Are You Indispensable?

Seth Godin

Summary in 100 words or less

No one is a genius all the time, but all of us are geniuses sometimes. Abundance is possible, but only if we can imagine it and then embrace it. It’s not about what you’re born with, it’s about what you do. The only way to get what you’re worth is to stand out, to exert indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about.


My Highlights

A genius is someone with exceptional abilities and the insight to find the not so obvious solution to a problem. A genius looks at something that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck.

No one is a genius all the time, but all of us are geniuses sometimes.

The tragedy is that society (your school, your boss, your government, your family) keeps drumming the genius part out. The problem is that we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.

Ten years ago (this book was published in 2010), our economy wanted you to fit in, it paid you well to fit in, and it took care of you if you fit in. Now, like it or not, the world wants something different from you. We need to think hard about what reality looks like now.

Where does Average come from? (1) You have been brainwashed by school and by the system into believing that your job is to do your job and follow instructions. (2) Everyone has a little voice inside of their head that’s angry and afraid. Thai voice is the resistance – your lizard brain – and it wants you to be average (and safe).

We are surrounded by bureaucrats, note takers, literalists, manual readers, TGIF laborers, map followers, and fearful employees.

What factory (traditional corporations) owners want is complaint, low-paid, replaceable cogs to run their efficient machines. Factories created productivity, and productivity produced profit. It was fun while it lasted for the factory owners.

How was it possible to brainwash billions of people to bury their genius, to give up their dreams, and to buy into the idea of being merely an employee in a factory, following instructions? The key piece of leverage was this promise: Follow these instructions and you don’t have to think. Do your job and you don’t have to be responsible for decisions.

In the factory era, the goal was to have the highest PERL (Percentage of Easily Replaced Laborers). If you can easily replace most of your workers, you can pay them less. The goal was to leverage and defend the system, not the people.

Now, here are the only two choices: Win by being more ordinary, more standard, and cheaper; or win by being faster, more remarkable, and more human.

The Law of the Mechanical Turk: Any project, if broken down into sufficiently small, predictable parts, can be accomplished for awfully close to free.

When the job description and automation intersect, the people are doomed. And it’s happening, and get quicker and quicker.

We have reached the end of what Thornton May calls attendance-based compensation (ABC). There are fewer and fewer good jobs where you can get paid merely for showing up. Instead, successful organizations are paying for people who make a difference and are shedding everyone else.

Today, the means of production = a laptop computer with Internet connectivity. Three thousand dollars buys a worker an entire factory.

It’s not about what you’re born with, it’s about what you do.

Your outlook is completely due to your worldview.

The linchpin sees the world very differently. Exceptional insight, productivity, and generosity make makers bigger and more efficient. This situation leads to more opportunities and ultimately a payoff for everyone involved. The more you give, the more the market gives back.

Abundance is possible, but only if we can imagine it and then embrace it.

You can’t – or you don’t want to?

If you can be human at work (not a machine), you’ll discover a passion for work you didn’t know had. When work becomes personal, your customers and coworkers are more connected and happier. And that creates even more value.

In a world that relentlessly races to the bottom, you lose if you also race to the bottom. The only way to win is to race to the top.

The sign in front of your public school could say: We train the factory workers of tomorrow. Our graduates are very good at following instructions. And we teach the power of consumption as an aid for social approval.

The only way linchpins differ from a mediocre rule-follower is that they never bought into this self-limiting line of thought.

Studies show us that things learned in frightening circumstances are sticky. We remember what we learn in situations where successful action avoids a threat. Schools have figured this out. Classrooms become fear-based, test-based battlefield in order to convince us to fit in.

What they should teach in school? (1) Solve interesting problem. (2) Lead.

Leading is a skill, not a gift. You’re not born with it, you learn how. And schools can teach leadership as easily as they figured out how to teach compliance. Schools can teach us to be socially smart, to be open to connection, to understand the elements that build a tribe.

