Chasing the indispensable Linchpin is not possible. Here’s why.

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.

Judy Shapiro


11 Responses

  1. hey this blog is great and very “ying” to everyone’s else “yang”. I enjoyed reading your critique very much especially since everyone seemed to “love the book”. Maybe there were just afraid to piss off Seth Godin. Dunno but tx for speaking your mind.

  2. It’s interesting, I had the very same reactions to the contradictory areas of the book, and also enlightened and enriched by the other sections you mention.

    Actually this book has been a good learning experience for me. I had started to put Seth on a pedestal of absolute marketing knowledge. It’s not good to do that with anyone or any single piece of information, obviously, however I’m guilty of this behavior just like the next person. Not that he doesn’t have great insights because he does. However no one should be followed blindly.

  3. I think Seth’s point is, the way the economy has changed recently, you’re more likely to get employed as someone who’s expected to self-start, to plot his/her own course, as opposed to someone who just needs to follow orders. Granted, a “linchpin” will get told what to do sometimes, and a “cog” will do a better job if he doesn’t check his brain at the door. But Godin’s thesis is, the more cog-like the job, the more crowded are the applicants, or the lower the demand. So we may as well learn how to be linchpins.

  4. Hi Rick —

    His premise that we lose ourselves in an effort to keep a job – is correct and I agree.

    For me though he took a bad left turn by linking “be yourself” to the commercial gain of being indispensable … that betrays the core premise of giving true art for its own sake without any thought to compensation.

    And to say that the market has changed so new types of workers are needed – I don’t buy that. The traits that employers have always looked for has not changed at all — bosses want people with heart, imagination and initiative. There’s nothing new about that except that Godin labels these employee with a new label called “linchpin”.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂


  5. You’re one brave woman or you have no desire to work in marketing again. Dissing Seth takes some “kahunas”.

    I did like the book though even though I do get what you are saying – I think you are being to “intellectual” about it. He basically advocates to be yourself all the time – what’s to argue about that?


  6. I can remember an episode of “Father Knows Best”, of all things, where the daughter did something generous for charity. Her father asked her why she did it, what was in it for her. She thought, and had to admit she gets a good feeling when she’s generous. So, the father asserts, she can’t say she gets NOTHING out of charitable work. She thought a minute, nodded, saw his point (he Knows Best, after all), and ran off.

  7. I’ve got the book but I’ve not read it yet. Having invested in it, I might as well read it. Thanks for your insights. It’s good to have contrian views.

  8. Hey Judy,

    I am a bit on the fence on this book. The issue isn’t whether it makes sense (it does)…the issue is whether it is doable on a grand scale (it isn’t).

    BTW, you aren’t the only one who feels this way. You may find this article very interesting on how social media marketers are actually cleaning comments that are negative (with a comment about Seth Godin that was muted).

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m reading this book now and “losing my mind” trying to see Seth’s point of view. I inhabit the world of the cogs (and I indeed did not plan to end up here and I do not want to turn my brain off at work) so I know for a fact that several of the assumptions that he’s basing his theories on are wrong. I also noted how the book conveniently mentioned the lizard brain as a judgement to foist upon those of us who disagreed with his premise. I will not accept that rationalization/judgement.

    Not all companies value linchpins and creative thinkers. To some, they are just troublemakers. Also, my job and many other cogs may be *defined* as unskilled, but the reality can far different. Is it as skilled as that of an architect or engineer? Of course not. But to imply that those jobs are the new norm/middle ground and broadly define those of us below that level (at jobs that *used* to be considered professional) as unskilled, stings. And I refuse to wear that label. We live in a world where our university economies been pumping out masters degree graduates and Ph.Ds doing endless postdocs, while most of our new jobs are in the service sector. It’s my belief that underemployment is mostly a structural problem, not a personal one that points to lack of creativity, initiative, or energy on my part (plus living in MS and being obligated to stay here doesn’t help… but this is another common problem for the cogs. Lack of money or reponsibilities prevent them from fleeing to where they can practice their talents)

    I’ve only gotten about 1/3 through the book so far. I’m going to hope that his message gets a little easier to swallow or that at least he no longer insults people like myself. The audience of this book is definitely not people like me. I see it as upper middle class/white collar pablum to appeal to people who have little experience with being poor and being stuck being a cog. To me, only people who have never really been smacked down by illogic and outright theft of their ideas, money and future can say things like you’re stuck being a cog because you *won’t* change. (for example, I see students at the university I work at who literally have their parents *steal* their money from their checking accounts and savings, open up credit lines in their names and ruin their credit sometimes before they ever get to go to college.) Changing your life requires at least some measure of reasources to do so. Stating that we *all* can do it if we want to…baloney.

    To sum it up, saying that there’s no such thing as “can’t change” is akin to blaming a hostage that they can’t free themselves from their imprisonment. Sure, some people wouldn’t run if you killed the criminal, opened all the doors and laid out a red carpet and flashing neon directional signs. But most folks…just give ’em a little wiggle room (where it’s not sure death at the hands of the gunman) and they will indeed rise to the occasion.

    • Ceci — thank for sharing your very personal and real world reaction to the book with such elegance and sensitivity.

      Others have accused the book of elitism and an ivory tower mentality that detaches it from life where choices may be limited due to unalterable circumstances. I am not suggesting that we celebrate victimization (as in “Oh — I am a victim and therefore not accountable”) but we accept that linchpins are as vital to a machine as any other piece.

      “United we stand”…

      Much thanks.

      • I know I droned on about my personal experiences. But I do believe these notions of mine are more than just anecdotal. …. I remember an old saying about too many chefs in the kitchen that I was told when I was a child.

        If everyone is a linchpin, is anyone a linchpin or have we just raised the bar for expectations on the job — reset the bell curve so to speak? How can we all be leaders? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the book and the other 2/3 will clear things up for me. I do agree with you though. The notion that some positions are so much more important to a company is erroneous. If it weren’t we all wouldn’t be complaining about our tech support needs, billing department snafus and the like. Thinkers *and* doers are important. Yet, as a socity we tend to denegrate the doers and only reward the thinkers.

        It’s a wonderful philosophy to focus on giving and not looking for returns. But the book seems to imply that by doing so, eventually you will likely find yourself at a company that will value you and reward your energy with more autonomy and maybe even financially. Well, that’s just not a reality that most of us at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder inhabit. For many people, getting fired isn’t just a mistake, it’s a “terminal” event. We may never find another job that will even pay a living wage.

        I don’t like it when people play the victim card either. But just because many people abuse it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. In a case of structural unemployment, the number of people plodding away at dead end jobs will be greater than it would in an economy with a thriving job market (that is creating enough new jobs for it’s newly minted masters and Ph.Ds.) There’s no buzzword philosophy required to understand that. When there’s enough jobs, wages go up, the risks for taking chances go down, so people are more likely to jump into the fray and try new things.

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