The Jay Kim Show #40: Seth Godin (Transcript)
Today’s show guest certainly needs no introduction. His name is Seth Godin and he is, perhaps, the most famous marketer in the entire world. He is a successful entrepreneur, a public speaker, and the author of 18 books now that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages.
He writes about everything from marketing to leadership to personal development, and I’m sure you’re well familiar with many of his bestselling books, including Linchpin, Permission Marketing, Tribes, The Dip, Purple Cow. In addition to his writing and public speaking, Seth is a founder of a couple internet companies. Yoyodyne back in the day, as well as Squidoo, the latter of which whose co-founder Megan Casey has also been on our show.
His blog, which you can find by simply typing Seth into a Google search, is one of the most popular in the world, and he was recently inducted into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame. Seth also happens to be very down to earth, insightful and honest. He doesn’t take meetings and he doesn’t watch television, and he asks, on record, for you not to email him, so suffice it to say that we are extremely fortunate to have him on the show today.
He’s been one of my personal inspirations for many, many years, and I was very excited to speak with him today. When I first reached out to Seth to be one of the inaugural guests of my show, he actually, kindly, declined, and he said, “Jay, I’d rather be your 40th guest than your first,” and lo and behold, here we are 40 episodes later, and of course he fulfilled his end of the bargain, and, true to his word, he came onto my show for the 40th episode. I know you guys are going to get a ton of insights from him in today’s episode, so without further ado, here is Seth Godin.
Jay: Seth, thank you so much for coming on the show. We are so excited to have you here, and for our audience in Asia, most of which I’m sure have heard of you, so I’m not going to … I’ll allow them to simply Google search your name, Seth, and they’ll be able to read everything that they need to know, but, that all said, if you could introduce yourself in one sentence, what would you say?
Seth: I’m Seth Godin. I’m a teacher, and sometimes I’m a blogger and an entrepreneur.
Jay: Very concise, and very succinct, as always. Thank you again for being on the show. We’re excited to be out here, and I want to start with a concept that you discuss a lot, and it’s particularly relevant, I feel, within the Asian community … Kids growing up and their parents being quite conservative, wanting them to get a stable job and plug into the system, versus, perhaps, exploring a quote, unquote, passion or calling.
You’ve gone on the record before saying a passion or a calling is nonsense, so please elaborate on that.
Seth: Let’s start with Carnegie Hall, where I’ve spoken a couple of times, to students from Juilliard and other places. I think we can agree that this is the pinnacle for someone who’s devoted their life to learning the cello. It’s easy to imagine that a kid who starts at the age of three and practices three or four hours a day, and then gets picked by a teacher and then gets picked by Juilliard and then gets picked to be at the executive level at Carnegie hall, has succeeded as an artist.
The thing is, they’re not artists. They are cogs in the symphony industrial complex. They have been taught from the age of three to play the music as written. Playing it as written is a compliance activity, and one of the things that happened at Juilliard recently that was very sad is they stopped having guest lecturers because students would rather be in the practice room, and they weren’t going to hear people like Emanuel Ax talking about their life.
The problem with the practice room is that it teaches you to be a cog in a system that doesn’t need you anymore, that the career opportunities for an excellent cello player are nil. Compare this person to Yo-Yo Ma, who is not an excellent cello player, he’s a genius. There’s a difference, because he does not play the music as written, because he is exploring the edges, because he is the one and only. He is the one that’s worth seeking out.
There, in that analogy, I hope we can see the problem. The problem is that competence is now overrated, that in a world where everyone is connected, it’s easier to find a competent supplier than ever before, and if you can define what you need, you can find someone cheaper, and that means there’s a race to the bottom.
People are trying to win the race to the bottom by working more hours for less money and becoming ever more obedient. Therein lies very little happiness and very little success, and my argument is that there’s an alternative, and the alternative is to do the emotional labor, to have the guts to speak up and to stand up and to connect and to lead, and to solve interesting problems.
That doesn’t happen because you got an A in first grade and second grade and third grade and practiced more in fourth grade. It happens because you grew up in a culture that encouraged you to explore the edges with a sense of generosity.
That’s a rant, but there you go.
Jay: Thank you for that. I think that one of the problems that we face in Hong Kong, and I’m sure it’s very similar to the tri-state area, is money. When people living in this modern, first world city, financial capitol, if you will, that has a high cost of living, requires a lot of money just to get by, so to speak, oftentimes that is the primary driver behind someone’s career choice, is to make the most money as possible or enough to have a comfortable life.
