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Seth Godin: On Failing Until You Succeed
Have you ever considered the mindset that the one who wins is the one who fails and gets to play again? Change your mind about what it means to fail.
Editor’s Note: Seth Godin is one of the most respected authors, entrepreneurs and marketers in the business today. Yet, like every good success story, he’s had some epic failures along the way. His whole definition of success may change the way you think about failure because, as he says, “if I fail more than you do, I win… If you get to keep playing, that means you get to keep failing. And sooner or later, you're going to make it succeed. The people who lose are either the ones who don't fail at all and get stuck, or the ones who fail so big, they don't get to play again.
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Bryan Elliott: Hi, I'm Bryan Elliott, here with special guest, Seth Godin.
Seth Godin: Hi, Bryan.
Bryan Elliott: Thanks for coming again. Good to see you.
Seth Godin: It's my pleasure.
Bryan Elliott: So, we're back in sunny Orange Country, and really great to have you. I wanted to know, after you've written this new book, how did you get this job? How did this all happen?
Seth Godin: You know, it's funny. I think that there's a long tradition of people having jobs. I think that tradition is over. I think the model of walking up the corporate ladder is busted. And this notion that you have a job doesn't really make a lot of sense. If work on the candy assembly line putting truffles in the box, truffles in the box, that's a job. But, if you have almost any white collar job, almost any job where you have access to the internet, almost any job where there isn't a list of what you do all day, you don't really have a job. You have an opportunity. And I viewed my life for 25 years, as just one more opportunity to poke the box, to try something out, to do a project. I think we live in project-world. And, there's lots of ways people can get a job like mine, it just means sticking with it a long time before it starts to work.
Bryan Elliott: Well, you didn't always do this. You started on the corporate side and you evolved into other things, right? You tried a lot of things. You talk in your books about some of your successes and some of your failures, and that's sort of part of the process, right?
Seth Godin: Sure. I've failed way more times than I've succeeded.
Bryan Elliott: What are some of your failures?
Seth Godin: I invented the first videotaped aquarium and videotaped fireplace, so you could put a VHS tape in, and if you were really lonely and a loser, you could watch the fish go by.
Bryan Elliott: That was before they had the one that would play on your computer.
Seth Godin: Right, exactly.
Bryan Elliott: Always ahead of your time, let me just say that.
Seth Godin: Always ahead of my time. And so, what happened was I went to American Airlines magazine, and I said, "Let me run a full page ad, and if it sells, I'll pay you for every one that sells, and if it doesn't, I won't pay you anything." And I ran the ad, and I'd set in my mind a list of 30 orders. If I got 30 orders, I'd make the tape. And I got 24 orders. I threw in the towel, sent everyone a nice gift, sent them their money back. A week later, I got 8 more orders. And then, I had to send those back; and, you know, it was a failure. And, I launched books that failed. I did a book called, "Email Addresses of the Rich and Famous," [inaudible 00:02:32] got really mad. And, I made videotapes that didn't work, books that didn't work. My lesson was, if I fail more than you do, I win. Because, built into that lesson is this notion that you get to keep playing. If you get to keep playing, that means you get to keep failing. And sooner or later, you're going to make it succeed. The people who lose are either the ones who don't fail at all and get stuck, or the ones who fail so big, they don't get to play again.
Bryan Elliott: Right. You talk about in the new book, "Poke the Box," I will get to that in a minute, about this calculation of the risk being more expensive than the opportunity, right?
Seth Godin: Right. So, if you're talking to a pacemaker assemblyman, or an airline pilot, they don't try stuff. They don't say, "I wonder what happens if I do this," and we're really glad that they don't do that, because the cost of failing is greater than the cost of discovering what works and what doesn't. But, almost no one I know builds pacemakers, and I don't know any airline pilots. Most of us now live in a world where the kind of failure I'm talking about isn't fatal at all. If you post a blog post and it doesn't resonate with people, post another one tomorrow. If you tweet something and no one retweets it, tweet again in an hour. That if you're just obsessed with always doing what everyone else is doing because you're afraid of someone saying, "You failed," then you're in really big trouble.
