Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog) is the author of 19 international bestsellers translated into more than 35 languages, including Tribes, Purple Cow, Linchpin, The Dip, and This Is Marketing. He writes daily at Seths.blog, which is one of the most popular blogs in the world. He’s also the founder of the altMBA and The Akimbo Workshops, online seminars that have transformed the work of thousands of people. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and most of all, changing everything. His newest book is The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.
In this episode, we explore many topics, including:
- The value of hacks
- The magic of Hamilton
- What learning to juggle and cultivating creativity have in common
- The myth of quality
- What Seth means by “Don’t steal the revelation.”
- Focusing on generosity instead of anxiety
- Choosing the ruleset of your own game of life
- How Joni Mitchell eschewed the safety of the sinecure
- What you would do if you knew you would fail?
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Tim Ferriss: Hello boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job every episode to deconstruct world-class performers from all different disciplines, all different worlds. My guest today, a fan favorite is Seth Godin. You can find him on Twitter @ThisIsSethsBlog. Seth is the author of 19 international bestsellers translated into more than 35 languages. Can’t wait until he has this 20th. That’ll make that number so much cleaner, including Tribes, Purple Cow, Linchpin, The Dip and This Is Marketing.
He writes daily at seths.blog, which is one of the most popular blogs in the world and has been for, God, decades, I would imagine at this point. He’s also the founder of the altMBA and the Akimbo Workshops online seminars that have transformed the work of thousands of people. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the ways ideas spread marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. His newest book is The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. You can find him online at seths.blog or sethgodin.com. He’s on Twitter, but he’s not an active tweeter. You can find that @ThisIsSethsBlog and on Instagram handled by his team @sethgodin. Seth, welcome to the show.
Seth Godin: Thank you Tim. It’s great to talk to you.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would start where all good things start, and that is the etymology of the word hack, which you introduced me to. What is this word hack, and what context would you like to provide?
Seth Godin: Oh, so many ways to dig into this, so here’s the deal. When London was smaller, on the outskirts of London was a borough called Hackney, and Hackney was a place where they would raise horses. They didn’t raise thoroughbreds, they didn’t raise extraordinary show horses. They raised just average horses, average horses at an average price. If you got a Hackney horse, you probably did it because you were, I don’t know, a hansom cab driver and that’s where your nickname came as being a hack, in that you didn’t have a special horse. You simply had a horse. There’s nothing wrong with raising a hack. There’s nothing wrong with buying a hack. Being a hack is about giving the customer exactly what they want at a decent price.
However, it is important to distinguish it from the magic/fraught topic of our art, of that thing that lights us up, the work that we actually want to do. My book The Practice is about that gap between being a hack, selling as if you’re a hack, and the other thing which is the generous act of doing something magic of leading. It really bothers some people to hear their work described as hack work, but I think there’s nothing wrong with it. You should own it because you need to distinguish it from that other work you can do.
Tim Ferriss: Now you’re talking about something that bothers other people. I want to talk for a minute or five about things that bother you. One of my favorite aspects of our conversations, to give a little slice of life for people, I picked up a book because I erroneously thought you had recommended it to me. It came up on the podcast somewhere else. I shan’t name it unless you would like to, but I picked up this book. I really loved the introduction and the first chapter or two, and I prematurely sent a text to Seth implying that I was impressed with this book he had recommended. Not too far thereafter, we had dinner. We sat down and you’re like, “Tell me about this book because I could not disagree more with everything in these pages,” effectively.
I’m paraphrasing. I like how direct you are. You do not mince words when it comes to opinions that you formed, and I would love to know what other commonly used words or phrases bother you, whether it’s the concepts of the words themselves, or how they are wielded, right? Because in this case, you’re taking a word, hack. You’re going back to the roots and you’re re-contextualizing it and showing that it can be a neutral or positive thing, not just a derisive term, right? Are there any other terms, phrases, concepts that are bandied about that bother you?
Seth Godin: Well, there are a couple that I find really useful to question, and one is the way we interchange learning and education, and the other one is the way we play with the word quality. I’m happy to start with either one, but quality might make an easier place to go.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s go to quality.
Seth Godin: Okay. Quality, if you want to be a perfectionist, is a great way to hide because you don’t want to be an enemy of quality, that when someone says well I can’t ship this yet because the quality isn’t there, when someone says why are you racing through that, don’t you want to put quality into it, well, we’re defenseless in the face of that. Someone who doesn’t want to ship their work is going to stand behind perfectionism, but perfectionism has nothing to do with perfect, and perfect doesn’t have a lot to do with quality. Quality has a very specific definition. It comes from Edwards Deming, and the rest of the quality movement of the ’40s and ’50s, the people who gave us the Toyota. What it means is “meets spec.” That’s it.
Meets spec. If I said “What’s a better quality car: a Toyota Corolla or a Rolls Royce?” The answer is a Toyota, because a Toyota meets spec. It more reliably does exactly what it’s supposed to do, when it’s supposed to do it, than Rolls Royce does. Rolls Royce is a different thing. It’s luxury, it’s ostentatious spending of resources to create something most people can’t have. That’s a fine thing too if you want it and that kind of quality is also worth chasing if that’s what you wanted, but it’s easy to show that high fashion goods, luxury purses, things that we would say have quality don’t actually last as long as something from REI. Again, back to meeting spec, and then the third definition of quality is the magic of magic.
In the book, I talk about the difference between Hamilton and West Side Story. Most people have never seen them on Broadway. Hamilton is famous because something changes in a lot of people in the audience when they see what Lin-Manuel built. On the other hand, West Side Story cost a fortune, the tickets were 400 bucks, the projection screen was the best I’d ever seen, and nobody remembers what happened on stage because the quality of magic wasn’t there.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What do you mean by magic, or how would you describe that magic to someone who isn’t present? What is the magic?
Seth Godin: If we go to the colloquial understanding of magic, someone who does a coin trick where it disappears from one hand, this is gone, for a moment we feel real tension. It’s the tension of “That couldn’t happen” and “That happened” at the same time.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Seth Godin: Once we know how the trick is done, it’s simply a trick. The magic evaporates and in the case of great writing, great customer service, great theater, the first time you experience it, the unexpected moment when lights turn on for you, I want to call that magic. If you’ve ever been inside of a Richard Serra sculpture at Dia Beacon, it’s a two-million-pound piece of steel. If I showed you a sketch of it, you wouldn’t get the joke, but if you saw in real life, something would change in you, if you understood the genre and what came before, et cetera. I believe that now that we’ve got AI and robots and offshoring and the rest, the work that’s left for us is the work to create magic.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and how do you think, and maybe this is a bad question, but Lin-Manuel Miranda and his team do that in Hamilton more effectively? Is it an unusual combination of elements? Of course, it is. I mean in many respects, I’ve seen the show. What else is there to that experience or that that piece of art, that product in your mind?
Seth Godin: I was talking to someone the other day about this, and they were talking about the fact that they were eager to make some creative magic, but they were just waiting for a really good idea. I said, “You mean a really good idea, like a multi-million-dollar Broadway musical based on an obscure Revolutionary War character with the entire cast played by people who aren’t traditionally cast in those roles in the soundtrack based on rap and hip-hop? Like that really great idea? Because it’s not a really great idea, right?” It doesn’t work, because when you read the paragraph about it, or even if you read Chernow’s book, it was obvious that this was a good idea.
It’s a good idea because it is a series of moments that create tension and then relieve it. It is based on a mixing of several genres by someone who really truly understands them. The things that happen in Hamilton rhyme with the things that came before. If you’re a fan of Broadway, you notice things that fit in, even though you’re surprised that they do. If you’re a fan of rapper hip-hop, you notice things that fit in, even though you might be surprised that they do. He makes references in every single line to some giant who came before. That texture grabs people who have cultural awareness, and then he takes you every few minutes to a place where you’re not sure it’s going to work, and then he relieves the tension and starts the process over again.
