Seth Godin

author • entrepreneur • teacher

SETH GODIN is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He’s also the founder of the altMBA and The Marketing Seminar, online workshops that have transformed the work of thousands of people.

He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. You might be familiar with his books Linchpin, Tribes, The Dip and Purple Cow.

In addition to his writing and speaking, Seth has founded several companies, including Yoyodyne and Squidoo. His blog (which you can find by typing “Seth” into Google) is one of the most popular in the world.

His latest book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn is now in its fifth printing. 


Drew Kugler: So, it was fifteen years ago in this very town that our guest today, Seth Godin, was nice enough to pick me up at the train station to attend a seminar which he was putting on. I joined that seminar as a result of reading an article that Seth wrote in Fast Company magazine, where he was touting this concept called “The Purple Cow.” I bought it lock, stock and barrel, including the milk carton and all the rest. I came here and I started to learn from stuff as I have done very consistently over these last fifteen years. And I am honored to be here with Seth.

Everybody says that when they meet Seth, so I'm not going to go on much more with that. But I want to remind Seth of something else we did together; let's see if he remembers. In 2005 he wrote an article for CNN about marketing—talking, calling, all marketers liars. And Seth, you remember the restaurant in New York which you referred to with the three hundred dollar sushi.

Seth Godin: I do remember the restaurant, yes.

DK: Right. And my conundrum was I was so inspired by Seth at that point, and at that point I didn't want to come and come all the way here, and attend another seminar, but thought I might be able to in essence bribe Seth. And I invited him to lunch at Masa in New York City. We went in, I remember his seersucker suit, and we sat with Masa. It was only us and we had this two hour conversation. Well, getting two hours of time at that day was was a rarity, and I learned a heck of a lot, plus had the most amazing sushi lunch I'd ever had. Since then continued to learn, and we come to today.

Seth when you wrote about “The Purple Cow”, the concept that I come away with or came away with and stick to to this day is the notion of remarkability and of standing out in a commodified world. Is that pretty close as you would like the listener to understand it.

SG: I've added a layer of nuance to it over time, but I think that, you know, whatever that was—2003—that was the essence of what I was getting at. I think the nuance is, it's not up to you if you're remarkable, it's up to them. You can—I mean a lot of people think that I'm in charge of what's remarkable and not—so they send me email about it. Please don't send me email about it. And I point out to them it's not up to me, it's up to the person who's choosing to remark. And what that means is a level of radical empathy is required. You don't get to do this because it's important to you; it will work because it's important to them.

DK: And you stay—and you hold to that these days.

SG: I'm more than ever. That's what the marketing seminar is all about.

DK: Exactly. Exactly. Now, as I was thinking about ways to approach what I initially learned from you—this notion of remarkability—which you even defined in the book as worthy of a remark. The idea that you would be talked about for any set of reasons. Could be you were the most of this, or the least of that.

SG: Right.

DK: Very clear about that. The thing that I feel I must ask, is do you add any filter or different kind of notion given that the most remarkable person today, who gets talked about the most, is the President? Is he—he's as purple as any cow I have ever thought about. I'm curious when it gets to the value type of reaction—

SG: So, let's be clear. The value judgment of better, the value judgment of moral, the value judgment of important is not included in most of my work when I'm talking about marketing, because if it was, it would be my value judgement. When I'm doing my work about leadership, what I'm trying to say is, “Are you doing work that you are proud of? Are you being the person in public that you can point to and say I made a difference in the world, and I'm glad that I did.” And those two things have to intersect. And the reason they have to intersect is that marketing works. And we cannot deny that it works. We can't deny that it works because A. Smart people spend trillions of dollars on it. But B. There's plenty of data that shows that if you do marketing well, you can change things. That means you're responsible. You don't get to use the rearview mirror and say well, I had to do it because it was the only way to make a living. No, that's not true. There are plenty of ways to make a living. Therefore, you are on the hook. And if you do things to get elected, or you do things to defeat the opposition, or you do things to tweak people you don't like, well, marketing enabled those things to work. But you're still responsible. And I think that one of the pitfalls of democracy as we gave everybody a media channel, is that without curation, and without filters, those media channels can spiral out of control. And we end up with not only outcomes that bring lots of us angst, injustice and shame, but a lot of shoulder shrugging where people say it couldn't be any other way. And what leadership is about is accepting and demanding that it could be another way. That there is hard work that could be done, where we could make things better by taking a path that isn't as direct.