Bryan Elliott: Right, and a lot of people watching this are small business owners, they're entrepreneurs, or they're working for the man and they've got something in the back of their mind that they want to try, what's your message to them about jumping out there, taking a risk?
Seth Godin: Well, I think we've got to first decide about definitions here. A freelancer is someone who gets paid for working, right? That graphic designer might be a freelancer. That means the more you work, the more you get paid. An entrepreneur gets paid while they sleep. They build a business that's bigger than themselves, and she gets paid even more when she's not there. She uses someone else's money to get big. When freelancers act like entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs act like freelancers, chaos ensues. It's not a good idea. And if you have a job with a boss, you need to think about whether your boss is asking you to do a set of tasks because if your boss is, they're going to try and find someone cheaper than you to do them, which is not good. Or, is your boss asking you to solve interesting problems? And if that's the case, now you have your work cut out for you.
So, what I would say to people in all three categories is, take appropriate risks. And by appropriate risks, I mean risks that keep you in the game even if you fail; figuring out how you can be in an industry, or how you can be in a space, or how you can try things out. Here's a simple example that has nothing about starting a new business. Let's say you always have a look and an appearance and a shtick when you're at cocktail parties. Well, go buy a ticket to some charity gala where you don't know anyone. Wear a completely different outfit, try a completely different shtick, and see what happens.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah, there's no risk in that, right?
Seth Godin: Right! What's the worse that will happen? You're not going to end up in the newspaper and you're going to discover, "Oh, when I look people in the eye, they're nicer to me! And I was afraid to do that in my hometown but I discovered it here and now, I can go try it over there." It's like public speaking. No one ever died giving a speech, but so many people are afraid of it. What's the downside? And yet, the people who tend to do it often discover things about themselves.
Bryan Elliott: You've already touched on so many little mini-topics I'd like to dive deeper into, so, going back to your new book, "Poke the Box," explain to us what "Poke the Box" means, and I want to talk to you about the cover.
Seth Godin: Well, it's a permission slip. What the book is, is hopefully, someone will give it to you, and if they do, theyâre saying to you, âItâs okay with me for you to fail. It's okay with me for you to figure out what works.â And the expression "Poke the Box" is one that programmers use. And it's, âThat's how you learn to program. You try something and you see what the computer does. You try something, you see what the computer does.â Programmers don't get bummed out when their code doesn't run. They just make a change and they do it again.
Bryan Elliott: So, it's all about exploring and trying new things, and this might work; and similar to a chef, who might try a new recipe and different ingredients to see...
Seth Godin: So, why a book? The book is only 85 pages long. And, the purpose of the book is, books have impact. They have more impact than YouTube videos. They have more impact than a 5-minute podcast. That what a book does is it hits you over the head again and again, and you can leave it on the shelf or leave it on the desk, and it reminds you that it's okay to do these things.
Bryan Elliott: You can pass it on.
Seth Godin: And you can pass it on. So, our book comes in a five pack, it comes in a fifty-two pack, because I'm hoping some people will really go, "Everyone in my company needs to read this," they buy 52 of them, clever box, and they leave it on reception's desk.
Bryan Elliott: It can fit in your back pocket, it's small enough.
Seth Godin: There you go.
Bryan Elliott: Tell me about the cover. So, I don't think I can remember a book that didn't have words on the front. It's just a...
Seth Godin: Bingo. We invented it.
Bryan Elliott: It's an icon.
Seth Godin: Right. So, not only is this my next book, I've invented a whole publishing company. I tried to take my own advice, and my advice here is poke the box. So poking not by going back to my old publisher and taking a bunch of money, which would be easy, but to say, "What if I reinvented publishing altogether?" And so, our back-end is powered by Amazon, and we're the first publishing company to be able to do that. It gives us all sorts of cool advantages. But one of them is, anytime you see a book for sale online, there's the cover. And right next to it is what it is. So, why do I need to say what it is, when right next to it it's going to say what it is? Even better if it's on your desk, and someone walks in and sees a book with no writing on the cover, what are they going to do?
