Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Seth Godin, author of 21 international bestsellers that have changed the way people think about work. Seth’s books have been translated into 38 languages and include the titles Tribes, Purple Cow, Linchpin, The Dip, and This Is Marketing. Seth writes one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world, and two of his TED Talks are among the most popular of all time. He is the founder of the altMBA; the social media pioneer Squidoo; and Yoyodyne, one of the first internet companies.
His new book is The Song of Significance: A New Manifesto for Teams.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. I’m happy today. I’m happy because I get to have a conversation with my friend Seth Godin. Seth is a frequent flyer on this podcast. For those of you who do not know who Seth is, Seth Godin is the author of 21, count them, 21 international bestsellers — you eclipsed the fingers and the toes — 21 international bestsellers that have changed the way people think about work and much more. I’m going to add that on my addendum.
His books have been translated into 38 languages, and Seth’s books include Tribes, Purple Cow, Lynchpin, The Dip, and This Is Marketing. Seth writes one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world, and it covers much more than marketing, I should say. And two of his TED Talks are among the most popular of all time. He’s the founder of the altMBA, the Social Media Pioneer Squidoo, and Yoyodyne, one of the first internet companies. So he’s seen many chapters, many moons. His new book is The Song of Significance: A New Manifesto for Teams. You can find all things Seth at sethgodin.com and seths.blog. Seth, so nice to see you.
Seth Godin: Hey, Tim, this is a great excuse. I would rather cook you dinner, but this is a close second.
Tim Ferriss: I will take you up on both. And I thought we would begin with what is present for me at the moment. And you were very gracious in being flexible with our start time. I went in to see an ophthalmologist for the first time in many years, and he also happens to be a surgeon, but I wasn’t going there for any type of surgery and I did not anticipate when I had all the drops put into my eyes that I would be completely incapacitated for two to six hours. I couldn’t see anything within 12 inches of my face.
They gave me some throwaway glasses basically just to get the job done so I could at least call an Uber and get home. And we pushed our start time, and the net-net of it was, “Your eyesight, like everything else, is aging. It’s still very, very good.” At least my distance is 20/15, which is fantastic, but it’s not what it once was, 20/10. And I had I want to say a moment of crisis when he basically took a card and put it in front of me while my eyes were blurry and he said, “This is where your vision is going, just so you know.” So his bedside manner could have used a little bit of work, but I wanted to ask you how you think about or relate to aging and the changes that come with aging.
Seth Godin: What a great place to start. I mean, I was on the internet in 1976 before many people listening to this were born. And when I started, one of the first internet companies, there was no World Wide Web. So the world keeps changing and so do we. And it’s very tempting, because the stars in front of us keep changing and getting younger, to imagine that we are sort of fading away. And so my analogy, my dad taught me to ski when I was 12, and I was terrible at ball sports, not very good at hockey. I hated getting hit. I broke my nose, I broke my arm. But skiing, I was a maniac. There were no helmets in those days, but no one could get down the hill faster than me. And when I was 16, I fell under the chair lift at Sugarbush on the ice and skidded the whole way from the top to the bottom, face down, head first, dislocating both shoulders and ended up needing surgery on both.
The first one was botched by a neighbor, the second one was by the doctor for the US Ski Team. And I said, “I can’t ski anymore.” But when my kids came along, I taught them to ski and I got back into it with my dad. And then I realized when I hit like 35, “You’re just going to have to keep confronting the fact that you’re afraid and you’re not going to get better at this.” So I switched to telemark skiing, which is twice the work and half the speed. And I did that for 10 years. And then I switched to skate skiing with Nordic skis. And I get to still do that. And it’s very easy when I think about my lack of recall that I used to have where I could run a seven-hour session without repeating myself to my inability to ski anymore, to 17 other things that I’m walking away from. And to feel a sense of loss, to feel like we need to grieve that we’re not that person anymore.
But I guess after my first bout with COVID, it was more like, what a gift I have today to be in the shoes of somebody who, at 62, gets to do things well, but only because I’m walking away from things I can’t do anymore. And instead of focusing on what I used to have, I’m really working hard and getting satisfaction out of focusing on what I do have, what I can do. And that just raises the stakes for things. And the reason that this is interesting, I think, is because boomers, and I’m a little bit, I’m a lot older than you, but boomers have driven our culture since the day I was born.
When we were draft age, that was when the draft really mattered. And when we were listening to rock and roll, that’s when music really mattered. And when people needed to make money for their family, that’s when Wall Street really mattered. And now boomers are dying. And so we are living in a culture where there’s an overhang of all these people with loud voices talking about the end of the world because it’s the end of their world, but it’s not the end of the world.
Tim Ferriss: I thought you might have a few things to share on this subject.
Seth Godin: That was a rant to get us started.
Tim Ferriss: My goodness, you just bought permission to talk about whatever you want. That put a salve on my existential crisis wound that I had earlier today. But before we move on, let me ask you, on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, you strike me, and have struck me for a long time as a, let’s say, default optimistic. Generally, if we consider baseline to be emotion-neutral, generally above-baseline person, are there times when you catch yourself perhaps focusing on noticing, dwelling is too strong a word, but ruminating on the loss of something? And in those cases, what do you do? I’m just wondering what the intervention looks like, what the self-talk looks like, anything like that?
Seth Godin: So I really wish you had had a chance to interview Zig Ziglar.
Tim Ferriss: Me too.
Seth Godin: Zig was my friend. He was one of my first teachers. And one of the things I took away from Zig as someone who had gotten himself into a pessimistic cycle for five years early in my career is the world is going to be whatever the world is. Approaching it with a positive, energetic attitude probably will make your experience of the world better than girding yourself by being a pessimist and maybe getting what you’re hoping for. So I find myself coming back frequently, particularly in the last bunch of years when there’s been so much doom and gloom to this idea that we get to pick our attitude. And in fact, it’s the only thing each of us truly gets to pick.
And it doesn’t mean what happened to you is what you deserve. It just means that that happened. Now you get the one and only choice, which is how to process that. So that’s not the answer to your question, but that’s my approach. But I would find myself in negative ruts when I’m confronted by too much media. When I first started organizing The Carbon Almanac, there was a full two months when the cataclysm that we have created was confronting me really directly, and it was hard to find my footing.
Tim Ferriss: Speaking of response and choosing response, and I don’t want to shuffle the deck in such a way that makes things difficult, but we spoke a little bit before we began recording about the several thousand things that we could discuss. And one name came up, which was Viktor Frankl. And would this be an opportune time? We can always hit snooze and come back to Viktor.
Seth Godin: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: But would this be an opportune time to invoke the name Viktor Frankl and let you run with it?
Seth Godin: There are a few books that have been brought up on this podcast more than that one, and Viktor Frankl’s story, survival of four concentration camps, just generous, heroic. The thing is, a lot of people stop reading halfway through the first book that they touch of his because the story is really powerful. But then you get to this stuff about logotherapy, and some people say that he was part of the triad of Austrian pioneers in the way we think about the mind. There was Freud, who focused on sensuality and sex. There was Adler, who focused on status, dominance. And then there was Frankl, who focused on meaning. And meaning, as far as I can tell from my limited reading of Frankl’s work, is when a human being finds a thing that means something to them, a chance for a path forward, a pathway to hope, everything in their life gets better.
And that his work, he lived for another 70 years after he got out of the camp, 65 years, his work in suicide prevention was extraordinary from the statistics I’ve read because he understood that for many people, I’m not generalizing everyone, but for many people, finding a path toward hope of meaning, of realizing that the struggle is the struggle, but you get to decide what to do with it, is really profound. And I think as our industrialized world has gotten more narcissistic, which basically says, marketers need to make you uncomfortable so that you will buy more stuff to feel better about yourself and your standing, marketers are trying to push people to find meaning in purchases. And the problem with that, also in friends and likes and social media nonsense, the problem with that is it doesn’t scale. And after you’ve got one storage room full of stuff, buying more things doesn’t seem to help you find more meaning.