There’s a floor that I think … A seeming minimum that they need to make in order to be happy. What advice would you give to people that are in this situation where they think that money will, perhaps, solve all their problems? It’s dangerous when you’re younger because you end up chasing the wrong things, so how do you square the circle, so to speak, for a younger person or someone that’s stuck in a job, just chasing the money?
Seth: You’ve asked the question so beautifully, it is profound in its pathos, because if I had substituted the word heroin for money, I think that most of us would look at that and say, “That’s absurd. Just don’t become a heroin addict, because we all know that becoming a heroin addict rarely leads to long term happiness or contribution.”
If you start by saying, “I’m a heroin addict and I need to get more heroin, so how should I be able to do my job every day to get enough money to buy more heroin,” we’d all say, “This is stupid. Don’t do that. That’s clearly immature, ill-founded, incorrect.” The same thing is true now, which is that when your parents or grand parents set out on this path, there was an exchange to be made, and the exchange was, by bringing hard work and insight along with the compliance, you could move up several notches in the standard of living.
If you have grown up without healthcare or without adequate plumbing, moving up several notches in the standard of living is really urgent, but now in the world that you’re talking about, the chances that you’re going to move up several notches from how you grew up are zero. There aren’t several notches available to move up. The money is being used as a cudgel to get you to comply, even though you actually don’t need it, that you can find plumbing and healthcare for way less money than you’re paying now, and use the freedom you’ve got to do work that matters.
If you want to turn that work that matters into a great income, it’s way easier than if you’re not doing work that matters, or, you can say, “I’m having such a good time doing work that matters, I’m not willing to trade it off for even any increase in income.” That’s fine, too, so that when someone like Amanda Palmer builds a career as a musician, she could give up some of what she’s done and make even more money, but she has enough.
She has more than enough, and she gets to do what she loves to do, which is her work, and there’s 20,000 people that would miss her if she stopped doing it, and it feels to me like that’s more important than living three stories higher in the apartment building you are currently in.
Jay: Do you think that that’s more of a personal quest that one most fulfill? It’s a framing, almost, a mental framing of how much is enough, and a personal journey. Seth, in your own career, in your own life, was there a point early on when, perhaps, you were misguided and you were chasing money more than doing good work?
Seth: Yeah. I’ll tell you about that, but first let me remind people that the reason that we feel the way we do is not human nature, it’s marketing, that the way marketing works is it makes us dissatisfied with the status quo so that we will buy what is being promoted. The more marketing there is in people’s lives, the less satisfied they are with what they have, and we now are surrounded by more marketing than ever before.
Understand, this is something people did to you. For me, when I was college, I co-founded the largest student-run business in the United States, and we had 400 employees, and I got paid $50 a week. The reason I got paid $50 a week was it was loosely affiliated with Tufts, where I was a student.
We got to use their payroll system and office on campus, and in exchange, I got paid $50 a week. What I realized from that experience was that I wouldn’t trade it for anything, that the freedom that came from being able to do something that looked like business, but not feeling like I had to maximize my return, was fabulous.
Then I got to Stanford Business School, Stanford Business School a temple of capitalism and making a lot of money, and I was there the year before Apple launched the Macintosh, so it was heady times in Palo Alto.
My fellow students were getting offers to make $150,000, leaving school. I took a job making $30,000 a year, and again, I did it on purpose. It’s not because I was a good person. It’s because I was too immature to say, “Wait. This is costing me $120,000. I shouldn’t do this.”
I was immature in the sense that I wanted to go on a journey, and I’m so glad that happened to me, because I have stayed on that journey ever since. My college reunion came around, I don’t know when it was … My 30th reunion. I didn’t go, but I heard from a lot of people about how unhappy they were, that 30 years later they have $5 million in the bank or $10 million in the bank and now they’re going to start looking for a life.
That’s a sad place to be, I think.
Jay: I think, the people that, in my experience, that have … Exactly the same. I actually went the route of money, so it was a bit different for me, but, having done that and having now built a career in, perhaps, a more rigid field, after a decade or 15 years, now, you start looking back and you start thinking, “Maybe I should have taken the $30,000 job that allowed me freedom or gone on that trip overseas or taking that post somewhere else instead of doing the cookie cutter path.”