Bryan Elliott: Yeah, I'm curious.
Seth Godin: Yeah, and so, you have a whole conversation that I didn't pay for, just because I gave you a beautiful cover with no words on it.
Bryan Elliott: I'm seeing the master plan. This is really a metaphor about curiosity, right?
Seth Godin: Yeah.
Bryan Elliott: Because there's the theme that runs throughout the book. Tell us about how important it is to be curious, and maybe talking about some of the things that are missing that you see, you know, business owners and people that are trying to get discovered and become indispensable.
Seth Godin: Well, there's a company called Penguin Magic, and I love their business model, and we donât have time for me to get into it. But, their website is filled with videos of people doing their tricks. But, they're not doing them in a tuxedo with a white rabbit. They go into the streets of Las Vegas, find semi-drunken tourists, and do tricks on them, right there on the street, usually, at night. And, the tricks are pretty amazing. And inevitably, the people start screaming, "Oh my God! It's Satan!" and then, they go, "How'd you do that?" And they all want to know how you did that. And the way Penguin makes a living is people buy the trick to find out how it's done, right? Too often in our world, someone does something, something extraordinary, and we don't say, "How'd you do that?" We don't wonder, "How's it work? How'd that business get from here to there? How did that thing, what's the technology behind that?" It's like magic but we don't care. And, if you're not curious, you're not going to learn. And in the old days, that was fine because the world was the same. But now, the world is so different, you have to learn.
Bryan Elliott: So, how did we get there? Is it more desensitized? Is there too much out there that we're just spoiled? We have all this technology basically at our fingertips, we don't have to walk very far to get it. Most of it's free. Why aren't we curious anymore?
Seth Godin: Well, we've been brainwashed. When they electrified America, they only had one outlet in the house and it was a thing with a light bulb in it. They hadn't any appliances. So, when they invented the dishwasher, the washing machine, the clothes washer was first. And, you had to unscrew the lights in your house, so it was dark. Then, you had to screw in the thing to bring the electricity to... And it was inevitable that you would figure out how it worked because if you didn't, it was going to electrocute you. And once we got over that hump by the 1940s, businesses worked, electricity worked, cars worked, the system worked. And then, school got to work brainwashing us to just accept it all. Don't ask questions, no user your serviceable parts inside, right? You shouldn't own a screwdriver anymore, don't open this. And so, that thing compounded by big banks, and big corporations, and big government agencies saying, "Don't ask, just listen."
Bryan Elliott: Yeah, conform.
Seth Godin: Right. So now, we enter this revolutionary age that we're in right now, where so many things are being rebuilt, and every once in awhile, a 20-year-old comes along and builds a website that makes them a billion dollars. And the rest of us are sitting there, "Oh, we never thought of that,â because we're just waiting for someone to tell us what to do.
Bryan Elliott: Talk to me about the resistance. In "Linchpin," fantastic book, very personal, you had said, we talked about this last time, very personal for me, too; and it was a very timely message, I think, still very relevant today and probably, 5 years from now. But talk to us about the resistance, about fear, and how all that plays, and how we can use it to our advantage.
Seth Godin: Well, how did we end up accepting this dictatorship of this system? How does it work in other countries? How does it become the status quo? It turns out we are evolutionary organized to do that. There's a part of our brain right here called the amygdala, just above the brain stem. It's the part of the brain that's been around for millions of years, the same brain that a chicken has, the same brain that a lizard has. Psychologists call it the "lizard brain." And if certain things happen, turbulence, your boss' caller ID on your cell phone, certain siren in your ears, it instantly activates. And, it doesn't matter if you were in the middle of something great when it happened. All of the systems shut down. And so, what we do in school is, in order to get a kid through 12 years of it, the teachers discovered that the shortest shortcut is to activate that. Every time you activate that, the kid will become compliant.
