BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Being Indispensable ...

As I mention in my review of Man's Search for Meaning, it was fortuitous that it, and Seth Godin's Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, were sitting at the top of my to-be-read pile when my brief tantalizing brush with being employed imploded at the end of August. They served as sorts of “coaching” for me to get past the worst of the initial shell-shock from the chaos of that situation. However, it has taken me a very long time to getting around to reviewing this, and I'm not sure why.

Possibly, it's because Seth Godin has so many books on approximately the same subject, that they tend to blur a bit on recall, so, once this had been sitting on the (by that time, quite substantial) to-be-reviewed pile for a month and a half, I knew I liked it, but was getting hazy on the specifics. Oddly, this is, perhaps, my favorite of the half-dozen Godin books that I've read … it's confrontational on a level that I find attractive, if in ways that I frequently felt to be uncomfortable. While I've been the “linchpin” in many of the places I've worked, I have found getting back into that type of role daunting at best, and much of what has kept me from trying to forge my own venture is rather directly addressed here. However, it could also be the case that there's so much here that I found, pithy, useful, and to-the-point (and there are dozens of my little bookmarks sticking up out of the top edge), that it's hard to synthesize a satisfactory overview that wouldn't run many thousands of words!

I would, if that was not a concern, have liked to have quoted the full four pages of the “contents” section up front, where Godin lists the 14 sections and gives a few tightly-focused lines on what each contains (heck, that would work pretty well as a free-standing review!). The basic concept is that there's a revolution going on in the world of work, and that aside from management and labor, there's now a third group, the “linchpins”, people who “own their own means of production”, and “walk into chaos and create order”. However, it's hard to be “brave enough to make a difference” and become a linchpin. In the comment to the “The Resistance” section, Godin says:
So, why is this so hard? It turns out that it's biological. Deep within your brain lies the amygdala, the lizard brain. It sets out to sabotage anything that feels threatening, risky, or generous.
That last point is interesting … the idea of “gifting” is fought by the “lizard brain”, The Resistance … and yet “gifts make the tribe” and gifting “is a critical step in becoming indispensable”. Godin sets up pretty much everything that's wrong with the “traditional” world of work since the Industrial Revolution … from how our educational systems are a “scam”, “designed to prep you to be a compliant worker in the local factory” to how in business “the goal is to hire as many obedient, competent workers, as cheaply as you possibly can”. He then sketches out the concept of the linchpin and “being indispensable” … in terms that seem a bit odd from the standpoint of the standard model … “Linchpins are geniuses, artists, and givers of gifts. They bring humanity to the work, they don't leave it at home.”. What? We have to be geniuses to make it in this new model? We have to be artists? Sounds like a tall, and rather revolutionary, order … except that he fleshes out that concept by pointing out how little kids are artists, poets, scientists, and entrepreneurs in the context of their worlds, before “schooling” grinds down the uniqueness, anathematizes risk-taking, and spits out compliant cogs for the “real world” machine.

There are not a lot of illustrations in this book, primarily just a handful of hand-drawn Venn diagrams, one of which I found, well, haunting. This has three circles, “Perseverance”, “Talent”, and “Charm”, where the “Linchpin” is at the point where all three overlap, but it was very interesting what the other three 2-circle overlaps were defined as … C+P= “Princess”, C+T= “Prodigy”, and P+T= “Frustration”. Wow, persistence and talent combined only equals frustration? That sounds like my life! Interestingly, Godin doesn't flesh out that “charm” aspect much, but I suspect it has something to do with “community” and “gifts” (which he does go into at length). While on the topic of “frustration”, I found another bit here rather telling: “... if you're remarkable, amazing, or just plain spectacular, you probably shouldn't have a résumé at all … a résumé gives an employer everything she needs to reject you. Once you send me your résumé, I can say, 'Oh, they're missing this or they're missing that', and boom, you're out.” … not to be claiming to be spectacular, but this also sounds very familiar!

Again, I'm faced with a number of concepts here where Godin is working hard to re-write definitions and paradigms, which (short of replicating pages of copy) make it difficult to briefly summarize. He makes a distinction here between “the job” and “the work”, where the latter is the process of doing one's “art”...
The job is what you do when you are told what to do. ...
Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it.
Another choice tidbit here would be the sort of thing that should keep MBAs up at night: “The easier it is to quantify, the less it's worth.”. Speaking of quantifying … I still find the concept of “one's art” here somewhat slippery … as Godin links “art” to giving it away, making it a gift, and changing people with it: “In order to be true to your art, you must sacrifice the part of it that hinders the spread of your art.”“And if the ideas don't spread, if no gift is received, then there is no art, only effort. When an artists stops work before his art is received, his work is unfulfilled.” It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that in order to be “true to one's art” one has to, essentially, filter it down to what will sell (albeit to an audience that you've specifically targeted).