Is there anyone in an organization who is absolutely irreplaceable? Probably not. But the most essential people are so difficult to replace, so risky to lose, and so valuable that they might as well be irreplaceable.

The law of linchpin leverage: The more value you create in your job, the fewer clock minutes of labor you actually spend creating that value. In other words, most of the time, you’re not being brilliant. Most of the time, you do stuff that ordinary people could do.

From the outside, it appears that the art is created in a moment, not in tiny increments. However, the opposite is true.

Wikipedia and the shared knowledge of the Internet make domain knowledge on its own worth significantly less than it used to be. Today, if all you have to offer is that you know a lot of reference book information, you lose, because the Internet knows more than you do.

The depth of knowledge combined with good judgment is worth a lot.

Every interaction you have with a coworker or customer is an opportunity to practice the art of interaction. Every product you make represents an opportunity to design something that has never been designed, to create an interaction unlike any other.

Solves problems that people haven’t predicted, sees things people haven’t seen, and connects people who need to be connected.

If you seek to become indispensable, a similar question is worth asking: “Where do you put the fear?” What separates a linchpin from an ordinary person is the answer to this question. Most of us feel the fear and react to it. We stop doing what is making us afraid. Then the fear goes away.

The linchpin feels the fear, acknowledges it, then proceeds.

Art is never defect-free. Things that are remarkable never meet spec, because that would make them standardized, not worth talking about.

If it wasn’t a mystery, it would be easy. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth much.

If your boss won’t raise your bar, you should.

The first kind of linchpin never say “no”, because she always manages to find a way to make things happen, and she does it. It’s done.

The second kind of linchpin says “no” all the time. She says no because she has goals, because she’s a practical visionary, because she understands priorities. She says no because she has the strength to disappoint you now in order to delight you later.

Digging into the difficult work of emotional labor is exactly what we’re expected and needed to do.

An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.

Passion is a desire, insistence, and willingness to give a gift.

I don’t believe that you’re born to do a certain kind of art, mainly because your genes have no idea what technology is going to be available to you. Cave painters, stone carvers, playwrights, chemists, quantum-mechanic mechanics – people do their art where they find it, not the other way around.

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.

Artists are optimists. The reason is simple: artists have the chance to make things better.

Optimism is the most important human trait, because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow.

Artists don’t think outside the box, because outside the box there’s a vacuum. Outside of the box, there are no rules, there is no reality. You have nothing to interact with, nothing to work against. Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where things get done. That’s where the audience is, that’s where the means of production are available, and that’s where you can make an impact.

The discipline of shipping is essential in the long-term path to becoming indispensable.

The reason the resistance persists in slowing you down and prevents you from putting your heart and soul and art into your work is simple: you might fail.

Successful people are successful for one simple reason: they think about failure differently. Successful people learn from failure, but the lesson they learn is a different one. They don’t learn that they shouldn’t have tried in the first place, and they don’t learn that they are always right and the world is wrong and they don’t learn that they are losers. They learn that the tactics they used didn’t work or that the person they used them on didn’t respond.

Finding good ideas is surprisingly easy once you deal with the problem of finding bad ideas. All the creativity books in the world aren’t going to help you if you’re unwilling to have lousy, lame and even dangerously bad ideas.

You call the resistance “hard-hearted capitalist common sense.” Perhaps you call it “being realistic about the system we live in.” Better, I think, to call it stalling, a waste, and insidious plot to keep you from doing your real work.

The resistance is everywhere, all the time. Its goal is to make you safe, which means invisible and unchanged. Visibility is dangerous. It leads to the possibility of people laughing at you, or even death. Change is dangerous because it involves moving from the known to the unknown, and that might be dangerous.

The resistance will help you find the thing you most need to do because it is the thing the resistance most wants to stop.

Anxiety is practicing fears in advance. Anxiety is needless and imaginary. It’s fear about fear, fear that means nothing. The difference between fear and anxiety: Anxiety is diffuse and focuses on possibilities in an unknown future, not a read and present threat.

