more discussion! He's become such a sacred (purple) cow, and even if you like his work, it's definitely not beyond scrutiny (especially when he's becoming less of a marketer, more of a 'thought leader').

        I'd really hate to see him lose his credibility in the marketing world as he reaches for the broader, "inspirational" demographic that the doublespeak you refer to is more accepted by. Facts. Examples. He used to put out entire books of great evidence to study. Now…only slightly veiled references to the other compendiums in the Seth Godin universe (the "lead his tribe" quote reminded me of my other peeve). It's like he's either phoning it in, or using the book as a loss leader and saving the good stuff for a membership program for aspiring marketers or something.
        My recent post 14th Birthday Bash Special Day 3!

        • @ericnormand says:

          It's nice of you to say, but I really don't want to open that book up again!

          The circular nature of his marketing efforts for his books makes it even harder to crack open. He'll publish a book about some new marketing principle, then use that marketing principle to market the book. So its success is its own proof.

          This is the most interesting thing about him: he is obviously a good marketer, and he sees things differently. The trouble is his reputation precedes him, so he can sell any book just by putting his bald head on the cover (which is part of his branding–not a snide remark). Once you're at that point, can you really attribute your success to the new principles?

          Maybe he's just describing life at the top?
          My recent post Proud to be wrong

  4. Eric Normand says:

    @Martial Development: Yes, that dives right at the heart of the ambiguity I was driving at. It’s not the actions you do, or even anything measurable, it’s this notion of being indispensable that makes you a Linchpin. In a winner-takes-all scenario like niche blogs, maybe the indispensable one is the first. Thanks for the comment.

    @Duff: I think Zizek’s phrasing is apt to describe the Linchpin. Creative and stretching himself beyond “the system”.

  5. Don Quixote says:

    Seriously, I'm finding it hard to take someone who looks like Dr. Evil seriously.

  6. @ericnormand says:

    I've been having some problems with the comments. I hope this works out ok.

    @Duff: You've been hitting a lot of salient points. To be fair to Linchpin, social changes are probably outside of the scope of the book. It has a very strong message: this is the way the world is headed, so adapt for your own good. The stance is very individualistic and especially capitalist. The only changes he suggests to our "system" is to reform education to make it create more linchpins.

    About the gift economy being profitable, yeah, I don't get it either. He doesn't explain how to make money with it. He just tells lots of examples of people doing it. But you never know whether the gifts were required to get money, or whether the money was required to give gifts. Like @femmefrets says, there's plenty of free stuff out there. What is it that makes some successful?
    My recent post Proud to be wrong

    • (Yea, the comments have been kinda hosed today, but looks like they are back up now for me at least.)

      I'm not sure that social changes necessarily must be outside of the scope of a book like this, although certainly Godin doesn't address them much. But even the fact that he addresses education indicates to me that he could have suggested creative social changes in addition to individualist, corporate capitalist types of creativity.

      There is also an additional problem with portraying giving away something free as a marketing strategy vs. gift economy—the first aims at profit, for better or worse, while the second aims at nothing but giving for its own sake. Conflating the two is deceptive, in my opinion, and leads down a shady road of internet marketing. I think it's better to honestly say "we are giving this free sample away in the hopes that you like it and want to buy our full product or other products in the future" if that's what you are doing, and say "we just honestly want to give" if that's what you're doing.

      Gift economies are also agreed upon by some group, like the organizational committees that form the Burning Man festival. A marketing campaign based on a "freemium" model cannot create a gift economy.

  7. Carlon says:

    An excellent review of the book! It is much more detailed than my review of the book. http://dontstepinthepoop.com/review-seth-godins-l…

    Actually, Godin lost me almost from the beginning with his trashing of the school system. Although schools are not perfect, I find they make the perfect scapegoat for the Godins of the world to blame all your troubles on. Not creative? It was your schooling. Not making enough money? Schools! Not successful? Your frickin' first grade teacher!

    Also, I think it's right that Godin doesn't seem to define what a linchpin really is. I blame this on the repetitive nature of his book. He keeps repeating him self over and over until he says nothing at all.

