Life, the Internet, and Everything
Seth Godin writes the wildly popular daily, Seth’s Blog. His podcast is Akimbo. His new book this fall is This is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn to See. He’s the author of many best-selling books, online and in print, including Purple Cow, The Dip, and Linchpin. In 2018 he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame.
Krista Tippett, host: We live in a world that is recreating itself one life and one digital connection at a time. Seth Godin is one of the most original and helpful voices I know on the highest human potential of this landscape. He was one of the early internet entrepreneurs and foresaw the importance of “tribes” before its association with echo chambers and ideological silos. But Seth says this was never the whole picture or the only possibility for the digital age. Instead, he reminds us of its potential for transforming how we understand ourselves — in everything we do.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Seth Godin: There’s one view of the world that says that what all people want is as much stuff as possible for as cheap a price as possible. That’s a world based on scarcity. There’s a different view not based on scarcity but based on abundance, that the thing we don’t have enough is connection, we’re lonely, and we don’t have enough time. And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves — yes, we will seek that out.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
Seth Godin has founded dozens of companies — most of which, he is quick to add, failed. But with his internet company Yoyodyne, he created a new form of ethically-motivated marketing that rejected the usual tactics of interrupting people with phone calls or pop up ads. He was inducted in 2018 into The Marketing Hall of Fame. His blog — which I get by email — is indispensable daily reading for me and many. Seth Godin has also written many books, all of which rise to the top of the Amazon best-seller list without reviews or book tours. I spoke with him in 2012 — and now he has a new podcast, Akimbo and a new book coming out.
Ms. Tippett: I want to start with where I usually start my interviews, whoever I’m talking to. And actually in all that I’ve seen you write across the years, I haven’t heard you talk about this too much. Was there a spiritual background to your childhood?
Mr. Godin: I grew up with two incredible parents and learned a lot about faith. There wasn’t a lot of religion, and there was a lot of faith. That dichotomy I think is really important, and it’s informed a lot of the way I lived and what I’ve written about. And by faith I mean faith in community, faith in charity and in philanthropy, faith in innovation and what happens when people make a ruckus or do hard work, faith in education, faith in taking initiative. I was a free-range kid. My dad put me on a boat with a semi-stranger to crew when I was 14. And he abandoned me in downtown Cleveland at 1:00 in the morning. And I found my way home. The next morning …
Ms. Tippett: On purpose?
Mr. Godin: Well, I don’t think he abandoned me on purpose, but I found my way home on purpose.
I grew up in this house where there was this understanding that if someone didn’t have a place to go they stayed with you. And that if there was a way to help, you helped. We weren’t the most well-off people in town, but my parents understood that they had a position and a role in the community, and any chance they had to lead was one that they should take. And if they had a chance to support someone or connect with someone, they should.
Ms. Tippett: That story you just told about your upbringing kind of leads me to an experiment I wanted to do with you. Which is, as you may know, I just recently interviewed Brené Brown, who’s someone you love, you’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from, as have many people. And she makes a connection between struggle and hope — that in fact it’s the moments in our lives when we had to struggle and when we did something, when we got out of a jam, and we didn’t know how we could do that, that those are the moments we became who we are.
So that’s a long-winded way of saying what I thought I might ask you. People who know you think of you not just as a successful person, but a phenomenally successful person. I wonder if you would talk to me about the moments of struggle and adversity and failure in your life that helped make you who you are — that actually are part of the foundation of all that success.
Mr. Godin: I’ve never been shy about talking about the professional failure, because I wouldn’t trade any of it. After I luckily sold my first little book for not very much money, I then decided I might be able to do that for a living — and got 900 rejection letters in a row. Then for the next seven to 10 years, my company was basically on the verge of bankruptcy the whole time. There was really dramatic stuff like when the vice president of AOL threatened to have me arrested if I came to her office to apologize for something we had screwed up. Or having to fire our biggest client who was two-thirds of our business just because they were jerks. And we decided that we didn’t want to work with jerks and become the kind of company that was good at working with jerks.
