Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? In Business & In Life?

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

“This is what the future of work (and the world) looks like. Actually, it’s already happening around you.” -Tony Hsieh, CEO,

In bestsellers such as Purple Cow and Tribes, Seth Godin taught readers how to make remarkable products and spread powerful ideas. But this book is about you-your choices, your future, and your potential to make a huge difference in whatever field you choose.

There used to be two teams in every workplace: management and labor. Now there’s a th

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Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? In Business & In Life?

Q&A: The Dip and knowing when to quit

Our series continues with the book that led to the most questions so far: The Dip.

I veered even further off the marketing path with this book, my shortest and one of my most popular books–a book that intentionally asks more questions than it answers.

This is a book about mediocrity—about having the impatience to get rid of it and the patience to avoid the problem in the first place.

Two simple, unrelated examples: You’re probably mediocre at Twitter (if we define mediocre as average, then, do the math, most people are). Some people, though, set out from the first day intent on doing it often enough, generously enough and creatively enough that they would break through and become one of the handful that gets followed merely because others are following them. At some point along the way, this effort became a big enough slog that instead of leaning in, most people on the journey backed off and settled on being part of the herd of millions.

Or consider the case of the actor, the one seeking to be picked by the casting director and “made” famous. Just about every single person who enters this field fails, because the dip is so cruel and the arithmetic of being chosen is so brutal. People who are aware of the Dip, then, don’t even try. They pick a different field, an endeavor where they have more control and more influence, a field where others have shown that effort can in fact lead to success.

[I don’t use Twitter mostly because I saw the effort that would be required to do it ‘right’ and the toll it would take on me and my work. And I’m not an actor because I have no talent and because I couldn’t imagine the grind of endless auditions.]

Asking the question, the one I get asked the most, “how do I know if it’s a dip or a dead end?” is the wrong question, just as asking, “how do I know if it’s remarkable?” isn’t the key to the Purple Cow. No, the key insight is to ask the question, not to know the answer in advance. Asking yourself, “is this something that will respond to guts, effort and investment?” helps you decide whether or not this is where you can commit. And then, if you do commit, you’re not browsing, you’re in it.

The resistance is real indeed, and it fears being best in the world, it fears being on top, it fears being seen as the winner. So the resistance is just fine with pushing you to wander, to quit the wrong things at the wrong time, and most of all, to seek out the sinecure of mediocrity. The resistance will cajole and wheedle you until you compromise and get stuck with what you believe you deserve, instead of what you are capable of. The resistance wants a map, when you really need a compass.

Someone is going to come out the other side, someone is going to be brave enough and focused enough to be the best available option. Might as well be you.

This might not work, sure, but who better than you to try?

[Here’s a two-minute excerpt from the audio, and here’s the original blog about the book.]



Q&A: Where is the free prize inside?

“Where do Purple Cows come from?”

Continuing in our series, Bob at Arnold Architectural Strategies asked a question that was similar to many: What’s the free prize, why don’t you talk about it more and how do I use it?

In Free Prize Inside, my sequel to Purple Cow, I point out: As marketers, our instinct is to believe that we have to make a product or service that flies faster, jumps higher, costs less, works infinitely better and is generally off the charts at doing what the product is supposed to do. We get our minds around one performance metric and decide that the one and only way we can be remarkable is to knock that metric out of the park. So, hammers have to hammer harder, speakers have to speak louder and cars have to accelerate faster.

Nonsense. This is a distraction from the reality of how humanity chooses, when they have a choice.

We almost never buy the item we buy because it excels at a certain announced metric. Almost no one drives the fastest car or chooses the most efficient credit card. No, we buy a story.

The story is the thing that the product also does. It’s the other reason we buy something, and usually, the real reason. Simple example:

You have a seven-year old daughter. The last time she unexpectedly woke up after going to bed was three years ago. Of course, you’re going to hire a babysitter and not leave her alone, but really, what are you hiring when you hire a babysitter? Is it her ability to do CPR, cook gourmet food or teach your little one French? Not if she shows up after the kid goes to bed.

No, you’re hiring peace of mind. You’re hiring the way it makes you feel to know that just in case, someone talented is standing by.

If her goal is to be a great babysitter, then, good performance doesn’t involve honing her CPR skills or standing at the door, listening to your daughter breathe. Good performance is showing up a few minutes early, dressed appropriately, with an air of confidence. Good performance is sending a text every 90 minutes, if requested, to the neurotic parents. Good performance is leaving the kitchen cleaner than she found it.

It sounds obvious, but it’s rarely done. It’s frightening to build and stand for ‘other’ when everyone else is making slightly-above-average.

The free prize is the other metric, the thing we want to talk about, the job we hire your product to do when we hire a product like yours. That’s what we tell a story about.


Q&A: Purple Cows and commodities

Earlier in this series, I wrote about the failure of Survival putting me at the end of my publishing rope, publisherless. Then I self-published Purple Cow (the original, now-out-of-print edition came in a milk carton) and the self-referential marketing, combined with great reader buzz, got me back into the good graces of the publishing world. That wasn’t my goal, but in retrospect, it had a big impact on my output as an author.

Josh asks, “How do you turn something that is considered to be a commodity into a Purple Cow, when the lowest price is the only thing that seems to matter to customers?”

If you tell me that price is the only thing that matters to customers, I respond that nothing about this product matters to them.

When something matters to you, you talk about it, care about it, research it, tweak it… If all that we’ve got to care about is the price, then the price is the discussion, not the item itself.

