Interview: Seth Godin

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Seth Godin writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.

Avi Solomon: You inspire millions of people. What inspires you?

Seth Godin: I would say that I'm inspired by two things. The first is the opportunity. This is the first time in human history that somebody sitting in their living room has a chance to contact more than just a couple of people at a time.

And more important than that, the revolution that's going through our world right now is opening more doors for more people than ever before. When I look at the combination of those two things, I see an opportunity, and I wake up every morning hoping I won't waste it.

The second thing is that I'm totally addicted to helping people grow and watching the power that breakthroughs have with people, when you can see somebody doing something that they used to be afraid or used to believe they couldn't do. I find that really at the core of what it means to be a successful person.

Avi: You made a post about the Kindle. What you would like the Kindle to be?

Seth: Two, actually. Yes.

Avi: Two. And I think it was read by Bezos or somebody high up there because it's really... you can see how the strategy changed right after you posted. A few months after you posted the post about the Kindle.

Seth: I'm pretty sure that anything I say right now will end up causing me grief with my friends in Amazon. So I'll just let it sit at that.

Avi: OK. More generally, you could talk a bit about how books are changing. You're one of the first people who realized that books were souvenirs?

Seth: Yes, I started writing about books as souvenirs 11 years ago, when I did a book called "Unleashing the Idea Virus." What I discovered is that when I separated the idea from the book by giving the entire text of the book away for free online, it had a transformative effect on the idea as well as on my career.

So far that book has been downloaded probably more than 4,000,000 times. It's one of the most popular e‑books ever because it launched at the right time, it was easy to spread, it was easy to share, it was worth talking about. People would then say, "That's fine but how do you make a living doing that?" Well, my original answer was that I wasn't trying to make a living, I was trying to make a point. Then I discovered that if you make a point, making a living takes care of itself.

That book, when we came out with the souvenir hardcover edition which had no extra words in it at all, and cost $40, that book went to number five on the Amazon bestseller list, number four in Japan; was sold in dozens of foreign languages and I actually made more money on the book that I gave away than on the bestseller I had had before that.

I think that most people in the publishing industry show up every morning to do their job instead of showing up every morning to fulfill their mission. And their mission ought to be connecting readers and writers. And as soon as you can get rid of paper, that job becomes infinitely easier.

Avi: Yes. So now for example, can you describe your experiment now with Amazon?

Seth: Well, the new publishing company I started is run by me. It's called the Domino Project. It is powered by Amazon in that they take care of a lot of the things that publishers used to have to do.

It ensures, for example, that we are able to be reached around the world at various Amazon sites with preferential promotion and marketing and things like that. The impacts... so far the first two books has been terrific. They are both bestsellers.

The new one, which is called "Do the Work" by Steve Pressfield was the number one most popular Kindle book of any kind, fiction or non‑fiction, paid or free, last week. The ability to have a manifesto like that reach that many people just weeks after it was finished being written is unheard of in the publishing industry.

Just giving an example of how flatfooted the industry is: the New York Times refuses to measure success like this so we will not show up on their bestseller list even though our books are being read and shared by more people than traditional bestsellers.

For us, the goal is not for traditional media to apply what we're doing. The goal is to put ideas in the hands of people who can use them, and to do it in a way that helps the publishing industry see how they can grow and transform before it's too late.

Avi: It's like they refused to put Amanda Hocking on the list either. Well, she's earning a lot of money just by self‑publishing. But they ignore her, except running an article about her somewhere.

Seth: Right. It's interesting because some people have pooh‑poohed her for taking a multi‑million dollar payment from St. Martin's to publish her next bunch of books the old‑fashioned way. And in fact, that's a symptom. Every industry, when it's dying, opens its checkbook to pay money to try to stay relevant. I can't blame Amanda for taking the cash. If I were in her shoes I would do exactly the same thing. That doesn't mean that she's on the wrong path and there's a right. What it does mean is that there are violent tremors and shifts going on in the publishing industry. And it's inconceivable to me that five years from now, paper is going to be the dominant form for books.

Avi: But paper will still be there because it's actually acquiring more value... like a treasure. You could actually choose very carefully what do you want to put on paper.

Seth: Yes. There's a scarcity when it comes with paper. I will admit that I get more pleasure knowing I sold a hardcover book than knowing I sold a Kindle book. There shouldn't be a difference, but there is. Paper feels like you have used up a scarce resource to commit to something permanent. And digital doesn't feel that way.

"Boing Boing" is a great example of that. The magic of "Boing Boing," the wonder of "Boing Boing," is in that you don't have to worry about whether every post is perfect or for the ages because it is inherently a time‑based, disposeful medium. But it turns out that that freedom that you have is what leads to some of the very best work that you do.

So I think we're going to see a shift where e‑books will be... there will be ten times as many e‑books as hardcover books next year and a hundred times year after that. The same way there are way more YouTube videos than there are studio films.