And I really feel like we’re in this moment in our culture, this moment in time, where people are waking up and saying, “Thank you very much, but I don’t need to buy another thing. What I need to do is find something to care about.” And I’ll finish this with a two-parter about, I went to see a community orchestra last week. My friend is in it, all volunteers. And the thing about community orchestras is there are violinists and flutists and oboists who get paid money to do it, but no one in the community orchestra is saying, “Why aren’t I getting paid?” Because that’s not why they’re there. In fact, they often pay to be there. And I’m guessing, with no data whatsoever, that if you survey people who are in community orchestras, they probably index happier and more engaged in life than people who aren’t.
And so the question is, where are we going to find our community orchestra? For me, the last year and a half, it was The Carbon Almanac. I had 1,900 friends in 90 countries around the world. I ran into a bunch of them yesterday in Union Square. And they’re not doing it for money. None of us got paid. They’re not doing it for me. I wasn’t even there until I showed up at the end of the day. They’re doing it because the meaning that they get from it is so valuable. It gives them a reason to put up with all the other stuff they have to do every day.
Tim Ferriss: I think we should take a moment just for those who are not familiar, to provide a little bit of background, just a brief description of what The Carbon Almanac is, and then we can navigate from there.
Seth Godin: So as you so generously said, I’ve written 20 books. I wrote Permission Marketing, which invented the business of email marketing, and I wrote a book called Purple Cow, but I don’t need to write books. I don’t wake up in the morning the way I used to saying “What I do for a living is write books. What should I write about now?” I only write one when I have no choice. And two and a half years ago, I read the magnificent Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it completely upended the way I saw the world. It was astonishing to me how much I didn’t know about what was happening to the climate. And I realized that I wasn’t talking about what marketing and corporations were doing to the climate because I felt stupid. And the reason I felt stupid is they wanted me to feel stupid, that they want us to be confused.
And I thought, well, if I’m underinformed, I bet other people are too. And I used to make almanacs for a living. I did The Business Almanac, The People Magazine Celebrity Almanac. I know how to make a complicated, long book. But I realized A, it would take me too long and B, it would be really lonely. So what an opportunity. I downloaded Discourse, set it up, invited some people to join me, and within a month we had 300 volunteers, most of whom I have never met in person. And in 150 days, we built, edited, footnoted, researched, copyedited, illustrated a 97,000-word book with no errors in it — all as volunteers around the world, 24 hours a day, trading shifts.
And the process of building it found solace for all of us. And I learned so much, which I incorporated in the new book about what a community can do when people are enrolled. And I also learned a lot, like plastic recycling is a fraud. And Exxon knew long ago about what was happening to the climate. And my favorite is that carbon footprint, the concept was invented by Ogilvy and Mather for their client British Petroleum as a way of getting privileged people to feel guilty about their behavior. And if you feel like a hypocrite, maybe you won’t speak up.
Tim Ferriss: So where should we go here? We find ourselves at a multi-pronged fork in the road. We can talk about industrialism, we could talk about building community, which is something that is certainly on my mind, but I don’t want to hijack. I could try to coax and direct, but I don’t want to hijack if it’s not a natural place to go. We could talk about creativity, trust, enrollment. I’m choosing a few words here and there that come to mind. AI, of course, on many people’s minds. But perhaps you could speak to the antidote to nihilism. And I want to preface that just by saying when you talk about marketers and corporations, I would like to say, and I think it’s fair to say that you come from the place of someone who has worn the hat of marketer.
You come from a place of someone who has worn the hat of founder, of executive, and therefore I give it much more credibility than I would someone with 27 bumper stickers from 27 causes driving around in Berkeley who’s never really worked in an office or in a business of any type who’s spouting off about the evil corporations in the same way that someone might talk about the evil Illuminati. So that I want to establish. With that backdrop, could you speak to how you think about nihilism and addressing nihilism? Because certainly even in my audience, and particularly among younger people, but I have seen it bleeding upward into my generation, even people who are older than me, what appears to be this creeping nihilism, this sense that nothing means anything. You can’t sort true from false, right from wrong. Everything’s too confusing.
We have deepfakes, misinformation, disinformation. You just can’t sort anything from anything else. And on top of that, it seems like the Titanic has already hit the iceberg. We’re on the way down. You can’t really patch the hole. So is the best we can do playing violins on the deck while she goes under? Or is there anything else to do? That is maybe an overstatement, but not much of one. This is something that I really do sense in many interactions that I’ve seen and felt. And I would just love to know how you have thought about that, because I have found myself similar to where you found yourself perhaps at one point with The Carbon Almanac, in a malaise. And some would say, “Well, it’s a well-warranted malaise. So what are you going to do about it?” And I would love to know what you suggest we do about it or what you have done about it, aside from the putting together The Carbon Almanac itself. Longest question of all time. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.
Seth Godin: It’s a great question. It’s a great question. And you should be driving because you know exactly what’s going on. I’m going to start by saying I’m a hypocrite and so is everybody else. And so I don’t have to point out that I’m more pure than other people because I’m not. And now after just a few minutes of the podcast, we have to put onto the table a very simple statement, which is we’re all going to die. But that was true 50 years ago too. And there’s a great book that I loved called The Last Policeman. I’m not sure I’d say it’s a great book. It’s a great concept, and I really loved reading it. Imagine that there’s an asteroid that’s going to hit the Earth in a year and destroy and kill all of us.
It’s not Don’t Look Up. It just starts with that premise. And then it’s a police procedural book about the last policeman left in a little village in New Hampshire, because everybody else says, “Screw it, we’re all going to be dead in a year.” So marriages break up. Why would you go to work to clean the fryer if you know you only have a year left to live? Supermarkets fall apart, but he goes to work every single day. Because we’re all going to die, maybe not in a year, but no one listening to this is going to be alive in a hundred years. Even some Silicon Valley billionaires who are getting blood transfusions aren’t going to be alive. Right? And so the only question is, are you going to die in a year or a hundred years? And when we look at the data on the climate, it’s very clear that there are going to be 10, 20, 30, 40 million climate refugees every year. That whole swaths of the Earth are going to become uninhabitable.
It’s not going to be pleasant for many people. Can we “fix it” and go back to, I don’t know when? No. Is it a problem that we should address? Definitely. But that doesn’t mean we could do anything to live forever. So given that we’re all going to die, the question is what’s the point of tomorrow? And for me, I think the key question coming at this as someone who went to Stanford Business School a very long time ago is some people believe that the purpose of business is to enable culture, to enable humanity. And some people believe that the purpose of humanity and culture is to enable business. And I think those people have too much influence right now, and they’re wrong. And Milton Friedman just made up this nonsense about the only purpose of a corporation is to maximize its profit. It lets people off the hook and they become tools of a system that grinds stuff out.
So if we think about Amazon, Amazon has had turnover as high as 30 percent in a 90-day period. 30 percent of all the people they hired across the whole company quit in less than 90 days. The data that I quote in the book is that it costs Amazon a third of their profit, a third of their total profit because of turnover. And the reason is simple, because when you get there to work in a warehouse, and more than half of all the warehouse industry injuries in the United States happened at an Amazon warehouse last year, they don’t treat you like a person. They say your job is to beat the numbers on this sheet of paper or on this iPad screen, and then beat them again tomorrow. It’s Frederick Taylor on steroids with a stopwatch jerking people around — the expression jerking people around came from Ford’s assembly plant in the 1920s because Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford used a stopwatch to measure every single motion.
And a visitor to the Ford plant said, “It looks like everyone here is wound up the way they are jerking from left to right with strings pulling them. It’s a wonder that they can even live.” And when we think about tomorrow or the tomorrow after that, given the damage we’ve all done, we still live in culture, we still have this miracle. You and I are talking while thousands of miles apart, we have access to every piece of information. We have magical computers that can understand us and talk back. We can reach out to someone in need. We can connect to people who need to hear from us. And if you want to just give up because the world is going to be different in 20 years, that’s your choice. But given that we’ve got this window, it feels to me like we need to up our focus on humanity and connection and possibility and improvement of the condition, and maybe not worry so much about public demonstrations of power, firing people online, being brutal in the service of profit. Because we don’t have a profit shortage, we have a meaning shortage.