    And in the end, I felt all empty inside and angry. Linchpin, to me, was a waste of time.

    My recent post Is it Better to be Lucky Than Talented

    • @ericnormand says:

      Very funny review! Very faithful stylistic reproduction!

      Yes, the book was repetitive. I got the idea that he was just writing small blog posts and crammed them together in a book. His theory of blog posts is that you drip out content one post at a time to keep people coming back for more. But what you get is a lot of disconnected ideas and a lot of repetition with very little organization.

      All the better not to find fault with it!
      My recent post Proud to be wrong

  8. Tim says:

    This may not be helpful to many, but I have found it one of the most liberating considerations: "You are *not* indispensable!"

  9. @mrteacup says:

    The comparison with the Matrix is apt – the choice between conformity and nonconformity is a false one, just like the false choice of blue pill and red pill that Neo is offered. It turns out that the role of The One/nonconformist is as essential to the smooth functioning of the system as the conformist drone.

    In practice, what does it mean to "own your own means of production"? (Leaving aside the fact that Godin uses it to refer to one's labor, a misuse of Marx's term.) This is presented as a form of liberation, but is it? In the old days of unions and factory work, employees would cooperate to put pressure on owners to raise wages, improve working conditions, etc. The purpose of encouraging workers to see themselves as entrepreneurs is to make them see each other as competitors rather than sharing a common fate. It's much easier for employers to drive down wages by pitting these "lynchpins" against each other, making them undercut each others' prices for opportunities to work. Under this arrangement, it's even possible to drive labor prices below minimum wage, since there is no employer-employee relationship – the relationship is between company and subcontractor, which is not governed by minimum wage laws or any other state or federal labor protections, like severance pay. These new forms of economic insecurity are presented to us as liberation in order to get us to accept it. This is nothing new, it's just a restatement of "Who moved my cheese?"

    • When I worked for Ken Wilber's Integral Institute, we employees were all enamored with Seth Godin's marketing ideas (as I-I functioned primarily as a Ken Wilber marketing organization). Interestingly, we did exactly as you say here–we saw ourselves as entrepreneurs all, and competed to undercut ourselves for the opportunity to work for illegally low pay.

      The same thing has been discussed quite a bit about freelance graphic and web designers. On the one hand there is an enormous hype around the joys and freedoms of freelancing–from emphasizing "location independence" to "being your own boss" and "no limit on income"–while the realities are hypercompetition between hungry, out of work designers undercutting each other and a fair market price in order to get any work whatsoever.

    • @ericnormand says:

      Ha, you're right about the Matrix. I have locked the second two movies in the trilogy into a very heavy box in my mind and dropped the box into orbit around a distant star. You must have discovered this star, but it is apt: the creative hero is the carrot dangled in front of the face of entrepreneurs so they run in the wheels of capitalism.

      Is there another model of development that does not involve so much competition? I mean to say that in my experience, the other extreme–extreme cooperation–also does not lead to anyone's life getting better. The smartest/most ambitious people must support a large base of lazy/less capable people, and nobody moves ahead.
      My recent post Lying is natural

      • @mrteacup says:

        My criticism doesn't have anything to do with opposing extreme competition to extreme cooperation. Obviously I don't think workers should be cooperative in the face of exploitation. My point is only that the net result of Godin's philosophy is that most people are worse off.

        You might say that this is fair, it allows the smart and hardworking to triumph over the dumb and lazy, but it still reduces the labor costs for employers overall. The size of the pie shrinks, and instead of being divided equally, you compete to get a bigger piece than someone else. Since everyone believes they are above average, they believe they will benefit from this change. Most of them are mistaken. The truth is that if you make less than $90,000 a year, you are in the 90% of the country who is technically a "loser" – that's what you'd make if US salaries were hypothetically divided equally. Everyone above this level benefits from income inequality, everyone below suffers. Isn't it interesting how many people below that number think of themselves as winners?

        • @ericnormand says:

          You're absolutely right that if everyone competes with each other over the same market, every one of the competitors loses. But the common idea is that the consumers win since prices go down.

