Linchpin by Seth Godin

Linchpin – To be a linchpin, is to bring your artistry to your job, to lead others, connect people, to expend emotional labor, to have a super power. 

A day’s wage for a day’s work is a shitty way to spend 80,000 hours of your life. Is that what life has boiled down to?  Just an exchange of the marketplace, companies offering employees money to do some tasks, while employees try to get away with working as little as possible, expending as little energy as possible, for their employer?

There can be more though.  Everyday, in any situation, you have the opportunity to do something remarkable, have job satisfaction, have life satisfaction.  You can choose to be an example, to lead others, connect with people, bring life and humanity to a corporation or marketplace of transactions, be recognized as an artist, make work an adventure, get wrapped up in what you do because you are so dedicated.  You can be a linchpin.  But first, why is it so hard?

How did we end up here?

How did the american dream become “working a stable 9-5, doing safe work, living in a home in he suburbs having to commute 30-60 minutes a day to and from work and daycare, driving a Benz, BBQ’s on weekends and the odd trip here and there”?  How did we get to a place where working for a large public company or recognized name become the defacto of our university graduates?

The Old Model

The old industry of work was about sticking in, following instructions, coloring inside the lines, being told what to say, working without autonomy.  Do what you’re told to do and be rewarded for it.  The more widgets you produce, the more you are rewarded for work. The more effort you put in, the more you are paid.  The old industry still exists.

However the old model is going away.  Effort and physical talent aren’t the required inputs that the economy wants anymore.  If what people are looking for is standardized and predictable, the corporate machine employs robots to do the work.  They own the means of production, and they don’t need you, cause you get tired, you make mistakes, you get sick, you want weekends, and a 3 week vacation.

What We Learned in School

Keep your pencils sharp, write straight along the blue lined paper, learn cursive writing, learn just enough about a subject to attain a grade, and then move on to the next subject. Learn to read and memorize facts, regurgitate them in a limited time under high pressure situations.  Study together, but test alone.  Do homework. Be a generalist, don’t fail.  Don’t risk embarrassing yourself, buy things to fit in, fit into the crowd.

The Resistance

The resistance is what makes you uncomfortable.  It can be quite a good compass for what you are doing too.  The closer you get to being uncomfortable, and the further you push yourself into places that you are uncomfortable, the lizard brain fights even harder, using any tactic.  Lies, flawed logic.  But that’s when you know you are close.  The short cut to mediocre is to be comfortable.  The long way, the only way to significance, is to be uncomfortable.

The lizard brain is the primitive unevolved part of your brain.  It’s concern is safety, socially, economically, as well as physically.  One of the blessings about living in this age now is that we don’t have to be afraid of a sabretooth tiger looking to chew our neck.  The only thing we have to brave is putting ourselves out there, getting over our fears, staring at the blank screen, canvas, or whatever medium, and creating something remarkable.

What your “tribe” or “community” wants, and what the “market” wants, are completely opposite.  What the tribe wants is for people to fit in, that’s how tribes are formed.  When people are alike in values or interests or something else, it forms a loose connection.  When someone falls outside of the defined lines of norms within a tribe, they are neglected, pushed out, they make everyone inside the lines uncomfortable.  But to be remarkable, by definition you cannot be ordinary.  That is when you will hit resistance.  In order to get different results, you have to have a different process.  That process will make others feel uncomfortable.  What the market wants though, is not what is ordinary.  They don’t pay, or watch, or wait in line, or follow what’s just ordinary.  We crave our products, our services, our entertainment, and our experiences, all to be remarkable.  The social resistance must be overcome.

I do not want to spend a lot of time here, and perhaps it’s worthy of a separate conversation.  This is not instructions to be different for the sake of being different.  Don’t garner haters because it won’t cause you to be remarkable.  It is just a symptom of being remarkable.  Being a linchpin doesn’t mean being a lone wolf, or not having close friends.  In fact, it is the complete opposite, as I’ll cover shortly.

Making art in a cubicle

You might object and say “I am not an artist”.  Bullshit.   It is not a paintbrush, a stage, or a camera that makes someone an artist.  Artists are everywhere, you encounter them as baristas, analysts, service workers, and coaches.  It isn’t the piece of work that is created that makes it art.  It is putting a part of yourself in what is created, or the service provided, that makes it art.