So, we set up this system and then, we hire people and we say, "Do this or you're fired." And, in our head, we say, "Fired. No job. I'll never get another job. I'll run out of unemployment. I'll become homeless. I'll die." So, the boss says something and we immediately associate that with dying. And, so this brainwashing system was in place for a really long time. And you can come to power and become a dictator with it, you can also become a boss, or a teacher, or a parent using that system; which is all great unless a revolution comes. And when the revolution comes, the people who can figure out how to shut down their amygdala long enough are able to succeed. And so, that's why Silicon Valley works, because everyone is sitting around reassuring themselves that they should be calm. While everyone else in the world is freaking out, they're like, "Let's build something new here."
Bryan Elliott: Well, yeah, and the problem is that we've been punished so much for trying new things, that we have been conditioned not to do it, right?
Seth Godin: Right, and then, we start punishing ourselves. And that's what I'm talking about. Right now, you're actually not being punished that much to try new things. Now, it's easier to start a business today than anytime in history. The only person who's stopping you from starting a business is you, right? Access to technology, access to capital, access to information, access to markets, never, ever, been like this before. When I started early companies of mine, where I needed 70 people to build a company and raise millions of dollars, now you can start, you know, the domino project I started with zero. Squidoo, we started with zero. It's not hard anymore, except the voice in your head, the resistance, as Steve Pressfield calls it.
Bryan Elliott: I love that you say, there's thousands of books, maybe millions of books that talk to us about what to do, and we can go to graduate school and learn what to do, but what's missing is how to do it, or actually to go. Talk about just that piece, initiative.
Seth Godin: Well, the first thing to say about initiative is, no one gives you initiative. You have to take it. Which is really cool, and most people don't think about it that way, but it's true. I taught at the NYU School of Business, graduate school. I had the most popular course in the school. And there was 60 people in the class. No grades, I mean, sorry, no tests, no homework, 100% class participation. And one of the classes, I come in and I say, âEveryone bring a cell phone.â And I call people up one at a time, and I gave them a phone number of someone, and I said, "Call this person and sell them a subscription to TIME magazine while everyone in the class watches you." Now, tell me exactly what the downside is here. They'll hang up on you. That's the... But if you don't call, I'm going to give you an F. One third of the class wouldn't make the call.
Bryan Elliott: Really.
Seth Godin: Because the act of having to talk extemporaneously to a stranger in front of the class was so overwhelming to people who had never, ever, been asked to take initiative that they just shut down. The way you get to the second year at the Stern School of Business is you get Aâs from the time you're in third grade. And the way you get A's is you say, "What are the instructions? When is this due?"
Bryan Elliott: What do you need me to follow?
Seth Godin: Exactly.
Bryan Elliott: Conformity.
Seth Godin: Yeah.
Bryan Elliott: How does this idea, I'm just curious because I've spent some time working in Japan, there's a country that is all about conformity, for a good reason. Geography demands it, they all have to live in close quarters, and it's busy, and so, that's part of... It's ingrained in their culture. Does this work in other places?
Seth Godin: Yeah, you see, let's compare Singapore and Japan. Japan's in real trouble, right? Japan is in trouble because the conformity thing isn't working. It didn't work at Sony and it doesn't work internally for a lot of companies. Because if all you're going to do is what you did before, and there isn't a [inaudible 00:15:31], or somebody else with a new map. It's really tough. Singapore is just as crowded as Japan, but Singapore, the government there says we're not going to give you a lot of other freedoms, but we're going to give you the freedom, and we're going to insist that you guys go poke. You go figure out how to fail at this business, and this business, and this business, and that's what they built the country for. So, I think all around the world, what they figured out in China is they're saying, âWe don't want to be the low cost producer of other people's junk. That's not where we're going to end up.â So they keep trying to move up and so, they're inventing stuff. Whether it's solar power or new ways to make cars, etcetera, that isn't about waiting for somebody in the United States to fax them the plans. And so, we're losing that because we're allowing ourselves into believing that we're the only people in the world who know how to take initiative, when in fact, we're learning that all we know how to do is watch the Super Bowl.