But what they all had in common, particularly in the early days, was this sense of, as Brené has talked about, being caught out as a fraud and having the world say, “we figured you out, and you don’t deserve any success. It’s all over.” When you hear that — and so many of us are capable of hearing it just from the slightest negative response, just from the smallest slight — we then decide it’s all over. Then the question is, what are you going to do with that feedback? And I think this goes back to my parents. Because the habit I developed was that that’s not a “no,” that’s a “no for now.” That’s not a “this will never work.” That’s a “this didn’t work. But I learned something about what might work for next time.” And so there was the cold fear, the deep emptiness in the pit of your stomach because there are 50 or 100 people who are counting on you to pay them. Or the fact that you’ve worked on a project for a year or two years or three years, and now it might just be over. And the question is, is that something that we flee from, or is that something that we use to tell us that we’re alive?
Ms. Tippett: Something that I’m really intrigued by — that I feel you’re adding to — is this sense or this knowledge that we all have that we are living in a moment of great flux. We are living in evolutionary times. I read as I was digging into you that Charles Darwin was a really formative figure for you.
Mr. Godin: Yeah. People impart a lot into the notion of evolution — some of which wasn’t Darwin’s work itself. But what is important here is not only do times change, but those times change — not just our stories about ourselves and our expectations — but they actually are changing our brain. When the Industrial Revolution came, there were 20 years when basically everyone in Manchester, England, was an alcoholic. Instead of having coffee carts, they had gin carts that went up and down the streets. Because it was so hard to shift from being a farmer to sitting in a dark room for 12 hours every day doing what you were told. But we culturally evolved to be able to handle a new world order. So when we talk about evolution as a metaphorical thing where we have memetics and ideas laid on top of this idea of survival of the species and things changing over time, what fascinates me about it is that this bottom-up change in the world is everywhere all the time. So much more common than change that gets put down on us by a dictator or by someone who’s putatively in charge. And yet, we ignore this bottom-up thing when in fact it’s the thing we are most likely to be able to touch and change.
Ms. Tippett: Also I think what you’re pointing at in a lot of your work is that because of the way the world has changed subjectively, because we have what you call a connection economy, technology is actually empowering that bottom-up change and kind of dismantling the hierarchical overbearing leader model that a lot of us actually still grew up with.
Mr. Godin: And at the same time that is what’s empowering technology. So they’re both feeding on each other. The internet wasn’t built by 30 people who are working for a boss. It was built by 300,000 people, many of whom have never met each other. And that this protocol and that technology work together even without a central organizing force. That’s happening to every industry. It’s happening even to the way our communities organize and the spiritual organizations that we get involved in.
Ms. Tippett: I want to come back around to the idea of art. Because one of the things you say is that as a result of this form of change and the demands it places on us and the opportunities it presents to us — is that we are all artists now. So talk to me about that connection.
Mr. Godin: On the way into the studio today, I passed a 1934 Rolls Royce. And in those days, if you were really rich, you bought a fancy expensive car like that. We went through this era where you would value something that was physical. But now the things we pay extra for are connection. The things we pay extra for are what are other people using, what networks can we be part of, what conference can we go to, who can we be with? And the people we choose to be with, the products and services we choose to talk about are all interesting and unique and human and real, as opposed to industrial and cheap and polished and normal. So as individuals what we have to see is a shift has gone on from the days of Henry Ford when one creative person had 50,000 people acting on their wishes. That you designed the car and then a whole bunch of people followed your instructions.
Now one person working by themselves can make an idea, a product, a service, something in the world. And that shift in leverage means that you’re not going to make it as a worker bee; you’re going to make it as someone who is figuring out what to do next. And more important, finding the faith — and I think the word “faith” is appropriate here — to walk up to your market, your world, your tribe, your community and say, here I made this.
Ms. Tippett: And you do acknowledge this — this kind of shift, within a matter of generations, is taking place in the middle of a lot of our working lives — where you started out with one idea, and that’s completely broken. But this is very stressful for human beings — biologically stressful. You even put a finer point on that. What is it you say? That the things that used to make us feel safe are in fact now risky. I just want to put that out there that it’s beautiful idea, that that’s what we all get to do now, is stand up and I say, “I made this, here I am” and be an artist, rather than a cog. But it’s in human terms very challenging, very, very exacting and probably feels impossible to a lot of people.
