What’s the catch?
I begin this post hesitantly because the recent book by Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are you indispensable? has received wide recognition as a book of “star status”, “A-list” and a perspective that is rare and important.
My mind was all primed to be inspired because of all the hype the book received and because my affection for The Purple Cow knows no bounds. So why am I hesitant about this post? Because after I finished reading the book, my disappointment ran much deeper than I ever expected especially considering the seemingly universal acclaim. That’s why I am hesitant – I am definitely swimming upstream on this one. But as best as I can, I intend to explain myself as respectfully as I can.
As I start to read the book, my neutral perspective became askew by nigg-ly literary style issues. First, it seemed to me at least, unnecessary to spend the first 115 pages explaining a few, no doubt very true, but few core ideas:
- Learn to know where your genius lay and be your “true self”
- Give of your “true self” unconditionally, everyday
- The gift of you can then transcend to become the gift of true art – one that is the ideal vision of art at it’s most inspirational.
These 115 pages were heavily embellished with embroidered explanations (not once but a number of times) of how our current, well meaning but inadequate school system, systematically pounds the genius out of you. True enough — but that concept was well understood at least as far back as 1998 when academicians like Andrew J. Coulson (currently of the CATO Institute) made these very observations in an article entitled: Are Public Schools Hazardous to Public Education?
I was getting impatient at this point. When would we hit the good stuff? Then, hoping for a turn in the momentum of the book, I started to encounter the bigger problem of inconsistent thinking which made me batty. The most glaring example is where on page 95 he explains that Twitter’s success was: “Not because it followed a model but because it broke one.” which he attributes to the linchpin par excellence, Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter. OK – I buy that point. The only trouble is that just a few pages later (page 102) he explains quite deliberately; “Artist” [a.k.a. linchpins – the terms seem interchangeable in the book – at least I think so], “don’t think outside the box because … outside the box there are no rules,,, Artists think along the edges of the box…”
I confess, I am lost. Do you have to break the mold but not go beyond the box… or are we suppose to break the box a certain way so there are still edges left? I have no idea how to approach this one.
Despite my escalating irritation I carry on. I want to see what all the “oohhs and aahhs” were about. I must be missing something I keep saying to myself. I read on. (BTW – Congrats to Mr. Godin on a most brilliant bit of literary prescience by including the notion that if the book makes you angry that is proof of how right Mr. Godin is. Pure “genius”.)
Then the style issues of repetitive information and the inconsistencies give way to deeper philosophical issues I had with the book. It started when I detected a whiff of elitism early in the book because it asserts repeatedly how most people don’t want to think in their jobs but are content to get instructions, do what they are told and go home; “The key piece of leverage was this promise: follow these instructions and you don’t have to think. You don’t have to bring your genius to work” (page 9). Com’on is it really that simplistic? I hardly think that most people want to be mindless robots as a choice. His description seems detached and insensitive to the real world practicalities that often limit people’s options.
I am still trying to reconcile that philosophical issue when I am hit with another bit of elitism when he repeatedly tells us (over and over again) that “no one wants to be a cog.” Last time I looked, a machine operates as unit; without cogs, linchpins are irrelevant. Linchpins, simply keep the pieces together – they don’t actually do any of the heavy lifting. Without cogs, linchpins are just a useless 69¢ bit of metal. It feels like elitism to value linchpins over cogs.
At this point, you may wonder why I continue reading. I am a persistent woman and I persist in believing that I must be missing something. I make it all the way through the book. As another reviewer said, this book; “stays with you”. I was turning it over in my mind. I reread a few bits and then with the clarity of a lightening bolt – I understood the essence of my frustration with the book. It lies in the quintessential contradiction that is at the very heart of this book. The irreconcilable contradiction is that the goal of this book is to help people become “indispensible” and the path to do that is to create art which you give as a gift without any thought to compensation. Yet by grounding this book on the very self serving desire to be “indispensible” you are corrupting the very essence and value of the gift. As nice as Linchpin sounds in theory, it is impossible to actually execute! To my way of thinking – this book sets us up all to fail. You can’t give your art as the book contends when the purpose is motivated by our self interest to become indispensible (translated to mean able to have secure income).
Am I dancing on the head of a linguistic pin? I don’t think so. The book’s well crafted title ensured wide distribution; after all, who doesn’t want to be indispensible? Mr. Godin’s mastery at the buzzword soundbyte art is well earned and well utilized here with chapter heads named provocatively: “Indoctrination: How we got here” and sub chapters expertly crafted to keep the story moving like; “From Superhero to Mediocreman (and Back Again)”. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Godin liked the title of this book first and then figured out the content to fill it with later.
Make no mistake about it. There were some really great parts to the book, especially when Mr. Godin’s comes out of his intellectual safe cocoon to join us in the real world. He is at his best when he talks about people like “JP” who, linchpin though she was, end up getting fired anyway. Or when Mr. Godin explores how our brain’s biology evolved to keep us safe first which undermines our ability to stand out when necessary. His description of the challenges of managing our “lizard brain” was insightful and helpful.
But this book I feel is misaimed — driving us to a wrong set of activities around how to spot a linchpin, how to keep a linchpin, what you need to do to be a linchpin. Yet, it excludes asking the more relevant question about whether elevating the linchpin above other parts of the machine is such a good idea at all. Wouldn’t it far more productive instead, to develop better ways for people to identify where their genius may lie and then deliver jobs that support that discovery – the cogs need geniuses too. If companies supported that type of structure think how wonderful that would be — the linchpin and the cogs and the cylinders all operating in unison. There’s little value in the linchpin by itself – it only has any value within a fully functional machine.
No doubt this book leaves one wondering. So on that score, causing one to think is never, ever a bad thing. But then again, I have been told, I think too much.