When I read your book, Your Turn, which is phenomenal, completely different than any of your other books, which was refreshing and just beautifully put together.
Seth: Thank you.
Jay: You said you wrote the book to give it away. Let’s talk about the book, because when I read it, it was almost like a devotional. Every single page had packed both an image … A single page could be read and something could be taken away from each page. This notion of, why are people waiting to be picked, as there is no right moment, this is the right moment. Can you talk on that for a bit?
Seth: Let’s get back to this brainwash that happened. The two pieces are capitalists and industrialists want compliant cogs for a system that needs them, and second, marketers need people who are unhappy with the status quo so that they will spend more money. It’s a virtuous cycle. Virtuous, not for us, but for them. One way that you can enforce it is with a lottery mindset, so that what you say to the masses is, “Every once in a while we pick somebody and the person we pick gets all the good treats, and we will chronicle all of that in the media, so you get to watch them fly their private jet and you get to see them on their reality show, and maybe you could even vote for them.”
That picking feels like what we are supposed to aspire to, that if we just comply enough and work hard enough, we’ll get picked, and once we get picked, we get the treats. It turns out that that’s just all a lie, and that, particularly in this window, and I hope it doesn’t close too soon, of everyone having their own media channel, of everyone being able to put their ideas into the world, the people who are making a difference, succeeding and getting a good ride, are the ones who picked themselves.
The ones who said, “Actually, I’m going to have a podcast and no one can stop me, and actually, I’m going to do freelance consulting and not wait for McKinsey to hire me, and actually, I’m going to invest in local businesses and not wait for Goldman Sachs to pick me.”
The powers that be were really shaking in their boots for 15 years, because, for example, Yahoo came along and completely upended the TV industrial complex, that the brands that had been around for 50 years, ABC, CBS, NBC, Paramount, et cetera, were threatened by two people who were college students in Palo Alto.
Then Google did it to the entire advertising business. Between Google and Facebook, 80% of all online ad dollars, which is more and more of all ad dollars, go to those two companies, and then Amazon showed up out of nowhere with a guy who had no experience in the book industry and took that industry and took it upside down.
They’re afraid that they will lose compliance from the audience and from the employees, and so they’ve re-upped the ante of what does it mean to get picked, and tried to build walls, but we don’t have to settle for that if we don’t want to. The cost to us, is that in the short run, you maybe don’t get the same regular paycheck, and in the short run, maybe you don’t get the same assurances.
What I know is that one day, a few years ago, 20,000 people at the Ford Motor Company lost their job all in one day. They didn’t get fired for insubordination, they got fired for obedience, because they did what they were told and did what they were told, and then one day, the boss realized they weren’t making them enough money so they just fired them all, and that’s going to happen in more and more industries, so if it’s likely going to happen to you, you might as well pick yourself first.
Jay: Right. Go out and do something or just start shipping, as you say. Along this path, I want to talk about … You talk about this a lot, actually, the lizard brain or the fear of failure or dealing with this fear. First of all, do you still encounter this regularly, and what sort of tactics or strategies do you have that can help deal with the fear, the fear that makes us never want to step out of our comfort zone, and the fear that makes us stay and wait to be picked.
Seth: Okay. The resistance, as Steve Pressfield calls it, is hardwired into us and it’s the only reason that the powers that be got away with the brainwashing they did, which is that, deep down, every human being is hardwired to avoid failure, to fear risk, to stay alive, to extract revenge, to be a wild animal. That’s our amygdala. You can look it up. It’s real, and it is the cause of a lot of discomfort and anxiety, because it’s trying to get us to survive, but the world it was optimized for disappeared a hundred thousand years ago.
As a result, we have things like writer’s block. Writer’s block is a mythical construct. It doesn’t really exist, except it afflicts a lot of people because they are afraid that if I write something on a blog I’ll get in trouble, and if I get in trouble, I’ll lose my job, and if I lose my job, I’ll lose my house. If I lose my house, I’ll die.
The thought of writing a blog post is equivalent to dying, and so we avoid it. Once you know it’s there and that you’ve been hardwired to experience this, you have a huge advantage, because you know what it sounds like, you know what it feels like, you know what it smells like.
What are you going to do about it? The wrong thing to do, because it doesn’t work, is make it go away. You can’t make it go away. You can try drinking or other things like that, but it doesn’t work in the long run and it just makes you an alcoholic. You can’t make it go away, but what you can do is use it as a compass.