It’s easy to hear this rant and think well that only happens in a good Broadway show, but I would argue, it happens at a fine restaurant dinner that you’re going to remember. It can also happen at a business meeting because we’re humans, and that’s the rollercoaster that informs how we remember the world.
Tim Ferriss: You described just moments ago how people can hide behind the word quality, or use it as a means of postponing action, right? It’s a bit of an unfair trump card that can be used really effectively to not engage, to not take risk. There’s, I want to say, a corollary of sorts to that, that I wouldn’t mind, I would like if you could just reiterate for folks. We’ve spoken about it before, and that is hiding behind the big, hiding behind creating something gigantic, or affecting a billion people, et cetera. Could you speak to that, because I think this is closely related? And then I have a follow-up.
Seth Godin: Completely related. We live in a crazy moment in time, and we’re also in political season, and part of it is where is the person on a white horse and shining armor who’s going to come fix everything? If we read the traditional business media, the folks who are lionized are running public companies, changing the fabric of our culture, racking up billions and billions of dollars as if that’s the only success that matters. You almost never read a story about a kindergarten teacher, like Lenny Levine, who changed the lives of 20 kids by showing up day after day. You can’t say you can’t play and now 20, 25 years later after Lenny has passed away, those kids are passing on that message to other kids, but we don’t write articles about that.
One of the things I’ve been arguing is that the smallest viable audience is more attainable than ever before. It didn’t used to be possible, as Kevin Kelly would talk about, a thousand true fans, impossible. But if you run an HVAC small business, 200 customers is plenty. I am super pleased with how my books have done, but 99 percent of the people in America have never read a book I wrote. 99 percent, plenty, fine. The smallest viable audience means you’re on the hook because if you are specific about who it’s for, then that group gets to say, “You made me a promise, and you didn’t keep it.” Whereas if you say, “I have this big shiny idea, but this VC won’t fund me,” or “This media company won’t write about me,” or “Oprah won’t call,” now you have a great excuse.
Tim Ferriss: All right, so I’m going to personalize this selfishly because that is my nature, right? To flash back, now I’m going to create a montage of dinners with Seth. This is just a portion of our exchange in the last dinner, same dinner where I misattributed this book to you as a recommendation, where I asked you for advice because I was feeling stuck with writing. You very, very observantly replied, “Didn’t we talk about that eight months ago, the last time we had dinner?”
I said, “Yes indeed, we did. It shows you how little progress I’ve made.” Whether this is just an opportunity to showcase my insecurities, I don’t know, but I would love to hear what you think it is that I torture myself with, or that tortures me that leads me to ask you these types of repeated questions on different occasions because you are as much as anyone I know, you seem from the outside looking in. Maybe it’s like the calm duck on the surface kicking like hell underwater, I don’t know. You seem to be a relatively unconflicted person. You’re not like biting your nails, fretting about doing A or B. You seem to pretty calmly do your thing, and I wouldn’t describe myself that way.
In what you’ve seen, is there any outside perspective where you’re like, “I think that these are some of the reasons Tim gets tied up and nuts?” Is there anything that you have to —
Seth Godin: Okay. Well, first of all, if I’m making you miserable at dinner, I apologize. That’s certainly not —
Tim Ferriss: No, no, no, no, you’re not. No, I love our dinners.
Seth Godin: I think that you left —
Tim Ferriss: This is just a segue into conversation.
Seth Godin: You left out the thing I said after I said the thing about eight months, which is “Where is your bad writing?” And there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s block is real, but it does not exist. What it really is is misnamed. “I have a fear of bad writing. I have a fear of what the world will say when it encounters my bad writing,” and the way through is to do your bad writing. You don’t have to ship it to the world, but you have to do the bad writing and bad writing over time if you do enough of it can’t persist. Good writing will slip through, and I learned this from Isaac Asimov. He and I worked together on a project years ago.
He published 400 books back when it was hard to publish a book, 400 books, and he told me that every morning — sorry, that’s the volunteer fire department. Every morning for six hours, he would sit and type. It didn’t matter if it was good or not, he had to do six hours of typing. Now obviously, he didn’t have a typing problem. Just about anybody can do six hours of typing and then at the end of the shift, he would look throughout the bad writing, whatever was left, what was left and the subconscious understood that if he’s going to type anyway, you might as well type something good.
He got through the bad writing thing and in your case, you have so much skill and such a benefit of the doubt from people you’ve earned it from, that it’s really likely that you’re saying, “Why do I need to get back into that? There’s nothing but downside for me,” because you know how to make one of the world’s best podcasts, you do it on the regular, people really like it. When you write a book, they roll their eyes, they read the whole thing. “Aren’t you proud of me?” What a pain in the neck. It takes a year; just do the other thing. I totally get that feeling, and this is where we lead to the second part about being conflicted, and it’s a small Nike riff, which is “Just do it.”
We’re not going to go into the origin of that phrase coming from a mass murderer, but just do it implies —
Tim Ferriss: Hold on! Is this like a Manson family reference, or?
Seth Godin: Gary Gilmore.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, I have no idea. All right, that’ll be for people to have research on their own.
Seth Godin: That was the last thing he said before they killed him.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Seth Godin: “Just do it.” Now you’ll never be able to unsee that image, sorry. Just do it implies “What the Hell? It doesn’t matter.” That’s not a good way forward, because it pushes you to be a hack who’s not responsible for your own work. The alternative is to replace the word “just” with the word “merely.” Merely do the work that the time you are spending narrating yourself doing the work, the time you’re spending catastrophizing the work is not helping anything. I was a really insecure flailing, failing entrepreneur for at least eight years in a row, just consistently failing, barely breaking, even getting close to bankruptcy on a regular basis.
I was willing things to work out, and I was spending a lot of time dramatizing all of the perfect problems that I was confronting. Then I was able to shift to merely doing the work without the narrative and without the drama. As soon as we can merely do the work, then there’s room to see what needs to be seen. I don’t believe in the muse at all. I don’t think there’s any outside force. I don’t think talent really matters. I think what matters is choosing to find your smallest viable audience, understand your genre, and explore what it means to make magic in the small, so you can do it again.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Two things, the first is you are a delightful dinner host, and I love our dinners so not to cherry pick and make this look like a —
Seth Godin: Okay, you’re invited back.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, this is not a video collage of like NASCAR accidents that I want to paint as the experience at your house, that’s not the case at all. Number two, I would love to ask about the decision, the point at which you decide you have something that you would like to publish or share, and that quality cut off or how you think about it because in my head, the helpful and self-defeating depending on how you want to look at it perfectionist side of things will, for instance, look at something I wrote in 2010 and say, “I can’t do that anymore and if I practice, I could still practice for weeks and publish something on the blog, and it would not be that good. Therefore, I’m not going to publish because I feel like people will be disappointed, or I will be letting them down and that the attention they’ll spend on it will not derive or return as much value to them,” right?
That’s the voice that is the deliberation that I have in my own head, and I do actually have hundreds of drafts. I have shitty stuff, but it’s never quite crossed the chasm into good enough to publish. I’ve been stymieing myself in that respect, and there is part of me that’s like, “You know what, the podcast is easier, it’s fun. I feel like it’s a craft I’m still improving on. Why don’t I just do that?” There is part of me that says that, then there’s another part that says that’s a cop-out.
In fact, the writing helps you to learn to think as Kevin Kelly, to invoke that name again, right? He writes to think, he doesn’t think and then write, and that I’m shortchanging myself by using perfectionism as an out.
Seth Godin: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: If hearing all that, what comes to mind for you?