Bryan Elliott: That works, especially in Singapore, when the higher ups are giving you permission. So, I guess my question is, if you're at the bottom of the totem pole, and then, we have folks at the top of the totem pole who may be the roadblocks. Who should we go after first to convince? Is it really just about us? Is it, be the change you want to see in the world, whether you're at the top or the bottom?
Seth Godin: I think the whole "my boss won't let me," I think, is the problem. And, I start with this. If you're saying that if you go to your boss and say, "May I do blah, blah, blah," that your boss says, âNo.â Well, of course, she says no. She says no because what you're really saying is, if I do this and it fails, it will be your fault. And if it succeeds, I get the credit. No boss will do that. So, that's a crutch.
Bryan Elliott: And it could be the HR department, too, saying that you've got to write with pens that only have blue ink.
Seth Godin: They might, but that's the second part. If you truly work in an organization that will not let you take even a little initiative, you ought to try to get fired. Because first of all, I don't think you really work at an organization like that, but if you do, why are you wasting today, and tomorrow, and the next month, and the next six months, doing that?
Bryan Elliott: Maybe it's, and I've talked to a lot of people about this, maybe it's just in our minds. Maybe there is...
Seth Godin: It is. That's exactly what it is.
Bryan Elliott: We feel stuck.
Seth Godin: So, for example, when I worked at my only real job, it's been in software. It was a real company, back in the day, when there were real companies with real jobs. But I did things like, on Christmas Day, when most of the people who were buying educational computer games, were opening their educational computer games, I came in and answered the phones, instead of having no one answer the phone, because it was fun. Three hours of helping kids on Christmas morning, talking to them, blah, blah, blah. Well, was someone going to fire me for doing that? Was I... Any company, can you imagine getting fired for doing that? So, two weeks later, when you're at a meeting, and someone is talking about rewriting the manual, you say, "Well, when I was answering the phones and I talked to 200 people..." everyone in the room sits their quietly, because you are now the expert. Why are you the expert? Because you figured out what to say when you answered the phone, and you're the only person in the room at your level who's ever talked to a customer, and you've talked to 200 of them. What does that cost? And so, the point is that we all have so many more degrees of freedom than we give ourselves credit for. Even if you're a waitress at Denny's, you can figure out how to be the waitress they will miss if you're gone.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah, and if the napkins are out of place, or you think we should have shiner spoons, you could take care of that.
Seth Godin: Yeah.
Bryan Elliott: It is about picking yourself.
Seth Godin: Right. Every once in a while, you hear the case of some waitress who got a $10,000 tip because some guy comes in so often and finally, he said, âThank you.â Now, she's not doing it for the $10,000 tip. She's doing it because discovering how to smile differently, or talk differently, to make the patron have an engagement with you, that's your real job. Your job is not to bring the eggs from one place in the restaurant to the other. They can do that themselves at a buffet. They're coming because you are a human being, and what human beings do is art, is new stuff, is connection, and this humanity is what has been boiled out of us, and what we're seeing is it's coming back in. There's this phrase that's been ringing around in my head all day today, which is, Tom Peter's wrote it in a magazine story years ago called âThe Brand Called You,â and it was brilliant. And, it totally changed the way people thought of branding. But, my new thing is, I am not a brand. You are not a brand. You are a person. And, there's a big difference between being "Dell" and being "Michael Dell." And, I think that we're now entering this world where it's okay to be a person again.
Bryan Elliott: Excellent. Seth, as always, thank you so much for being here with us; appreciate you coming here, and great talking with you always.
Seth Godin: Well, I just want to say, I think the community needs to recognize the fact that you have to poke in everyday. You're not sitting there following a map, it's all about can connect with people, how you can bring your own map. And, I think there's not enough of that in the world so I thank you for doing it.
Bryan Elliott: My pleasure, thank you so much.