I feel the resistance every single day, and where I feel it is when I’m about to do something important. That’s a great clue, because it’s the way I know I’m about to do something important, so when I feel it, I say, “Oh, thanks. Thanks for letting me know I’m onto something,” and then I do that thing.
That ritual of listening for the fear and doing the thing it is afraid does a few things. First of all, the amygdala’s a wily beast and it will begin to calm down because it says, “Wait. I shouldn’t react too much because he’ll just do it,” and two, it helps you become an artist, because we have this inherent sense of where the edge is, and the amygdala, the resistance, helps point out where that edge is, and if you can go to those edges, you can make a difference.
Jay: Does it get easier? Is it, like, a muscle, that you can practice?
Seth: Yes, without a doubt. I’ll give you an example. Public speaking. Public speaking is a fear, greater, according to Reader’s Digest, among Americans, than snakes. More people are afraid of public speaking than snakes, which I find hard to believe. I am not afraid of public speaking, because public speaking, for me, is just speaking, and I’ve been speaking for so long that I know how to speak. So do you.
If you can re-categorize certain behaviors for your resistance, for your amygdala, so that it is no longer on high alert, then you don’t freak out. A great example of this is a tight rope walker, or somebody who can drive a car. The first time you drove a car at 60 miles an hour on the highway, you were freaking out. You’re not freaking out now.
Jay: That’s encouraging. Let’s talk about your blog. You blog every day. You consistently ship every single day. You show up and you are a master of succinct blogging, because you break every SEO-type marketing rule out there, so I love it. I love reading your blog. You also have stopped working within the context, if you will, of traditional publishing, so you blog consistently every day.
When people start off blogging, they’re blogging to nobody, and within this modern day age of infinite noise, how does one start a blog or start shipping work, and be heard?
Seth: It’s simple, but it is not easy. The simple is, you tell 10 people. Everyone knows 10 people. Everyone is trusted by 10 people. They will look at what you made, and if it’s good, then of their own volition, they will share it with other people because they are rewarded by those other people for doing so, so it will reach 20 people, and then it will spread.
If that doesn’t happen, you need to make better work.
Jay: Basically the market decides if your work is good enough for it to be spread.
Seth: I’m not sure I would use the word “good enough,” but what I would say is this. When I started my blog I had 10 readers, and now I have a million, and it’s not because I’m using tricks, and SEO and link bait. It’s because I am giving them something that they want to use to help them get what they want.
The number of places that we can do that, and the number of audiences for which we can do that, is very large. I happen to write an all-purpose blog, but if you wrote a blog for people in the plumbing supply industry with a focus on HVAC, it’s entirely possible that the eight people you know in that industry would start to read your blog.
If you were generous enough and profound enough in what you had to say, they would tell other people. If you could get to 300 people reading it every day, that would be enough to dramatically increase your ability to do work in that industry.
Jay: What does the word “entrepreneur, entrepreneurship,” mean to you? It seems like, these days, everywhere you turn your head it’s very popular and romanticized, to be an entrepreneur. What does that word mean to you?
Seth: It’s a magical mindset, but we need a better word for the magical mindset because it also means something else. For me, what I means is, the act of building a business bigger than yourself, probably with someone else’s money, a business that can work and thrive without you there, a business big enough or successful enough that you can sell it and give your investors a profit. That’s what entrepreneurs do. They’re not freelancers. They’re not musicians. They’re not politicians.
They are people who are doing a very specific thing. I used to be an entrepreneur, and now I’m a freelancer. Freelancers are very different. Freelancers get paid when we work. Freelancers are craftspeople. We are doing the work ourselves and putting our name on it. I love being a freelancer. I have some entrepreneurial projects, but the difference between a freelancer and an entrepreneur is simple.
An entrepreneur has to deal with infinity, because your investors want an infinite return, because you have the ability to grow to be infinitely big. You don’t have to do that, but infinity looms large. Freelancers have to live in a finite world, because there’s only 24 hours in a day. The way a freelancer achieves more is by getting better clients, because better clients pay more, let you do better work, are easier to work with.
The goal of a freelancer isn’t to get more, it’s to get better. If we could be clear with ourselves about what work we are seeking to do, it’s a lot easier to keep score.