But that doesn't mean YouTube videos are worthless. It just means that it's more of an experimentation platform.

Avi: I find that Steven Pressfield's book and your "The Dip" book are related because they are both concerned with forging through "the dip." Explain the connections between the two. Your book is more of making a smart choice about what dip to forge through. Steven's book is more like how to get it done.

Seth: For the first time ever I was impressed by the work of Haley Barbour. He quit the presidential campaign. I thought that was a great example of "the dip." Understanding "the dip."

What he saw was that getting all the way through the end of a presidential campaign and winning is great. Quitting right after New Hampshire is stupid because you go through all the pain and the suffering and the money and the dislocation and you get nothing.

So the best time to quit the presidential campaign is before you start, which is what he did yesterday. The only other time worth quitting is if you have no choice and you've either won or you've lost. It's quitting in the middle that's so common.

So what I wrote about in "The Dip" which was a few years ago was understanding this insane cost that we pay for quitting in the middle. And pushing people instead to quit at the beginning or make the commitment to stick through the dip ‑ because it's when you stick through it that you get all the benefit.

But doing your best and quitting in the middle is not a smart choice. I followed up with that in my Domino Project book which is called "Poke the Box," which is about the fact that our culture now, our society now, rewards people who initiate. It is about living in a project‑world instead of a factory‑world.

Steve picked up the idea that he talked about first in the "The War of Art" where he says the reason that we quit at the wrong time, the reason that we have writers' block, the reason that we don't like to initiate, is resistance.

That resistance is that voice in our head that tells us we'll be made fun of; that voice in our head that tells us to slow down; that voice in our head that says just have a whisky instead of doing that thing that you're afraid of. What he tries to do in "Do the Work" is establish once and for all, who's at fault and what to do about it.

Avi: So for example, if you're afraid of doing something, that's a good guide to actually choosing to do it because it's an indicator of something of value to you?

Seth: That's right. That's exactly right. And it goes even one step further which is that if you feel like quitting something, that's a sign that you shouldn't quit because everyone is going to quit in this moment and the one who doesn't quit is the one who's actually going to benefit. So, the messages are aligned, which is the economics of the situation makes it clear that what you ought to do is the opposite of what you feel like because that is where scarcity lies and scarcity creates value.

Avi: Once you take the initiative, the other thing you can do is you build a tribe around that initiative. It takes a lot of work. What can guide you through the initial lonely stage?

Seth: Well of course building a tribe takes a lot of work. If it didn't, everyone would do it. This idea of scarcity comes back again and again.

We don't hesitate, some of us, to go get a job in a coal mine or a factory or working for an insurance company even though we've just signed up for 10,000 hours of mind‑numbing, finger‑grinding hard work with no for real upside.

And yet, we look at this prospect of building a tribe of 5,000 or 10,000 or 500,000 people who want to hear what we have to say, who want to go where we are going, who are looking for a leader, and we hesitate.

Actually, you're not hesitating because you fear the work. You're hesitating because the resistance fears failure. Getting a job, shredding tires at the factory, we don't feel that same fear because we know we're not going to fail.

My argument is that we're walking into this new culture, this new era, where tribes are so valuable and they're going to get harder and harder to build. So if you care, and it only works for people who care, then you really have no choice but to go start building your tribe.

Avi: So when you started Squidoo, was the charity part, was that built in from the first, from the get go?

Seth: In fact that's the only thing I wanted to have. The biggest mistake we probably made in starting the company was leaving in the other option. We started Squidoo.com which is now the 88th biggest website in the United States to raise money for charity.

And the idea behind it is there are plenty of ad networks in Amazon and eBay and others who will pay tiny amounts of money to people who build content online. We wanted to bundle them all up, make them easy to use, leverage them, and make it a tool available to individuals who want to build pages about things they are passionate about.

There is now more than two million pages built by more than a million people and it helps people every day to find what they're passionate about. And it also generates millions of dollars in revenue of which we send half of it to our users.

The users, the default setting, is for them to give that money to the charity of their choice. The reason I like it, is that it lets you feel like a philanthropist, even if you're not taking money out of your pocket.

Some of our best users and many of our happiest users have kept that setting on the charity setting. And everyday are sending thousands of dollars to charities they care about.

Avi: There's a whole new revolution in high school education. This guy Salman Kahn, he has the Kahn Academy. You look at his page with the listings of all the lessons he has online for free, it's actually making teachers more... taking the burden off teachers' shoulders and also making them more responsible for initiating stuff in the classroom.

Seth: Yes, I saw how he's generous and brilliant and his big insight is simple, which is we should do homework during the day and have lectures at night. And the reason is this: lectures are one way so we can find the best lecturers in the world and let them lecture and have students all over watch the same lecture.

