Archive for January, 2010

Thoughts about Linchpin

January 15, 2010 8:59 am

I’ve just finished my second reading of Seth Godin’s forthcoming book, Linchpin. Seth gave a group of people the opportunity to make a donation to the Acumen fund and in return we received a copy of the book before its public “ship date” on the 26th of this month.

Photo of Linchpin book saddle

Linchpin is at its core a self-help book. It’s meant to help you realize that if you want a shot at being indispensable, in whatever human realm (but mostly at work), you have to make some hard choices in your life. The reasoning for this takes you on a brief tour of economic systems, psychology, neuroscience and societal systems, including the education system.

You’ll read about Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Adam Smith and how a system is emerging that leaves an opening for a new role in economic systems: so-called “linchpins,” people who don’t need access to capital in the traditional sense, whose contributions are difficult to make interchangeable/replaceable and who make these contributions for the sake of contributing, not for the sake of making money. Making money, argues Godin, comes as a byproduct of the contribution that a linchpin makes. In a way, part of this book is about how the emerging global economic situation is made up of Communism and Capitalism remixed. And the best (perhaps the only) way to get by in this emerging system is to become a linchpin – an artist who gives of his or her creativity, ingenuity and humanness freely without desire for reciprocation. Linchpins are intrinsically motivated.

The self-help aspect of the book is that Seth is trying to convince you that this is the kind of role YOU want to play, because doing otherwise is a dead-end in the system that’s now emerging worldwide. Seth’s reasons for wanting you to become a linchpin are well-meaning and honest. He’s attempting to give you the best advice he can, based on the way he sees things unfolding right now. It’s hard to accurately summarize what the book says constitutes the behaviors and attitudes of a linchpin, and it would probably diminish the experience of reading the book. There are plenty of examples and inspiring stories in the book, and they make for really interesting reading.

At times it feels like the book is a collection of somewhat distantly related blog post blurbs, woven together loosely by a few underlying threads. It’s a little hard to follow at times, keeping up with the jumps and turns, and maybe this is just a logical consequence of Seth frequently sharing a lot of his thoughts in blog post format. It’s become his style. That doesn’t make the underlying threads any less important, though.

In a way, the case for the linchpin idea is made with a hermetically sealed argument. If you want to argue that the idea won’t work for you, the book has the counter-argument ready that this is your “lizard brain” speaking. It is the most ancient part of the brain (speaking in terms of evolutionary age), the part that is most concerned with survival and basic biological functions. Given the chance, your lizard brain will win over the more developed, more “recent” parts of your consciousness. It takes hard work and tricks to overcome the resistance that the lizard brain represents. The book takes a long, hard look at all that. In fact the book says that your lizard brain hates it when you read books like Linchpin.

I have no doubt that the book is spot on in saying that we don’t need more things cheaper, faster and more average. We’ve lived in a system focused on that for only a short time (a couple of generations), but it seems like forever (we have bad memory). We’re ready for getting back to outstanding things. Art that moves us, makes us feel connected, builds us up, helps us form new tribes. We’re hungry for real, human interactions, ready for forming new bonds with people in whatever way that might happen. We’re tired of the simple exchange, the transaction that leaves us distanced from each other. We look for ways to get more involved, to matter to each other. Linchpin shows us how, by encouraging us to bring all of ourselves into each part of our lives, at work and at home (but it’s mostly about work).

That being said, I don’t think everyone can be a linchpin. All large systems (ecosystems, societies, companies) have hierarchies and layers. Ecosystems, for example, have tons of species that are needed “below” to feed the outstanding species at the top. I think it’s similar in the workplace. And in a way, the book has an answer for that. Nobody is a linchpin all the time. Even the most successful people spend most of their time doing ordinary things. It’s the moments of extraordinary acts that make them linchpins.

I also think that the road to becoming a linchpin is long and hard. The “resistance” can’t be overcome “suddenly.” It’s a slow learning process. In fact, the book argues that the best way to beat the resistance is to slowly try to build a platform that looks “harmless” to the resistance, so that when you’re finally ready to take the leap, you have a network of “friendlies” that are ready to see what you have to give. A lot of the arguments the book makes depend on an assumed network that supports linchpins. For example, you shouldn’t be afraid of getting fired for breaking rules, because it will be obvious to others that you have linchpin characteristics, and they will hire you in a heartbeat. This requires that you’re well-kown. The hard part is getting noticed. The Internet accelerates the “race to the bottom” (outsourcing, standardization, commoditization) and at the same time makes it harder to be remarkable because you have to stand out among a vastly bigger crowd. Seth says you don’t have to be an outlier (probably in the Malcolm Gladwell sense) to become a linchpin, but it seems to me that somehow you do, at least a little bit. Maybe not an outlier in a “global” sense, like a world-famous movie star or musician, but certainly in your local environment.

Linchpin encourages everyone to contribute “art,” saying that it’s the only thing that is hard to commoditize. I wonder if a flooding of the marketplace with “art” won’t commoditize it somehow anyway. Another question in my mind is how today’s megacorporations can become more human, more remarkable? It certainly isn’t going to happen overnight. There’s a lot of inertia in big systems. I suppose the only thing to do is to focus on “art” that’s within your grasp, and slowly build from there.

My own attempt at this (giving things away through this blog) have so far been – how do I put it – interesting. Interesting in the sense that I have given things to people without expecting anything in return, and in specific instances where personal contact was involved, haven’t even gotten back a “thank you.” Maybe what I’m capable of giving away online is not “art” enough. Maybe I have made it too hard to receive.

To me, Linchpin is a perfect specimen of a self-help book, because you really have to do it all yourself. Nobody can help you. Want to make artful gifts, as the book argues linchpins do? You have to figure out what your art is. Want some help figuring it out? Sorry, there is no map (not entirely true; there are seven characteristics a linchpin exhibits, but you still have to figure out how to apply them to yourself or how to develop them). Hesitant to start? That’s your lizard brain holding you back.