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January 23, 2010

You need to read Seth Godin's Linchpin. Or be a cog in the machine. Your choice.

by Josh Bernoff

Linchpin Seth Godin's Linchpin is a remarkable book. You should buy a copy. (It's available on January 26.) Unless, of course, you're enjoying that rut you're in.

First of all, let's acknowledge that Seth is a polarizing figure. He is the god of small business, and his books like Permission Marketing have transformed the way people think about marketing. But his books are written to persuade and inspire, and rarely have the kind of the gritty proof and statistics that hard-edged businesspeople demand. This leads many leading business thinkers to write him off.

The kind of impassioned plea that Seth writes doesn't work if you don't buy the original premise. As a result some recent efforts, like Meatball Sundae and Tribes, haven't really hit the mark. But Linchpin does, in my opinion. I think Seth has discovered a fundamental truth about work.

Seth's premise is that today's organizational structure is a throwback to the days of factories, with interchangeable parts and interchangeable workers. Basically, this means that if you do your job as you're told, then you're easy to replace. Seth wants you to "become indispensable" instead. There are several elements to this. First, you need to make a choice -- wake up and stop being a sheep. Second, you need to do your work as a gift -- as art -- because it makes you happier, not just to please your boss. Third, you need to triumph over your lizard brain -- the part that wants you to conform and avoid dangerous actions that might make you stand out. Fourth, what you start or imagine doesn't matter -- a real linchpin ships products, completes the task.

Notice how banal this sounds as I write it out. But this is a radical message, and Seth is the most talented business writer there is. Here are some excerpts from the two dozen pages I dogeared (these paragraphs are from all over the book):

The Boss's Lie:"What I want is someone who will do what I tell them to." "What I want is someone who works cheap." "What I want is someone who shows up on time and doesn't give me a hard time." So if this is what the boss really wants, how come the stars in the company don't follow these three rules?

[On work as art] "Art [in this context] is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another. . . . I think it's art when a great customer service person uses a conversation to convert an angry person into a raving fan. And it's art when Craig Newmark invents a new business model that uses the Internet to revolutionize classifieds."

Nobody Cares How Hard You Worked. It's not an effort contest, it's an art contest. As customers, we care about ourselves, about how we feel, about whether a product or service or play or interaction changed us for the better.

The future of your organization depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked-for gifts of emotional labor. And worse yet, the harder you work to quantify and manipulate this process, the more poorly it will work.

[On the beginnings and ends of projects.] Get scared early, not late. Be brave early, not late. Thrash now, not later. It's too expensive to thrash later.

The resistance [also known as complacency] would like you to curl up in a corner, avoid all threats, take no risks, and hide. It feels safe, after all. The paradox is that the more you hide, the riskier it is.

In my mind, one of the most valuable things in this book is a chart on page 181. There are two axes. The x-axis goes from passive to passionate. The y-axis goes from attachment (that is, inflexible dedication to your own world view) to discernment (knowing what to live with and what to seek change in). I would call that y-axis "wisdom". Seth wants you to aim for the upper right, high passion plus high wisdom, the realm of the linchpin.

From my years of experience working with people, passion is a trait most visible in the young. Wisdom is a trait that is more visible in people who are more experienced. This is why there are so few wise and passionate linchpins. Seth would never be so crass as to typecast people by age, but I know there are plenty of experienced and wise but passive people (he calls them bureaucrats, you know the type) and plenty of young, passionate, and inflexible people (he calls them fundamentalist zealots.) This is why the wise, passionate person stands out.

The real reason I like this book is that after nearly 30 years of work I have arrived in a place Seth would describe as a linchpin and I am loving it. I have always been as passionate and creative as I can, just to amuse myself, why work if it's boring. This is a childish quality but I retain it at age 51. On the other hand, I have learned some discernment that I sure didn't have in 1982. Every quarter, my boss (and I have had many) sets goals with me related to what the company needs. At the end of the quarter, often, what I accomplish is very different from what we thought would be useful. But typically, that boss looks at what I did and says "that was what we needed" and rewards me anyway. I cannot be a cog, and fortunately, they have recognized that a cog is not what they need. In the long term, all of my success so far has come from this sort of thinking.

I thought of some of my younger colleagues as I read this book, working so hard to live up to what their bosses have told them they should be doing. Some of them do exactly as they are told. That's pretty dull. Some of them try to work longer hours to accomplish all the grunt work they have on their plates. They're frustrated. Some of them identify ways to contribute that nobody ever thought of, generate new ideas, and stand out for their creativity. The best do that even as they get the regular work done. I am drawn to them. They learn fast, and often, go far. Because being a linchpin is a blast.


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Hmm, how shall I put this? "The graveyards are full of indispensable men." But sure, by all means, passion is a good idea.


I always value when managers are honest with me. Sadly, it is often the case that they are not. When they are honest, I seem to soar to new levels. With a positive climate, positivity results. Stars shine in positive climates and dim in dark environments.

Whitney Johnson

I like "you need to do your work as a gift -- as art".

Reminds me of another quote that I love by Spencer Kimball, "real craftsmanship reflects real caring."

