Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Book Review

This is the third book I have finished reading in 2010, but Seth Godin’s Linchpin is the first book I will review here. I found out about this book from reading Seth’s blog (which I read daily, and I recommend you start reading as well, if you don’t read it already). In December 2009, I saw Seth’s post about launching his book in advance to motivated readers:

For a select group of motivated readers, I want to send you a copy of Linchpin (at my expense) three weeks before anyone else can buy one. My US publisher is not sending free review copies to magazines (the few that are left), newspaper editors, TV shows, any of the usual media suspects. Instead, we’re allowing people like you to raise their hands and, if they like the book, asking them to tell the world about it in January.

The filter for these motivated readers? A minimum $30 to Acumen Fund. I made my donation within two minutes of reading Seth’s blog post and was subsequently put on the mailing list (to receive updates about this book). I received my copy of Linchpin in the mail about a week ago, and finished reading it yesterday. What follows is my brief review, with snippets of my favorite quotes and my thoughts, where applicable.

Before picking up the book, I was aware of the book’s complete title: Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?. What I didn’t know prior to reading this book was how Seth Godin would incorporate this key word (“indispensable”) as the theme for the entire book. In Linchpin, Seth Godin explains the concept of the indispensable employee:

The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.

Most of the book builds from that explanation. And what is a linchpin? Literally, a linchpin is a fastener used to prevent a wheel or another rotating part from sliding off the axle on which it is riding. As you can imagine, a linchpin is a vital component of an axle. Without it, the wheel would slide or fall off, causing a great disruption. By analogy, in Seth’s book:

The linchpin is an individual who can walk into chaos and create order, someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen. Every worthwhile institution has indispensable people who make differences like these.

To me, this is a book that will make you question the following:

  • Am I happy with what I am doing at my job? In my life?
  • If I am not happy, is there anything I can do about it? (The answer is a resounding yes!)
  • Am I undervalued where I work? If so, is there anything I can do to stand out?
  • What if I am afraid of changing the status quo? How can I fight the resistance?
  • What can I do to start making a difference?
  • Can I become the linchpin?

Is this book for everyone? I think so. Seth Godin offers tips to the worker who feels his job is boring or monotonous to the boss who is perhaps not engaging his workers to their fullest potential. Here’s a key question that Seth Godin asks: would your company/business/organization be more successful if your employees were more obedient or if your employees had more leeway to be more creative, passionate, and artistic? The question is legitimate, as Seth Godin argues that we have moved away from the age of production (think of factory workers/laborers during the Industrial Revolution) and management (think of your boss) to an era of creativity and art.

Reading this book, I have come away thinking more about being creative, connecting with people, and bringing art to the masses. Seth spends a large portion of the book discussing art, and I’ll highlight some quotes below. But in essence, art is something that we give, and we ask nothing in return. This gift of art is not reciprocated. And who is an artist? If you’re a skilled programmer, a high-profile blogger who offers great advice, someone who is good dealing with people, a photographer, a musician, a niche in your market or organization—you are an artist. The key is realizing this fact, and doing everything you can on becoming indispensable. On becoming the linchpin. This book will inspire you to get there.

Some key quotes and nuggets from are below. I’ll provide commentary where appropriate.

You are a genius…

Seth Godin begins his book with that heading. He confronts the reader later on in the book about how it made you feel. My thoughts ranged from “Absolutely not” to “How?” to “You realize that by making this assertion to everyone who’s reading this book, you’ll give quite a few people a false sense of confidence?” But as Seth Godin notes, “No one is a genius all the time. Einstein had trouble finding his house when he walked from work every day. But all of us are geniuses sometimes.” I’d like to make this claim: those that do read this book are already very smart (in my mind). Seth Godin confronts the readers with how he opened the book on page 118, but you’ll have to buy the book to find out what he writes.

On the indispensable employee:

The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.