Tim Ferriss: So what can someone listening do? You could personalize this to me if you like. I’m always looking for meaning, it seems to be a perennial subject for me. What can someone do if they’re listening and thinking it is not my path, or I don’t have the bandwidth, or fill in the blank to become, say, a climate activist. Not to say that’s what you’re implying, but what else can I do to be part of the light and not part of the dark, so to speak?
Seth Godin: Yeah. So in a minute, I want to talk — sorry, let me let that — so in a second, I want to talk about the bees, but first, significance.
So I surveyed 10,000 people and I said, “Tell me about the best job you ever had.” And I gave people 14 choices about what made it the best job they ever had, including, they paid me a lot of money or I didn’t have to work very hard. And the results were the same no matter which country people came from, no matter how old they were. The results were, I accomplished more than I thought I could. People treated me with respect and I did work I was proud of.
If we feel significance, we start to feel optimistic. We start to feel meaning. We start to feel human. Where does significance come from? It comes from making a change happen. Can you be really clear about the change you seek to make and who you are making it with and for?
So when I think about climate, most of the people who showed up to work on The Carbon Almanac said, “Well, I’m doing fine. I recycle this, I compost that. I don’t do that.” And this is the myth of the carbon footprint. There is nothing you can do personally, as a privileged person of the colonial world, to fix the climate. But what you can do is organize, that if you can figure out how to get five or 10 people together, you can probably ban gas-powered leaf blowers in your village. And that will have 50 times the impact of you switching to an electric car. Plus the idea of banding together with five or 10 or 15 other people, creating the conditions for other people to find something to care about and succeed at it, will fill you with meaning, not with despair.
But leaving the climate aside for a minute, when we think about our days where we go to work, who we work with, whether we’re in a community orchestra or not, is it significant? Is it about you and the change you seek to make? Or are you, quote, “I’m just doing my job.”
So I’m doing a talk for Harvard. And they said, “What do you want to call it?” And I told them and they renamed it, which I got them to unrename, to “Having Your Employees Feel Significant,” as if it’s some sort of hand waving that you get to do with the free snacks. And that’s not my point. My point is, we built all these systems so we can actually be significant, so we can actually point to what we made.
So let’s go back. How long ago was the first breakthrough book for you, 10 years give or take? 15?
Tim Ferriss: Last breakthrough or the first breakthrough book?
Seth Godin: The 4-Hour Workweek?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, The 4-Hour Workweek was 2007. So let’s call it 15 years ago.
Seth Godin: 15, 15 years ago. So what you said to people, to a lot of tut-tutting and disbelief, is that you as an individual have access to tools so that you can find something or somebody or some system that can do the grunt work, so that you can actually do human work that is valued by others. And that opened the door for what so many people are now capable of doing.
However, there’s still all this pressure to race to the bottom. If you put your freelance work on Upwork, the race is to be the fastest, cheapest person. Well, if you’re the fastest, cheapest person, you’re just a Mechanical Turk. You’re just cranking it out and no one cares about you because the minute someone’s faster and cheaper than you, they’ll switch.
And what we’re looking for is to find work where our work is unmistakably us, where our work is something we can point to and say, “Given who I am and what I see, I made this. I made this for you. Can you please help me make it better?” And when we can do that, our days are totally different than when we’re basically sure that an AI is going to take over our job for free as soon as the boss can figure out how to write down what we do all day.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s just say, as a thought exercise, that you came across through, doesn’t have to be through altMBA. You end up taking on as a mentee, the 25-year-old current day version of you, similar background, similar education. How would you help that Seth to do this?
Seth Godin: So I haven’t run the altMBA for a long time. I’m very proud that there’s a B Corp and it runs and lives happily without me. And I don’t have any official mentorships. And you’ve heard me talk about this before because it just doesn’t scale and it becomes this bottomless pit of repair.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, this is just a total thought exercise.
Seth Godin: But I need to say it, because sometimes people hear your thought exercises and then they send me notes.
Tim Ferriss: Seth’s thinking mentees. The Subreddit, “Seth’s Mentees.”
Seth Godin: The point of my work is for me to be able to be a mentee without showing up in person. And I’m thrilled when that happens.
When someone sends me a note saying, “I’m 25 years old, how do I become a marketer? Where do I get a job? Where do I train?” My answer is, “You do it by becoming a marketer. Go find a charity that you care about and go raise $10,000 for them. Go to a garage sale, buy $40 worth of stuff and sell it on eBay for a $100. Go figure out how to tell a story to somebody else that changes them. And if you’re a receptionist at an ophthalmologist’s, you can do the same thing. You can figure out how to take that person, the patient who just came in or is on their way out, and make them feel 10 percent better by saying something, doing something, interacting with them. Not because it’s in the manual, not because you memorized it, but because you see a way to connect to another person. If you can do that just a little, you can do it again.”
And that is the breakthrough that industrialists do not want us to understand, that they invented public school so we would say, “Will this be on the test? How little can I do and still get picked?” And all three of those things are wrong. And the option instead is to say, “Is there a human somewhere connected to you in person or online? Can you connect with them in a way that makes things better for them, at least a little? And then can you do it again?”
That’s what culture is. That’s what we’ve been doing for 10,000 years. That is what fills people with meaning. And you don’t need tips or tricks or hacks. Like someone sending me an email saying, “Seth, what’s your favorite color?” Because then if I write back, somehow we’ve built this sense of mutual connection. No, that is not marketing. That’s hustling. And hustling doesn’t work anymore because everyone’s doing it. And just wait till the AI spam shows up. The AI spam is going to make your head explode because it’s going to be so effective until you end up not even trusting that.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So putting AI spam aside, I agree with you. I mean honestly, I’m just enjoying my current level of spam while I can.
Tim Ferriss: But if people are listening and they want to, as you’ve outlined, create meaning, do human work, not succumb to a race to the bottom where they end up replaceable by the next fastest, cheapest fill in the blank, do you have any other guidelines? Do you have any other guidelines besides get started, do the thing that you are aiming to do, or any other reasons to be optimistic?
I think that might be helpful also just to not level the scales a little bit. But I feel like optimism is often a precursor to action or a prerequisite in a sense. How would you speak to that?
Seth Godin: Okay, so —
Tim Ferriss: And I want to footnote, I did take a note on paper. You said, “I think we’re going to come back to the bees,” if I heard you correctly.
Seth Godin: We’re going to come back to the bees. We are. Let’s talk about the boss.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Seth Godin: It is entirely possible that you work in a place where you have no options. You have no agency. You have no significance. If that is actually true, you should quit, because you don’t get tomorrow over again. My guess: it is not actually true. My guess is you have more agency than you are prepared to embrace.
And so go start a book club at work. Start with one of Tim’s books. Read it with four other people. And so get on the customer service line after your shift is over and answer three questions. And so figure out how to engage with someone in the organization in a way that is not part of “your job” and figure out how to lead and connect. You can do those things without getting fired.
Or after work. A friend of mine got married at an old folks’ home and the person, the witness, was 97 years old, and two days later she passed away. So do you think that that’s going to be a magical marriage to have honored that person, the one thing that she was staying alive for that she got to see before the end? Or do you think it makes more sense to be a bridezilla and to just make sure you’re part of the wedding industrial complex and everything matches everybody else’s wedding? Right?
So in all these elements of our life, we are pushed to do something the normal way, the profitable way, the way where we are blameless. Or we can choose to do something that matters.
So now the bees, if you don’t mind.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t mind.
Seth Godin: I am fascinated by the bees. So the story, it’s more personal than most stories I tell, but I have been hoping to share it with you. So I’m glad we’re getting this chance to talk.