DK: So, this podcast that I've done is is based in the fundamental mission or premise to help the listener understand that if you want to make a true difference in your life, the WORTH IT moments are created inside or with conversations. Now, they could be written conversations, as you are famous for, in terms of the blog, in terms of your prolific book creation. But I wanted to get in a little bit as many people that have come at you for advice, including me, and including thousands I'm sure. When you think about a good conversation, the right kind of conversation, let me put you on the spot. What are some of the attributes that you value in a conversation partner?

SG: OK, so if I'm going to decode what a conversation is; a conversation is not an oration or a lecture. Conversation is two people engaging with full expectation that one or both of them will change their mind about something. And it's that changing your mind about it that makes it different than a memo, or different than an update. So if I run into someone I haven't seen in a while and she tells me about the work she's done lately—you could call that a conversation—but it's not useful in the sense that the kind of conversation I'm talking about, in which we are not only speaking but listening and probing and discovering how we could make forward motion happen. Those are the magical conversations that most of us remember. For that to happen, it seems to me a few things have to occur. One, before it begins, it's helpful if we are ready to be changed, not merely to change others. For me, those have been the most profound conversations when I show up willing, as my pup Baxter's willing to do, lie on your back and let someone scratch your belly, right? Like what does it mean to be non-defensive in that setting?

Number two—to have a partner who is coming at it with generosity and empathy, not with the intention of winning. And for those two reasons there are almost no political conversations. Because political conversations require you to show up willing to accept the fact you might not have selected the optimal path, and be talking to somebody who cares more about you than they do about changing your mind. And those have always been rare. They were rare when Alexander Hamilton was getting shot and they're rare now. Because that's who human beings are.

And so, my best conversations aren't about politics. They tend to be about art, creativity. I remember conversations vividly from 1993 about what the Internet was going to become. And those kinds of conversations are inherently less defensive, and if you have them with engaged, smart people, they're thrilling.

DK: Let's be be real clear, especially for the listener. What is so thrilling? It seems to be, if I heard it correctly—it's this notion that there is change afoot. There is a chance for a mind, and therefore the actions that follow, to be changed. For example, when you when you talked in '93 about the Internet, do you recall that being your purpose, your intention of being in those conversations, was to be around change?

SG: Well, I was causing change in '91. I was really early. And I knew that I was turning on lights for some people, about e-mail. I was one of the pioneers of e-mail marketing. I didn't understand the World Wide Web. I didn't understand how profound the shifts were, but I did in '93, '94. Again, really early, because I listened to Kevin Kelly. Because I sat with Steve Case. Because I was present when things were going through this shift, and I was listening. And those moments—so why is it so profound? The doorbell rings and someone says, “Here is a reciprocating skill saw with a twenty four volt lithium battery.” You've never heard of reciprocating skill saw, but you're a home contractor and for the next ten years of your life, this saw is going to make it so you can get every project done it half the time. And that means you can bid more aggressively, and get better projects, and become more efficient in your work. All because someone rang your doorbell and handed you a reciprocating twenty four volt lithium circulating saw, reciprocal saw.

So, the point is that that's what happens professionally in some of these conversations. And some of these conversations, someone turns on a light and you say, “Oh I didn't even know. I didn't know I had that lever. I didn't know I could be heard. I didn't know I could connect. I didn't know I could lead.” And then suddenly you can do more generous work. That—what a gift, right, worth way more than a saw. What a gift. And the magic of the world that I live in, that so many people listening to this live in, is there's a conference, there's a lecture, there's a podcast. There's a something you can do that simulates that. Or you can go organize the five people who are going to meet once a week at the anthropology department at Stanford for three hours, and just talk about things to turn on lights for each other. Well, that's how we stopped being cavemen. That is it. That's the method.

DK: Literally sitting and talking, and most importantly listening.