Mr. Godin: Exactly, Krista. The Industrial Revolution paid this magical dividend, which is by being part of organization and by doing what we were told, which is inherently safe, we could get rich. I discovered a couple weeks ago the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first guy in space. And the thing that’s extraordinary about it is he grew up in a mud hut with no windows and no electricity. So in the course of one lifetime, in 30 years, someone goes from a mud hut with no electricity to orbiting the planet in a spaceship. That, for me, is the promise of the industrial age. We said to people whose parents or grandparents were poor — do this and we will make you rich. And it’s safe and school will support you and society will support you. That’s what all of us have as our ancestral memory of what you’re supposed to do.
And suddenly, really suddenly, we replaced this with a new order, a new way of doing business, where we’re saying to people, guess what those ideas we used to play with are more important than ever; and that coglike obedience that we taught you in second grade and fifth grade and tenth grade, that stuff we don’t think is valuable anymore. And what we’re seeing is that most people who are making an impact, they’re doing it despite what they learned in school, not because of what they learned in school. If I sit down with a bunch of seventh graders, or first graders, and ask them to brainstorm or raise their hand or innovate or make something, they find it way easier than when I sit down with a bunch of college students. Because the college students are afraid of being wrong. This idea that we spend 15 years training people to be afraid of being wrong.
Ms. Tippett: To have the right answer. And to do it on your own, not collaboratively, right?
Mr. Godin: Exactly. So when a bunch of tenth or eleventh graders hand in their homework and get it marked down because they worked on it together, I’m like, what’s the lesson there again?
[music: “Armenian Folk Songs (The Partridge)” by Brooklyn Rider]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with Seth Godin, who is wise about life, the internet, and everything.
Ms. Tippett: It’s interesting to me, I think one of the things you and I are circling around is that all of our disciplines have been siloed in ways that are just so clearly wrong now. But, again we don’t know quite how to — it’s a very messy process of breaking down barriers. So when I’m reading you I’m wondering if a hundred years from now, people would read that in the twentieth century — even into the twenty-first century — art was something that was done by specialized experts. That it was a fringe thing. That it was something of eccentrics, and you went to museums to look at it. I’m wondering if they would just think how crazy that is. So when I say to you, what is art, who are the artists around you, what do you think of? What comes to mind?
Mr. Godin: I grew up at the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo, which is a really wonderful contemporary art museum. And contemporary art means, it’s stuff that Mike Wallace hates — it’s the things that anybody could do. I wish I had a better word, because sometimes when people think of art, they think of van Gogh. But I’m saying, that we can all agree that Beethoven was an artist and Shakespeare was an artist or that Joseph Beuys, who worked in felt and lard, was an artist. And it’s not that hard to extend it to, yeah well, so is Steve Jobs.
When he did things, he did them with the right intent, for the first time, in a way that had an impact. Then I can expand that to anybody who’s put an iPhone app into the world that changes the way we interact with each other or the device. Or I can say, guess what, when Scott started charity: water, and created a different way to both raise money to help people in the underprivileged world to have fresh water and actually deliver on that promise. That act was an act of art because if it hadn’t worked, it was gonna fail because the structure was wrong and it wasn’t resonating.
We can also have art that’s done by groups of people in a community, where they count on each other to create something bigger than themselves. When I was in Peru, I visited this village of aboriginal people who had been there for a very long time — who had come up with a different way to dye fabric. And it was unique to their village, and they had figured out how to do it in a way that was worth seeking out and that was worth noting, that it was a better, risky or interesting way to do something with wool. So yeah, that’s art too. It’s easy to keep track of what art is by what it’s not. It’s not following a manual, reading a dummy’s book, looking for a map. It tends to be people who work with a compass instead. Who have an understanding of true north and are willing to solve a problem in an interesting way.
Ms. Tippett: It’s like once you let this out of its box that connection between impact and beauty, design — I’m just so aware of this kind of accumulation of interesting things like public-interest design now. There are all these movements which are letting art and design out of its box and then absolutely showing it as a connector and a driver in all kinds of endeavors that we think of as more practical.
Mr. Godin: But we now need to add a big shift here — which is that if you’re looking at our conversation through the industrialist’s point of view, your next question is, but where is the mass? How do I reach everybody with a product that isn’t average?