I’ve got to note I don’t fly for work anymore because airplanes feel like cannibalism to me after working on the climate thing. I feel like I can do my work without doing that. And after 1,000 in-person speeches, I’ve earned the right to say, “No, I’m not going to get on a plane anymore.”
But I needed to get somewhere for family reasons. And someone reached out and said, “For family reasons, I have built a firm that’s remote. I’m really remote in Australia, because my daughter, who’s 10, was born with some health problems. And I’ve tried to organize our lives to support her in having the most magical life that she can. And I’m running a conference for the entrepreneurs. My venture firm funds, they’re all in regenerative work. They’re all dealing with the climate problem from a commercial point of view. Will you come help run a two-day seminar for them?”
And I happened to be somewhere near there. So I said, “Yeah, I can do that.” And so for free, I showed up to do this two-day workshop. Well, the day before he reached out and said, “I’m not going to be there in person because my daughter’s not feeling very well, but I’m sure it’ll go great.”
So the person I ended up running it with is a beekeeper from Australia. And he started talking to me about the bees, and he told me the story of Jacqueline Freeman’s Song of Increase. And The Song of Increase is just such a great Tim Ferriss story. So here’s what happens.
A typical hive, not the big honey hive. We could have a whole conversation about big honey, but a typical feral beehive at the end of a long winter, will have barely made it through. That’s what the honey’s for, to supply them with food during the course of the winter. But if they made it, the council of maidens will meet. They’re the ones who really run the hive, and they will do a couple things. The first thing they will do is build a vertical egg chamber and instruct the queen to lay and fertilize a queen egg, which is very unusual because there’s only one queen in a hive. And the second thing they will do is tell the rest of the maidens to go get as much pollen as they possibly can and replenish the honey supply. This happens in May and June in the Northern Hemisphere.
And so what will end up happening is the hive will — this is 20,000 bees, will be back in shipshape condition by June. And then based on the weather, because they know what the weather is going to be, they’re very good at this. They will organize without an organizer, leave without a leader. 12,000 bees will leave the hive in a 10-minute period of time. They will leap out of the hive singing the song of increase. And Jacqueline has written beautifully about this. And then they end up in a tree 100 yards away, in a tight ball, because bees have to maintain a body temperature of 98 degrees or else they fall apart. They get into a torpor.
And now they only have three days to find a new place to live. And each one of the bees is doing what the bee does. Almost every bee, except for the queen, is only three weeks old, which I didn’t know. I thought bees lived a really long time. And so the scout bees are doing their scouting and the maidens are doing their — and each bee is doing their thing. But the hive is basically a human brain inside out. There are neurons all working in sync to create this leap forward.
And hearing this story, I was completely transfixed by what the song of increase could mean to people. And then I realized people aren’t bees and we’re looking for something with even more internal meaning than simply this leap forward.
So I ended up driving then really far, hundreds of miles, to visit a friend. And early the next morning I went for a swim with all this, forgive the pun, buzzing going on in my head. And there was, as someone who swims almost every day, there was a very fierce riptide and I came as close to drowning as it is possible for a person to come.
And as it happened, I was pretty okay with the fact that that was the end of that. I would miss my family. I would miss so many things. But it was like, “Well, if that’s the end of that, that’s the end of that.” And then this mission of talking about significance just flooded over me and I somehow figured out how to get back to shore.
And then the next day I heard from Dan and his daughter Frankie had passed away. And the combination of all those things helped me realize that the world probably doesn’t need another marketing book from me, but probably could benefit from thinking about all of those things at once and realizing that we have so much more power than we want to acknowledge.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for sharing that, Seth. That is more personal than most stories you’ve shared. And I’ll just take a beat on that and would love to hear what happened after that swim, after that phone call. What did the next week or two look like for you or feel like for you with respect to this germinating seed? Maybe it was beyond a seed of significance and shifting perhaps to a focus on that with your communication, with your thinking. What did the subsequent week look like?
Seth Godin: Right? It’s funny. It’s funny because no one’s ever asked me that, but it fits right into the question you asked a little while ago about what can people do?
I wrote a whole book in two weeks. I said, “How can I honor Frankie? How can I honor Jacqueline? How can I honor all of the people who are being brutalized by billionaires in Silicon Valley? How can I honor the climate refugees? How can I honor everybody who has something to lose by doing the thing that some people think I’m good at? And what could I do for Frankie that would be better than this?”
And so that’s why I did it, because writing a book, as you know, is more of a lift than is rational. And I could have just written a few blog posts, but having people see you do this irrational lift helps them understand that you have something important to say and that maybe they’ll share it with somebody else.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to throw out a few terms. Actually. I’ll give you two, two choices, and we can go down whichever path you choose. Or option C, which I don’t present. You’re good at choosing option C when people say, “You can choose between A and B.” So that may be where we go. Wooden tiles or Quakers. Where would you like to go?
Seth Godin: All right, so let’s talk about — I learned something fascinating about the Quakers. The Quakers invented solitary confinement.
And when we think of Quakers, non-violent, et cetera, the whole idea, think about the word penitentiary, right? It’s where you go to be penitent, to repent. And the idea of solitary confinement was to create the conditions for people to get comfortable with their sins and to repent from them.
And then across in England, they built the panopticon, which was a prison where you were under constant surveillance. So this is super low tech. You just put the guardhouse in the middle and make sure the windows are all lined up. So everyone feels like they’re being seen all the time.
When we add solitary confinement to the panopticon, we end up with surveillance capitalism. We end up with this idea, not the surveillance capitalism of consumers being surveilled, which is what that book is about, but more about workers being surveilled, that we isolate them from each other, except when they’re in a Zoom call where the meeting was designed to make sure they weren’t picking up their dry cleaning when they were home and counting their keystrokes and measuring their output and counting the clicks, constant surveillance. And for many people, the equivalent of solitary confinement.
Well, why are we surprised that turnover is high and work satisfaction is low? Because we stripped meaning from people when they go to work because we don’t trust them to be people. We need them to be resources. And that’s why the very phrase “human resources” is such a challenge, because after you’ve optimized the machines, the next thing to do, of course, is to optimize the people. And we are, there’s the whole measured self-movement about how can you get better on your bike with Strava, but that’s happening to you at work whether you want it to or not.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s just say you are the founder of a small company and maybe it started off as a solo operation or a husband-and-wife team. And good news, you seem to have created something that people want or need and it’s growing. So you hire. You hire people. And you have the best of intentions. You believe yourselves to be moral people, ethical people. And that husband-and-wife team are listening to this podcast and they have four employees. Maybe they’re in a fast-growing bakery — who knows? And it could be any type of business.
They have the tiger by the tail. They’re growing quickly. There’s not a lot of room for under-performance, because a lot of people are wearing a lot of hats. How would you talk to those people? Because they may hear this and say, “Yes, Seth, I want to value my employees as humans, not just resources. And the reality is we have pretty tight margins. We’re attempting to grow quickly. We have a lot of inventory. We need our employees to really perform at the highest level possible. And if they’re not performing, we do need to let them go or replace them.”
Seth Godin: Yeah. Okay. So we’re going to do an aside in a minute in my old voice about freelancers and entrepreneurs and growing a small company. But before we do that, I want to highlight I am not here to say, “We need soft to replace hard.” I’m not here to say that workers benefit when the boss goes easy on them.
In fact, I’m talking about the opposite. That the significance of what can be built by Cesar Chavez or what could be built by The Carbon Almanac team for no money has nothing to do with soft or hard. It has to do with the idea that you make a promise and you keep it, and you need to have a lot of rigor where you are relentlessly criticizing the work, but you are not criticizing the worker. You earn enrollment on the change you seek to make. Right?
That the original Mac was built by 13 people at a pirate flag and they worked harder than anybody in Silicon Valley has ever worked before or since. And they didn’t get paid very much. And if you talk to Susan years and years and years later, I don’t know if she’s been on the podcast, but she’s great. She will talk about it as being a seminal moment in her life, right? Because they got something done.
