Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Is that all there is? No.

A conversation with Linchpin author Seth Godin


Q: How did you write this book? I follow your blog at http://sethgodin.typepad.com, and have read most of what you've posted and published during the last decade, but most everything herein seems new — at least to me. Given your schedule of blogging and other work, where and how did you write this?

A: We have so much time, all of us. We don't have to spend hours tilling the fields or 12 hours in the factory; we don't have to walk three hours just to get water. We have time for TV and time for a restaurant and time to update Facebook. Making time to write isn't a challenge for me. I could write a book every month if I felt like it would help move the needle for people.

I think the hard part isn't finding time; the hard part is deciding that we're worthy. The hard part is overcoming the fear of actually making something happen. Fortunately for me, when it comes to writing, I'm fearless.

I write on my laptop. I write in moleskin notebooks. I write on post-its. For this book, I stopped at the Muji store in Newark airport and bought their biggest-size Japanese notebook. Bigger than usual, because I wanted bigger ideas than usual. And then I bought some special pens, pens just for writing this book. If I opened the big book and took out the big pen, then, it was to write something big.

And I just wrote. A lot. And fast.

I ended up deleting more than half the stuff I wrote. Words I loved, like little members of the family, but words that weren't going to help advance my argument. Sometimes writing less is worth more.

Q: You seem frustrated. Your tone isn't angry, bitter or snarky but... disappointed. Are you?

A: Very disappointed. Disappointed that we're close to blowing it. We've taken so much from the system and from the land, and for what? To buy a bigger house? What a waste. I'm disappointed that we built a system where we've worked so hard to cull the creatives, to dampen the outspoken ideas, to maximize efficiency. And then we smugly call it a dream, when it's not what it could be.

I walk into a museum or a concert hall or a kindergarten or a Fast Company advance or TED or read your column and then I feel better. Better because we haven't extinguished the opportunity, just diminished it. I'm working overtime to pour a little gas on the embers.

Q: All of your books focus on individuals as well as businesses, but this one is directed at employees more than anyone else. Why them?

A: I hear a lot of people talking about the system or their boss . . about how they're not allowed or permitted to do work that matters. A lot of my books have focused on strategy and mechanics and the fundamental shifts in the marketing dynamic, but I've come to see that this is really a grass-roots problem. If you've been brainwashed into believing that the system wants you to be a certain way, it's going to be hard for you to do the work you're capable of. So I'm trying to call people out and help them see that there has never been another time, certainly not in our lifetimes, where individual initiative is easier or better rewarded.

Q: I read a lot of books, yet of those in your bibliography, I've only read a few, which is very exciting to me! But the fact is, most people I talk to say they don't read -- books, newspapers, Kindle whatevuh. Is this aliteracy a problem, in your opinion?

A: A bigger problem than nonliteracy is noncuriosity. Reading is a great way to feed your curiosity, but it's not the only way. I want our kids (and my peers) to get better and more comfortable at asking, "Why does it work that way?'' and "How can I change it?'' The more you read, the more likely you are to ask (and answer) those questions. We've never had more words to choose from, never had them more easily available, and never had so few people who could read, not do so.

We fought for the right to have this choice and this leverage, and I hope we don't blow it. Can you imagine how much it cost to build and deliver the Internet? Why? So we could watch Paris Hilton videos on demand?

Q: Why did you essentially bypass the MSM [main-stream media] and newspapers by not sending review copies of Linchpin? Was this a cost-cutting decision or what, not making ARCs [advance review copies] and sending hundreds out? Or was there another reason, after all, you're generally pretty well reviewed!

A: Here's the thing, Richard: The MSM is mistreating big thinking book reviewers by firing them, cutting their column inches or yes, going out of business. The few reviewers who are left have a long line out the door of authors waiting for attention. Add to that the status quo mind-set of most MSM papers . . . I just didn't see the point of enduring snarky feedback from someone with a lot of fear of change and a lot of leverage. So I made the decision to write a book reviewers might not like, but one that my readers might embrace and share. And my publisher backed my decision of going directly to my newly empowered readers, the ones with blogs and twitter accounts and passion -- and giving them the same respect and attention we previously paid to traditional reviewers.