That shows that we’re keeping score of the wrong thing. Ben Graham, the great stock investor, has a quote where he said, at the beginning the market is a voting machine. The goal is to see how many people are going to vote for you. How many people are going to raise their hand and say, “I like that.” But in the long run, the market is a weighing machine. It’s a scale of how much impact you had. And what this age we’re living in is doing, is it’s dividing the mass market, which is basically dead now, into hundreds or thousands of micro-markets — little markets of interest. So you can’t make a substantial impact on everyone anymore. It’s almost impossible.
But what you can do is go to the edges, and go to the few people who care deeply, and make a big impact there.
Ms. Tippett: I want to bring in the word “tribes” that you use, because that’s another way you’re using a word that we associate with something primitive. That we thought modernity was about outgrowing.
You are actually really affirming that. Identity doesn’t matter less it matters as much or more. But you’re saying that now it’s not just a matter of blood and lineage that’s given to you; it’s something we create and choose. We choose who and what we belong to. It’s not just about survival; it’s about connection and flourishing.
Mr. Godin: In the desert or the jungle, the tribe was defined by geography alone. You were in the tribe based on where you were born. Then if we fast-forward to, I don’t know, Mark Twain. Mark Twain would show up in a city and a thousand people would come to hear him speak. And everyone who came was in his tribe. They were in the tribe of slightly satirical, slightly jaundiced people who were also intellectuals who could engage with him. And he had never met them before, but within minutes, they were part of a congruent group who understood each other. So if we fast-forward to today you can take someone who hangs out in the East Village or Manhattan who has 27 tattoos — they go to Amsterdam, they can find someone in Amsterdam who talks their language and acts like them, because they’ve chosen the same set of things that excite them and that they believe in. And we divide tribes as small a group as we want. But what the internet has done is meant that we don’t have to get on a plane anymore to meet strangers who are like us.
The Linux operating system, which is on a billion computers around the world, was written by a group of strangers who have never met, who are part of the same tribe. So the challenge of our future is to say, are we going to connect and amplify positive tribes that want to make things better for all of us? Or are we going to degrade to warring tribes that are willing to bring other groups down just so they can get ahead?
[music: “Cloud 10” by Solid State]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Seth Godin. We’re putting all kinds of great extras — poetry, music, and a new feature Living the Questions — into our podcast feed. Get it all as soon as it’s released when you subscribe to On Being on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today drawing out the one and only Seth Godin on the art, the work, and the highest human possibility of life in the digital world. He has a new podcast, Akimbo, and a new book coming out this fall called This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.
Ms. Tippett: Let’s talk about marketing. I would say, in popular imagination, marketing would be the place we’d point at for something exploitative that actually panders to the lowest common denominator, or tries to make us all alike in unthinking ways.
Mr. Godin: Yeah, this is very risky, because we just lost one-third of all the people who are listening. Because if people think that marketing and advertising are the same thing, they are correct in that it’s not really something that’s worth a lot of your time. But what I’ve been working my whole working life to do is help people redefine marketing as the work an organization or person does when they tell a story that resonates with us. And that marketing isn’t advertising — marketing is the product we make, the service we offer, the life we live. And that no one ever knows the truth about anyone else. But what we notice about other people and what we notice about what organizations do — that’s marketing. If it’s noticed, it’s marketing.
So the choice is, do we seek to push to the world an idea that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, that isn’t true, that isn’t valid, but we can trick people into buying from us? That’s one sort of negative way to approach marketing. Or do we build an organization and build a life and build a career where if someone knew the truth they’d want to work with us? That’s marketing too. So the question as you go forward is — will you chose this ethical marketing that doesn’t involve yelling at people, networking your way to the top, spamming people and lying? But instead, involves weaving a story and weaving a tribe and weaving a network that means something. Doing work that matters. Because now everyone has their own TV network. Everyone has their own radio station. Everyone has their own printing press. So what are you going to put on it? What are you going to put out to the world? Because if we’re moving beyond you work for me and you do what I say — to a world where I say, here, here’s a microphone — speak up. Here, here’s a connection to the internet — touch who you want. We’re going to notice what you do. Whether or not you choose to be a marketer, you are one.