Seth Godin: Well, I’ll share my personal experience, but first, I want to challenge something you stated as fact, which is —
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Seth Godin: — that the writing isn’t good enough to publish says who?
Tim Ferriss: Says me, right.
Seth Godin: Right.
Tim Ferriss: That’s me.
Seth Godin: Right. It’s not that the writing isn’t good enough to publish. It’s that when you look at the writing, your analysis of where you are in the marketplace and the promise you’d like to make and keep doesn’t match the writing that’s in front of you, but I dare say as talented as you are at so many things, this might not be your best skill knowing when it’s ready to publish —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, true.
Seth Godin: — and it may make sense in this world where it is ever easier to hire somebody to do the thing they are good at, to say to this person, “Here’s 5,000 words aimed at this kind of reader. Tell me where I’m got light and tell me where I should take stuff out,” because the way you get — my friend who I went to business school, Evan, climbed Mount Everest back when that was a very big deal. I mean there was no YouTube or anything, and I was quizzing him, “What’s that like?” Well, he said that the first weeks are just spent walking up this trail, that’s not that hard a trail to walk up, with tea houses along the way and stuff like that. It’s only toward the end, once you’ve committed to climbing Mount Everest, that Mount Everest actually gets really hard to climb.
It’s a fortunate coincidence for the climbers that it happens in that order because your sunk costs have increased so much by the time that it gets serious that you’re too embarrassed to turn to your peers and say, “I can’t put in the work.” What you’re doing before you get to the hard part is you’re inventing a reason to stop, and you said something was really poignant, which is you look at stuff you wrote in 2010 and you say I can’t do that anymore. Well, two things happened to me. First, 20 years ago, I wrote a book called Permission Marketing. It became a New York Times bestseller and I said, “I’m done. What could I do the first time out of the gate because I’d been a book packager before? This is my first ‘real’ book. How can I beat that?”
So I stopped. I just stopped and I sat in the dark for a year. I just didn’t do much of anything because I said, “I can’t hit lightning like that again,” and thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, he was unknown. He sent me this new book called The Tipping Point, and he asked me to write a blurb for it. I read it in one night and realized that without knowing it, I had been writing a book about how ideas spread. In the next 12 days, I wrote a 225-page book and I sent it to Malcolm. I said, “Look, if you want me to not publish this because it seems like you unlocked the key, and I don’t want to take away anything from The Tipping Point, I will stop and just throw it out, but I needed to get this out of my system.”
He was such a mensch. He gave me his blessing and wrote the forward, and I realized in that moment I couldn’t write Permission Marketing again. That day was gone, but I could write this book and someone would benefit from it. Then 10 years later, same 2010 you’re saying, “I wrote a book called Linchpin, and I will never be able to write a book that good again. I will never write a book that goes that deep close to my bones, that makes me feel the way that book made me feel.” After that book came out, I felt the same way again, which is “Well, if this is the journey, I found the end of the journey.” I realized six, nine months later, that that was selfish and that leads to the other key thing I want to talk about, which is generosity. Because generosity doesn’t mean free.
People pay for a surgeon who’s going to save their life. Generosity means that you’re expending emotional energy, emotional labor to help somebody else and as soon as I could shift it around in my head to say there’s somebody over there who could use a hand, then it wasn’t about me anymore, and I wasn’t parading anything. It got way easier to merely do the work without commentary because there’s somebody over there I’m doing it for, here we go.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You have a great quote in the introduction of the new book from sculptor Elizabeth King, and I’d love to hear you explain this, or give examples of how it can apply or might apply. The quote from Elizabeth King is, “Process saves us from the poverty of our intentions.” What does that mean?
Seth Godin: There would be no book if it weren’t for that quote from Elizabeth King. I don’t know how it ended up on my desk. It came from somebody else who took credit for the quote, and I started tracking it down because it so resonated with me. After talking to him, he acknowledged, well, someone else really said it first, and I found this woman. If you close your eyes and visualize a sculptor, you might be visualizing her. If you think about how she lives her life and the number of hours she puts into each piece of work, it’s extraordinary. They made a documentary of some of her work which you can see on Amazon. I had never heard of her, but now she’s my friend and I’ve just learned so much from that one sentence. What she is saying is this.
Tomorrow morning when you wake up, you probably won’t feel like engaging in the practice, and if you do, you probably won’t feel that way the next day. That what we do is once decide. We decide that we’re a runner, and runners go running every day. We decide we’re a blogger, and bloggers blog every day, and that decision lightens the cognitive load so much because there’s no time, no reason to negotiate with ourselves because we already had the meeting. We already decided. Now the question is not should we go or not. The question is should we go left or right, but we’re going.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Are there other macro decisions like that in your life that you could give as examples of saving yourself from the poverty of intentions, or from the whimsy of how you feel on different mornings?
Seth Godin: Well, so the other one which is as big as that one is I think authenticity is a crock, and I think authenticity is overrated and talked about far too much. The problem with authenticity is it’s selfish. Authenticity enables us to say whatever we want and if people don’t like it, well I was just being authentic. It is a ticket to self-absorbed inconsistency, and I don’t think anybody we serve wants that. I think what they want is consistency. I think they want us to make a promise and keep it, and the reason it’s called work, not my hobby is because I made a promise.
I decided a really long time ago that I was going to be consistent, and it didn’t matter if in a moment, I felt like yelling at a customer service person, or going up on stage when I’m supposed to be adding energy and just taking energy instead. What I learned from that is the way we act determines how we feel way more often than the way we feel determines how we act.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ve heard you — well, I say I’ve heard you I guess because I know your voice, so I hear your voice when I read you, that do what you love is for amateurs, love what you do is the mantra for professionals. I find this interesting on multiple levels because amateur, the Latin root, relates to love. If do what you love is for amateurs, then love what you do is for professionals. We can dig into some layers of that, but I’ll add one more thing, which is three words: attitudes are skills. These might go together nicely, like a BLT of concepts. Could you expand on any of those?
Seth Godin: Okay, so let’s talk about skills. You’ve come up first with wrestling and then with other skill-based activities that you excelled at by putting in an enormous amount of effort and practice and grit, but plenty of other people did too and you somehow outperformed them. You’ve done that beyond the physical realm. You’ve done it in culture and in writing as well. I would argue that’s because in addition to the obvious, easy to measure hard skills of how many words per minute can you type in, how many pounds can you bench press. There are soft skills and they involve curiosity, they involve experimentation and 30 other things. These are all skills in the sense that we can learn them.
We can learn to be more honest, we can learn to be more diligent, we can learn to be more persistent, and that’s great. Because if you can learn them, then you’re not stuck where you are. You can become who you want to be. If we start by acknowledging that our attitudes are skills and that skills are learnable, suddenly talent recedes far into the rear view mirror. We are going to be rewarded not simply because we can beat someone on a test, but because our whole posture is based on the possibility of better, and the possibility of if your goal is to win, to win. That’s the second piece that goes right next to the other skills, and people overlook it because our industrial system doesn’t really reward us for measuring that stuff.
Tim Ferriss: How do you take something that is considered an attitude and convert it into a skill? In other words, it seems like you would have to take say honesty and I’m not sure if Ben Franklin did this particularly well necessarily, but as one of the virtues convert it into some type of habit or action that you practice on a regular basis. Is that the right way to think about this and if so, how might you approach taking something that is widely considered an attitude or a talent and translate it into a skill?
Seth Godin: Let’s pick being a good listener and being charismatic. I think —
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
Seth Godin: — most people, if they didn’t think about it a lot, would say that those things are talents, those things come naturally to some people, they’re not skills, they’re hardwired attitudes. Is that fair?