It's faster, cheaper and a lot scarier. Scarier because you can't tailor the message to a particular reviewer and because it hadn't been done before and because there's a lot of people at once. But one thing I learned from writing this book is that often, scarier is exactly what you should do.

Q: And, of course, your next book is...? (Ha!)

A: Truth: I haven't written a page, not even a word, of a new book since I handed this book in. I'm empty, at least right now. I gave this every single drop I had.

Q: Bonus points: Linchpin, to me, fits quite neatly between Daniel Pink's last book, A Whole New Mind, and his new one, Drive. Agree, disagree or what?

A: Just to be compared to Dan is an honor.

You have to write a book about a year before it comes out, so figuring out what's next is a challenge. If Dan and I are in sync, that helps me sleep better.

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Be indispensible: Create art and give gifts

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? 

Be the artist they cannot fire
Author Seth Godin recommends we free our minds and use our brains to turn our tasks into art.


This may be Seth Godin's best book yet. It's also his most personal.

Rather than explain how marketing functions in this latest new, new era or bloviate and pontificate about the urgent need to be unique, or how to spread ideas or when to quit, the guru and blogger aims his message at the growing number of employees who wonder what lies ahead for them and their jobs.

The short answer is ``nothing.'' Not as long as commoditization, virtual outsourcing and the relentless race for lower costs continues -- and there's no reason to think it will stop. In fact, count on rapid acceleration. New technologies will catalyze the process, so what do you do? And if you're a manager, how can you motivate your people if they're on a virtual death march toward approaching extinction?

In the spirit of Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind, Godin says that right-brain activity -- creativity -- is the answer, but he takes it farther by declaring that to ensure job security, one must invest each position with ``art'' and make every effort a ``gift,'' rather than a chore. Sounds like HR BS, to be sure, but Godin places his message in the context of the diminishing stature and importance of the production line and its white-collar analogues. Cubicle denizens and other office workers, retail employees, service providers, technicians and craftsmen may wonder -- with good reason -- if there is a future for what they do or, equally importantly, if there's any hope for them to transcend the routine tasks and drudgery of their jobs.

There is, according to Godin, and he discusses ways we stifle our own creativity and how our brains work against us. This is the primary obstacle, he says. It's not cosmic slop or metaphysical psychobabble, but clear and simple explanatory prose.

Indeed, Godin gets accolades for his ideas but never receives appropriate props for his engaging and very readable writing; consistently intelligent, elegant and free of both ego and artifice.

Your definition of "art'' is likely different from his, but that's all right. What Godin really wants from us is emotional investment and a little risk taking: seizing initiative, human engagement, whimsy, exceeding expectations -- that sort of thing. It's the only way to make yourself so valuable that dismissal would be unthinkable. The value added goes far beyond what your actual gig is because you've imbued it with beauty and emotion.

Godin gives examples of people doing just that despite their job descriptions: executives at Google, store buyers, retail workers, flight attendants, Web designers, dot.com developers and others.

Godin's reasoning is impeccable and his prose persuasive, so much so that I've done something that I haven't even considered with any other book I've reviewed. I secured copies for my colleagues (in my "real'' job) in the hope that the message herein resonates with them as powerfully as it has with me.

It may not work with every organization and some bosses may not get it, but the alternative would be grim indeed.
Originally published 1/25/10 in The Miami Herald

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sam Zell, What the hell?

The biography of real estate maverick Sam Zell is a decent introduction, but not the final word
Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell
Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell. Ben Johnson. Portfolio. 246 pages.

Great title, of course, though the sub-title doesn't really deliver what it promises, as there's scant inside info about the mind of this billionaire mogul. Regardless, this breezy biography of successful real estate investor Sam Zell provides a pretty good profile of this character.

