The Author of 18 books, thousands of blog posts, and many podcasts, Godin maintains an uncommon and tenacious enthusiasm which he infects upon his readers worldwide, captivating them with his sharp and humorous prose.
Talking to us from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, we find Godin in fine form, relaxed but animated and eager to share his insights. It seems no topic is off limits, from the insidious nature of capitalism to why failure should be encouraged. He also shows us around the space he calls both home and office, allowing us a glimpse of the man behind the so quotable and eloquent sentences.
Your work seems to fit at a nexus between psychology, entrepreneurship and motivation. You’re an extremely prolific writer and speaker and there seems to be an endless cascade of insights that you have to offer about our irrational culture. Would you agree?
It’s been endless so far but I think it will quite likely end one day. I view my business as being about change in a couple of ways. First of all I think that each of us has the ability to cause more change than any of our ancestors could ever have dreamed of and that brings with it a lot of responsibility. What change will you seek to make in the world? And the second part is, why do we get stuck not changing when it’s so clear that a certain sort of change is in our interest? And so I work both sides of that. It turns out that a fairly universal angle into the world of change is through business because it is often both the victim and cause of change. I could talk about relationships because that is also something that affects many people, however it’s different for everyone, whereas in the world of culture and business there are a lot of universal precepts.
You preach a lot about what I would call empathetic capitalism. Creating a connection between people but having compassion for the person or the idea. The style of capitalism that has been promoted in the past century has really become quite insidious but you seem to have encouraged more empathy in business.
I’d like to go further than that. I think that the industrial revolution ushered in this industrialised cruelty. Look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where so many women burned to death because one man was unwilling to unlock the doors. We somehow let one tenth of one percent of the population tell us that the relationship between the owner of capitalism and the worker should be based on this hard-nosed short-term profit maximisation and if you don’t like it then tough. I think in a factory setting where the resource of the building is so expensive compared to everything else you could argue that it was the economics that drove that decision. If you had a hundred people competing in the pin making business and one of them is cut-throat he’s going to lower his price. If he lowers his price and all the pins are the same then his market share will go up and everyone else will go out of business. So the logic became this, if you’re kind then you’re a sucker and you’re going to lose.
I don’t believe that was morally correct but it was certainly economically correct in 1930 or 1950. What has shifted in our lifetime is that the rest of the factory is not nearly as important as the workforce. It turns out that the workforce is pretty much all you need now if people have a laptop. In that environment your best assets are humans. So I can now continue the moral argument of ‘lets treat people like people’ and expand it to saying, it’s also good business. It’s also good business to have motivated, connected, honest, passionate people on your team because that’s what it’s going to take to earn more trust and connection going forward.
I’ve seen you mention spirituality in a couple of interviews. Are you a spiritual person? I was surprised to learn that you’re friends with Pema Chodron.
I can’t stretch the term friend enough to claim I’m friends with Pema. She is my teacher and I have never met her but I did write the foreword for her new book and that was one of the highlights of my career. She’s pretty amazing.
I have never met someone who isn’t spiritual, if we define spiritual as somehow seeking a humanity within themselves, somehow seeking a way to build something bigger than themselves. So I’m not going to say I’m any more spiritual than anyone else. I do believe that organised religion as a bureaucratic institution is generally a bad thing because it was invented by humans and designed to get other humans to comply to their wishes. I’ve gone to great lengths to help people see that there’s a difference between religion and spirituality. There wasn’t always but as soon as you start writing things down and building organisations of a thousand or a million people you get this other bureaucratic function that has been used against the best interests of a lot of people.
Do you have a favourable view of this start up generation?
Well the start-up generation is mostly a media fiction. I would say less than 1% of the people between twenty and thirty are actually on an edge of creation. But that’s fabulous. It’s the same percentage that were writing screen plays in the 1980’s, and the same percentage that were writing novels in the 1960’s. That’s what happens when you open the doors to a fast growing segment of the world. Do those people learn something? They learn so much! They learn about how to tell a story, how to be rejected and pick themselves back up, how to generate compassion for other people and deliver content that’s worth more than it costs. The real question is not, do we have enough people who are trying it for the first time? The question is, do we have enough people who will keep doing it after they fail three times?
"Every one of my books is misunderstood at some level because that’s the price of having it reach more people."
Yeah you focus quite a lot of the failure aspect, that a person can never fail enough right?
Well the person who fails the most wins. And buried within that sentence is the fact that if you fail in a way so big that you don’t get to play anymore then you don’t get to fail the most. So failing the most involves doing things that are important enough to fail at but not so dangerous that you only get one try. That’s one of the reasons why small scale start-ups teach people so much. They almost never work but they start you down a path to becoming a true contribution.