Tim Ferriss: I think so. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Seth Godin: We know what makes someone be seen as a good listener and what makes someone be seen as charismatic, and you can do those things. At the beginning, just like falling asleep, you will be faking it, but then just like falling asleep, you will be doing it. In the case of being a good listener, it might sound stilted at first to ask follow-up questions. It might sound unnatural at first to leave a beat when you ordinarily would jump in, right? Most people don’t think of me as a good listener because I jump in, and other people who I know don’t, they leave that extra beat. Well, that’s a skill and whether it’s Dale Carnegie or anyone who’s followed in his footsteps, you can learn those things. At first, you seem as awkward as someone who just learned how to ride a bike, and then you don’t.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Got it. I should also say that just to reinforce what you’re saying, becoming a better listener and that extra beat, training yourself to utilize that extra beat is absolutely a practice. I remember Cal Fussman, who wrote for Esquire for ages and ages and ages and has interviewed everybody, Muhammad Ali, I think Gorbachev, you name it. His expression is let the silence do the work, and you can remember that and then apply it. It is a learnable practicable skill. Are there any particular, or any other skills that you think are important for say entrepreneurs or creatives that have a disproportionate ROI if a listener can train themselves to view them and approach them as skills?
Seth Godin: I think the combination of patience and impatience. Most of the struggling entrepreneurs I’ve seen are impatient when it comes to things that look like an external hustle. They’re emailing people too many times, they’re looking for a shortcut, they’ve got an elevator pitch, they’ve got the fancy business card, they’re pushing and pushing externally. That’s the wrong place to be impatient, but when it comes to confronting the thing they’re afraid of, they can just like make a really wide berth around it, instead of figuring out how to be honest, looking in the mirror and saying, “You know, this isn’t that good I should just do something else.”
The same thing is true with someone like Elizabeth King or a stand-up comic, or Richard Serra. Yesterday I was listening to one of the earliest demos of Joni Mitchell, and I don’t think there’s anybody who wants to argue that Joni Mitchell was a hack, nor anybody who wants to argue that she didn’t have a huge contribution to music, but her cover of The House of the Rising Sun, it wasn’t just that I wasn’t familiar with her version of it. It just wasn’t any good and fortunately, she was patient with herself. She didn’t say, “Oh, I’m bad at this,” and then go work at a 7-Eleven. Where we need patience is in confronting the things we’re going to get better at and in strapping in for a useful journey, and where we need impatience is with our fear and with our selfishness.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What about worrying, what’s your perspective on worrying?
Seth Godin: I had a riff a while ago. It was one of my most popular blog posts and I’m hesitant to dive too deep because I am not a medical professional, and there are people who are challenged by organic and trauma-related illnesses, but for leaving that group aside, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, at least it is for me. Meaning, that after it’s over, we don’t call it anxiety anymore. We’re in grief or we’re rebuilding, but when it might go wrong, worrying, anxiety is what we feel when we’re imagining it did, and that’s not helping anything. The question is how do we focus that part of our attention on something generous instead because anxiety and worry is almost never in service of someone else.
It’s in service of our need for the status quo and reassurance. I think that reassurance is futile because you never have enough of it.
Tim Ferriss: Can you say more about that please?
Seth Godin: It feels right —
Tim Ferriss: It is futile because we can never have enough of it.
Seth Godin: Right. It feels great to get reassurance. I wish that the phone would ring and it’s the head of the Pulitzer Committee saying that they read this thing I wrote, and it’s fantastic. I would be high as a kite for at least a day and a half, and then you’d need it again because what it did for you was make you feel for a moment like bad outcomes weren’t going to happen, until you got new evidence that they might, and then you’re back to anxiety and worrying again. People who get hooked on reassurance might end up building an intimacy with the person who’s reassuring them all the time, but it is not helping them do better work, nor is it making them happier. The alternative is to say this might not work.
This thing I did, this thing I cared about might not work. Odds are it won’t, but I have a portfolio and then I’ll make the next thing because we don’t live on the savannah. This is not a matter of life or death most of the time. It is instead a matter of ego and self-esteem, and it’s not fatal. All of the worrying is worse than the rejection when it finally comes. Better I think to merely do the work, be generous with the work, and improve our skills so we can do it again, and that gets back to Elizabeth King’s quote.
Tim Ferriss: You are a fantastic presenter, public speaker, teacher of course, these things tie together, although not all good public presenters are good teachers, but you are excellent at all those things. I remember advice I was given, which I don’t follow as well as many, which is presentations fail more often from too much information, rather than too little. I think this is true books also, and part of the reason why as one instance The 4-Hour Chef was such an incredibly challenging and also confusing book. Ultimately something I’m very proud of, but it tried to do more than any three books should try to do, and it ended up being very problematic for that reason from the writing perspective, not so much from the reader perspective.
In any case, how do you think about constraints and can you give any examples of historical constraints that you like in your life, or applied to other creatives, entrepreneurs, anything?
Seth Godin: Okay, so it’s a two-part question. The first part is about pedagogy and the thinking about how people learn. I think one reason that a lot of people are bad at teaching is because they don’t think about pedagogy. All they know is they know something and if they could just recite all the things they know, someone else will know it too, and that’s not how learning works. The challenge that we have is not seeking information density and Tufte, I think, made a mistake with this with his graphs that try to cram as much information in a square inch as we can about Napoleon’s whatever, whatever. Yes, someone who’s into that, who’s willing to dissect it will find a marvel of information inside.
I look at a book like The 4-Hour Chef, and it’s stunning. The scope of what you did, the depth of what you did, but it has a Tufte density problem in that —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, very dense.
Seth Godin: Right, in that you were counting on somebody to go deep into it, get inside your head and learn what you learned, but that’s not how the typical person we seek to serve learns something, that we learn things by becoming momentarily incompetent. We used to feel like we were in control, that we understood things and then all of a sudden, a new fact arises that counters what we know. In that moment, we’re feeling incompetent and that’s when most people quit, but then we get through it, and now we know something more than we used to know, and now we’re on to the next thing. Pacing that process is tricky.
If you’re sitting listening to a high-level conversation between two extraordinary systems engineers, they’re back and forth and really fast because they’ve got full throttle between them, but most of the time, you don’t get that privilege. The challenge is not to dumb it down, but to figure out what are the useful chunks of tension that you can create where someone can feel the tension, get through the tension, absorb it, and then be ready for another bit. Media challenges us because every once in a while, something breaks through that’s super dense, and like I wish I could write something that dense. I wrote one book that was that dense, Survival Is Not Enough. It sold 14,000 copies. It’s hard to get to where people will sit with you for that long. I’m ranting here, but you asked about boundaries.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I appreciate, yeah, the pedagogy is that discussion is endlessly fascinating to me. The density question of too much, not enough, too little, and then the Goldilocks for the person or avatar you’re trying to serve, right?
Seth Godin: Yup.
Tim Ferriss: That is something that we could talk about for a very long time. I’d also ask and I think this applies in some respects, right? If you’re trying to learn a skill, I think it’s also very helpful to apply some constraints, at least to define what you’re trying to learn with very tight constraints. Constraints or boundaries, I think there is a fetishizing of freedom in a very unhelpful, actually debilitatingly nebulous way among many entrepreneurs, among some creatives who view ultimate freedom, infinite choice, I could do anything at any time as the ideal, although I suspect very few people have experienced what that level of paradox of choice actually inflicts on a human mind, but could you speak to however you want constraints, boundaries, and how you or other people have applied them actually?
Hold that just as a bookmark. You’ve talked about creating tension a few different times. In your work or in your presentations, in anything that you do, could you give an example of how you create, or have created tension, and then had that release of tension? Since you’ve mentioned that a few different times, I’d love to hear a real world example, then we can zig back to constraints and boundaries.
Seth Godin: Oh well, let’s start with a trivial example. Ready?