Little ideas are important, unfortunately, they could easily disappear. The challenge is in being alert enough to write them down, to prioritize them, to build them, and to ship them out the door. It’s a habit, it’s easy to learn, and it’s frightening.

Schools don’t spend a lot of time teaching you about the power of unreciprocated gifts, about the long (fifty thousand years) tradition of tribal economies being built around the idea of mutual support and generosity.

Three reasons why it’s now urgent to understand how gift culture works. First, the Internet has lowered the marginal cost of generosity. Second, it’s impossible to be an artist without understand the power that giving a gift creates. And third, the dynamic of gift giving can diminish the cries of the resistance and permit you to do your best work.

In the linchpin economy, the winners are once again the artists who give gifts. Giving a gift makes you indispensable. Inventing a gift, creating art – that is what the market seeks out, and the givers are the ones who earn our respect and attention.

The new form of marketing is leadership, and leadership is about building and connecting tribes of like-minded people.

The magic of the gift system is that the gift is voluntary, not part of a contract. The gift binds the recipient to the giver, and both of them to the community. A contract isolates individuals, with money as the connector. The gift binds them instead.

When we meet a stranger, we do business. When we encounter a member of the tribe, we give gifts.

For the last five hundred years, the best way to succeed has been to treat everyone as a stranger you could do business with. This is one reason that some multilevel marketers and insurance salesman make people nervous.

If I touch you in any way, you then have two obligations: to make us closer, and to pass it on, to give a gift to another member of the tribe. Gifts don’t demand immediate payment, but they have always included social demands within the tribe.

The key distinction is the ability to forge your own path, to discover a route from one place to another that hasn’t been paved, measured, and quantified. So many times we want someone to tell us exactly what to do, and so many times that’s exactly the wrong approach.

The greatest artists see and understand the challenges before them, without carrying the baggage of expectations or attachment.

Linchpin is enlightened enough to see the world as it is, to understand that this angry customer is not about me, that this change in government policy is not a personal attack, that this job is not guaranteed for life. At the same time, the linchpin brings passion to the job. She knows from experience that the right effort in the right place can change the outcome, and she reserves her effort for doing just that.

The market doesn’t care about your defense. It cares about working with someone who can accurately see what was, what is, and where things are headed.

The linchpin has figured out that we get only a certain number of brain cycles to spend each day. Spending even one on a situation out of our control has a significant opportunity cost.

Your competition is busy allocating time to create the future, and you are stuck wishing the world was different. We’re attached to a certain view, a given outcome and when it doesn’t appear, we waste time mourning the world that we wanted that isn’t here.

The fascinating and universal truth is that the opportunities came after we were inspired – we weren’t inspired by the opportunities.

People aren’t going to follow you because you order them to. They’re not going to seek out a new path because you tell them that they must.

We’re good at visualizing this future, and if we think it’s not going to happen, we get nostalgic for it. This isn’t positive visualization, it’s attachment of the worst sort. We’re attached to an outcome, often one we can’t control.

Every day is a new chance to choose. Don’t let your circumstances or habits rule your choices today. Become a master of yourself and use your willpower to choose.

Organizations obey Newton’s laws. A team at rest tends to stay at rest.

Humility is our antidote to what’s inevitably not going to go according to plan. Humility permits us to approach a problem with kindness and not arrogance.

Doing what you love is as important as ever, but if you’re going to make a living at it, it helps to find a niche where money flows as a regular consequence of the success of your idea. Loving what you do is almost as important as doing what you love, especially if you need to make a living at it. Go find a job you can commit to, a career or a business you can fall in love with.

What you’re doing might not be working, and you might not be able to do what you’re doing and get paid for it. But I am certain that if you give enough, to the right people in the right way, your gifts will be treasured and your journey will be rewarded. Even if that’s not why you’re doing it.

More book notes

Manage Your Day-to-Day
So Good They Can’t Ignore You
The E-Myth Revisited
It’s a Jungle in There
The Impact Equation

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