I was watching a documentary about the famous debates between public intellectuals Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. and one of the quotes that they made which instantly reminded me of your book was, “the ability to talk the same language has gone. More and more we are divided into communities of concern, each side can ignore the other side and live in their own world. It makes you less of a nation because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads, but if those people are not sharing those ideas they are not living in the same place anymore.” This quote itself seems contrasting to your ideas about tribes.
I think you could have said that in any decade of the last 250 years. If you’re asking me if I think it’s a good thing that we’re going to have filter bubbles and many small isolated groups, I’m not sure I have an answer for that. I just know it’s a thing. So what should we do about it? It feels to me that we should create the kind of leadership that we are proud of. I am completely disgusted and ashamed of Donald Trump. He is intentionally a divisive character who is appealing to the baser instincts of a group of people and amplifying their tribal connection. And he’s doing it to get something for him, not for anybody else. If I was an alien overlord who could command everybody, what would I command them to do? I’m not exactly sure. It would be really nice if we were all in sync for a while. And doing the right thing for as many people as possible.
When Gore and William were having their debates they were the elite white upper 3% and they were lying to themselves if they thought people in Louisiana and people in Alaska were in sync with them. Of course they weren’t. Those people were just ignored. And now they’re not ignored because they’ve been amplified by the power of this connection engine that puts any group of people together in a way that lets them be noticed.
It seems like nowadays everywhere we go people are talking about unicorns, disruptions, start-ups, IPOs, entrepreneurs. Clayton Christensen who was the originator of the disruptive theory recently said that most people have the origination of the disruption theory completely wrong. Do you think we’re seeing a dumbing down of business culture at the moment?
Everything that gets popular gets stupid. When you look at the fringes of electronic music or the fringes of early folk, it’s all so rich and detailed. Then you look at a Taylor Swift song and realise that someone could copy it in fifteen minutes, because it’s for everyone. It’s supposed to be dumb. One of the reasons I keep moving to new industries is that I’m thrilled for example when the insiders start discovering the magic of what the early generations of the oculus rift are like, but that’s insider baseball. The real shift in our culture happens when it gets simpler and stupider. But lamenting it doesn’t get us anywhere. What gets us somewhere is deciding if you’re going to be the amplifier of the thing or on the inventor side, early in the game when not many people get what you’re talking about. So I feel Clayton’s pain. Every one of my books is misunderstood at some level because that’s the price of having it reach more people. It has to get diluted because the masses aren’t as interested as the original creators and spreaders of an idea. They need to figure out how to make it smaller and easier to conceptualise. But guess what happens? These cycles of creative destruction come along, people are doing things with my fifteen year old permission marketing idea that I never would have thought of.
You’ve reached so many people and have so many followers. Do you find that you have to be careful about what you say? And do you think people expect something from you? Almost looking to you as an oracle telling them how to live their life?
The second part, despite my working very hard in the opposite direction is true. I don’t want anyone to do something because I said they should. I try to show my work. I’d like them to follow the work, think about the logic and then make their own decision. In terms of having to watch what I say, I decided a long time ago to write like I talk and to be in public the way I am in real life. That makes it much easier to keep myself in line. And I don’t use Twitter or Facebook and I don’t read my reviews on amazon. I work very hard to engage with direct interactions with people who aren’t anonymous because it’s a privilege. But I am not exposing myself to anonymous mobs of people because it would wreck my day.
What do you mean when you say you write like you talk? How would you describe the way that you talk?
I find that one of the things that happens when people pick up a pen is they think they should write like a college professor or bring in this earnest intellectualism that isn’t really who they are. That’s what we get taught in college but in college I only went to one English class so I didn’t learn that. What I try to do when I talk to people is engage directly, watching them to see when the light goes on and to bring as much as I can to the conversation in a way that helps them see at least briefly the world in the way that I see it. That’s what I’m doing in my books and my blog. I’m not trying to depersonalise it. What I’m trying to say is I noticed this, I noticed that, now you think about it. All I do for a living is notice things and then try to explain to people what I’ve noticed.
Like a sociologist?
Yeah I have a lot of sociology books here on my shelf but the problem with a book like Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd– which is a super important book – is that it’s 288 pages long when it should be 28 pages. If it was 28 pages he would have changed a much bigger part of the world, but he couldn’t get it published and the reason he couldn’t get published is that the person who publishes sociology books took English classes when they went to college.
You work within the circles of business and entrepreneurialism, which is obviously dependent on structure and rules to some extent. But you also write at length about why the school system doesn’t work. I find that even within the work that you do there’s a plea for some type of pseudo anarchy, encouraging people to break out and fulfill their potential. Would you agree with that?