So that’s why we need to have the aside about freelancers and scale. Freelancing is magic. I am a freelancer. I used to be a freelancer. In between, I was an entrepreneur. They are different jobs. Freelancers get paid when they work. They do the thing and it has their name or something like it on it. It’s very hard to scale freelance work.
What you need to do is strip away the busy work, outsource it. And what you need to do is get better clients, because better clients demand better work and pay you more.
But what usually happens when a freelancer starts to succeed is they hire junior versions of themselves and try to push those people to read their mind, work ever harder and faster for less money than they get paid and then pass it off as their work. That’s super stressful and it almost never works. And so if you really are building something bigger than the two of you, I would say, tell me this thing you were building and why some customers will pay more for it because you added human value. Because if you’re trying to out-Amazon Amazon, you’ve got trouble. Even Walmart can’t out-Amazon Amazon. That’s not a race you can or want to win.
So what we see is if someone is going to build a bakery, or a wedding services business, or a physical therapy facility, they can win by racing to the top. By saying, there are people here who do work you cannot find anywhere else. But do not expect that you’re also going to get that work faster and cheaper than you can get at other places, because you can’t have everything. And if you could make a promise to your customers and your employees can see their contribution to that promise, you’re not going to have any trouble at all, getting your employees to do what they need to, because you created the conditions for better. You didn’t try to manage your way into getting them to give you a bargain.
Tim Ferriss: So let me take a step off the highway onto the footpath, the bike path, on the side for a second, because this is related and very self-interested, but I’ll ask it anyway since I guess this whole podcast is pretty self-interested, I get to have conversations with people I like and respect. But you’ve known me for a long time now. I would say I think that’s a fair way to put it. We’ve known each other for a decent stretch and I consider you very good at being aware of your own assumptions, the constraints that you’ve applied to your life, choosing the rules, choosing for instance, a story about money, past a certain point, past the requirements, past your basic needs and wants. Money is a story, so choose a story you can be happy with, et cetera.
Is there anything you’ve observed over time with me where you’re like, “It’s funny, Tim has this conceptual limitation stuck between his teeth all the time and he can’t seem to see it when he looks in the mirror. He’s always got that spinach between those two teeth and it bothers him. He is always picking at it, but he can’t quite get it loose.” This is a very long-winded way of asking what are some of the maybe questions or issues that you seem come up repeatedly with me? Is there anything that comes to mind?
Seth Godin: I was completely wrong about my first impression of Tim Ferriss. And that’s because I based it on people who didn’t understand what you were trying to do that to me. And so I was getting hustled by people who said that you were the person who was teaching them how to hustle and I didn’t bother to spend the time to understand what you were actually doing. And that’s completely on me. And you have developed a voice and a contribution to the culture and your community faster and at a younger age than almost anybody I’ve worked with and way faster than I did. And I don’t see any spinach in your teeth. I think that it’s unlikely that you knew 16 years ago that you would be having conversations like this, that you would’ve built this platform and leverage you have to teach so many people things.
But at the same time when the opportunities have arisen, you have been really smart about saying, “No, I don’t want to be a judge on Shark Tank,” and, “No, I don’t want to figure out how to hustle people to pay me on Cameo.” You’re saying, “I have something to narrate here for people, whether or not I know exactly what tomorrow’s going to be like.” And it’s not easy to do that regularly at the level that you do it with the amount that you put out. So I know you weren’t fishing for me to say this, but I’ve needed to say it in public because in private, in my head for the first nine months that I sort of knew you, I didn’t really know you.
Tim Ferriss: I appreciate that, Seth, and I should provide a little context for folks. And the context is, when we have dinner together on the East Coast, or I guess it’s always on the East Coast, because you’re very good at setting your geographic bounds. I ask you for a lot of advice and you’re very forgiving and tolerant of me asking many, many questions, which I really deeply appreciate. So that question came from a genuine place and thanks for the very kind words. I love doing this. I love having these conversations and there’s absolutely no way I ever could have foreseen this being my “job” 16 years ago. No way, absolutely not. And I think probably four or five years from now, whatever I am doing, then I will have the same statement for “There’s no way I could have predicted now that I would be doing that five years from now.”
Seth Godin: And let’s just — to broaden that out, parents who have a sticker on the back of their car have been indoctrinated to indoctrinate their kids to do the same thing. To say, “Oh, you studied mechanical engineering, so you’re going to be a mechanical engineer for the next 70 years and then you’ll die.” And that’s not what humans are capable of. What a joy to be able to say, “I have no idea what I will be saying and doing in five years.” What a privilege that is.
Tim Ferriss: It is. I feel really fortunate.
Seth Godin: Can we talk about false proxies for a minute?
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about false proxies. I’ll let you lead the way.
Seth Godin: Okay, so people might be wondering about the wooden tile. So I have a 70 watt laser cutter in my basement. Doesn’t everybody? And so I make these things that are like I Ching cards. And so instead of having notes or something, I just really like the texture of them. So that’s what the wooden tiles are. And so there’s a wooden tile right here that says “False proxies.” We need proxies when we go shopping at the supermarket, because if you’re going to buy ketchup, you’re not allowed to taste the ketchup before you buy the ketchup. So the label on the bottle is a proxy for what’s inside of it. And we’re even capable, as consumers, of figuring out we haven’t had this particular flavor of salad dressing before, but we can guess from the other clues that it’s going to be good or not good.
And we use proxies to pick which restaurant to go to, and proxies to figure out what book to buy, because you’re not going to read the book until after you buy it. Judging a book by its cover is a very common and important thing. At work we developed proxies because we have to hire people for a 20-, 30-, 40-year career before they work for us. So one proxy is, “Did you go to a famous college?” One proxy is, “Are there any typos on your resume?” One proxy is, “Are you good at interviewing?” But of course, unless you’re hiring someone to be an interviewer, being good at interviewing is a false proxy. And yeah, the thing about false proxies is they lead to caste systems, to social stratification, to prejudice, to misogyny, because we are quickly making decisions on who to swipe left or right based on clues that aren’t actually related to whether the person can do the job or not.
If someone is in a wheelchair, they might be a great programmer. Whether or not they’re in a wheelchair is irrelevant to whether they’re a great programmer and yet it’s 2023 and it’s still happening. So there’s all of this information that’s now available to us where we can look at the work instead of looking at the proxies. So the simple solution, which I’ve been lucky enough to adopt, is I won’t work with someone unless I’ve worked with them before. And that means I will pay someone to do a short project and I pay them whether they do a good job or not. But if they’re good at the project now, I know that they’re good at the project because they did the project. And with all of the stuff that’s happening in our world, with the rate of change that’s going on, with the need for people — not who know something they learned at school, because they can look it up online, at Stack Overflow in two minutes.
What we need are people who are resilient, and risk-taking, and honest, and transparent, and connected, and loyal, and all these other words which don’t match up with the proxies we usually use when we decide who to hire, who to let into an institution, who to reward, who to follow online. So I think it’s important to just name it, there are false proxies in our life and they’re expensive. They get in the way of our output and they also steal our soul and they denature our culture, because when a proxy becomes important, when for example, a celebrity gets the benefit of the doubt, what we’ve done is we’ve handed this person leverage that isn’t really helping anybody.
Tim Ferriss: Did I hear you correctly, Seth? And if so, I’d love to hear you expand on this a bit, that you only work with people you’ve worked with before. Did I hear that correctly or was that a different line?
Seth Godin: What I mean is if I’m going to do a project, the old way to do it was to look at the 10 million viable people, pick the one who has the shiniest set of easily measured proxies, and hire them. And I have hired hundreds of people that way. And for a while I told myself I was really good at it. And then I thought about it and I realized I just thought I was really good at it, because of all the people I didn’t hire, because they didn’t match my perception of what I was looking for. And what I learned, particularly working on The Carbon Almanac, is everyone was a volunteer. Everyone got the keys, take the car for a drive, and if you did something that was really good, we asked you to do more. And if you didn’t, we asked you to do something different, because the work was the point.