Tim Ferriss: I’m ready.
Seth Godin: Knock, knock.
Tim Ferriss: Who’s there?
Seth Godin: Exactly. We didn’t agree in advance to have a back and forth that would lead to a stupid joke, but as soon as you say who’s there, a tiny sliver of tension is created, which is why is he doing this and what’s going to make it worth it, or calling a book Purple Cow instead of How to Grow Your Business By Becoming Remarkable. Because Purple Cow creates tension, why is this in the business section? What does this have to do with anything? It’s a mystery and then the mystery is resolved. That tension is in all form of teaching and culture. If there is no tension, just like if you want to shoot a rubber band across the room, you have to stretch it backwards first.
What I try to do when I’m building a workshop or something like the altMBA is to say, “How few minutes can I speak to lay the groundwork enough that tension will be created, so that people will resolve their own tension by learning what it is I need them to learn?” What the mistake we often make if you know a lot and are trying to teach someone who doesn’t know a lot, is we tell them too many things, and we relieve the tension. We steal the revelation. Don’t steal the revelation.
Tim Ferriss: I like that.
Seth Godin: Open the door and let them find the revelation.
Tim Ferriss: Could you describe an example from altMBA? I mean the first thing that came to mind for me as you’re describing this in terms of not stealing the revelation is actually the Harvard case study method. At a place like Harvard Business School, they do this other places like Stanford Business School, where you have effectively these two-part modules. Part one presents a real world historical case study of a problem or opportunity or situation that a business or more accurately leaders within a business are facing, and then a cliffhanger. The class then at that point has to determine the proper course of action, what they think should be done or not done.
Then you have the revelation in part two, where they talk about what was actually done and how it turned out. That jump to mind as an example of that, but I would imagine that is not the format you’re using within something like the altMBA. How do you not steal the revelation, but create tension so that people will plow ahead with developing a skill or learning something?
Seth Godin: It’s such a cool idea to bring up the Harvard case study. There is a reveal sometimes in a Harvard case, but it is not the revelation, and that’s why it works. That if you knew the reveal, the class wouldn’t go better. The revelation in a Harvard case is when a student comes up with an approach that they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t heard the conversation, and that probably isn’t what the company did because it’s that furrowing around in a safe space that lets you experience years and years and years of strategic business thinking in one year. One of the most famous cases, there was a gas chain called Atlantic Richfield, ARCO and there was pages and pages of spreadsheets about their credit cards.
Because in the gas business, when gas was 30 cents a gallon, credit cards were a big chunk of what they did. What it forced students to do who had never thought about any of these issues was dig in deep on where does the money flow, what’s the difference between what you charge someone, and what you make, what is it like to be the low-cost provider, et cetera. Well, the reveal is that ARCO just canceled all their credit cards, and they became the first chain that was just cash only in the ’70s and ’80s, but it didn’t matter that that’s what they did. What mattered was 30 or 60 people together were digging into this situation.
I didn’t have any of that in mind when I built the altMBA, and just an aside, so we’re up to 5,000 grads, but I shouldn’t say “we” anymore because it’s now a B Corp and it’s run by Marie and Alex. I’ve turned the reins over to them. I’m still involved in Akimbo, the B Corp, but I need to give them full credit for the institution that they were building.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Seth Godin: What I said was without the 18 pages of Harvard case study, what’s a nugget here? A nugget is something like let’s talk about a decision and tell everyone else in your cohort, a decision you made and how you used decision thinking to make it. Then defend your decision for the five other people you’re with, and they will do the same with you. Most of us have never actually had an emotion free conversation about a decision that we’ve made because usually, we make them either after it didn’t work out, or we forget, right? In this case, having to work your way through it say, “Well, I decided this instead of that and I did this instead of that,” suddenly without me telling you, without anybody telling you, you realize there’s actually a calculus to making almost any decision.
You glossed over the parts that you were afraid of, and now you can see them differently. When you add to that, the persistence of the cohort what you end up with is this increase in safety and enrollment, which are the two core elements of learning that it will enable you to deal with ever more tension, which leads to more incompetence, which leads to the revelation.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, so many different directions we could go on there.
Seth Godin: If we’re talking about [inaudible] we skipped over constraints. I really want to talk —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no, we didn’t skip. I threw a boomerang and we’re coming back to constraints. We could talk about Susan Rothenberg painted horses. We could talk about Ken Burns, we could talk about Mr. Rogers if we look at many of the — whether it be television shows, movies, creators, teachers, who you’ve described in your books and elsewhere — they are stellar examples of the power of positive constraints. And I would just love to hear you tell a story or two that really stand out for you, whether it’s other people or the constraints that have been incredibly impactful for you personally.
Seth Godin: Constraints used to frustrate me so much, and now they are the core of my useful working life. I’ll start with this. When I was growing up, I broke my arm and I broke my nose playing hockey. I was terrible at it, but I knew what was going on on the ice, but I was terrible at it. The thing is, if you’ve ever tried to play hockey on a rink that has no boards, it’s just a giant lake. It’s a totally different game. The boards are the point. Without the boards, there is no hockey.
For me, I’ve set up constraints all around me, constraints about how I choose which projects, constraints about what I eat, constraints about what a project can entail and what it can’t entail, constraints about how many people work with me, constraints about which media I’m going to be in and which ones I’m not going to be in. They’re all arbitrary. There isn’t a law of nature that says don’t be on TikTok, don’t be on Twitter, but it’s okay to have a daily blog. I don’t know where those rules came from. I just made up rules, because having constraints lets me get to the edge. It lets me get to the boards without breaking my nose.
So in the case of the altMBA, I built it in a two-week period of time in the desert in Utah and I made like seven constraints, because I could have built it in 100 different directions, but I made constraints about what the dropout rate would be, what the tools we would use would be, what tools we wouldn’t use, what it would cost. All of those things went in before I started brainstorming anything, because I know that the cost of going back and starting over is tiny, whereas the cost of making up the constraints after you have what you think of as a great idea are enormous.
Tim Ferriss: When people start a business, or I should say rather — that was about to become an illustration of what you probably don’t want to do. When someone comes to you and says, “I am thinking of starting a business,” how would you usher them through the process of deciding on constraints before they embark on creating some darling that they’re not willing to kill?
Seth Godin: Exactly, yes.
Tim Ferriss: Or get tied up in knots?
Seth Godin: So the core questions that we begin with are, what resources are you willing to put into this? Either resources you’re willing to expend emotional labor and risk to get, or resources you already have. They could be resources of time and risk tolerance and money. Number two is who do you want your customers to be. Because if you hate your customers, you’re going to hate your business. Number three is what do you want to get out of this. Are you looking for something that makes everyday better, or are you looking to gruel your way through something so that X number of months or years from now you win a prize?
Notice that you don’t get to reverse the answers to these from what you started with as your germ of an idea. These are not about your idea at all and you can always tell when an entrepreneur is trying to back pedal as fast as they can and say, well the idea I really want to do is so and so, so therefor these are my answers. I’ve done that. Every time I’ve done that I’ve been disappointed. If we can look at it with that agnostic point of view, now we’ve created a puzzle, and puzzles always have constraints and boundaries. We say, all right, given that this is the puzzle, no, you cannot come up with a carbon sequestration technology that will spread around the world and help you dominate a new industry when you’re only willing to mortgage your house. No, that can’t be done.
So you found a null set, a place where your goals and your constraints conflict. So instead, let’s take a deep breath and figure out what you really are hoping to do every day and what success will look like when you’re done. One specific example that I think your listeners will really resonate with is freelancers. If you’re really a freelancer, you have no employees. You only sell your X number of hours a week. That’s all you get. But if at the same time you want to make $10 million a year, you’re going to be unhappy because you can’t really be a sole practitioning freelancer who’s making $10 million a year.