As a kid, the canny young Zell bought copies of the new (at the time) Playboy magazine and sold them to his suburban Illinois classmates at a nice markup. As a young law student, he chanced into real estate, investing in student housing. The venture proved so lucrative that young Zell abandoned plans to practice law after holding exactly one job at a firm, then quitting to begin his real career as an investor.

He found distressed properties and rehabilitated them, earning a nice profit when he flipped 'em. It was a formula he'd repeatedly follow until he bought into a business that might be immune to such tactics: media — newspapers and broadcasting.

But before he faced his Waterloo on Lake Michigan, Zell continued to invest and profit, mostly from real estate though he also, according to Johnson, began to diversify. He became knowledgeable in international markets and invested cautiously though astutely in real estate ventures in developing countries.

Johnson's biography sheds little light on Zell's motivations beside avarice. Surely there's more, not merely in psychological terms or mystical mumbo jumbo.

In other words, what makes Sammy run? If the author has no opinion or insights to offer, I didn't see them herein. And other than his early days, there's little of the character's personal life. He's married. Any kids? No idea. But we do know he likes to ride motorcycles. It's his trademark. Nice.

Nevertheless, as Johnson turns his attention to the main event, the Tribune deal, Zell has more than enough money for several lifetimes worth of comfortable retirements, yet he goes far out of his element and comfort zone into a field quite foreign to him, despite his proclivity for reading six newspapers every day, per Johnson.

No need to recount the miseries endured by advertiser-supported publications and the broadcast industry, but when contrarian Zell and his cadre of like-minded mavericks looked at Chicago's venerable Tribune Co. what did they see? Johnson doesn't really provide much in the way of details, instead focusing on the background leading up to the company's sale and the machinations of the deal itself.

That's fine and well done but given the crumbling landscape, was it hubris, ignorance or hallucinogenic drugs that led the otherwise canny Zell into such an unastute investment.

Newspapers are generally staffed with overeducated underachievers whose monastic dedication to the pursuit of truth can be baffling to those using their own prodigious skills to merely make money. The ensuing culture clash between Zell and the journalists at his newly acquired papers was inevitable.

So, too, was bankruptcy, despite his stellar track record and apparently good intentions. Johnson provides the general outline of the ongoing dissolution of the Trib and its sister papers and broadcast properties — and the Chicago Cubs, which were part of the package — though another whole book might better detail the sad collapse. In all, Money Talks is a decent intro to Zell, but likely not the final word.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Seeking employment in an uncertain job market

Four new books see the glass as half full

Next to social networking primers, the biggest pile of bound dead trees in my stash are job-search books. And no wonder.

After larding the banksters with beaucoup bucks, the Administration is belatedly paying attention — or lip service — to the country's staggering unemployment. It's not just statistics (which fail to account for those who have given up in despair), it's people. Yet many continue to look for work or seek to start a career or reinvent themselves despite the awful job market. Pessimism isn't an option for some. There's no alternative except to plow on. That said, here's a selection from the current crop of get-a-job tomes.

The Smart New Way to Get Hired: Use Emotional Intelligence and Land the Right Job
The Smart New Way to Get Hired: Use Emotional Intelligence and Land the Right Job by Lisa Caldas Kappesser. JIST Publishing. 224 pages.

Kappesser's shtick is "emotional intelligence,'' a term popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book of the same name. So, in addition to requisite hints and anecdotes on résumés, interviewing and the like, the author offers self-assessments up the wazoo. The goal is to determine who you are and what job would be the best match for your personal qualities, mind-set, temperament and skills. It's hardly a bad approach, assuming, of course that the job for which the reader is best suited is open and the firm is able to hire someone to fill the position.

How to Get Any Job 2nd ed: Career Launch and Re-Launch for Everyone Under 30 (or How to Avoid Living in Your Parents' Basement) (How to Get Any Job: Career Launch & Re-Launch for)
How to Get Any Job: Career Launch and Re-Launch for Everyone Under 30 (or How to Avoid Living in Your Parents' Basement). Donald Asher. Ten Speed Press. 248 pages.

I envy people emerging from universities and colleges, educated in their chosen fields by wise and wizened professors in tweed, with their whole lives in front of them, ready to rock! Or not, again depending upon availability. But hope springs eternal.