          What I meant in my comment was that a whole lot of our wealth at the moment owes its existence to innovation driven by competition. At least this is how I understand it. I would love to be corrected if I am wrong.

          Is splitting the GDP evenly a solution to anything? I don't think the rich deserve to be rich. They usually have extracted much more value from the economy than they put in. But I also know enough history to know that we got to where we are now–abundant food, long lives, efficient communication, $90,000 per capita, etc–through exploitation, violence, and thievery.

          You say the idea of competition is necessary to the system's functioning. You imply there is an alternative to this competition, which implies there is an alternative to the system. But why should we think the system of exploitation itself is not necessary when it is what got us the $90,000 per capita?
          My recent post Lying is natural

          • @mrteacup says:

            I don't think it's practical to pay everyone exactly the same amount, it's just a thought experiment meant to illustrate income inequality. (It's also per worker, not per capita.) Nor do I think there's an alternative. But maybe there should be. What's the alternative to not having an alternative? It means we are forced to say "There's a whole lot of exploitation and unnecessary suffering in the world, 1 billion people have to live in poverty because that's a necessary part of a system that has winners and losers. This is sad, and we should definitely encourage voluntary efforts to address the worst problems, but the system is basically just." It seems like you're OK with that – it provides you with abundant food, a long life and efficient communication, after all. But I'm not OK with it.

            I also don't agree with you that the problem is a meritocratic one, where the rich don't deserve their wealth. Presumably this means you think there is someone who does deserve the wealth – maybe you? Or any hardworking, creative innovator? For you, the problem is that the wrong people are ridiculously wealthy, not that ridiculous wealth is wrong. Ultimately I think the meritocratic criticism is a way of rationalizing the ways you are exploited by the system. It lets you believe in the system even though you are harmed by it.

          • @ericnormand says:

            I think you've got me wrong. Perhaps you're reading a bit too much into my questions.

            I am not OK with the system. I like being honest about how it currently works and I want to know if you have any ideas for alternatives.

            I am not making a meritocratic argument. My mentioning that I don't think the rich deserve to be rich was a failed attempt at expressing agreement with you about the unfairness of having winners and losers. It was not a moral argument, and I'm not saying that anyone deserves to be rich. If I make a statement "X does not deserve to be rich", it says nothing about my thoughts about Y.

            I often come off as an apologist. But I just like describing things as honestly (and cynically, yes) as I can, especially when it comes to these big and controversial issues. A lot of what I see often fails to make it into the discussion, so I start with my observations. I guess I'm trying to throw monkey wrenches into the normal debates.

            Thanks for the deep thoughts.
            My recent post Lying is natural

          • @ericnormand says:

            So, I realized I just denied everything you said about me–rightly, I think it needs to be cleared up–but I didn't add anything new to the discussion.

            Here's what I believe, though I make no claims of consistency. Please point out what makes no sense, though I'm sure you need to invitation.

            I don't believe that the long life, good food, and communication justify any of the injustice inherent in the system. I believe, though, that they are positive and we should endeavor to keep them and even improve them with any adjustments to the system we make. Also, and here is where I think I differ from most people, we must acknowledge our debt to slavery and other unjust practices even as we attempt to abolish them. We cannot forget the cost of our currently lavish and abundant lifestyles lest we grow soft and believe we deserve them and mustn't work for them.

            We live in a world that can only be hospitable to such a large population as we have today through human ingenuity. Short of massive extinction of a large portion of humans, we must continue to encourage the ingenious use of our resources to provide thriving lives for everyone.

            I'm not talking about a consumerist lifestyle, here. I mean only that we each need a minimum of material resources to live and that minimum, supplied to each person, is quite a lot.

            The laws provided by the universe (laws of nature, as they are sometimes called) dictate that you can get what you take. There doesn't need to be a power structure to allow me to beat someone senseless and steal all the food they gathered that day and eat it myself. Government structures merely constrain you to a subset of what you could have done in their absence. For instance, I am not legally allowed to beat someone senseless and steal their sandwich. But I am allowed to take advantage of their emotional needs and get them to pay me for something they don't need. This, currently, is considered quite clever and actually a great thing to do. I don't agree with this.