On shopping at Wal-Mart:

There’s plenty of research that indicates that every time Wal-Mart enters a community, jobs disappear, businesses close, and the base of the town decays. That’s okay, though, because you can get a jar of pickles the size of a Volkswagen for three dollars.

On means of production today:

Today, the means of production = a laptop computer with Internet connectivity. Three thousand dollars buys a worker an entire factory.

On being talked about:

The only way to succeed is to be remarkable, to be talked about. But when it comes to a person, what do we talk about? People are not products with features, benefits, and viral marketing campaigns; they are individuals. If we’re going to talk about them, we’re going to discuss what they do, not who they are.

The first part of that quote above is one of my favorites in the entire book (since we are all unique and have something creative we can bring to the table). But I disagree that we can talk about someone by asking them what they “do.” When I approach someone, I don’t ask someone “So, what do you do?” I’d much rather hear them tell me a story about them, about who they are. Maybe I missed Mr. Godin’s point here, but I think there is a way to talk about someone in a personal, moving manner without resorting to a list of bullet points on what the person can do.

On “can’t” vs. “don’t want to”:

You can’t—or you don’t want to? I’ll accept the second. It’s quite possible that you don’t want to. It’s possible that making this commitment is too scary or too much work…Perhaps you don’t want to because it feels financially irresponsible. I think that’s an error in judgment on your part, since becoming a linchpin is in fact the most financially responsible choice you can make.

Absolutely spot-on with this comment. Too often I hear people who said that they have all these plans to do this and that, but they never go through with them. It’s about initiative and the drive. If you really want to lose weight, then why aren’t you hitting the gym? If you want to become a better photographer, why aren’t you taking pictures every day and looking through the blogs of other photographers? If you want to save money every month, why do you keep going out every single day? Whenever you encounter a conundrum like this, ask yourself: “Do I really want this?” If the answer is yes, do everything you can to make it happen.

On creating a consumer culture:

One of the wonderful by-products of universal education was the network effect that supports consumer goods. Once one person in your class or your town had a car, others needed one. Once someone added more rooms or had a second or third pair of shoes, you needed them, too.

This is consumer hysteria. It is an epidemic in the United States, and this is a sad reality. If you want to learn more about this subject, I highly recommend reading the book Affluenza, which is defined in the book as “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

On teaching at school:

School expects that our best students will graduate to become trained trigonometricians. They’ll be hired by people to compute the length of the hypotenuse of a certain right triangle. What a waste.

In the margin of the book, I wrote “Disagree” next to this quote. Why? Because I think that in order to do something interesting (or as Seth Godin writes “then we should move on, relentlessly seeking out new problems”), we need a base, a foundation. If we don’t learn how to do basic arithmetic in first grade, how will we tackle trigonometry in high school? If we don’t have a grasp of trigonometry, good luck with that college calculus course. I disagree that learning basic concepts in school is a “waste.” I do think schools advocate the following instructions, taking good notes, being punctual, and showing up every day (this list is on page 45 of the book). I disagree that schools teach kids not to ask questions (I was surprised to read that bullet point in that list) and to “do the minimum amount required so you’ll have time to work on another subject.” This wasn’t the case where I went to school, but I guess the mileage will vary for many. As I mentioned, it’s impossible to do something unique without grasping the fundamentals. So let schools do what they do (teach the basics, the fundamentals). And let the creatives find a way on their own (though certainly inspiration can come from one’s teachers). As an aside: imagine how difficult it would be to set a school curriculum focused on “creativity” and “leadership” and other subjective areas.

On Jonathan Ive:

A great designer like Jonathan Ive is worth a hundred times as much as a good one. Where does Apple add value? If all MP3 players play the same music, why is an iPod worth so much more than a generic one?

On Donald Bradman:

Donald Bradman was an Australian cricket player. He was also the best athlete who ever lived. By any statistical measure, he was comparatively the best at what he did. He was far better at cricket than Michael Jordan was at basketball or Jack Nicklaus was at golf. It’s very difficult to be as good as Donald Bradman. In fact, it’s impossible.”

