Choosing to draw your own maps: a review of Seth Godin’s Linchpin

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin, Seth

Seth Godin continues his quest to become the next Tom Peters. Linchpin is the latest installment of Godin’s advice to today’s knowledge workers and aspiring entrepreneurs. Here he shifts his focus from broader issues of marketing to the individual.

Godin is the latest in a long line of thinkers who’ve been arguing that the way we’ve designed and organized the current economic system has reached its limits and needs fixing. Godin is less interested in where the system as a whole is going, than in what you as an individual can do to carve out a more satisfying perch now.

The economy of the twentieth century was 0.01% insight, 0.09% design, and 99% execution. Mass production begat mass markets begat mass media. What that system demands is an occasional new idea plus a way to turn out lots of copies. There’s a playbook and most people have a tightly prescribed assignment to follow. Color outside the lines and the system, by design, will grind you up and spit you out.

In the economic system that has been slowly emerging over the last several decades, the proportions between insight, design, and execution are shifting. Insight and design, always important, become more so. Equally important, the system as a whole operates at a higher speed. It makes less sense to invest heavily in optimizing for execution in a business model that will become obsolete in a few years. What this all leads to is a need for more people who can see a bigger picture of how their world hooks into the broader system and can improvise when the unexpected inevitably occurs. In Godin’s parlance – linchpins.

There are two particular strengths in Godin’s approach. One, he’s very clear that choosing to act as a linchpin will entail a great deal of both intellectual and emotional work. This is not about visualizing all the good things you wish would flow in your direction. This is about grasping how the system is evolving and seizing the opportunities it opens up.

Because change is occurring throughout the system, seizing opportunities is not constrained to an elite, however you choose to define the elite. We’re all equipped to see and exploit opportunities to make things work better. We are all capable, as Godin puts it, of "creating order out of chaos." There’s certainly more than enough chaos to work with.

The second strength of Godin’s approach is in focusing on the emotional work it will take to become and succeed as a linchpin. Fitting into a carefully defined role is safe and imposes little apparent emotional cost. Choosing to look freshly at the territory and draw new maps is scary. Explorers end up with arrows in their backs. Godin understands this and devotes a key central chapter to dealing with resistance. Significantly, he locates the primary source of resistance in our own hearts and minds. He opens this chapter with Steve Jobs’s admonition that "real artists ship." Excuses are easier to deal with than feedback on finished work, so we become adept at handling excuses instead of finishing.

Godin stays true to his argument and does not offer a step-by-step action plan. That, as they say in math class, is  left as an exercise for the reader.


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