So which is it, and let’s get really clear about why you’re doing this, who it’s for and what it’s for.
Tim Ferriss: What do you do with someone who has started a business or a creative endeavor, or they’re a freelancer who, uh oh, now they have X number of employees and the original plot has kind of escaped, if that makes any sense, or priorities? They now want to take the car into the shop and apply some constraints. Is there a particular approach you might recommend to those people who have — they’re already out of the garage. They’ve been driving around. They’re like, okay there’s a problem. This needs to be fixed. The answer could be, of course, retiring. That’s one option, but are there other ways that you encourage people to explore constraints, if they already are in motion with something?
Seth Godin: So you’ve touched on one of the most important elements of human nature, which is our inability to ignore sunk costs. Sunk costs are the unspoken minefield of mistake in which we rationalize why we have to justify the thing we already have. We invent new meanings for the word momentum well beyond Isaac Newton. We imagine that we have to stick with what we did. So much of the time, learning to ignore sunk costs is the single most useful thing I can point out to people.
However, there are times when you actually do have momentum, when you have trust, when you have assets, when you have a chance to go forward. In the book, I tell the story of R.E.M. R.E.M. was a successful college radio band that was gigging hundreds of times a year, but they were not the R.E.M. of today. They weren’t this famous legendary band. They made two decisions. They invented two constraints before they made a new album, and the constraints were “We’re going to stop touring for four months.” You’d be amazed at how few bands had that constraint. If you saw The Go-Go’s documentary, The Go-Go’s would have definitely had a dozen more hit albums if they had just stopped touring for three months when they were all burning out.
Then the second thing they did was they switched instruments. The guitarist switched to the mandolin and the bass player switched to the guitar. They said “You’re going to have to play a different instrument on this album.” Those two decisions ended up creating one of the best-selling albums of the decade because they got all the benefits of their momentum and their trust for each other and the trust with the fans, but those fresh eyes and those new boundaries enabled them to explore new edges, and it’s at the edges where the tension lies. So they weren’t playing covers of their old selves. They were something new.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to talk about The Practice. There’s a little nugget in the elements of The Practice, this list of elements contained in the many chapters and bits of wisdom and tactile advice that you have in this book. One is: seek joy. How does one do that?
Seth Godin: Well, it gets back to enjoying what you do more than doing what you enjoy. So the question is, Marshall Sahlins, who just wrote a book with David Graeber, who just recently passed away — but Marshall Sahlins wrote a breakthrough book in the ’60s called Stone Age Economics. It is about what it was like to be a caveman. It turns out that cavemen, who in my view were wearing these horrible Flintstones-like clothes and barely surviving, only worked three hours a day. They spent the rest of their time being present and alive and with their family, and all the things people say they want to do more of.
What’s fascinating to me about that is lots of the people that you and I know, who go to work and just dig it out day after day, don’t do it because they need more money. They are seeking some sort of status, some sort of emotional engagement, some sort of energy, but they forget along the way, because they signed up for this other game, that there’s the game one can play of, “Wow that really was cool what I just made. That fills me with joy. I just did something generous. I just connected with someone at an elemental level.” But they’re too busy playing somebody else’s game to play that game.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve read in many books that some version of we’re all playing games. Step one is to know which game we’re playing, and maybe step two is to deliberately choose the game we’re playing as opposed to something we absorbed or inherited or had imposed on us by others or by upbringing. You have zigged quite a lot when others have zagged. How do you think about the game or games that you play? Because these are just like hockey, right? There are certain constraints, certain objectives, certain values that are given points, positively or negatively. How have you chosen the games you have chosen and how has that changed over time? I know that’s like 15 questions on one, but I know you can handle it.
Seth Godin: It’s a great question, and there are a few people I would answer it for, but I’m delighted to answer it for you. It’s a great question. The first rule is you don’t break your nose. Really truly, that is the first rule. What I mean by that is I have been surrounded since I started one of the first internet companies, which was 1990, ’91, before the World Wide Web. I have been surrounded by people who have been playing a game with very few elements of score keeping that generally revolve around wealth. They will come up with all sorts of reasons why their Silicon Valley doohickey is going to change the world for the better, but it’s not really true.
They will make decisions and compromises about who they hire and how they spend their day because that game is culturally sanctioned. It is a game that’s truly deniable in the Milton Friedman sense and you’re getting what technology wants, you’re getting what the market wants. Turn the ratchet. It has been thrilling every few years to be around that rush of growth, but early on with Yoyodyne, I saw what it would mean to take it to the next level. When I got to 70 employees, I said these people should not be counting on me. I can’t play the way I like to play on behalf of 70 other people. So I had to stop.
Then a few years later, I did it again with Squidoo, which was before Pinterest and all the rest. So what I’ve learned is that veering away from the next two zeros of upside is really expensive and the single best way for me to live the best life I want to live. So I didn’t write the sequel to Permission Marketing and I didn’t start MailChimp. There’s all these things I could have done if I was a business builder, but I’m not a business builder. The game I’m playing is have I earned enough trust to do another generous project that I’m proud of? If so, do I get to do it again?
Tim Ferriss: What other elements of the life you wanted to live provided for you the tipping of the scales? Like you said, giving up those additional two zeros of upside has a cost. There is sort of an incremental return on dollar at some point, a marginal use of each dollar, but there’s a sacrifice being made. How would you describe the life you wanted to live that was on the other side of door number two?
Seth Godin: So you mean the one I picked as opposed to the one I walked away from?
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Seth Godin: I was so fortunate to have two amazing parents. We lived in Buffalo, New York. Not a big town, and there were always people parading at our house. One night, one Thanksgiving, 18 Russian refuseniks showed up for their first Thanksgiving, all smoking like chimneys. The way it felt to see them be part of the community of their choice and to simply commit to the work they were doing — so my mom worked as a volunteer at the museum and then got a job there and pioneered the museum store. She just stuck with it and stuck with it and stuck with it. Without a lot of drama, but in terms of it was sustaining. She could point to work that she did that others didn’t think was going to make a difference that really did.
So that was my role model, and I was aware really early on that that was sort of unique, that I was really lucky to have that privilege and that head start. But I have been aware that it would be really easy to blow it. It would be really easy to say I need a seventh house or an eighth house as opposed to just one. So one of the constraints was there’s enough, and knowing that there’s enough opens the door to merely do the work. Whereas, if you need to get attached to the outcome because you need more, now you’re not doing the work anymore. Now you’re just simply training for the outcome.
Tim Ferriss: What’s so bad about training for the outcome? Is it because, and I’m playing a bit of devil’s advocate here, but is it that you ultimately cannot determine the outcome because so much is outside of your control? Is that what makes that unappealing? Is it just that day to day you’re kind of trading misery now for some low probability, ill defined happiness in the future that is probably not going to come true? What are the main risks of kind of betting on outcome? Because that is what a lot of people do.
Seth Godin: Oh yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I’m in Austin, but it’s — right now as opposed to Silicon Valley, but the outcome-driven decision-making is the default, I would say, in the sort of individualized American culture at least. Yeah, what are the main risks that you see that I haven’t mentioned?
Seth Godin: There are a couple of ways to look at this. You’re exactly right. The current Western mindset is: tell me if it’s going to work and then I’ll do it. Part of this comes from school, which is you know you’re in school if someone says will this be on the test. The phrase will this be on the test means I am willing to momentarily memorize this if you are willing to trade me for an A. If not, I’ll zone out because I’ve got plenty of other things to do. I’ll be back when you’re ready to trade. But then let’s go one more step. There’s a hackneyed — there’s that word. There’s a hackneyed expression which is what would you do if you knew you could not fail? I find that completely unhelpful because it’s basically a genie question.