Jay: Thank you for the answer, and for the clarity there between freelancing and entrepreneurship. One of the most pressing issues, and my fear right now, is the state of education. I have two daughters and a third boy on the way.
Seth: Wow, congratulations.
Jay: Thank you, but with that comes this fear, again, that, what’s the world going to look like when they grow up and have to go to school, and of course, not to mention the costs associated with these private institutions.
I see a need for there to be some sort of change in education, and you, obviously, see that need, as well. You started the altMBA. What do you think the future of education holds for us? Maybe you could explain to the audience what the altMBA is.
Seth: Let’s start with little kids first. If you have little kids, I beg you to read a book I wrote called Stop Stealing Dreams. It’s free online. I did a Ted Talk about it, as well. It’s at stopstealingdreams.com. It’s an 80 page manifesto about what school is for, because I don’t think most parents have thought about what school is for, and if more parents will ask the people in power what school is for, my hope is that school will get better.
I think school is for teaching kids to solve interesting problems and to lead, not to become compliant cogs. If you think it’s for something else, that’s fine, but we should definitely have the discussion. This thinking led me to create online courses. Online courses, I found, work for some people, but the typical mass of online course has a 97% drop out rate.
I wanted to figure out if I could actually change people in an online setting. The altMBA, which is not an MBA, is a proudly unaccredited workshop for 150 people at a time, with 20 live coaches, and people in 30 countries around the world working in Slack and Zoom and WordPress to do 13 projects in groups, shifting around ideas, giving feedback, getting feedback, and sprinting for three or fours a day for a month.
We try to teach people three things: how to make better decisions, how to see the world as it is, and how to persuade other people of your point of view. We’ve had a thousand people take it so far and I can say that it transforms people more on a per capita basis than anything I have ever done.
It is a profound shift for people, and we’re not going to make it bigger, we’re just going to keep doing it with the best people we can find, and it might be, for the right person, a really good fit. It’s expensive and you have to apply to get in, but compared to what you get, I’m told it’s a bargain.
Jay: Who should apply? What type of person should apply?
Seth: We have people from giant companies like Google and Apple and Microsoft, and we have people from one-person freelance firms. We have a lot of non-profits. We eagerly grant scholarships to people from 501(3)(c)’s in leadership positions. We have 75 year olds and 18 year olds. Mostly, it’s a point of view and a posture, not what it says on your LinkedIn profile.
We’re looking for people who are restless and eager to make an impact, and our willing to contribute and put themselves on the line while they do.
Jay: Right. Not necessarily if you put “entrepreneur” on your LinkedIn profile. Got it. Seth, what are you working on these days? Other than, you consistently blog, obviously, and you have your cursory projects, your altMBA, and I know you’re involved with the Acumen Fund. Is there any big project you’re working on this year in 2017?
Seth: That’s a good question. We’re building a couple more institutional things in the spirit of courses that have impact, and I’m still doing a lot of writing. I love the work I get to do with charities because they really are in the marketing and change business, and if I can help, that’s a privilege. That’s where I am. Nothing to announce today, but it’s quite a journey.
Jay: I find that you’re one of these people that have nothing to announce, but there’s always something unannounced. I always have my ears peeled for that. Last couple questions, Seth. We really appreciate your time and I know the audience is going to get a lot out of this interview. How do you want to be remembered? When someone says Seth Godin, you think marketer. I think of one of the world’s greatest marketers, thought leader, public speaker, entrepreneur, author. How do you want to be remembered?
Seth: I’d like to be remembered by what the people who learned from me taught other people.
Jay: By what the people who learned from you taught to others?
Jay: I’m sure there’s a lot there. That was my second to last question. The last question is, simply, where can people find you, follow you and connect with you? You follow altMBA on Twitter, so I know you’re not on Twitter.
Seth: No, I don’t use Twitter. The best way to read my stuff is to type Seth into Google. I’m the first match. I blog every day. You can subscribe for free. There’s no commercial transaction there, and I’ve got 18 books that you can find at sethgodin.com. That’s it. I don’t coach, I don’t invest, I don’t advise, so it’s not a good idea to send me an email, because that’s a bad habit of mine, but mostly, I hope that you’ll take these ideas which I share as much as I can, and go make a ruckus with them.
Jay: Thank you. Thank you so much for time, Seth. We really appreciate it.
Seth: A pleasure. Thank you, Jay, for doing this. Very generous of you.
Jay: Take care.
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