Are You Indispensable?
I’ve always liked Seth Godin’s books. Permission Marketing makes perfect sense. Purple Cow? Absolutely. The Dip? Yep. Important issues there.
But truth be told, I often felt like I was overhearing Very Important Insights aimed at someone else.
Sethian wisdom is undeniable, but it didn’t hit home for me. It didn’t seem to apply directly to me, my professional colleagues, friends and family.
Until I read Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Conjectures of a guilty post-industrial bystander
In this, his most cogent, personal and impassioned book, Seth takes on the whole enchilada: Post-industrial American culture—and your and my roles in the morass.
Linchpin speaks tough-love to me and the people I know: Liberal-minded folk who feel uneasy when EZ-Pass replaces human toll takers on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Or manufacturing jobs disappear. Or an upstate dairy farmer—unable to afford feed prices—shoots his starving cows then turns the gun on himself.
We feel distress. Distantly. Because we—a least until recently—felt removed from the crisis. Displacement couldn’t touch us. We live in Westchester and San Diego—not Detroit or Utica.
Factory as corporate metaphor
We don’t think of ourselves as factory workers. Very likely you, your spouse or your parents toiled in corporate cubicles.
In Linchpin, Seth convincingly allegorizes the corporation as white-collar factory. American business is an assembly line that produces replicable work made by replaceable workers.
And it makes sense, when you look back on America’s embrace of the factory model. Since the turn of the last century, mass production seemed not only right and sensible, but our manifest destiny.
Once industrialists solved the problem of overproduction—by stoking insatiable consumer appetites—factory owners faced a related challenge: The need for a trained, obedient workforce.
You were raised to work in a factory.
Adam Smith’s business model requires the breakdown of labor into tiny tasks that can be mastered by compliant, low-paid workers.
The American educational system, asserts Seth, developed to train these workers. Its primary goals?
- Fit in
- Follow directions
- Take good notes
- Show up every day
Tell me that doesn’t describe your job.
has had its rewards.
In return for your obedience, compliance and complicity, you were rewarded: Good pay. Healthcare benefits. Retirement savings. The boss’ praise. The dull satisfaction of overwork interspersed with interludes of gluttonous consumption.
Those were the rules of the game. And many of us played complacently—even happily. Until the rules changed.
Capitalist conspiracy theory and our lizard brains
While Linchpin critiques dehumanizing industrialism and conformity, it’s not an anti-capitalist diatribe.
Factory owners and educational drones aren’t the only culprits. Seth makes a good case for our own buy-in to the consumer Matrix, our choice of compliance.
Why? Why did we trade our creativity, autonomy, freedom—our souls—to work in dark, satanic mills and sunless corporate cubicles?
Don’t beat yourself up for being a toad: biology plays a part.
Seth offers a compelling explanation for our mindlessness: The “lizard brain,” our nervous system’s ancient limbic section. Ever alert for danger, trespass or a roll in the hay, the primitive lizard brain overrides reasoned, nuanced thought.
In a pre-linguistic, tribal culture the lizard brain served us. Its flight-or-fight impulses helped us survive.
The lizard brain and Resistance
Today, posits Seth, the lizard brain exerts itself in Resistance—a concept borrowed from writer Steven Pressfield. In his seminal book on creativity, The War of Art, Pressfield describes how Resistance shows itself in procrastination, distraction and inaction. Artists must identify Resistance—and fight it daily.
Seth broadens the definition of artist to include all creative workers. Any person who produces works of generosity, beauty and compassion is an artist: farmers, office managers, teachers, customer service reps and copywriters.
Fit in or stand out: Choose one.
Back in the day, success meant fitting in.
Today it means standing out. Independent thought, creativity and generosity, asserts Seth, give you the competitive edge.
Humanistic largess and connectivity make you remarkable. Indispensable. A linchpin.
Seth believes you must choose to fit in or stand out. You can’t straddle the fence.
Can everyone be remarkable?
But what if you don’t feel remarkable? What if you’re skilled, smart…and ordinary?
Years ago, I learned a lesson in ordinariness from a social worker. I met this woman—let’s call her Linda—while training for a volunteer stint working with mothers who abused their children.
As part of our training, Linda told me and the other volunteers terrible stories of child abuse. We wondered aloud how mothers could be agents of torment to their own children.
“Look,” said Linda, “these woman themselves are beaten and abused. They grew up accepting beating as appropriate discipline. They’re poor. They’re alone. They’re uneducated. They’re depressed and angry. They never had a childhood—and many gave birth in their teens. It takes an extraordinary person to not strike out in anger. It takes an extraordinary person to overcome personal trauma and do the right thing.”
“And most of us,” Linda looked around the room at the uniformly white, upper middle-class volunteers, “most of us are pretty ordinary.”
Who needs to read Linchpin?
Linchpin is essential reading for:
- Freelancers and consultants whose work is increasingly commoditized and low-paying
- Educated unemployed and underemployed information workers
- White-collar workers who hate their compliant, repetitive jobs
- White-collar workers who love their compliant, repetitive jobs
- Ivy League and elite liberal arts college graduates, MBAs, Phi Beta Capas, valedictorians and other products of fine, traditional educational institutions
Lest you despair your ordinariness: “Linchpins are made, not born,” assures Seth. Today “… the proletariat owns the means of production,” he declares. Digital technology makes it easier than ever for individuals to create, execute—or “ship” as Seth calls it—and stand out.
The factory is your mind. And Seth is cheering for you. He believes, “You are a genius.”