SG: Listening with an openness, to not figure out what to say next, but to say, “Might that be true? What would happen if I tried that on?” And trying it on, you know watching if you go to a nice clothing store and you walk watch somebody and I think is just a couple times—somebody who's not used to being a white collar worker, but who is you know come out of college or gotten promoted and their trading in their polyester shirt for a shirt that makes them walk differently, feel differently. It's not better to wear a certain kind of clothes, but it's different. What does it feel like to be different like that and to see yourself in the mirror like that? Well I think conversations can offer that if you have them for the right reason, with the right people.

DK: Yeah. Let's talk for a second about or more than a second about technology and conversation. As you just pointed out quite accurately in following you you were on the a lot of this technology very early. You taught me and millions of others probably about the right way to use e-mail marketing versus the wrong way. A great book called Permission Marketing changed the way I think a lot about just dealing with people in general. My point though, is if we stay to this notion that human conversation is the foundation of real change, what do you see with your perspective on all of this as to any valuable role—I want to stress the word valuable—that technology can play in helping conversation. Because there's a lot of noise about how it doesn't.

SG: Sure. Interesting side fact. At Disney World, in Disneyland, the costume characters need security guards that Tigger—they're asked where they're walking around need to be followed by a guard. And the reason is that people not just kids were hurting them. They were pinching them, they were hitting them. And I've thought about this and I actually saw it happen, which made me start thinking about it. And I come to the conclusion that, in that setting, people think that because the other person is wearing a mask, they are invisible. And that's obviously completely backwards, but there they are acting like they're wearing a mask.

Yesterday, I was in New York City when a guy walked into a public space wearing a mask and a security guard followed the person in and asked the guy to take the mask off. We are really hesitant to run people in masks. Either were mean to them, or we think they're going to be mean to us. And the internet is nothing but a lot of people in masks. And that is—it's some people think it's saving grace—I have never felt that. I felt like anonymity was the biggest problem online and has always been. And anonymity causes people to act poorly. That the people who are writing one star reviews, the people who are trolling your restaurant on Yelp, the people who are hurling invective at one another—the trolls would never do it if they had to sit with you face to face as a person who knew who they were. Never. So don't go to those spaces if you want to have a conversation because you won't have one. Instead, figure out who you can have a conversation with. And the fact that it's electronic isn't important at that moment. What's important is the two of you both decided that you could have a conversation in this medium.

So, the magic of my blog—you know I get something out of it—writing it even if no one reads it—but the magic of reading it, is it's like we're having some version of a conversation. I am not listening to you and it's clear I'm not listening to you. But you might want to listen to me, and if you listen to me with a certain mindset, well, seven thousand posts later, I might have changed your mind about something for free. And that's what I'm trying to do. And I don't write my blog anonymously for a reason, which is I want you to know I stand for what I wrote. And you don't have to like what I wrote. You don't have to accept what I wrote, but at least you know someone's been showing up every day for twenty years saying something and your mileage may vary, but here he is.

DK: And it is worth noting, as obviously a follower of your blog, and listening to your caveat at the beginning, that you do not allow for comments, responses. There is no—and I think it's a great idea—it makes the reading a lot easier, it makes the connection quote unquote with you a lot easier. That all of the invective and the criticism. Many people have killed comments, because it really isn't—I may even disagree with you a little bit—it isn't a conversation—it isn't even close to most people who read these things, right. However it does function, to your point, as a vehicle of change if the people enter into the reading in the right spirit. Well let me ask then this: called putting you on the spot, and I've written you up a couple times about blogs you've written. And as I was driving up here today I was thinking about what are the blogs that stick out the most for me. And the way that I define that is I make reference to them with my clients.


DK: The clients that pay me to coach them on how to engage in worthy change, what are the Seth Godin references I make? Forget how many Purple Cow books I sold; forget all that kind of stuff. Very proud to do that. But there are two that I'd appreciate, if you remember them, to comment on. The first one you've taught me, through your writing, which you call “shun the nonbelievers.”

SG: Right.

DK: Right. Talk about a hell. Because I used to think I could change people. I used to think that if I did everything right, spoke right and I was interesting enough, I could change people. But then there were people who didn't like me. Who found me too—somebody said pugnacious—in my work. I eventually took that as a compliment. But talk to the listener who's trying to find their way in a world of influence, which is what we're all doing. You know Dan Pink says “To Sell is Human.” We're all doing it, and you're going to get rejected. How does shunning the nonbeliever help that?