I bring up this quote because I had to stop reading and look up Donald Bradman in Wikipedia (I’ve never heard of the guy before). It’s a featured article on Wikipedia, which means it has gone through a serious review process. The primary reason I bring up this quote is because I enjoy reading books to learn new things (trivia) such as this: Bradman’s career Test batting average of 99.94 has been claimed to be statistically the greatest achievement in any major sport (because his batting average is 4.4 standard deviations above the average of other Cricket players, with the great Pelé coming in second on that list at 3.7 standard deviations above the mean for goals per game).

On pursuit of perfection:

We hire for perfect, we manage for perfect, we measure for perfect, and we reward for perfect.

I’m somewhat disillusioned by that quote. Do we really do that? One of my life philosophies is to do my best, but to never strive for perfection. Rather, I strive for excellence. Because if you strive for perfection, you’re likely to fail (and even if you reach perfection, which is impossible, if even measurable, then where do you go from there? You can’t beat perfect). Strive for excellence in everything you do instead.

On saying no (a wonderful reason):

[Say] no because [you have] the strength to disappoint [someone] now in order to delight [them] later.

On emotional labor:

The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show—these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.

On art:

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.

I should note that this line in the book was italicized. From this short statement, Seth Godin develops his argument for the next twenty or so pages. I am glad that Seth Godin explains that technical skill is not a requirement for art (though I would argue it’s a necessity to create a craft). One of my favorite quotes from the book is about Marcel Duchamp:

Marcel Duchamp was an artist when he pioneered Dadaism and installed a urinal in a museum. The second person to install a urinal wasn’t an artist, he was a plumber.

Absolutely brilliant and true. Too often I hear people coming to a modern art museum and complaining, “Well, I could do that.” My retort to these remarks is usually the same: “Well, guess what? You didn’t.”

On Saturday Night Live:

The show is live, and it’s on Saturday…There are no do-overs, no stalls, no delays. Sometimes the show suffers, of course, but on balance, it’s the shipping (built right into the name) that actually makes the show work.

The reason this quote caught my eye is because of the recent controversy with The Tonight Show. Conan O’Brien’s statement was genius because he didn’t miss this mark: if the show started at 12:05 AM, it wouldn’t be The Tonight Show, would it?

On start-ups:

The reason that start-ups almost always defeat large companies in the rush to market is simple: start-ups have fewer people to coordinate, less thrashing, and more linchpins per square foot. They can’t afford anything else and they have less to lose.

On Elizabeth Gilbert:

The resistance almost beat Elizabeth Gilbert. After selling millions and millions of copies of Eat, Pray, Love, the resistance was afraid of what her next book might do to her career.

I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but I did watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant talk at TED where she explained the “creative genius.” I implore you to watch her talk (she’s a brilliant speaker).

On the resistance:

The resistance is the voice in your head telling you to use bullets in your PowerPoint slides…It’s the voice that tells you to leave controversial ideas out of the paper you’re writing, because the teacher won’t like them. The resistance pushes relentlessly for you to fit in.

Seth Godin devotes a large section of the book on this topic of resistance. He coins this term “lizard brain,” corresponding to our amygdala (which is part of our limbic system). It’s the part of the brain associated with anger and fear (think “fight or flight” response). At times, it feels like you’re reading a science book (Seth Godin even makes a reference to the triune brain model). My comment to Seth Godin about the bullets for PowerPoint: how about the fact that the resistance has taken over if you have already chosen to use PowerPoint to make your presentation? Think of the presentation Elizabeth Gilbert gave in that TED talk I referenced.

On shipping an idea:

Shipping an idea went from taking a month by boat to a few days by plane to overnight by Federal Express to a few minutes by fax to a moment my e-mail to instantaneous by Twitter. Now what? Will it arrive yesterday?