Ms. Tippett: I mean here’s something from your — I get your daily blog as an email. Here for example is something that just epitomizes that the different way you’re inviting people to come at this word in terms of life and work. It’s something you wrote — “four questions worth answering.” I have started to really ponder these in terms of my own little enterprise, my own little public radio show. “Four questions worth answering.” “Who is your next customer?” You mean that conceptually. Their outlook, hopes, dreams, needs and wants. “What is the story he told about himself before he met you? How do you encounter him in a way that he trusts the story you want to tell him about what you have to offer? What changes are you trying to make in him, his life, his story?” And then you wrote, “start with this before you spend time on tactics, technology, scalability.” I think that’s really refreshing.
Mr. Godin: There used to be parking meters in New York City that took quarters. And what that meant was that quarters were worth more than 25 cents. One day I was parking on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and a guy comes up to me who from all physical appearances was, use your word, hobo, bum, homeless, needed help. But generally, even on the streets of New York, it’s very difficult to make a living by panhandling because most people tell themselves the story that they’re not going to interact with a stranger, they’re not going to give that stranger money, and it’s not a useful way to help someone.
Well, this gentleman came up to me and he said, “Excuse me, do you have a dollar for four quarters?” Which is precisely the opposite of the question that people always ask you. And I was taken aback. Because actually I needed four quarters and was happy to pay $2 for four quarters in that moment. So I did the transaction with him. And then he said, “Excuse me, do you have a quarter?” And the brilliance of the question, of course, is yeah he knew I had a quarter. He had just given it to me. And we had a transaction that had helped me, so now it was obvious I was going to give him a quarter. In fact, I gave him three, because I wanted to reciprocate.
What’s magical about this story is that he understood that the worldview, the story of the typical person on the street of New York is not “I wish I could find someone I could give a dollar to.” So people who are making change, and the people you’ve interviewed through the years — that’s what they have in common. That they don’t stand up and say, here is a recitation of things that are true, therefore you must agree with me. What they have figured out how to do is understand the mindset of the person before they even met them. And then put a story into the world that resonates enough to start changing that mindset.
Ms. Tippett: It’s very hopeful what you write and even how you describe what succeeds, what can succeed. Maybe even better than that — what endures. The winning strategy of giving customers a platform to be their best selves. Again, that’s a really different concept from how we usually think about what we can be successful in offering, in any sphere. And how do you know that, Seth? Do you know that? Is that true? Is that really true? I mean, it’s like you want it to be true. How do you know that’s true?
Mr. Godin: Well, the reason I know it’s true is because all I do for a living is notice things. And there’s one view of the world — call it the Walmart view — that says that what all people want is as much as stuff as possible for as cheap a price as possible. If you look at the world through that lens — and there are plenty of people who do — you can come up with a strategy to achieve that. That’s Black Friday sales and that’s self-storage units. That’s somebody who’s happy to push you to buy something you don’t need because the object of the game is for them to have more stuff. That’s a world based on scarcity. I don’t have enough stuff; how do I get more stuff?
There’s a different view, and we see it in so many places, but it doesn’t get a lot of press, which is the view not based on scarcity but based on abundance. That in an abundance economy, the thing we don’t have enough of is enough connection — we’re lonely — and we don’t have enough time. And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves — yes, we will seek that out. No, it probably doesn’t help you build a big profitable public company, but yes, it helps you make a better difference to the community that you’ve chosen to live in.
Ms. Tippett: As someone who’s in the world of media where what is big, what gets the really big numbers is entertainment. For me, it’s been important to hear you saying things like this. Hearing you saying things like number one in a small market is way more interesting, more fruitful and fun than being number three in a large market. And I think of that in terms of who’s listening and what are they getting out of it.
Mr. Godin: Yeah, compare The Beverly Hillbillies to Star Trek. The Beverly Hillbillies, even in the heart of the industrial age, were a ratings success. They were at the top of the ratings, and they got canceled. And no one other than me right now ever talks about The Beverly Hillbillies. Whereas Star Trek got canceled for having low ratings. And not only did it change the face of entertainment, it literally changed the face of technology and the way we live in our world. I mean the iPhone is nothing but a Star Trek communicator.
Ms. Tippett: I’m still missing a lot of those characters.