I had a memorable experience at a Italian restaurant, where my wife and I sat at the bar in front of the raw station.  This station was where the food was already prepped but just needed to be plated, and where drinks were served. No kitchen experience necessary.  Our “bartender” had an Italian heritage, and explained to us all about the food and the differences in how his grandmother made it to how the restaurant made it.  He explained all the work, the 14 hour days him and the kitchen staff put in to the food that we were eating.  When I asked him about some of the food he was cutting, he would put small samples on a plate and let us taste it.  He told us that he’s not actually a trained cook, but that really he is an actor.

That server, Peter Ciuffa, entertained us for 2.5 hours at his station, not because he was told to do so, or cause he wanted recognition, or wanted a review of his service in an obscure blog, or for a big tip. He entertained us, because that was his art, his salumi station was his stage, we were his audience, and his story was his script.  It was art, because a 20% tip could not possible repay him for the memorable experience.  

What if I don’t know what my passion is?

“In a pre-Internet world, where couldn’t have existed, would Jeff Bezos be a nonpassionate lump?  If Spike Lee hadn’t found a camera, would he be sitting around, accepting the status quo?
Passion isn’t project-specific.  It’s people-specific.  Some people are hooked on passion, deriving their sense of self from the act of being passionate.
Perhaps your challenge isn’t finding a better project or a better boss.  Perhaps you need to get in touch with what it means to feel passionate.  People with passion look for ways to make things happen.
The combination of passion and art is what makes someone a linchpin.”

There is no map

How can you do it?  There aren’t specific instructions, gosh I wish there were.  But being a linchpin, doing art, getting past the resistance, connecting with people, there aren’t a set of instructions, which is what makes it so valuable.  No one can tell you how to unlock your potential.  You have to be the navigator, without a map.

But hey, no one really knows what they’re doing.  Consider what Bre Pettis has to say about doing the work:

Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
Laugh at perfection.  It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
People without dirty hands are wrong.  Doing something makes you right.
Failure counts as done.  So do mistakes.

Leading others

That’s where linchpins come in.  They understand that there is no map, but the work still needs to get done.  Just because there is no map, linchpins know it’s not an excuse for waiting for the instructions.  So linchpins soldier on, they’re the ones that jump in on the front lines, and jump headfirst into the trenches.  They move forward regardless if anyone follows.  That is the exact reason, that people follow.  Cause you don’t need instructions to move forward.  The circumstances are the same between linchpins and others, there is no map or instructions.  The only difference is linchpins will map it out, and charter the unknown.

The culture of art, gifts, and connections

A gift, inherently, is something that you do not pay back.  Gifts between friends or family on holidays or occasions are rarely real gifts.  There is an expectation.  I’ll buy you a gift, if you buy me a gift.  That’s why when we get older, gifts get phased out of our social circles, they become dry and boring.  My family dreads the secret Santa family exchange of presents because there are so many rules around it.  You are required to buy something.  You cannot go over the $ limit. If you go over, you are cheating and making everyone feel guilty. If you go under, you are cheap and are not thoughtful.

Real gifts are the thoughtful ones.  When I surprise my wife or my friend with something, just cause I was thinking of them, and thought they would like it.  When your parents bought you gifts as a child, they did it for the joy of giving to you, for the priceless face you make when you open it.  There is no possible way you could’ve repaid your parents for that, and that’s what made it a gift.  The joy however is not only for the gift receiver, but the gift giver as well.

Real art is a gift to someone.  You get the opportunity to make a connection and change someone.  The more people you change, the more effective your art is.   Through your gift, connections are made between you and the receiver, as well as between the receivers.

Giving a smile, connecting with people, being generous, these are things that we do for free all our lives, but when it comes to work many of us feel that we aren’t paid for that.  This creates a tension where we aren’t able to do what brings us joy into our work.  Bring your gift to work, so that you can receive that joy more, be yourself more, be more human.

Being a Human

This is what it boils down to, being a remarkable human being.  Life was not meant to be lived with a map.  Life wasn’t meant to just follow instructions only.  It’s about connecting people, leading others, giving gifts, and giving yourself and being yourself as a gift to the world.  When we follow everyone else’s rules, guidelines, paths, we’re only doing what can be done.  But be someone different, giving something different, because only you can give your unique art.