Regardless of what you do for a living, whether Wall Street or Main Street, you can always spot a real craftsman.

Glad I discovered you. I have your book -- now I just need to read it!


Amazing:-) Seth is always getting to the very ground of business naming the undiscussable!

Thanks for sharing this early info on the book and making the conversation possible.

Cheers, Ralf

David Berkowitz

I wasn't as enamored with this one, and I like most of Seth's books. I just feel like it's a lot of the same "be all that you can be" advice you can find in any book in a self-help section, but if it inspires a few people to do more with their lives, for their sake I'm happy Seth wrote it.

Joe McCarthy

Thanks for the review, and for offering examples of your own insights and experiences that corroborate Seth's arguments.

I like the analogy of art and work, and am reminded of "The Artist's Way at Work" - a book which struck me as interesting and engaging but somewhat cautious in its approach. Sounds like Seth's book is not so cautious.

However, I found the image of a "starving artist" coming to mind as I read your review ... and wonder whether the X-axis of discernment or wisdom is a critical factor in the success of an artist (in other realms outside of what we normally think of as "work"). I suspect that successful artists are able to deliver what critics, patrons and/or the public at large need, even if it doesn't correspond to what they (critics, etc.) say they want ... which may be why the genius of so many artists is only discovered and appreciated after they've died.

Finally, I like the wisdom behind "Nobody Cares How Hard You Worked". One of the things that I grew weary of during the George W. Bush years was the former president's repeated emphasis on how hard he and/or others in the administration were working, when what really mattered was what they were delivering. In your summary, you note "what you start or imagine doesn't matter -- a real linchpin ships products, completes the task". I hope the current president will prove to be a more effective linchpin.

eric silverman

Re: The demands on the author's time

This is what happens when you attempt to contact Josh through the Forrester Media Dept.

"Hi Eric,

Thank you for the invitation to interview Groundswell co-author Josh Bernoff. Unfortunately, Josh is very busy writing the follow-up to Groundswell and has little time for these types of activities. I’m afraid we’ll have to respectfully decline your invitation.


Jon Symons

Director, Media Relations
Forrester Research"

Now, know, Josh received my unsolicted invite as I'm putting together a greenspace community and had some questions.

The response is appropriately worded on face, but note the inference.

No, it's not the tone.
Tone is impossible to ascertain from email. But you can't mistake the 'I don't have time for the little people' mentality, and wonder why an author who espouses listening and talking to your audience has been assigned a corporate gatekeeper to protect the asset from the multitudes.

Everyone is busy. I've got a family, too. But this guy apparently doesn't have one minute to respond to a reader's query.

Takeaway: Groundswell cuts both ways, folks.

I look forward to the follow up.

Sincerely yours,

Eric J. Silverman


It is most definitely disheartening that someone who writes a blog can't find time to respond to an inquiry.

Josh Bernoff

Trying to figure out how to respond to you, Eric (and Tom).

Is your point that I "owe" you an interview? Or a personal response? The other Forrester people are doing as I asked them -- telling people who want briefings and interviews to go to other analysts for a little while. Jon's job is to deal with media inquiries.

I am finishing the peer-review manuscript of Groundswell Heroes right now. 12 chapters. Due in two weeks. After that is more writing and rewriting.

Between writing stints I sometimes blog to clear my mind. I like blogging. It helps me think.

It's not "the little people" I'm not responding to right now, it's all the people. Even paying clients. Because I need to clear time to think in order to create.

Once the manuscript is in (end of March) I'll be back in closer touch. At that point, I can take a closer look at what you're asking for. Or if you're in a hurry, we have quite a few other analysts here covering social technologies.

I hope this helps.

Wilson Usman

Everyone who still believes that just working and following instructions from others is going to pay off is got it wrong. I hope that those who pick up this book can truly begin to shine at whatever there art is.
I have to say that off the five books I've read this year, linchpin is one I recommend to everyone I see now.

Mike Sellers

I haven't read this book of Seth's, but I like the sound of it -- the x/y space is very descriptive. And it describes for me (at almost 50) why I have a difficult time working in a large company -- both passion and wisdom are generally seen as dangerous and are thus discouraged.

So I think it's important to note that "being a linchpin" comes from both sides: from the boss and the individual. The individual has to do a lot of this themselves of course, but your boss can either support you or thwart you in this. As an employer, I try to do everything I can to encourage the people who work for me to be linchpins: mentor them in their career, encourage them to take on (non-competing) sideline work, support their desire to learn more about our business, etc. Anything I can do to move them up and to the right in that x/y space benefits them, and thus benefits me and my company. (And if they're not particularly motivated that way, well, that lack of passion and wisdom doesn't serve them very well in our company anyway.)

The standard employer fear is that if your people become too good, they'll leave. And sometimes they will. But if they do, it's either because you weren't challenging them enough (or were suppressing their passion and wisdom) or because it's just time for them to go grow somewhere else.

The best thing about my job is keeping those relationships over the course of years, no matter who is working for whom. These relationships have value in themselves, but undeniably the ability to pull together a great team quickly is an incredible resource in itself. And you only get that if you are a linchpin yourself, and have been able to help others grow in that direction too.

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