Ascher stokes those fires of faith, both for new job seekers and those of us who've been forced into reinvention — often repeatedly. He's also big on self-assessment, anecdotes and gentle coaching, not just for newbies but salarymen and women at all stages of their working lives.

The End of Work as You Know It: 8 Strategies to Redefine Work in Your Own Terms
The End of Work as You Know It: 8 Strategies to Redefine Work in Your Own Terms. Milo Sindell, Thuy Sindell. Ten Speed Press. 144 pages.

The Sindells offer eight strategies that they say will allow you to redefine your relationship with your job so that you are working ``on your own terms.'' Good luck with that. Though they make a persuasive case, the ongoing role-play and suspension of disbelief might be difficult to maintain. And most employers have their own agendas, within which you will be fortunate to find common ground. Still, if their cogent advice helps one cope with an otherwise oppressive occupation, this volume is well worthwhile.

 The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated: Expanded and Updated, With Over 100 New Pages of Cutting-Edge Content.
The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Expanded and Updated). Timothy Ferriss. Crown. 416 pages.

Ferris wrote the book on productive indolence and now he's revised it. In addition to offering advice based on his own skewed-but sane view of life, the author provides resources and guidance for working minimally while traveling and having a great time.

He has scant understanding and sympathy for those of us who are preternaturally responsible and unable to chuck it all away to set up revenue streams and live in Tahiti, but the book is fun and a pleasant departure from reality. If you read it and it works for you, please send me a short postcard — and a fat check.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The end of dominant U.S. influence

The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money

Coauthors outline the problems the U.S. faces as we lose money and power


I've long thought that the best advice one can give a youngster seeking success in the business world is to learn Chinese. Our pals in Beijing and Shanghai hold serious paper on us ("Us, U.S.,'' as Paul Harvey used to say) and they can wreak terminal havoc upon America, its institutions and infrastructure, if and when they chose. But it's not really in their best interests to ask us to ante up and watch us turn our pockets inside out, show our empty hands and shrug.


Cohen and DeLong invoke the quote, ``If you owe the bank $1 million, the bank has you; if you owe $1 billion, you have the bank,'' then spend much of the rest of the book explaining why and how it's true. Along the way, they discuss the failure of neoliberalism, which sought to transfer portions of the control of the economy from the public to the private sector, skewer former Fed head Alan Greenspan, and describe with palpable awe the pandemic failure to oversee credit and banking in the United States and the major role it played -- and continues to play -- in our ongoing economic meltdown. The rampant corruption of the political system is also calmly recounted as a powerful catalyst for this dissolution and dispersal of American wealth.

Though both authors are academics, they're rather decent writers; DeLong is also a blogger (http://delong.typepad.com) who struggles online daily to make sense of various economic effluvia and ephemera with a combination of alacrity, disgust and amusement. But this book is far from a knee-slapper and unlikely to be chosen by Ms. Winfrey for her book club.

They cover a fair amount of ground here and their depiction of the loss of U.S. influence is tempered by their rational, non-alarmist manner. Though resistant to speculation on things that are obviously unknown and unknowable, the pair does spell out the fading power of government and private industry to collaborate on industrial and scientific innovation. The authors leave any horrific conclusions and sensational scenarios to others.

The absence of requisite funding will hit this area quite hard, they surmise. The natural constituency for this alarm might be found in either political party, though both are focused on other things. They may eventually wake up just in time to do nothing but howl and raise impotent ire, however.

Overall, the loss of U.S. dominance due to lack of governmental largess might promote more multilateralism, as we become just another country, rather than the planet's sole superpower. It may force some of our beneficiaries to stand on their own and opponents to focus inward. It may also further the domestic growth of China as their credit ceases to subsidize and support our consumption of their consumer goods. After all, it's a very big country and is already growing faster than any economy on the planet.

Cohen and DeLong's interesting look at the real New World Order is worthy of consideration as it describes a reality that's fast approaching.
published 12/14/09 in The Miami Herald