SG: OK. Well, there's a lot of layers and complications here. Let me let me try a few ways of approaching it. A story I like to tell is there's a stand-up comic, top of his game; used to be. Doing very well. But now fading, says to his agent, “Get me more gigs.” The agent gets a gig in New York, which is hard to get. Because it's not even a airplane flight. Comedian shows up he's sort of late. Gets there the last minute. Goes on stage. He's doing his best stuff. Just digging deep, doing his best. No one's laughing; no one. He's dying, completely dying on stage. Gets off at the end of the set. He's distraught. He's ready to quit the game, and then he finds out that his agent didn't do enough research. Everyone in the audience was on a tourist junket from Italy, and no one speaks English. He had just done a set of his best material in English to a group of people who don't speak English. So the question is in that setting, should the comedian be upset with himself about his work? Well, I think we can all agree, no. Wrong people, wrong day. They didn't get it. Wasn't there for them. Fine. That doesn't mean you're a bad comic, it means your agent should have told you that people in the room were Italian.

Well, that's what a nonbeliever is. Someone who doesn't speak your language and doesn't want to. Somebody who's not going where you're going. That you might be really good at knowing your way around town, but if you walk up to someone in town to give them directions to Main Street, but they weren't lost, you haven't done anything good for anybody. And so, we begin with the idea that enrollment from the person you seek to serve is critical. That it doesn't make sense to judge yourself based on what someone who doesn't want what you have, thinks of your work.

And then the second part is there's no such thing as the mass market. That Beyonce has a huge hit and only four percent of the people in America buy a copy. Ninety six percent don't. People say they love my work and they're glad I do what I do. Ninety eight percent of people in this country have never heard of me. My name has never been mentioned in front of them, right? Fine. The mass market is completely overrated. It doesn't mean anything to have the number one TV show. That doesn't mean you're better, it just means that you appeal to more than a few people. But still not everyone. So instead of being, as Zig would say, a wandering generality, you have the chance to be meaningfully specific. But if you can be a meaningful specific, please understand that that means you don't appeal to very many people, and that's OK.

DK: And the corollary to that—I sent one of your quotes to a client yesterday who is actually talking to his therapist along with me—because the therapist says, “The reason you're not leading well is because you want everyone to like you.” You had a quote in Purple Cow which I've used that basically says... something to the effect of anyone who's trying to make a difference in the world are basically going to have people that don't like them. That putting out a point of view, leading in essence, you are always—that means if you've got detractors, that means that you're actually making a difference.

SG: But let's differentiate one small thing here. Which is that if you insist on leading everyone then the number of detractors goes way up. On the other hand, if you show up and say, “I'm walking to Santa Monica. Who wants to come?” That people who come are likely to want to go to Santa Monica. And so it's voluntary. And the difference in leadership and management is simple. Management is mandatory. Leadership is voluntary. And don't confuse the two.

DK: Got it. OK. I'm looking at the book on your shelf behind you that this next point comes from. I said it was a blog, but it was actually from Small is the New Big.

SG: Which is a collection of blog posts so you're right about that.

DK: So, I'm close.

SG: Close.

DK: And this is the blog. The reference I make with clients that I have never seen people, to quote my late mother, seen people in their chair so much because of the discomfort of considering it. So here's the setting. I'm in a room with with a team that has hired me for my concept I call Constructive Candor.


DK: So, in Constructive Candor, it is the notion that you pull the Band-Aid, say the hard thing and then stick around with your listening and your questions, to help people arrive at some truth. Somebody raises their hand before I pull out this blog reference, and they say, “Well, if I do that I'm going to get fired. And every time somebody says that the synapse goes off in my head. Small is the New Big. Guillotine or the rack. Now that when I reread it the other night on the way here, that's not what you wrote it about. You wrote it about a company, an enterprise, refusing to take a risk.

SG: Right.

DK: I have adopted it to human beings taking a risk. And the notion of how do you want to feel at work, right? So think about it.