Homework, on the other hand, requires interactivity. Homework is where we build the synapses that help us understand. And that needs hand‑to‑hand combat. That needs the teacher to help us. So his argument, which is living, is send your students home every night, tell them which video to watch. And then the next day, give them problems and help them.

Avi: So, this is very threatening to the current system. Also, home school enrollment is gaining strength. The whole Maker movement, the Maker Faire, Make magazine and stuff like that. How relevant do you think the current curriculum is going to be, is it relevant at all? It is obviously... it's good to know, and it's good to have that qualification but theoretically you could just learn at home and then just get, do the exam at the end and actually learn a lot more.

Seth: Well, I think we need to ask a different question. School's been irrelevant for a while. The question is what do we want school to do? What do we need to create in our next generation? And I've argued we need to create two things: we need to create leaders, and we need to create people who can solve interesting problems.

Anything we do in school that doesn't help with those two things we should stop doing. So homeschooling isn't necessarily the answer, unless homeschooling is going to come up with a way to work on those two problems. My biggest problem with homeschooling is that it makes it very hard to teach leadership because you're isolated. But with the right parents, it is much better at teaching people to solve interesting problems. My argument is that every parent should homeschool at night, and then send their kids to school during the day. The homeschooling at night should consist of intelligent conversation, asking difficult questions, as opposed to watching television.

Avi: What do you think college is for?

Seth: The difference between high school and college ought to be that college is a place people go to because they want to, and it's a place where they explore something with passion, to learn how to be the best in the world at what they do.

If you don't graduate from college on the path to be the best in the world at something, then you've wasted college. You're supposed to, I think, use college to explore without risk, to understand what it is to develop mastery.

Then when you combine those two things, you would have developed the pattern that can pay off for a long time to come. When I look at one of my heroes, two of my heroes, Cory and Mark at Boing Boing, what I see are two people who explore without fear. What I see are two people who know when something is done.

This notion of being able to say, "Yup, I'm done working on this. I'm handing it off to the world" is incredibly rare and we need more of it and we need it right now.

Avi: You were obviously pissed off at the current MBA structure because you started your own MBA. Could you describe what it involved?

Seth: OK. Well, I think "disappointed" is probably a better word. Disappointed that universities are wasting this opportunity. Disappointed that they are stealing so much cash and opportunity cost from our best and brightest business people and putting them through a two‑year program that trains them to do very little other than work at Goldman Sachs or be a management consultant.

I think that it's largely wasted on most of the people who attend and certainly if you're not in one of the top ten most famous business schools ‑ I'm not going to say best, I'll say most famous ‑ your degree has a very hard time paying off in a post‑industrial economy.

For all those reasons, I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. So for free, for a program of six months in my office, 500 or so people applied. It was a difficult application. I picked nine or 10 people and it was a magnificent experience. It was a lot of fun and an enormous amount of work. I've since done it two more times. One, for people in the non‑profit and government sector, and that one lasted a few weeks. And then, the most recent one was called the FeMBA, which was for women entrepreneurs, and that one lasted five days. My guess is that the women in that program, and 1,000 applied, the 10 women in that program, maybe 12, got more out of it than they probably would have gotten from six months of sitting in a classroom at Wharton or at Stanford or Harvard because the hard part about business today is not knowing how to do the Black Scholes option pricing model. The hard part about business today is knowing how to take a leap.

Avi: What's involved, what's the method, is it live simulations of real‑life business situations or...

Seth: Well, it keeps changing. But what I've had a lot of success with is peer support, putting people on the spot, reading an enormous amount and then asking very hard questions about its true meaning, and mostly, real life case study, not reading about someone else's case study, but defending your own.

Having people start a business in front of everyone else. Having people defend their past businesses in front of everyone else. Only when you can put your soul on the line and your heart on the line are you going to be able to get over the resistance and start doing work that you're truly proud of.

Avi: Do you have any tips for being comfortable with failure and bouncing back?

Seth: I think the people who have read my work, it doesn't feel right to them, but over time you get used to it, which is failure is the point. That if you're going to say "failure is not an option" then you've just ruled out success as well. Because the only way you get to success is by learning what doesn't work.

So my goal for 20 years has been to fail more than anyone before me. And I'm succeeding that almost nobody in my industry has failed as many times as I have. If you can fail more than anyone else, then you win. Because if you fail really monstrously large, you don't get to play again.

So there's no way you're going to be able to fail more than anyone else. The goal is to fail new, to fail in an interesting way, to fail in a way that you learn from that you don't repeat, and to fail not so badly so that you get to do it again.

Avi: What advice would you give your smart kid who's in high school right now?

Seth: That's easy. Go start something. Right. There's no locks on the door. The world marketplace is right there. Go on Craigslist, go on eBay, build a blog, build a website, build a following on Twitter, start a tribe, organize things.

You will learn as you go. No one needs to know you're in high school. But the benefits that you will get from leading in that way and connecting in that way are very very hard to overstate. Don't wait for permission. Just start.