Mr. Godin: Exactly, yeah. So for someone in your shoes, the magic is this: that you’re back to the weighing machine versus the voting machine. You will never have better ratings than the Jersey Shore. But that’s not what the purpose is. It’s not what the point is. It’s not why we do our work. What works is, does it matter? And is it possible to make a living doing something that matters? And the answer is, yes. Is it possible to make the maximum amount of money? Probably not. But that’s playing by a different set of rules.
What the internet is saying to us is you don’t need a building, and you don’t need an FCC license, and you don’t need 10,000 employees. So when I strip those away and I get to the nub of what I can be and what I can do, it turns out it’s not that expensive for me to put my art in the world. So I can make more mistakes. I can take bigger risks. And I can make a bigger impact. Not to a lot of people. I’m thrilled that almost everyone I meet has no idea who I am and what I do. Because I don’t want lots of people showing up and saying, “I read this, I read this, I read this. Can I have your autograph?” That’s not the point. The point is, will someone come up to me and say, based on what I learned from you I taught 10 other people to do this, and we made something that mattered.
And you can’t accomplish that if you’re trying for ratings on the scale of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Ms. Tippett: So is that true that you are not recognized? I mean, you’re saying that personally?
Mr. Godin: Yes.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So this is this funny phenomenon of, you and — I don’t know — somebody like Brené Brown, it’s true as well. It’s this phenomenon of amazing things that are just under the cultural radar. And yet, the irony there is that you, for example, or Brené Brown with her how many millions of people have watched her TED Talks. It’s the niche. It would be called the niche. But these niches are huge, some of them, and they’re powerful.
Mr. Godin: I need to interrupt you. Because you’re falling into the same trap, which is there is not such a thing as cultural radar anymore. There’s cultural radars. The New York Times bestseller list is stupid, and they should stop publishing it because it doesn’t mean anything, because it’s actually the collection of 100 best-seller lists all mushed together. If you look at the list of the most popular TED Talks, it’s a silly list because very few people have seen all of them. So what you’re seeing is 20 best-seller lists all mushed together. And if we’re going to say, I’m not a success unless I’m on that best-seller list or this best-seller list or I get that thing in advance or I have these sorts of ratings — you are playing the game of the industrialist.
Whereas, the other way to think about it is, how few people can I influence and still be able to do this tomorrow? Because if we can influence just enough people to keep getting the privilege to do it, then tomorrow there’ll be even more people. Because we’re doing something genuine that connects, as opposed to doing something fake that’s entertainment.
Ms. Tippett: You must have people come to you who say, that we all have something, right, we have that are all worthy and valuable and that there’s something like a talent or a passion or a calling. But the truth is that these things get drummed out of many of us in different ways. And also that your passion might not be your talent. And also that every idea is not a good idea. So how do you advise people to be discerning on this? That’s another word you use that’s really important to me, “discernment.” And I don’t think it’s a word we use that much in connection with something like the internet. But how do you help people who think about where to start and how to be wise?
Mr. Godin: Well, let me weave together two people in my answer. The first one is Robert Irwin, who is a little-known conceptual artist from the 1960s and ’70s. He talked a lot about learning how to see, that art is the act of making something where you forget the name of what you’re seeing. And what we see among everybody who is managing to do this kind of work is that they’ve noticed things. They have learned how to see the difference between good and bad.
Clive Davis understood how to listen to a record and say, my kind of listener is going to like this kind of record. And the only way you get that discernment is by practicing — is by saying, “When I pick this, am I right? When I put this in the world, did it resonate with the people I was trying to reach?” So then we get to the 10,000 hours and the whole notion that if you practiced noticing enough, you’ll get good at it.
Ms. Tippett: And that means you’re not good at the beginning necessarily, and you’ll fail?
Mr. Godin: Right. The only people who are good at the beginning are lucky.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s good.
Mr. Godin: You can’t claim that it’s a skill that you can see and other people can’t see. You got lucky in that you started with a set of assumptions that happen to resonate with the marketplace. But you’re not smarter than the rest of us; someone had to start in the right place and you did. But the second part that’s so critical here is the Oprah Winfrey problem, which is that every writer who wanted to make an impact 15 years ago dreamed that Oprah would pick them.