And so now I’m working on this interesting software pilot thing and I went to people who I’ve seen do projects and who I’ve danced with before, not based on where they live. One lived in Nigeria, one lives in London, one lives in Portland. “I’ve seen your work. I don’t know you personally. The personal stuff is an interesting proxy, but it doesn’t usually match. So let’s dance again.” And once we can seek enrollment, once we can say to the world, “I’m looking for a freelancer who wants to make this change in the world, this project is this size and I’m going to pay you this much to do it,” we can use our human judgment to decide who to offer the project to. But then when the project comes back, this one-hour, one-week project, pay them fairly and then decide based on the work product whether it’s useful. This is exactly the way Matt builds WordPress. That Automattic is a reading and writing culture where if you’re good at reading and writing, you get to do more stuff. But there’s no points for being good in a Zoom meeting. No one gets promoted.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, no one, definitely with Matt, no one gets promoted for Zoom meetings and you do have to do some customer service, which I think is actually a fantastic practice. Even if you’re C-suite, you get to spend a couple of weeks answering customer tickets.
Question for you about employee retention, and I’d love to hear you speak to your personal experience. You’ve hired many people, and this may not map directly to the writing or the principles in The Song of Significance — it may. But I’m wondering, because hiring is one thing, retaining is a close cousin, but not exactly the same. And there are people out there, I know quite a few people who are really good at putting in the time to hire really good people, but they haven’t been able to, for whatever reason, as thoroughly, as effectively, think about retention. So they lose some people who are very, very good. What have you found to be, in your experience, or observing others, some of the key ingredients or possible approaches to ensuring that you retain high performers?
Seth Godin: So if we look back just 50 years, the purpose of a company town is if you are the landlord, it’s much harder for someone to quit. That the goal of the old school industrialist is that your employees have no options, because if they have no options, you don’t have to pay them very much. Let’s compare that to an ad agency. I read a book about them many years ago called St. Luke’s in London. There were 30 people, they won a whole bunch of awards. When you win a bunch of awards as an ad agency, what happens is you get a whole bunch of fancy new clients, which means you have to hire more people, which means the average goes down and then you get big enough to, you’ve exhausted and you sell out to Saatchi & Saatchi, and then you are done.
And the 30 of them looked at each other and they said, “We don’t want to do that.” So they made a rule and the rule is “We’re never going to be more than 30 people.” They then said to their clients, “That means we can’t take any new clients unless we lose an old client. So they have a waiting list of clients and we have a waiting list of clients. You can go to your old clients with your best ideas and if they give you a hard time, you can say ‘You’re fired,’ because I’ve got another client ready to take your place. And it also means that if you are only going to have 30 employees, if someone wants to leave, let them leave.” There’s a waiting list of people who want to work there.
Turnover is a good thing when we are doing human work, not a bad thing. And what I would do if I was running a real company is I would say the first thing you’ve got to do on your first day is update your LinkedIn page and keep it up to date. And we’re going to have a resume job finding seminar every two weeks here. I don’t want you to stay here because you can’t get a better job. I want you to stay here because the conditions we’ve created, the work we are doing is worth you staying here for. And then I would listen. If I’m not creating the conditions where the people who I need to be dancing with want to stay, I have to change the conditions, not curse the people who are leaving.
And this permeability is where the future lies. We don’t have 40-year careers anymore. We have four-month careers or three-year careers. So onboarding is faster because you can say to somebody, “Read everything in Slack, come to work tomorrow, ready to start, because it’s all there.” So now instead of onboarding you in a month and a half, I onboarded you in three hours. And because we’re project-oriented, turnover is a little different. And if I can keep somebody here for a long time, it’s because they want to stay here. This enrollment is the key.
Mahan Khalsa has written a book called Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play about B2B selling. But the lesson of Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play is simple. What promises are you going to make this week? Promises about your career, promises about your learning, promises to our customers. Show us your work. We will relentlessly make it better. This is how we’re going to treat each other. If this is the right place for you, I hope you’ll stay. And if it’s not the right place for you, I hope we can agree that it’s not, but seeking retention doesn’t feel right to me.
So let me just elaborate on this book, because it’s overlooked and so beautiful. If you are in business-to-business selling expensive, committed items to large organization, large organizations can now find out everything they need without calling a salesperson.
So the intelligent, trained, expensive salesperson benefits by saying to the prospect on the first day, “Look, you’ve told me you have this big problem you need to solve. You have a five million assembly line that’s letting you down, blah blah. If we can solve this problem together, are you ready to install our system? Because if it’s not real, let’s not play. Don’t waste my time, I won’t waste yours. You’re not going to buy from me because I’m going to take you to the golf course. You’re not going to buy from me because our RFP is going to come in cheaper than somebody else’s. You want my valuable time? I’m going to engage with you, and tell you the truth and you’ll tell me the truth. You’re going to draw your org chart for me. You’re going to tell me other complicated products you’ve bought and why your company bought them. And I’m going to get you promoted by teaching you how to buy the thing that’s going to save your assembly line. Let’s get real or let’s not play.”
That kind of selling is how you sell a $10 million product. You don’t do it by spamming people and pretending you know their favorite color.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, very true. This is truth. Long ago in a former life when I had a lot more hair and was just out of college, was selling to CEOs and CTOs and you do not sell expensive systems by guessing their favorite color or even having that conversation. In fact, it’ll be really counterproductive. The topic of sales makes me think of Zig Ziglar. And I’m wondering, just out of my own personal curiosity, were there things that come to mind where you disagreed with Zig, maybe you respected his position or a principle he had, but you personally did not embrace whatever it was that he used as part of his own script for navigating the world and people. Is there anything that you disagreed on?
Seth Godin: Many things, and we did it as friends. So it’s funny, Zig has come up twice today before you brought him up, which is weird. I sent a picture of him holding one of my books to someone just four hours ago. Zig was my teacher from afar for a long time. I memorized more than 72 hours of his tapes. I listened to the selling tapes until they wore out. And then I bought another set and I saw him in person a bunch of times and each time wrote him a letter afterwards and each time he wrote back and my letter would highlight the things that worked and talk about the things that didn’t. And one of the highlights of my speaking career was when he and I shared a stage in front of 22,000 people. It was pretty cool. And then I got to publish his Goals book toward the end of his life.
Zig and I disagreed about astrology and yoga because he was coming at it from a different cultural point of view from Yazoo City, Mississippi. And we were like, “Okay, we can disagree about stuff like that and organized religion and things like that.” What was interesting is when my understanding of permission marketing evolved and Zig’s key sentence of you can get everything in life you want if you’ll just help enough other people get what they want kept coming up, because he meant it two ways and one of the ways didn’t work for me. He would say, “You can get everything in life you want if you help enough other people get what they want,” as a way of encouraging self-interested, short-term people to see that the best way to get ahead was to do a favor for someone else because that forced empathy opened the door to making a sale.
And what shifted for me over time was how about you can get everything in life you want and you can help other people get what they want, but they’re not one gets you the other one. That what we have is the chance to hold open the door and let somebody else go in, not because we want them to give us something in return, but simply because holding open the door is, in itself, a significant useful act that will fuel our next cycle of work. And we talked about it a little bit toward the end of his life, but what Zig did for a lot of folks is help them become professional instead of just hustling. And I also learned a lot about living the life of the professional speaker, and I could go on and on, but if your listeners haven’t listened to a bunch of Zig, yes, it’s dated, but you can find the good stuff and be glad you did.
Tim Ferriss: Where would you suggest people start or what would you suggest they search for? Because the universe of Zig, as you mentioned, 62 hours is a starting point. Where might you suggest they start? What should they look for?