Seth Godin on Twitter:

Don’t even get me started on Twitter. There are certainly people who are using it effectively and productively. Some people (a few) are finding that it helps them do the work. But the rest? It’s perfect resistance, because it’s never done. There’s always another tweet to be read and responded to. Which, of course, keeps you from doing the work.

Not really a surprising take if you know that Seth Godin is not on Twitter (though there is an account which delivers Seth Godin’s blog posts). I found the debate between Robert Scoble and Chris Brogan interesting: is there a way to use Twitter incorrectly? Robert Scoble argued that Chris Brogan is doing it wrong.  Chris Brogan was initially hesitant, but ultimately listened to Robert Scoble and created another Twitter account which isn’t conversation heavy. Most recently, Chris Brogan explained that tweeting is part of his job. There’s a lot more that I can say about Twitter and online conversations, but I did find Seth’s take on Twitter in that quote above quite insightful (this “always on” aspect of Twitter especially).

On anxiety:

Our anxiety not only makes us miserable, but ruins the interaction. People smell it on you. They react to it. They’re less likely to hire you or buy from you or have fun at your party. The very thing you are afraid of occurs, precisely because you are afraid of it…

On Thomas Hawk:

Thomas Hawk is the most successful digital photographer in the world. He has taken thousands of pictures, on his way to his goal of taking a million in his lifetime. The remarkable thing about Hawk’s rise is that his pictures are licensed under the Creative Commons license and are freely shared with anyone, with no permissions required for personal use.

I am familiar with Hawk’s work. He’s a strong member of the photographic community, and is well-known for his vocal criticisms of Flickr’s flings with censorship. My question for Mr. Godin: how did you come to the conclusion that Mr. Hawk is the “most successful digital photographer”? Is it his annual income, his status in the community, the number of pictures he has taken in his lifetime, or something else? I’m really curious to find out, because I follow a lot of photographers online, but I don’t know if I would single out any one in particular as most successful. I will give Seth Godin this credit: he is making me rethink how I approach Creative Commons (right now all work I publish online is copyrighted).

On saying thank you:

If you appreciate a gift, consider saying “thank you and …”

Profiled on page 171 of the book, this is a solid list which I have noted, because I need to actually showcase my appreciation by doing more than saying thank you. Among the tips Seth Godin offers: say thank you, and then write a blog post about it (the service you received, a product you tried, a blog post which inspired you, and so on). Say thank you and ask how you can spread the word…

On teaching people a lesson:

When our responses turn into reactions and we set out to teach people a lesson, we lose. We lose because the ac of teaching someone a lesson rarely succeeds at changing them, and always fails at making our day better, or our work more useful.

People usually don’t heed this advice, and it’s a shame.

On the board game Candyland:

If you own a copy, burn it. Replace it with Cosmic Encounter or chess or a big box filled with wooden blocks.

This quote appears where Seth Godin makes the argument that Candyland is a boring, trite game that basically tells you what to do. How about the game of Monopoly, which has elements of both: picking up Chance cards and doing what they say and deciding whether you want to buy that Boardwalk property?

On the ultimate gift:

The ultimate gift you can give, the one that will repay you today and tomorrow and heal our world, is that gift. The gift of connection, of art, of love—of dignity.

This is a wonderful quote and the last I’ll provide in this compilation of interesting quotes I highlighted throughout the book.


Seth Godin’s Linchpin hits the shelves on January 26, 2010. You can buy your copy on Amazon.

I hope you enjoyed this review. If you have any comments or questions, please leave a comment (also let me know if you’ve read the book). If you enjoyed this review, please let others know about it. Of course, I highly recommend you purchase a copy of Linchpin and read this book yourself.

11 thoughts on “Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Book Review

  1. One of the best books i’ve come across in recent times…>Seth Godin is a GENIUS…and SO much more makes sense!

  2. I have not read Linchpin yet.

    After reading this quote it is now on my summer reading list:
    “The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.”

    Thanks for the review.


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