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.
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.
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.
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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