All right, I want invisibility and I want control over this. You’re never going to get those things. Here’s my question. What would you do if you knew you would fail? What would be worth doing even though it’s not going to work? If you’ve got things on that list that you haven’t been doing, ironically those are the things that are most likely to work because other people aren’t doing them either. This idea of attachment — Chögyam Trungpa said, “The bad news is we are falling, falling, falling. The good news is there’s nothing to hold onto.” As soon as we explore there’s nothing to hold onto, then we can get back to the work, Elizabeth King’s practice that prevents us from wondering about what prize we’re going to get. This is just the work. Then you can merely do it.
Most people who enter the Boston Marathon know they’re not going to win, but they enter anyway, and that’s the way I think life is probably more like than ‘I will only enter the marathon if I’m going to win.’
Tim Ferriss: The Practice is your what book? Which number?
Seth Godin: The way I count it, maybe 20.
Tim Ferriss: 20. Why write this book?
Seth Godin: So as you and I both know, writing a book is a ridiculous venture. It takes a really long time and then, when you’re done with it, almost nobody says fantastic the way they do say if you made a new record. Because when you make a record people go, oh I’ll listen to it, but when you make a book, they ask for a prize because they finished reading it. So I only write a book when I have no choice. What makes me have no choice? Well, what I learned a really long time ago is, once I start working my way through a set of ideas, I owe those ideas something. I owe them a package and a way for them to come to people and a venue that I hope will help.
The thing about a book that isn’t true for all other forms of electronic media that are easy to share is, when you hand someone a book, the whole package is right there. When your book group goes through a book, you get to do it together. So yeah, I made a workshop about what’s in this book, and I could have written 20 blog posts instead of writing a book, but I wanted to signal to myself and to other people that this one was bookworthy. Probably for the last five books, I felt like maybe I don’t know when the next book is coming after it, and this one is one of those, which is if this has to be my last book, I’m proud to make this one my last book.
Tim Ferriss: What should people hope to get from this book? What is the promise or premise of The Practice?
Seth Godin: Well, the subtitle is Shipping Creative Work. Either you do that for a living or you don’t. If you don’t do that for a living, good luck to you because you’re a cog in the system that wants to replace you. On the other hand, if you ship creative work, ship means it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count. Work means you do it even when you don’t feel like it, and creative is where the joy is because creative is no one’s ever done it this way before. Here, I made this. All I know, for me anyway, is those moments, they’re bathed in golden light for me. When I feel like — I just got a shipment in 10 minutes before we started talking of the dozen collectors packages that I designed and printed to go with this for 400 people, and I’m just holding them in my hands. It was only three months ago, but I don’t remember making them. I just remember the way it felt to make them.
I want other people to feel that feeling while they’re serving the people around them.
Tim Ferriss: This is going to seem like a complete left turn, but I’m going to try to make it more of a mogul course that makes some sense. How would you suggest people learn to juggle?
Seth Godin: So I’ve taught more people to juggle than most. I’m not a great juggler, but we’re not talking about figuratively. I’m talking about actually juggling. So let’s talk this through, because I think it’s a useful lesson. If you’ve ever seen a juggler on television or on video or in person, what you notice is that they don’t drop the ball. Not dropping the ball is perhaps the driving force of what makes someone a juggler and, if you are enjoying the show, you are willing and wishing the balls not to drop.
So if someone says, “You want to learn how to juggle?” you might say “Yes.” This is what always happens when I teach people to juggle. They grab three balls. I say, “No, no.” They grab three balls and they throw the first one. This is easy. They throw the second one, and then they go to catch it because they know catching is the key to juggling. By the time they get to the second ball, they have to lunge for it. Once you lunge for the second ball, you’re out of position for the third one, and then you’re done. It’s all on the ground and you give up on juggling because, if juggling is about catching, you’re terrible at it. What’s the alternative?
Well, the way I’ve taught people how to juggle is simple. I give them one ball and we spend between 20 minutes and 30 minutes throwing the ball and letting it hit the ground, no catching. Then we add the second ball. Throw, throw, drop, drop. No catching. Throw, throw, drop, drop. If you do that for 40 minutes total, you’re going to be really good at throwing. If you get really good at throwing, the catching takes care of itself. This is the part about divorce from the outcome because all we care about, if we want to learn to juggle, is to learn to throw. The metaphor I cannot escape which is, getting better at throwing is what we have to do to build resilience, and it’s what we have to do to live in a world that’s changing ever faster.
If we try to anchor on outcomes and control results, we’re in the catching business and then we’re really in bad trouble.
Tim Ferriss: So to continue with this, the throwing instead of catching, this inversion of importance that then allows someone to actually learn the skill they set out to learn, but doing it in a very counterintuitive way, the first thing I’ll say is that this reminds me a lot of how I learned to swim in my 30s. I couldn’t swim until my 30s.
Seth Godin: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: It was Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion Swimming. May he rest in peace. Passed away a few years ago, who indirectly through his writing — I learned to swim through a book, which is just astonishing when you think about it, because he took out the base assumptions or he corrected the base assumptions of swimming. Namely, I thought I need to swim on top of the water and I need to kick, which is in fact how a lot of swimming is taught. He said, nope, you’re not going to do that. You’re not even going to focus on kicking. We are not going to do anything that will make you tired. In fact, if you’re tired when you’re learning how to swim, you’re doing it incorrectly. We’re just going to have you kick off the side of the shallow end of the pool and practice getting into a fuselage position.
The sequence, even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense, was so different from any other attempt that I had made through books, videos, instruction, coaching, you name it. It just worked and it blew my mind. Now I swim. I have my swimming gear with me today to go swimming for relaxation, which I never thought in a million years would be the case.
Seth Godin: I never — I’m not going to let you ask your question yet, I have to interject here. I never knew this about you. I swim his method every single day.
Tim Ferriss: No kidding.
Seth Godin: I knew how to swim, but the year I was at Stanford they had a master’s class at the Stanford pool. I couldn’t resist. I went and this guy comes out to teach it. He’s the consultant to the US Olympics swim team and he’s assisted by the coach of the Stanford swim team. His name is Bill Boomer. Bill had a very significant pot belly and one arm. I’m like, this guy is going to teach us how to swim? The beauty of it was it’s all about the process and not about the outcome because you don’t get good at the outcome for a long time. The second part, when we were talking about incompetence before, what you didn’t mention is learning to swim Terry’s way involves drowning for at least an hour and a half. That’s why most people don’t get to the other side.
Tim Ferriss: Just to be clear, it is an uncomfortable practice by design. There is, if done correctly, no risk. There’s no physical risk involved if you’re doing it with supervision. He will do also things like remove breathing in the sense that you are not swimming and learning how to breathe at the same time. It’s just too much. It’s like being given a unicycle and seven balls to juggle. It’s like that’s just not going to work for the vast majority of folks. So he says, “All right, great. Let’s take the breathing out of it. That failure point will be removed. Let’s take out the breathing. We’re just going to focus on hydrodynamics and teaching you that, naturally because of the density of your body, you’re going to be 70 percent plus underwater when you swim, period, full stop. You’re not a hydrofoil.”
You gave then what I think is in some respects a comparable example of a logical but counterintuitive progression with the learning to throw instead of catch.
Seth Godin: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: If someone were to ask you how would you teach someone to be creative, and I’m asking that in a deliberately maybe problematic way, but what would your answer be if they were like, great, I get the swimming example, I get the juggling example. I want to be more creative. What’s the equivalent for becoming more creative? What would you say?
Seth Godin: It’s exactly the same and I’ve done it many, many times. Here you go. If you want to learn how to juggle, you have to drop an enormous amount of balls. If you want to learn how to swim, you have to sort of drown. If you want to learn how to be creative, you have to show me an enormous number of bad ideas. Pick the smallest region, domain, any segment you want. Start listing your bad ideas. Keep listing your bad ideas. Let’s prove that your bad ideas are not fatal. That’s part one.
