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Book Review: “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” by Seth Godin

April 17th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Book Review, Economics, Technology

The Boss Said Put Something Up, So We Did Sign

I happened across this sign while I was in the middle of reading Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. It was perfect timing and I had to take a picture to include with this review.

It’s safe to assume that the owner of this restaurant in the Texas Hill Country probably needs to read this latest book from Seth Godin. While the intent of the book is to inspire individuals to recognize and adjust to the new economy, I read the book from the view of an entrepreneur. Spoiler alert: I want all of my employees to read this book.

Linchpin clearly lays out the changes in the economy and the labor pool over the past few decades and argues that any job that can be described with a set of step-by-step instructions is now a commodity. He introduced a new view of the labor force that I had never considered: during the industrial revolution, manual labor (blue collar workers) became a commodity. The assembly line was nothing more than the act of improving productivity by simplifying a job to a set of instructions — hence, the need for unions to protect their positions (a discussion unto itself). This approach is a complete departure from the master craftsmen of an earlier era that produced handmade goods and services. Seth argues that the technology revolution of the past 30 years has basically made most white collar jobs a commodity too.

Seth also states that mediocrity is no longer accepted, by consumers or employers. In a commodity driven world, someone is always ready to produce or provide a service faster, cheaper and better. At first glance, this sounds like a gloomy state of affairs, but it also means that it’s easier to stand out when you do have a better product, service or skill:

The Internet has raised the bar because it’s so easy for word to spread about great stuff. There’s more stuff than ever before, more lousy writing, more pointless products. But this abundance of trash is overwhelmed by the market’s ability to distribute news about the great stuff.

This statement is exactly what has created tremendous change in my industry – advertising. It’s no longer enough to have great branding, marketing messages and a solid advertising campaign – all products and services have to be outstanding, too. Anyone can Google or check with their friends on Facebook to find out if product A is better than product B. Word of mouth recommendations have never been easier, thanks to the Internet. The world has changed, and for the better.

After perfectly setting up the new environment for employment, Seth proceeds to layout the steps for any individual to become a valuable member in the new economy – to become a Linchpin. He states to succeed you need to…

Be remarkable.

Be generous.

Create art.

Make judgment calls.

Connect people and ideas.

At first, I thought the idea of suggesting that all people can “create art” was a bit hokey. But Seth explains that art is really the act of giving something extra that the recipient was expecting. He states, “Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.” And it’s important to create and give art without expecting anything in return. Once you expect something in return, it no longer becomes art.

The book also explains that a lot of the norms in society are set up to prevent us from becoming a linchpin. For years, our school systems, jobs and incentives have kept us from achieving this status:

Schools have figured this out. They need shortcuts in order to successfully process millions of students a year, and they’ve discovered that fear is a great shortcut on the way to teaching compliance. Classrooms have become fear-based, test-based battlefields, when the could so easily be organized to encourage the heretical thought we so badly need.

Similar to the findings in the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. Seth points out that the motivators that truly bring out the best work in people are rarely money. In fact, it’s much more about personal satisfaction.

The book continues with a discussion about our “lizard brain.” This part of the brain contains our most basic survival instincts. He argues that our survival mode prevents us from taking risks. We tend to avoid the anguish of trying something new and instead we listen to the demon inside our head that tells us to stick with something safe. We procrastinate, rationalize and ultimately succumb to doing what’s safe. That’s why it’s so much easier to follow step-by-step instructions, the lizard brain knows it’s not your fault if things don’t succeed. To tie this back to Seth’s earlier message that “mediocrity” is no longer acceptable, it’s our lizard brain (that’s been around for millions of years) that fights us and prevents us from being exceptional.

Every good concept needs a Venn diagram, and Seth delivers with an overview of the linchpin’s characteristics:

Linchpin Venn Diagram

The final third of the book gives examples of how to get past the negative effects of the lizard brain and become a linchpin. This is the real meat of the book. And Seth convinces the reader that anyone can become a linchpin in almost any organization. (Note: If you’re in one of the few organizations that doesn’t want you to become a linchpin, you need to find a new job.) Here’s Seth’s explanation of how the linchpin becomes critical in an organization:

The boss gives you an assignment; you do the work. In return, she gives you money. It’s an exchange, one not so different from shopping at the local store…

Of course, if the store charges more than the competition, you’ll switch and buy from someone cheaper… (Not unlike an employer.)

So what’s missing?

The gift.

If you give your boss the gift of art, insight, initiative, or connection, she’s less likely to shop around every day looking to replace the commodity work you do, because the work you do isn’t a commodity.

And finally, Seth describes in detail 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 knowledvge
  7. Processing a unique talent

I really enjoyed this book. It actually was a great follow up to Daniel Pink’s book on motivation which looked at the same issue from the employer side. Linchpin is from the viewpoint of an employee. As an entrepreneur, I think they both provide a valuable perspective to help become successful in the new economy. I highly recommend Linchpin for your reading list.

Maybe next time I stop by that restaurant in the Hill Country, I’ll drop off a copy of Seth’s book.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • boucher_Sylvain

    Thank you very much for the book review!
    A comment, on your Venn diagram :

    Charm + talent wouldn’t be a princess ?
    Charm and perseverance wouldn’t be frustration ?

    and perseverance and talent …prodigy?

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