Seth Godin: The stories in the book Secrets of Closing the Sale are gold. I could tell word for word the story of the overalls. And his original classic See You at the Top, also filled with stories. When I was starting out, I failed for seven years in a row. It was a very long slog. And his tapes, which you can still get today on CD, also filled with nothing but stories, were super dated even then, but so cheesy and wonderful that if you listen for an hour a day, you can’t help but not quit.
Tim Ferriss: And to give us an image in time. What were you failing at over that period of time as you listened to these audio cassettes and wore them out?
Seth Godin: So my first job was in 1983 at a software company in Boston. I worked with Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Crichton, Ray Bradbury. I was a brand manager. I was 24 years old. It was spectacular. And then I left there, moved to New York and started my own gig and just kept failing at the book business. Chip Conley and I did our first book together and then I got 800 rejection letters in a row. That meant every day I opened the mailbox and three people had taken the time to write me a letter with my name on it and put a stamp on it saying, “We don’t like your project and we don’t like you either.”
And it’s very easy in the face that, and then I was just pitching and pitching and pitching and often in a way that amused me but was selfish. And I was pitching to people whose job was to be pitched. I wasn’t calling people up on the phone at home, right? This was the head of acquisitions at Simon and Schuster, whatever it was. But when the rejections feel personal, if you don’t have a way to keep caring, but understand that what they’re rejecting is the work, not the person, it’s super easy to give up. And that was the transition that I needed to make. You didn’t like this idea. It’s not that you didn’t like me. What can I learn from your criticism of the idea so that the next one will be better?
Tim Ferriss: You strike me as someone who’s quite happy to have solo time, engage in solo projects, maybe a project with a family member or something else like building canoes. That could be a whole conversation in and of itself.
How are you building? Are you building a community orchestra for yourself at the moment or looking forward in the short term to doing that? Or I should say in the soon-to-be-present future? And if so, how are you approaching it? Because this is something that I’ve also noticed, and this is not a brilliant insight, but it seems to alleviate a lot of the existential dread and mitigate some of the nihilism that people feel if they simply have some type of shared purpose or activity with a few people consistently. How are you thinking about that for yourself?
Seth Godin: This is just me. I don’t know how to broaden this to everybody. So the reputation I had from the beginning was, I don’t miss deadlines. I never go over budget, and I’m going to deliver you what I said I was going to deliver you. And no one who has worked for me has ever been part of a layoff. People have lost their jobs because it wasn’t a good fit. But I’ve never said, “All you guys, we’re downsizing.” When Google shut down Squidoo in one day with no warning and no honest explanation as to why, my eight coworkers and I all went down together. But the promises I make I make very seriously. So that’s good and it’s bad. It means that I hesitate to make big promises that might create the possibility that the big thing is going to happen. But on the other hand, I can live with the confidence of knowing that you can count on me to keep that promise.
So when I think about what am I going to do for my next five or 10 year gig, I think very hard about who am I promising and what am I promising them? So I can’t say to people what I used to say, which is “We’re renting this theater. Come and, for seven hours, I will be on stage answering questions. And by the way, I’m organizing the whole thing with one volunteer and I’m going to serve you lunch.” That’s what I used to do. And 400 people would come. It was thrilling to stand there for seven hours and weave together all the answers. If I announced I was going to do that, I could sell it, but I couldn’t keep that promise for sure.
I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to, as my career of a sudden has a different pace, try to regain my ability to ski at high speed, not what I’m trying to do. So where is that sense of community? The Carbon Almanac was that and continues to be, but there’s going to be another one. And I think about whether I need it to be in person or whether this future you and I have been describing for so long is real and it won’t be in person because I’m very comfortable engaging with people who aren’t sharing the same air as me. And most of all, is it worth doing for others? Not, am I just here to entertain myself?
Tim Ferriss: Seth, what else would you like to talk about here? We can go in a million directions. What else do you have on here —
Seth Godin: Do you want to talk about —
Tim Ferriss: — on your wooden tiles.
Seth Godin: Okay, so I want to tell the story of the piano cover at the B conference, and then I want to talk about meetings. Is that okay?
Tim Ferriss: Sounds great.
Seth Godin: Okay. So I’m about to go on stage in front of these entrepreneurs, all of whom have raised far more money than I’ve ever raised, all of whom are young whippersnappers who are going to save the planet. And I’ve got no slides or anything. I’m just there at this beautiful winery north, it’s like Yountville or Booneville or something. And —
Tim Ferriss: This is in Australia or somewhere else?
Seth Godin: No, no, I haven’t been to Australia in a long time. This is north of San Francisco and I need a shtick. I need some anecdote to get started. And off to the side is a piano in one of those quilted piano covers. Can you visualize that?
Tim Ferriss: I can.
Seth Godin: They have those special custom made piano covers and on top of the piano is one of those little metal things that says “Do not place anything on top of this.” And on top of that is the sign, but I can’t read the sign, so I walk over because that’s going to be my shtick, which is, “Did you ever notice that people put a ‘Do not…’ and then put a sign on top of that?” And on the sign that says, “This is the original Steinway Grand D piano” — not an original, the original from 1884.
And I had my story, I went over and I said, “The folks who built that Steinway in 1884 had no idea that 140 years later it would be working, it would be creating magic, and we would be talking about it.” And I said, “There’s no guarantee that what we do is going to be around in 140 years, but we could act like it might be, we could say this thing we’re doing together is not to say, how do we raise as much money as we can? Or how do we get written up well on this blog site or whatever. It’s important.” And there are lots of kinds of important, it could be important to one person, it could be important a century from now. But this idea that the piano is still here, just it gave me chills.
Tim Ferriss: I love that. The piano cover, that is wild too. The original. What an experience just to be able to touch something like that or be close to it. Wild.
Seth Godin: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So meetings?
Seth Godin: Meetings. I have been obsessed with these for a long time and have lived a different path for meetings. Our friend Tobi at Shopify wrote a script that deleted every group meeting that was regularly scheduled in the whole company, and then the next day sent an email to everyone in the company and said, “I just bought you back your day.” Because if you have 10,000 employees, and there are all these weekly or daily meetings, we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars of wasted time. But on top of that, we’re talking about the innovating brain deadening idea of watching someone talk because they couldn’t care enough to take the time to send a memo instead, or couldn’t care enough to just record a 10-minute video and send it to everyone to watch as many times as they wanted, slower, faster, read the transcript and then get back to them.
And Tobi said, “If you really need the meeting, go ahead and put it back on your calendar. You’re welcome.” And what meetings have become. So Zoom is a miracle because Zoom eliminates geography when it comes to being able to connect with people. And memos were a miracle because they eliminated time, they’re asynchronous. And when we add video to this, what we get is either we’re going to have everyone get together for an hour so I can talk at you and I can take attendance based on you sitting there. And what we know from surveys is people hate this. It’s one of the things they hate the most about their day. And it’s a form of power, authority, status, and control. So conversations need to happen. More meetings need to happen never. You can have conversations all day. You can have a two-minute conversation, a six-minute conversation, talk to this person or that person.
But a conversation means there are questions and there are answers. People are talking to each other. Everyone is changed. At the end, a meeting is a delivery of information for the convenience of the person who called it. And I think it is possible. I know it is possible. We never once had a meeting the whole time we built The Carbon Almanac. There were times I sent a video to people and said, “This is what’s up. Watch it if you want to.” But because we were in time zones around the world, a meeting wouldn’t have made any sense. We had things where I said, “I’m having office hours, you can come ask questions,” but I didn’t do that other thing. And it feels to me like the future of the resilient organization is a lot closer to what Matt does at Automattic, which is how do we build this asynchronous geography free institution that doesn’t depend on me making stuff up while I’m on camera.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. And for people who may not have caught his name before, Matt Mullenweg is his name. He’s been on this podcast a number of times, and he also has been part of a podcast. And this is, I believe, Automattic produced, called Distributed. I may be getting the name wrong, but it is entirely about distributed organizations in unorthodox ways of approaching the type of thing that we’re discussing right now, meetings or lack thereof, different means of communication, et cetera. And he’s been distributed first for a very, very, very long time. So yeah, they were incredibly prepared, albeit coincidentally for everything that happened during lockdown and so on.