Part two, domain knowledge and genre. It is true that every once in a while an outsider shows up with something that nobody on the inside ever thought of, but that’s not usually what happens. What usually happens is someone who has good taste decides to be willing to be creative, and good taste means you know what your audience wants 10 minutes before they do. That’s all. You can’t have good taste unless you have domain knowledge and understand the genre. So if you combine those two things, shipping on the regular and good taste, you can be creative.
Tim Ferriss: When you say genre, what do you mean? If someone is accused of, and I use that word very deliberately, being a genre writer or a genre, this genre, it can be used in a derisive way.
Seth Godin: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by genre and how would you prefer people to understand genre?
Seth Godin: So generic and genre are not being used by me in the same way. Genre means what am I expecting when I encounter your work. So Earl Stanley Gardner wrote mystery novels and they fit neatly into the genre of mystery novels. We knew which section of the bookstore to put them in, but they were nothing like Agatha Christie novels. Earl Stanley Gardner sold a quarter of a billion books by writing his own succinct, idiosyncratic, peculiar, particular books that clearly were in a genre.
Tim Ferriss: Can I just interrupt for a second? I apologize. You were talking about how 99 percent of the people in the United States haven’t read your books. I am constantly both amazed and not surprised at all that you just mentioned someone that sold a quarter billion books and I have no idea who this person is.
Seth Godin: May I hum a few bars?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Seth Godin: [Humming a few bars.] He wrote all the Perry Mason books.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing.
Seth Godin: He had a secretary who was a little like Della Street. Della — I don’t know what her name was. His secretary had a yellow legal pad. Earl dictated the books while she followed him around. Didn’t edit a word. Every two weeks he had a new one.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. That’s like the James Patterson machine.
Seth Godin: Yeah, or James Bond. It goes with the word James, apparently. But the thing about genre is we don’t know what to do with a creative idea that doesn’t rhyme with anything else. So is Google a creative innovation after the world had seen Yahoo? Well, of course it is because Marissa and the rest said “Let’s not have 183 links on the homepage; let’s have two.” The search results themselves weren’t that different for years, but the leap was you know what a search engine is. This is just like that search engine except it’s different. But if they hadn’t seen Yahoo and Alta Vista, they never could have built Google and we wouldn’t have known what to do with it if we hadn’t seen a search engine.
So what genre says is there’s a box and I can’t think outside the box because it’s dark, but on the edges of the box I have leverage. You’ve got to know what the box is before you can make a thing that is going to be seen as creative.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). If we look at the contents of The Practice, there’s a lot. There’s a lot here. 230 chapters.
Seth Godin: 230 chapters and the book is less than 230 pages long. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Right, so 230 chapters and I’m looking at a partial list. I wonder which of these you hope people will pay particular attention to because they are mother qualities of a sense. What I mean by that is, and I can’t recall the attributions so I won’t try to make it up on the spot, but I’ve heard in different forms courage is the sort of mother virtue of all virtues because, at the breaking point, at the testing point, without courage none of those virtues can be enacted. Something along those lines.
Seth Godin: I like that, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular chapters or qualities, principles that you really hope people will pay particular attention to that, if not act as prerequisites in some fashion, help the others?
Seth Godin: So one of the reasons that this needs to be a book or a workshop that lasts 150 days is we’re so complicated. Everyone’s come up with their own combination of what’s holding them back. The way to unlock it, I wish there was a hierarchy and a taxonomy that said “This is how we get all the way up to the top.” I don’t feel like it’s Maslovian in that way. I feel like we each find our own sinecure, our own way to hide out from the thing that is keeping us from the creativity that we want to deliver, and it starts to eat us up inside.
The deeper we’ve built it, the harder it is for us to have an outsider help us. The list of excuses we have is infinite. So I don’t know if I could point to this one, which unlocks all of them. I guess the juggling one has a big piece of it, which is throwing, not catching. I think the generosity one, which is I’m not throwing for myself, I am throwing for other people. When I add those two up, what I end up with is this. Creativity is a generous act. Get out of your own way, don’t ask for a guarantee. Simply merely ship the work without drama and without dialogue.
Tim Ferriss: Which is the opposite, it would seem — please correct me if I’m wrong, of a word you just used that I did not know the definition to, therefore I had to look it up. Sinecure, noun. A position requiring little or no work, but giving the holder status or financial benefit, from the Latin sine cura, without care. So rather than do that, you’re effectively, it would seem like, going to the opposite end of the spectrum. Is that fair to say? Although status or financial benefit could come along with it, but it is a very different combination of things that you are suggesting.
Seth Godin: So let’s go back to Joni Mitchell, because something happened to Joni Mitchell after I don’t know which album number, and it was that she was unstoppable, that her albums were on every radio station and were in every college dorm room. Joni was in danger of becoming a hack because the audience knew exactly what they wanted from a Joni Mitchell record and exactly what they wanted from a Joni Mitchell concert. Joni Mitchell looked at that and she said, “I’m whatever, 30 years old. I could do this quite profitably for the next 40 years.” It’s a sinecure that she would be beloved and she will never fail because writing another Joni Mitchell song was pretty easy for her.
So she made a record called Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Then she made a couple other ones after that, that seemed intentionally designed to alienate her audience, but they weren’t. They were intentionally designed to alienate the old Joni Mitchell’s audience so that she could find her smallest viable audience and make the music she wanted to for them, because her goal wasn’t to sell more records. Her goal was to explore that golden place of, wow, this might not work. But if she kept making the things that would work, she would ruin her life. I’ll listen to that record, God Must Be a Boogie Man with Jaco Pastorius on the fretless bass, and there’s still songs in there I don’t get yet, but I’m so proud of her to have said “Enough! I have enough. Now how do I make better?”
Tim Ferriss: What would you do even if you knew you would fail? I love that. I love that recasting of the question that I’ve always enjoyed, but for any number of reasons very often not come up with great answers to. What would you do if you know you could not fail? Even if you knew you would fail, in a sense, of course there’s some caveats to the question in a sense. But if you answer this or pursue the answers, explore the answers to that question, you also end up doing things for which you will have — it will be natural. I was about to say unnatural, but uncommon endurance or attachment, which will then increase the likelihood that overtime you will have some version of success. It seems that way to me at least.
If you don’t, then you’ve chosen in such a way that at least the path along the way has some nice scenery, so you’re just not a horse in Times Square with blinders on going around in circles.
Seth Godin: Well said.
Tim Ferriss: Seth, you’re always so fun to chat with. I enjoy our conversations immensely. I’ve taken a bunch of notes for myself. People can find you at Seths.blog. They can find you on Twitter, Instagram at ThisisSethsblog on Twitter, Instagram @SethGodin. I’ll link to everything, including the new book The Practice, subtitle Shipping Creative Work in the show notes at Tim.blog/podcast. Is there anything else you would like to say? Any recommendations, requests, comments, complaints? Anything that you’d like to put in front of the listeners before we wrap up?
Seth Godin: I would because you gave me the last word which is, it’s easy to forget how hard you, Tim, have worked at leading, illuminating, and pushing yourself to become different, better versions, and you show up on the regular and share, and I, for one, am grateful you do.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you very much, Seth. I really appreciate you saying that. Needed that today. That’s a longer story, but I really appreciate you saying that and hope to see you again soon. But in the meantime, thank you for taking the time today to share your life, your learnings, and the importance of The Practice. I really appreciate it.
Seth Godin: Thanks. We’ll see you soon.
Tim Ferriss: To everybody else, until next time. Thank you for listening.
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