In a media-saturated world, we want to get picked. Like you, every day people show up to me and say, “pick me, put me on your blog.” If you would just talk about me, then my art will reach everyone I want to reach. But if we distinguish that from Darwin, the first lizard that crawled out of the mud and started walking on legs didn’t say to the media, “please pick me so that more for walking lizards could come along.” That’s not the way it worked; it’s bottom-up. So what I say to people is, I’m not in charge of what’s good. I don’t get to pick what’s a purple cow, what’s remarkable — anything. The world is, the bottom is, everybody, I’m on the bottom too, everyone is. So tell 10 people. There are 10 people who trust you enough to listen. And if you tell your thing to 10 people, if you send your e-book to 10 people, if you do your sermon to 10 people, or show your product to 10 people and none of them want to tell their friends, and none of them are changed — then you failed. You didn’t really understand what was good. But if some of them tell their friends, then they’ll tell their friends, and that’s how ideas spread. It’s this 10 at a time — 10 by 10 by 10. How do you put an idea in the world that resonates enough with people if they trust you enough to hear it. Then it can go to the next step and the next step.
[music: “Eating Spiders” by Psapp]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with Seth Godin, who is wise about life, the internet, and everything.
Ms. Tippett: Let me ask you about this word “discernment,” just in terms of how you use technology because I think in this and everything else, you kind of march to the beat of your own drummer. You’ve written over 4,000 blog posts. You feed your work to Twitter, but you’re actually not really on Twitter. Right?
Mr. Godin: Right.
Ms. Tippett: You haven’t taken that leap. You don’t follow anyone, but your writing goes into this Twitter account. You write books that rise to the top of the Amazon best-seller lists without doing anything that the whole world thinks you have to do to sell a book. It’s not just not getting picked by Oprah, but you don’t do book tours. You don’t do interviews. What have you learned as you’ve worked with this thing called technology these years? How have you learned how to figure out what to throw yourself at and what to resist?
Mr. Godin: I’m glad you said the word resist. We’ve managed to make it a long time without bringing up Steve Pressfield and the resistance or the lizard brain and the desire to hide. What every artist wrestles with all day long is that voice in the back of their head that says, “uh-oh, you’ve gone too far. Better not show this to anyone.” So what I’ve tried to do is strip away the things in my life that would give me a place to hide. So I don’t write the sequel. I didn’t write the Permission Marketing Handbook or Purple Cow: Part 2.
I don’t have employees, so that way I don’t have meetings. I don’t spend time on Facebook and Twitter because that would be a huge suck of my time, and I could deny that I was wasting time, because everyone does it. The challenge for me with technology is this leveraging me in a way that makes me uncomfortable — that puts me in a spot where I have to dig deeper to do the work that I’ll be proud of. If that’s what it does, that’s what I want.
Ms. Tippett: So your answer, if it’s harder, what did you say? If it’s challenging…
Mr. Godin: Right. If the leverage makes it harder for me to do that thing I’m defining as art, then I want to do it. The Kickstarter project I did — I did it because it was interesting, not because it was a financially important thing.
Ms. Tippett: To raise the money for The Icarus Deception?
Mr. Godin: Right. But it wasn’t to raise money; it was to raise a tribe, to get 4,500 people to say, “we haven’t read it yet, but we trust you, go write it.” Now those are pretty high stakes. And it meant I didn’t have any excuses left. I couldn’t say, well my editor wouldn’t let me do it, or my publisher wouldn’t let me do it because they weren’t a factor. It meant that these people trusted me and gave me a tool that could bring it straight to them. That raises the stakes.
Ms. Tippett: One of the points you make about this new world we inhabit and the need and also the opportunity for each of us to be artists is that it’s precisely when you are doing something that no one has done before that you are not going to get the loudest applause, that you will not get picked. And that then requires us to develop some different kinds of internal resources. Right? I mean, how do we internally have faith in what we care about?
Mr. Godin: Exactly. And that’s where the discernment comes. So when I give a talk, at the end you’ll say, “Are there any questions?” And the only people who are raising their hand are raising their hand because they think they have a question the group wants to hear. They think that they have something to contribute. Now what’s fascinating about it is five minutes after we’re done, everyone has a question. Right?