Seth Godin: Well, but coincidentally, everyone else was unprepared. Have you seen what his team has built with ChatGPT for blogs? Has he shown you the version yet?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know if it’s public. I have seen screenshots, but yeah. Is it public? I don’t know.
Seth Godin: It’s not public, but we’re only talking, so we’re allowed to talk.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, go for it. So if you want to talk —
Seth Godin: I was going to say it is the single best use I have seen of ChatGPT or whatever they’re using, being implemented in a way where it’s not just a talking llama, it’s actually, “Oh yeah, I need this.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, for sure. They create some amazing products. So yes, that’ll be the teaser. The teaser for people.
Seth Godin: I’m just here for the hype.
Tim Ferriss: There’s good things to come. Right. That’s what I think when I say that, when I think South Dakota. Oh, Seth, is there anything else you would like to chat about before we begin to —
Seth Godin: Your listeners love tips. I’ve got one last tactic tip that changed the lives of a lot of people. And then we’ll do the magical wrap up stuff. We invented something called page 19 thinking, and we knew there was going to be page 19 of the Almanac. It was going to be written, copy, edited, illustrated type, set, footnoted. But there wasn’t one person on our team who knew how to make page 19. And so we said to the team, “We know in the future there will be a page 19. We know that it will come from this group, but we also know there’s not anyone here who’s qualified, so what should we do?” And the answer is someone should write a paragraph of page 19 and say, “Please make this better.” And then someone else will add to that and someone else will footnote that and someone else will illustrate that.
And we will relentlessly criticize page 19 without one saying, “The person who worked on it was wrong or incompetent.” And page 19 thinking, I’ve always had page 19 thinking, I didn’t need it. But so many people when they heard this felt the freedom to now speak up and contribute because they knew it was going to get better. And if you think about it, that’s Apple, that’s Ford. That’s every company you can name, right? Sergey did not program the Google you are using today. It started with a little, tiny German and someone and someone and someone and someone and someone, when you feel stuck, just look for page 19 thinking.
Tim Ferriss: And is the way to look for page 19 thinking, to take the pressure off by lowering your expectations in a sense so that you can iterate your way to excellence. Is this applicable to a solo shop or a very small shop? Could you maybe elaborate on what you mean, what it could mean, to embrace that?
Seth Godin: It puts the pressure on. It doesn’t need the pressure off. It puts the pressure on. Because you can no longer be a prima donna who says, “Ah, I don’t, I’m afraid someone’s going to punch me in the nose.” Because you have to say, “My nose is not involved.” Right? And I heard Danny’s great story about my nose, and it made me smile. He offered —
Tim Ferriss: This is Danny Meyer, folks, for people who don’t know.
Seth Godin: After he broke my nose, he offered to straighten it out. And as you can see in the video, it’s still crooked. But once you understand that you live in a page 19 world, the pressure is on for you to put out work that can generously be criticized. Don’t ship junk, not allowed, but create the conditions for the thing you’re noodling on to become real. That doesn’t happen by you hoarding it until it’s perfect. It happens by you creating a process for it to get better. So now you’re on the hook. Fish don’t like to be on the hook. People should be on the hook.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. And I was thinking of how this might apply to my own, and I have since we last spoke, been writing fiction and shipping fiction. I’m not saying it’s Ursula K. Le Guin, but I’m, I’m happy with it. I am on the hook and have tried to create, I haven’t found exactly what I think will be most helpful later, but to create an environment in which perfect is not the enemy of good, but that I also have a means of not shipping garbage and actually having people review my work. How do you like to solicit feedback on writing? This is, I know a tangent, but if you reach out to people to proofread or review drafts of something you’ve put together, how do you enable them to be the best proofreaders?
Seth Godin: Three words, and then some definitions. The three words are: criticism, feedback, and advice. I’m terrible at criticism. Don’t like criticism. I’m okay with —
Tim Ferriss: You’re terrible at receiving it.
Seth Godin: Receiving it, yeah. I like criticizing people. Yeah, no problem. But being criticized, not my thing.
Good feedback is precious. But advice, advice I can handle because advice is one human who’s on the side of the other human helping them turn on lights. Now, when it comes to writing, there is line editing, copyediting, developmental editing, and proofreading. They do not mean the same thing. Proofreading means did the changes that were instructed to be made get made. So proofreading is sort of trivial. Copyediting says, “What do you think about the Oxford comma?” Copyediting says, “I don’t like the way you spelled this kind of thing.”
Line editing says this sentence would be better if you moved the second half to the first half that I’m going to smooth your voice up. And developmental editing is magic. I read your work. Let’s just talk in general about the change you seek to make and why it could be made better in a different way. So I work with the magical Nicki Papadopoulos at Penguin mostly because her developmental editing is the best I’ve ever encountered. She says “The title of the book is wrong and you need to move these three chapters to the end.” What’s that worth? That’s spectacular. But I will confess, if she’s not listening, that before I send her a book, I send it to a paid copy editor who works for me. I don’t work for him.
And for $1,000, he copyedits the book. So he is not allowed to change any of my voice, but he fixes every one of the little things. So when I send it to Penguin, they think, “Wow, this guy’s so good at all the detail.” No, I’m not, Dr. Aker is, but you don’t know he exists because I send it to him before I send it to you. So the point is, you will run into people who think that the most important thing they can tell you is you’re missing a comma in the third line. This is not helpful. This work is now cheap. It’s free online. You can just upload a file and someone will fix it for you. But developmental editors, they’re priceless. You need to find someone who has that as a skill.
Opinions don’t matter. That’s why the whole thing with logos — don’t show anybody your logo and don’t tell anybody your new kid’s name before they’re born, because everyone thinks they have an opinion about a logo, but no one’s got expertise. It’s none of their business. Pick your logo and do your logo. The same thing’s true with your kid’s name. And when you show your writing to an amateur, they’re going to give you logo advice. It’s the book isn’t for them. You need to engage with people who the book is for, watch what they do with it. See what lights them up. So in my case, after Permission Marketing, hearing people say back to me which parts of the book resonated with them taught me how to write the next book because I didn’t ask anybody, “How do I make this book better?” I just said, “I wrote this book,” and seeing what they did, I gave them more of that.
Tim Ferriss: Right? By extension, the Zig could have taken the fact that you know the overall story word for word and be like, “Okay, interesting. Let’s take a look at why that worked, and maybe I’ll give him an extra heaping dose of something like the overall story in the next book.”
Seth Godin: Exactly. And I know for a fact that that’s exactly what Zig did.
Tim Ferriss: So Seth, the new book is The Song of Significance, subtitle, A New Manifesto for Teams. People can find you at sethgodin.com, seth.blog. Is there anything else you would like to add? Any requests you would like to make of my audience? Any complaints you’d like to lodge formally, criticisms maybe, or anything else you would like to say before we wrap up?
Seth Godin: I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to do this, and I am feeling the murmurs of generosity and abundance, replacing the small minded scarcity that was so common for so long as people hustled their way through one thing after another over the last bunch of years. And I think as we all come out of, hopefully come out of this worldwide pandemic, people are taking a deep breath and focusing on contribution and generosity. And all I can tell you is I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for you and for the people who support my work, just making things better. Because if not that, what? So
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. Thank you so much, Seth. And to everybody listening, we’ll have everything that we discussed in the show notes and probably quite a bit more at tim.blog/podcast where you can find this and show notes on every other episode. And until next time, just to be a bit nicer than is necessary to yourself and to other people, make things just a bit better. Have that extra conversation. Say that extra nice word. Do what you can. It doesn’t have to be huge. Probably shouldn’t be huge, because then you can hide behind that as we’ve covered previous episodes. Make it small, make it matter. And until next time, thanks for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.