SG: I hear ya.

DK: If your boss is an asshole, right? And you're taking it, and you're taking it. You're saying, “Yeah, but.” You're on and I'm going to shut up and much explain the concept because it certainly is one of my favorites. Talk about the difference between the guillotine and the rack.

SG: Well, that was ten years ago. So, I'll try to remember because you've read it more recently than me. But my memory is if you're going to die, it's way more pleasant to die by the guillotine than die by the rack. And the idea that you should quietly watch Western Union or the Cleveland Plains Dealer become irrelevant and then fade away with all the layoffs and the stress and the tension, why don't you just shut down the division and open this other division where you have a chance to grow? Because you're going to have to do something sooner or later anyway; that's clear. Every smart person can see the direction that's going here.

But when I think about this candor concept and the boss that's going to fire me, I want to make two points there. The first point is this. It's really unusual for a successful, productive white collar person to get fired for behavior that supports the mission of the organization. They can get censured for it, but it's really unlikely they're going to get fired. I think we catastrophize some of this as a way of hiding. But the other thing that's really important that is probably in your work, but of course I'm not aware of it, is the idea of enrollment. That it is way better to pull a Band-Aid from someone who has opted in—to having you pull the Band-Aid— than it is just walk up to somebody and pull the Band-Aid. And so, you don't want to use candor as a crutch to act like a jerk, that in fact what you want to be able to do is work with people where it is expected, understood and in fact embraced. That the way we do things around here is with a form of generous truth telling that saves us a lot of time and energy. And if you have a boss that has an enrolled in that journey, it's probably not a good idea to just enroll her in it anyway. It's probably a good idea to figure out small steps that get you to the place where there is active enrollment in that.

So, one of the things I've written about is how stupid the annual review is. That we wait three hundred days nursing stuff and then we figure out how to sugarcoat it, and then we figure out how to ma— and by the time the year is up it's too late, right? That what we need are weekly reviews or daily reviews. That if you get a job where the boss says, “And every Thursday I'm going to give you direct feedback about how the last week went.” Now you've got opt in on the Band-Aid thing, right? And vice versa. But, it doesn't make sense to have it be this dramatic edge case. It has to be, “This is what we do around here and if you're rolled in that we're going to be able to do great together.”

DK: And by doing it more often, you practice it more, it takes out the mystique and the fear a lot more. There are there are many reasons to—at a minimum I've converted half a dozen clients in the past year to quarterly reviews, instead of annual reviews. We're on the right direction for sure.

OK. Let's look forward now. And we'll begin to conclude. I recall in listening to you speak—obviously a few times—that you have views as you did in '91 and '93—you have views of the future. You find the time somehow that everybody else wishes that they did to—as I wrote here pick up your gaze. And I am curious what you see in two ways ahead. Not only for yourself, because—here we are—the blog continues. You've provided some different learning platforms which I'm happy to have of reference to. But, people ask me, “Am I going to do this the rest of my life?” Because I'm good at it and love it. It's a calling—all that. I'm curious how you think about your future, or do you?

SG: Yeah, I have for years and years. Because I comment on the medium that I work in. And so, I see because I focus on it so much—things changing in my medium before most people do. So I started talking about the death of books in newspapers in 1994, right? And to be in the business of books and talking about the death of books isn't a comfortable thing right? And it turns out that lots of—they say the death of blank is greatly exaggerated. It's not greatly exaggerated, just slightly accelerated. So when television came along, people said radio is going to die and they were right. They were just forty-five years too early, Fifty, seventy years too early, but radio is going to die, just it's going to last a lot longer than you think. Wolfman Jack managed to last the whole time.

And I think what happened was that I was present at just the right age for four or five important revolutions. And they happened all in a swirl in a ten year period, and I talked a lot about most of them. And then we don't get another revolution of that magnitude that most of us can do something about for a while. So, what I say to people about who ask about the next big thing is: this is the next big thing. The massive peer-to-peer connection, the ability that everyone can publish. The death of traditional, curated, scarce publishing. And the ability to outsource almost everything. So if you do average work for average people, you're in big trouble.