Two of the big concepts in Linchpin are “The Resistance” and “The Daemon”. As outlined above, the resistance is “the lizard brain”, and this is in conflict with the daemon, which is the genius (the Roman term for the Greek daemon) within us that struggles “to express itself in art or writing or some other endeavor”. Godin actually goes into a bit on brain biology and evolution to explain how these two conflicting parts of us came to be. The resistance wants to scurry under a rock and wait for risky situations to go away … the daemon wants to create something … the resistance starts spewing out all those “reasonable” objections against this because “you might fail”, and “failure”, to the lizard brain, is death, so it will pull out all the stops to keep you from being in situations where failure presents as an option. Godin goes into a lot of detail on how the resistance manifests both personally and institutionally in our lives, how it generates anxiety, and spins out scenarios designed to keep us from achieving. He introduces another concept in this, Shenpa, a Tibetan word which means “scratching the itch”, which is another tool used by the resistance, this takes small worries, irritations, etc., and cycles them up into (potentially) full-fledged panic … this is also illustrated in an array of examples.

The next part of the book is about “Gifts” … which starts with the role that “giving away one's art” plays in the concept of being a linchpin, but moves into a look at pre-modern societies, the historical shift of allowing for usury, the Protestant Reformation (which allowed for the rise of the merchant class, and the development of our current economic system), reciprocity, and concepts like Dunbar's number:
When we meet a stranger, we do business. When we encounter a member of the tribe, we give gifts. …
A lot of the stress we feel in the modern world comes from this conflict between the small world in which we're wired to exist and the large world we use to make a living.
Godin also references the “three circles” model from the Art world, the circle of friends, the circle of commerce, and the circle of the masses. With the rise of the Internet, the third circle has massively expanded, and Godin describes this as a “gift system” where people are making videos and posting them for free, writing blogs and posting them for free, creating apps and posting them for free, etc. “And the audience continues to grow, each person enjoying the digital fruits of the labor that others donate to the ever-widening circle.”. Of course, at this point one has a bunch of questions, and these are anticipated: “How do I know what art to make? How do I know what gifts to give?”, which brings us to the “map” or “the ability to forge your own path”, which involves the ideas of “seeing”, “discernment”, and the Buddhist term “prajna”. Again, the author is working with a lot of strings here, including ideas of equanimity, attachment, and passion. He presents another chart here, with two axes, Discernment – Attachment, and Passionate – Passive, with the linchpin being in the Passionate/Discernment quadrant, and bureaucrats, whiners, and fundamentalist zealots being in the other three. One key take-away from this section is: “There is no map. No map to be a leader, no map to be an artist. I've read hundreds of books … and not one has a clue about the map, because there isn't one.”.

The next couple of sections are on making the choice to become a linchpin, and “the culture of connection”, which leads to the seven abilities of the linchpin:
1. Providing a unique interface between members of the organization.
2. Delivering unique creativity.
3. Managing a situation or organization of great complexity.
4. Leading customers.
5. Inspiring staff.
6. Providing deep domain knowledge.
7. Possessing a unique talent.
Each of these are looked at in some detail, the last one is a bit quirky as he relates it to the Legion of Super-Heroes, and how the “lower-rent” heroes, when being introduced, always “had to speak up and describe their superpowers” - Godin recommends developing something similar for when you meet people, to make the introduction meaningful, and “If you want to be linchpin, the power you bring to the table has to be very difficult to replace. Be bolder and think bigger.”.

No doubt anticipating the complaints of the lizard brain, the book ends with a look at what to do “when it doesn't work” … obviously, taking chances leads to failing … what then? “Make more art. … Give more gifts. … Trying and failing is better than merely failing, because trying makes you an artist and gives you the right to try again.”. At the end of this section Godin has a couple of more Venn diagrams, one for “indispensable” and one for “surrender”, the point where “indispensable” comes in is at the intersection of dignity, humanity, and generosity … hardly categories they teach at the big business schools!

Linchpin has been huge, so it will no doubt be in print for decades, and is probably waiting for you on the shelves of your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it, of course, in your choice of hardcover, paperback, audio, e-book, etc. I got my copy of the hardcover from the new/used vendors and this can currently be had for under a buck before shipping from those guys. Needless to say, this is another of those books that I really wish EVERYBODY would read … it could be a cultural game-changer, and it addresses most of my frustrations with the “mundane world”. Again, this is something that should be on your shelf and in your head, and it's out there waiting for you to pick it up and get clued in … do it!

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Tags: book review
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