Businesses have worked overtime to turn things into commodities, telling us that they sell what the other guy does, it’s the same, but cheaper. No wonder we’ve been lulled into not caring.

Every time you say, “all they care about is price,” you’ve just said, “they don’t really care, they just want to get the buying over with, cheap.”

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be a commodity if you don’t want it to be. It’s easy to forget, but before the smartphone, cell phones were treated as a commodity as well. Nucor figured out how to turn steel from a cheap commodity into something worth caring about. Not cared about by everyone, but cared about by enough buyers. And that’s the opportunity in every industry, in every segment, for any product or service that has become a commodity.

No, you can’t magically make it interesting to all. But yes, with enough effort and care, you can find those that are interested enough if what you create that they’ll choose to talk about it.

And if you can’t, go make something else. Something that people will choose to care about and talk about.

We sell commodities by choice.


Q&A: The writing process

The third book, as our series continues, is: Survival is Not Enough.

Andy Levitt and others wrote in to ask about my writing process. Many authors have one. Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the most successful authors of all time, dictacted each Perry Mason book to his secretary, who wrote them out. It took 21 days for each book, and he didn’t even need to edit them.

I confess to not having a process. Some books, like The Dip, were created Gardner-style (without the secretary part). I wrote Ideavirus in less than ten days. I might think about a topic for months or years, but then, whoosh, there’s a book.

That’s not what happened with this book. I grew up with science fiction, and one of the elements I like about the best novels is the way the author establishes a few assumptions about the way of the world and then explores the implications of those assumptions. Dune is a fine example of this, as are Asimov’s Robot novels.

After writing Unleashing the Ideavirus, I was reading a lot of books about memetics, evolution and evolutionary biology. A few (like The Red Queen and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) were profound in their eloquence and implications. It seemed to me that combining memetics (the analysis of the evolution and spread of ideas) with modern thinking about evolution could give us new insight into how organizations work.

And so I headed down the rabbit hole. Eight hours a day for a year. I read hundreds of books, filled notebooks with ideas and wrote more than 600 pages, less than half of which I ended up using. The result is certainly the book I’ve worked hardest on, and perhaps not coincidentally, the book that sold the fewest copies. So few that my publisher took the unusual step of firing me, showing no interest whatever in my next book, Purple Cow.

There were probably two reasons that Survival didn’t do very well. The first is that it came out right after 9/11, when much of the nation was grieving. The second: science fiction novels lend themselves to complexity, new vocabulary and flights of theory. Popular business books, not so much.

At one level, every author writes for himself. I’m proud of my process here, of how hard I was able to push on this book and how much I learned doing it. On the other hand, we write for our readers, and my readers told me that more concrete examples and fewer footnotes were the way to go if I was intent on starting conversations and fostering positive change.

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate.

Both Linchpin and Icarus found me returning to a more heavily-researched approach to writing. It’s exhausting, but the work is its own reward. The process is a choice, though. You can write without becoming a monk, by bringing your voice to those that want to hear it.

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

In the words my late friend Isaac Asimov shared with Carl Sagan, “You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.”

The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often. Don’t publish everything you write, but the more you write, the more you have to choose from.


Spend the day with me in New York in June

I’ve been remiss in scheduling these full-day transformative Q&A sessions and I miss them.

You can find the details and tickets right here.

Here’s one take on some of the things we covered in an expanded seminar last summer.

This is the tenth anniversary of Purple Cow, too, so we’ll celebrate that as well. Cake for everyone.

The first 20 people to use the code blogdiscount save $100. I hope to see you there.

Ridiculous is the new remarkable


Click for more silly pictures

Ten years ago, in Purple Cow, I argued that in a media-saturated marketplace, there was no room for average products for average people to gain the same foothold that they used to. Merely pushing an idea via relentless ad spend is no longer sufficient. The alternative: remarkable products and services, where ‘remarkable’ means something that someone is making a remark about.

When someone remarks on what you’re doing, the word spreads, replacing the predictable and expensive Mad-Men strategy of advertising with the unpredictable but potentially magical effect of significant word of mouth–ideas that spread win.

But what makes something remarkable?

Last month, I self-published an 800-page, 19-pound book, a book big enough to kill a small mammal if misused. It’s not for sale, but those that received a copy via Kickstarter have posted about it, talked about it and even made videos.

The nicest thing anyone told me was that it was, “ridiculous.”

Of course it was. It weighs too much, it cost me too much to ship it to the recipients. It’s too big to bring to the beach and will probably disintegrate under its own weight over time.

It’s ridiculous to not sell a book this cool at retail after you’ve gone to the trouble of making it, and ridiculous to spend that much time making something at a loss.

It turns out that most of what we choose to talk about today is ridiculous. The dramatically overproduced music video.  The business model that is so generous that we can’t imagine it succeeding. The painter who produces a new painting every single day.

Hugh’s cartoons are ridiculous, of course, as is his promiscuous non-business business model.

The audacity of caring too much, sharing too much and connecting too much.

If it’s not ridiculous, it’s hard to imagine it resonating with the people who will invest time and energy to spread the word. The magic irony is that the ridiculous plan is actually the most sensible…

We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.

Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.

Two more thoughts on this:

Ridiculous isn’t safe. If you do something ridiculous and you fail, people get to say, “you idiot, of course you failed, what you were doing was ridiculous.” Which is precisely why it’s so rare. Not because we are unable to imagine being ridiculous, but because we’re afraid to be.

And second…

Don’t be ridiculous because it’s a clever marketing strategy. No, be ridiculous because while the effectiveness allows you to be, the real intent is to be generous or thrilling or to touch some stars. Because you can.