I don’t agree with part of it. I think that there is a disturbing strain of libertarian anarchy among many people in Silicon Valley. On October 15th last year I wrote a blog post called infrastructure and it is the least anarchistic point of view I think I could articulate. Basically what I think is, the more money and time and stability society spends of transportation, education, civility and expectation, the better off everyone is. I love paying taxes, I think everyone should pay more taxes. I think that taxes are one of the greatest things that civilisation has ever developed because they more than pay for themselves. The point I’m trying to make is on an individual basis, using bureaucracy as an excuse to not care is shameful. And so what I’m arguing is that people care and if that means that you have to dream that you’re going to get rewarded then fine, but I want you to start by caring.
Could you elaborate on that point? What are you saying is shameful?
What’s shameful is saying, I’m not allowed to care. When we say, the system is the system so I give up, that’s shameful. And the reason it’s shameful is that you could do so much and you’re holding it back from the rest of us. We built this infrastructure for you, we created this civil society for you, we built the internet for you. We didn’t build it so that you could watch videos of cats. We built it so that you could pay us back by building something for the next person.
"The person who fails the most wins."
What does your work have to say about these very unpredictable current political, social and economic situations? A lot of people would say it’s always been the same, but it does seem like there’s a lot of unpredictability at the moment.
Well I’ve talked about the media a bunch. Steven Pinker’s book hammers home all these points. The world is the safest it has been in my lifetime, it’s the safest it’s been in 5000 years. It is more stable on a per capita basis. You are the least likely to be the victim of any violence. So let’s be really clear, the media wants us to be afraid. That’s their job. And that doesn’t mean you have to buy into it. Did something horrible happen last week? Yes. Will something horrible happen next week? Yes. Is it happening to thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people at a time? Yes. But you know what? When I was three years old the earth was almost destroyed. We were within a week of the entire planet becoming radioactive. And I think we ought to at least give ourselves some credit because fifty years later, we have a platform where we can make a difference. If you want to publish an important book tomorrow, you can and no one can stop you. If you want to sing, you can sing and if you want to lead you can lead. Pointing to what’s on the front of the New York Post as a reason to not do it is childish.
Seth you’ve been on the edge of bankruptcy yourself. So what would you say to people in a similar position? What did failure teach you personally?
I’ve had nine hundred rejections from publishers that I’ve sent manuscripts to. So I’d say if you’re going to take it personally, you’re going to have to quit. Because somewhere around rejection number fifteen you think, well these people hate me, I should stop. Or you could say, wow I just learned one new way to not sell a book to this particular person. What did I learn from that interaction? And how can I structure the next interaction so that I’m welcome on that person’s desk. ‘No’ doesn’t mean, no I hate you go away for ever, ‘no’ means, in this moment the story you’ve told me doesn’t match the story I need to hear. You haven’t been rejected for your style or your humanity, only because you cared enough to show up with something that might have worked but didn’t work. As you start processing these rejections you can get better at it. If you don’t get better at it then you need to try something else.
I think it’s partly the emphasis we place on the word ‘failure’ in our society. I know so many talented intelligent people who are terrified of stepping out of their jobs and doing what they believe in. It’s a scary thing and you’ve said yourself, “change is only a few steps away from death.”
There’s no question that the fear of failure is bigger than failure. Living with the fear of failure is horrible but there’s a choice. Failure is not a choice, the fear of failure is. It’s a form of hiding to say that the only way to make a change is to quit your job, leap out the window and start something. I don’t think people should do that. I think people should start by finding some small project they can get paid twenty dollars for. Start a side project, organise a local volunteer orchestra or launch something on Kickstarter. Those things don’t require you to quit your job. They require you to quit your fear of failure. So let’s do one thing at a time.
I quite often hear you say, “thank you for the work that you do.” What do you mean when you say that?
I rarely say it to someone who is just doing what they’re told. I try to say it to people who have gone out on a limb emotionally to do something for other people. Whether or not they’re paid for it. I know how difficult that is and I know how important that is. And I think it’s worthy of my gratitude.
All photos courtesy of Where They Create
Just Kids, the audio book, recorded by Patti Smith. In addition to being the single best audio book I’ve ever heard, it’s a deep, moving articulation of what it is to be an artist, to be a friend and to be in love.
My hand-built stereo
It has given me absurd amounts of joy over the years, listening to hand-made music from non-mechanized musicians. It includes a Carver tube amp, a Coincident pre-amp, PS Audio power generator, VPI turntable and magical speakers from Devore and Volti Audio. All of it was made in tiny workshops in North America.