            I'm currently entertaining the idea that the government should be investing in things that are known to increase wealth and prosperity. That means it should actually borrow money to pay for good education, health care, transportation, agriculture, among others. These things, apart from being good in themselves, are also good investments. They pay off for society as a whole in the future. Instead, we seem to see these things as a drain on the economy. This is nonsense. Human capital has proven itself as a good, sound investment.

            Culturally, instead of encouraging consumerism, we need to work more on solving our basic human needs, then encourage our population to spend their time on things that don't require wanton consumption. Some examples would be dancing, playing games, and socializing. These are currently considered wastes of time, economically speaking, but they are the reason you engage in economic activity in the first place.

            To do this, encouraging consumption (also known as marketing) needs to be made unprofitable. I have no idea how to do this. Someone smarter than me might chime in at this point.

            Ok, I'm spent at the moment, but I might come back with more.

            Cheers!
            My recent post Lying is natural

          • Sumi says:

            The world is so big, so complicated. So mysterious. Can we ever get the big picture? How much suffering has been produced with good intentions in mind? Let's just be kind. Let's be humble. Carpe diem. But sometimes that's too boring isn't it? Cheers, Sumi

  10. A relevant interview of Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax: http://businessethicsblog.com/2010/07/21/intervie…

    Here's a quotation:

    What advertising and politics have in common is that they are both “bullshit” in the philosophical sense of term (made popular by Harry Frankfurt). What characterizes bullshit is that it isn’t “false”, it is that it isn’t even in the truth-telling game. That is why I think Stephen Colbert was dead on when he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to political discourse — he essentially means that it is bullshit.

    What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.

    And that fits in well with advertising, since advertising is all about telling a story. Everyone knows that most advertising is bullshit — for example, that drinking Gatorade won’t make you play like Jordan, or that buying a fancy car won’t make you suddenly appealing to hot women. But what a good brand does is deliver a consistent set of values, a promise or story of some sort, which fits with the idealized narrative of our lives, the story that seems true to us. That is why branding is the quintessential art form in the age of authenticity. Bullshit in, authenticity out!

    It's no stretch than for Godin to move from a bullshitting business (marketing) to writing a book on how to be a creative, authentic artist entrepreneur. One of Godin's previous titles was All Marketers Are Liars and was about how to construct believable, "authentic" narratives. This also helps explain why "linchpin" goes undefined–because the word exists not in the true/false world but in the realm of "truthiness."

    • @ericnormand says:

      I seem to remember somewhere that Godin thinks that all of the important money nowadays is exchanged to buy into these stories. Like when you buy Fancy Feast for your cat, it's because you want to believe this story about treating your cat to a nice dinner. He also said that he didn't think it was unethical to sell someone the story if someone wanted to feel like he was giving his cat a nice dinner.

      But the more I think about it, the more wrong it seems. It's wrong to sell it and it's wrong to buy it, and a system that rewards both the selling and the buying must be wrong, too.
      My recent post Lying is natural

      • @femmefrets says:

        I like your example, because it proves that in the big picture of the "system", you can be a successful linchpin marketer, selling that story in ways that would make Seth proud, but if the product isn't also a linchpin product, it's fail on all levels (maybe even worse than if it had been marketed poorly). A couple of years ago when all of the major pet food brands (I'm sure Fancy Feast's mother company was probably among them) presented consumers with tainted product that turned the intention of a "nice dinner" into their pet's last supper, there wasn't enough spin that could save it–as well there shouldn't have been.
        My recent post 14th Birthday Bash Special Day 3!

      • Sumi says:

        Why is it wrong to sell stories? Isn't it the stories, the beautiful illusions, which help us endure the days when we can't dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free? When someone can create stories that make lifes of many bearable and maybe even filled with joy despite their otherwise miserable fate, why can't he sell them? And who wouldn't buy them? You're so strict with people, Eric. Your standards are so high! Aren't there much worse people than those selling and buying Fancy Feasts? I mean, in our lifes, everything is so fragile, so passing. Do you think it is a problem of the system? Can any system ever fix that? Stories can. That's why they're here. Love, Sumi

        • @ericnormand says:

          Sometimes I think the same thing. I am cruel and strict.