So, all of those things were true when I first wrote about them in ninety- three, ninety-five, and they're still true. So, it's been how do we comment on that and work with that over the last twenty something years. The next revolution the one I've been writing about more really is—it is inevitable that artificial intelligence is going to accelerate the death of certain kinds of jobs that we already knew were going to go away. There are two and a half million people in America who make a living driving a vehicle. In ten years vehicles are going to drive themselves. It's safer. It's more efficient. It's faster. it's cheaper. So two and a half million people got to find a new thing to do. That the call center has to go away. The call center, which is again another half million people, whatever; it's going to replaced. To go down this list; radiology. Radiology is going to go away. With computers are going to read X-rays better than trained radiologists any day now. So if you have a choice between a hand read radiological report or an accurate one, everyone is going to pick the accurate one, right?

So, it's not—this is going be forced on us. We're of, we're just keep choosing it over and over again. So that's the next revolution that I see but we can't do anything about it other then figure out how to be more human. It's different than the last bunch of revolutions because last but revolutions opened doors for humans to do all sorts of interesting things. And the next one is going to be a different sort of thing. It's going to be efficient paved road toward a world where you don't have a job. And that's going to require a lot of thinking about what I'm going to do all day. And it's going to require society to figure out how to figure out how to get us all food and shelter, because we're not going be able to add value like we used to at scale. And I'm not that kind of sociological top-down thinker, so I'm not going to be able to contribute insight there. But I certainly see it coming.

DK: And I was going to say for those like me and like others who care or a lot about what you see, as reticent as I know you are to just give advice, what advice do you have—not necessarily for the people who won't be able to drive anymore—but as a framework to think about one's future employment-wise, given that there won't be—the jobs will change—so much changes. What would you tell someone to be thinking about?

SG: Well, this shift has been on for years—that it's better to satisfy wants, than needs. That you know when I do work in India or Kenya, you need to sell people what they need. Water. Shelter. Healthcare. Because that's all the resources to pay for. But in Western cultures, privileged communities, people are paying way more for what they want than what they need. You don't want to sell people water, when you can sell them a life-changing experience, because they can afford it and they'll pay for it. Going forward, it becomes even more urgent. Not only you selling people what they want, but you're selling them a want that they can't get from anybody but you. And that means creating an asset of relationship, of trust, of impact, that can't easily be replicated whether it's by a server farm, or by somebody else who read your book and wants to go do what you do. That has been brainwashed out of us from first grade on, and we have to figure out how to avoid what we got taught we were supposed to do, and instead do the thing that, A,. we want to do, and that, B, people value more now.

DK: Well, by the time this podcast runs, which is about a month from today, everybody or anybody who follows it will know that you are my last guest, at least for a while, because I promised my older daughter and my two friends who have died, that I would write the book. And you have said to me in off-handed emails, “Just write a book for yourself. Do that.” And I'm making this commitment on the air.

SG: Yeah.

DK: And all the rest—it's part of my own reminding system. But I want to—you were purposely the last guest of this because—except for my rabbi except for my doctor—nobody has been more influential in my career then than you and your writing. But there's a there's a quick story I want to share as we close. I was reviewing some of our old email the other day, back when we went to Massa. And I came out of that all full of vim and vigor about an idea, as so many people I'm sure do having been around you and all the rest. And of course it ground down to a halt of being busy and all the rest. And then I got really fired up again and I wrote you and you demonstrated in the email two things that I will always remember about the right way to treat people. Number one; you were responsive. As many times you say don't write me emails, people still write you emails; and you answer every email. That day when I asked you not a great question, you said to me, “Drew, I'm swamped.” I got basically you had to go. We weren't going to talk for awhile. I had to get to work. And since then I have built this coaching practice beyond anybody's dream, and now I'm going to take what you've taught me and turn it to creating something even more important. So for that, and for going to Masa with me—I've been back since—I thank you. And I thank you for welcoming me here to your headquarters and helping me get this technology set up. You should have seen it folks. Anyway Seth—keep reading. Keep reading Seth Godin. It is life changing, to say the least. So, thank you very much.

SG: That means the world to me. Thank you Drew. Thank you for the work you do in the connections you make, and for keeping your promise in writing this book. 

DK: Absolutely. Thank you.