Because now it’s safe to ask your question because you’re not going to be judged on the question that you’re going to ask. But the people who do ask a question have demonstrated to themselves that they have good enough judgment to be able to put something into the world that hasn’t been said before. That’s what makes it a good question. That practice is something that we should learn, and we should teach our kids, and we should teach our colleagues how to do it.
[music: “Khalouni” by Cheb Mami]
So if you and I had been sitting around just after the Dark Ages and heard the story of Icarus — what we would have heard is this: that Daedalus said to his son two things — one, “Put these wings on, but don’t fly too close to the sun because it’s too hot up there and the wax will melt.” But more important, “Son, do not fly too low, do not fly too close to the sea, because the mist and the water will weigh down the wings and you will surely perish.” And for me the most important message that I’ve come to after thinking about this for so many years is, we are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk? All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments? I’m not buying it.
So I go back to all the things that my late mom taught me. And we can have more faith in community and charity and innovation and dignity and education. I gave this talk a couple weeks ago to some educators, and a woman in her 50s raised her hand she said, “Well, I work at a community college, and we have a different problem. Our problem is we have to let in everybody. And let me tell you something, mister,” she said, “those people can’t make art.” And I started to cry because here is someone who is trusted to elevate and to teach and to inspire, and she had become so beaten down that in a public setting she turned to me and she said, “Those people can’t make art.” And I just don’t believe it.
Ms. Tippett: It’s hard to move past that. So a final thing I just want to name is something wonderful that you say again and again, that we are all weird. And again, you’re pointing at something that manifests itself in so many ways. But we don’t necessarily say, it’s kind of the demise of normal, which is such a relief. And I wonder maybe in that regard, or maybe in other ways. You’re also raising children in this time. So how does parenting, how do your kids — who are growing up in this post-industrial, post-geography world — how do they continue to feed and inform your sense of what this means and what’s at stake and what’s possible?
Mr. Godin: If you spend time with technically connected 15-year-olds, you’re going to discover a bunch of things. First of all, many of them don’t watch any television whatsoever, but they consume more video than ever before.
Ms. Tippett: That’s true, yeah.
Mr. Godin: And most of them are not concerned whatsoever about Dunbar’s number and this notion that they can only have 150 friends and family, or else their brain melts. They have 1,000 people that they’re connected with or 5,000 people. They are living a life out loud. And some people are responding to that by saying, “I don’t care. I’ll put up pictures of me drinking out of a funnel. And I will act out, because it’s in the world — I’m just going to do it and that’s fine.”
And others — and I’m very lucky to live with two of them — are saying, “Wow, what a chance for me to contribute to this circle, and to organize to this circle. Here’s a stage and I’m not going to put on a play, but I am going to organize something,” whether it’s helping to build something with Habitat for Humanity or putting a technical innovation into the world. So as parents, we’re often pushed to make this choice. The choice is — keep your kids out of the connection world and isolate them and make sure they’re “safe.” Or put your kids into the world and all hell will break lose. Those are the things that they talk about at the PTA meeting. And I don’t think that’s the choice. I think the choice is everyone is in the world now. Everyone is connected. You cannot keep your 12-year-old from hearing profanity. Get over it. But given that they’re in the world, what trail are they going to leave? What mark are they leaving? Are they doing it just to get into college? Or are they doing it because they understand that their role as a contributor to society starts now when they’re 10, not when they’re 24. And that the trail they leave behind starts the minute someone snaps their picture.
If we can teach children that there isn’t this bright line between off duty and on duty, but that the life is life and you ought to live it like people are looking at you, because they are, then we trust them. And we trust them to be bigger than they could be because they choose to be bigger. It’s that teaching, I think, that is so difficult to do as a parent. Because what you really want to do is protect them and lock ’em up until it’s time. But the bravest thing to do is have these free-range kids who are exploring the edges of their universe, but doing it in a way that they’re proud of, not hiding from.
[music: “Is that Mars?” by Portastatic]
Ms. Tippett: Seth Godin writes the wildly popular daily, Seth’s Blog. His podcast is Akimbo. His new book this fall is This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See. He’s the author of many books, online and in print, and creator of the altMBA workshop. Seth Godin was inducted in 2018 into the Marketing Hall of Fame.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, and Damon Lee.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation – a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.