          Why is it wrong to sell? Because life is so cruel; because there is so much suffering, I think it is wrong to sell what won't make someone's life better. To sell lies.

          I know the guy who sells Fancy Feast is not a terrible person. I just wish that we wouldn't need to resort to selling stories. I guess I consider it exploitation. But, as you point out, maybe I should just be happy and learn to accept a bit of exploitation myself.

          Another reason I don't like this idea of "selling stories" is because that's all we have now: simulacra. We have all watched so much TV and other media that it has become our culture. "A lie told often enough becomes the truth." We are rewarding these people who make no material improvement to the culture, and could in fact be spreading dangerous lies.

          Wouldn't it be nice if we could find something better? Find something through understanding how things work?
          My recent post Mapping your mind the old-fashioned way

  11. Evan says:

    I know this is a minority view: I find Seth totally underwhelming. I've never found anything original in the books of his that I have read (several now) and no practical advice either.

    And it's only fair to judge him by his own criteria. How indispensable is Seth and his books? I think they are interchange-able with many other books and gurus out there.

    I'm sure some people will benefit from them but this is somewhat different.
    My recent post Time to Move

    • Ah, something you and I totally agree on! :)

      I made a comment very similar to this on Chris G.'s (Art of Nonconformity) blog post about the launch of Linchpin and it was held permanently in moderation purgatory. I found this censorship of non-conformity more than a bit ironic considering the blog's name.

      • Scott Webb says:

        Nothing really about the Linchpin, but I am always amazed to hear about the way people like Chris G. tend to not portray accurate pictures online. I went to see if your comment was up now but yea, still nothing and saw that the comments were closed off on the same day?

        I was annoyed once when there was a post about the business forum being a big success and it was all rainbows and sunshine. I went to make a comment about it but the comments were closed for that topic. Essentially it was what lead me to write a massive negative review.

        I'd have to agree with the original point here though…how indispensable is Linchpin? I mean I've only read a quarter of the book since it came out. It's sitting on my floor.
        My recent post Embryo’s Online Business Development- Week of July 19th

        • What's most disturbing to me about this is the "nonconformity" Newspeak with Big Brother making sure no opinions are expressed that go against the party line. After my comment was held, I checked Amazon's reviews for Godin's books and found to my surprise that the "most helpful" reviews are rated 1, 2, or 3 stars and had most of the same criticisms (and tone) of my comment.

  12. @ericnormand says:

    We're getting some good discussion going on. Thanks everyone for participating.
    My recent post Lying is natural

  13. [...] Readers of Beyond Growth already know some of my opinions about Robbins and his approach to personal development, something I call “aggressive positivity.” Tom Shales, writing for the Washington Post, reviewed Breakthrough saying “at no point does Robbins suggest that it just might possibly be society that has failed.” Shales reviewed multiple episodes of the show, but only one has come out to the public so far, so I will be reviewing just Episode 1 (warning—I pretty much spoil the whole episode in my review, so watch the above first if you don’t want spoilers). I think this review may be particularly interesting to Beyond Growth readers because it is more balanced than my standard reviews of Robbins’ work (probably Eric Normand’s influence!). [...]

  14. [...] Critical review of Linchpin by Seth Godin | Beyond Growth (beyondgrowth.net) [...]

  15. [...] Critical review of Linchpin by Seth Godin | Beyond Growth (beyondgrowth.net) [...]

  16. [...] Critical review of Linchpin by Seth Godin | Beyond Growth (beyondgrowth.net) [...]

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  18. Dr Marsh says:

    Enterprise is an awesome word. It is used for so many different companies and shows that are excellent. Enterprise rental car, Star Trek to just name a few. I think I will use the word enterprise for my small business then i should be guarenteed success.

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