How does he fit it all in?
One of his secrets might surprise you: “I’m America’s worst attender of meetings,” Seth reveals. “I don’t do any of that.”
“A meeting is a very special thing: it’s three or more people talking to each other about a decision that’s going to be made, and probably trying to get someone else to make it,” he explains. “And so I don’t have those. If I need information I have a conversation with one person. That’s not a meeting, that’s a conversation.”
He refers to Al Pittampalli’s book Read This Before Our Next Meeting, which was released in August through Seth’s publishing venture, The Domino Project, and which suggests more productive approaches to the traditional concept of the “meeting.”
Of course, that’s not the only way Seth manages to keep on top of things. As the interview reveals, his philosophy rests on a very clear vision of what’s important to him. It’s that vision that motivates him, helps him choose where to direct his energies, and enables him to make the everyday decisions that keep his media empire growing.
Our favorite piece of advice from the interview?
In a world where there’s not a lot of scarcity of ideas, and where digital stuff isn’t going to be able to be priced based on scarcity, ubiquity is a better strategy. If you can help change the conversation, if you can say stuff that’s worth saying, the money takes care of itself.
Or read the interview transcript in full:
Today I’m talking to Seth Godin of SethGodin.com. He’s a blogger, he’s a bestselling author of thirteen books including Poke the Box, he’s the inventor of permission marketing, and founder of Squidoo.com.
Seth, if there’s one word that could be used to describe your work, it’s prolific. You have six websites, you blog every day, you’ve written thirteen books, you do plenty of public speaking, you’ve founded dozens of companies and you carry the weighty mantel of “America’s Greatest Marketer.”
But when I emailed you about this interview, you replied. You set the appointment in Google Calendar and you sent me your Skype details. So I’m wondering, is it possible that America’s Greatest Marketer doesn’t have an assistant?
How can this be? We imagine that you’re America’s Greatest Marketer, and America’s Busiest Man. Is that not the case?
Well, neither one of them is true, to be fair. I guess you make decisions about how you want to spend your time. What you didn’t mention is that I’m America’s worst watcher of television, cause I don’t spend any time doing that, zero. And I’m America’s worst attender of meetings, cause I don’t do any of that, zero. So I know people who do five hours of each every day. So right there I save myself ten hours a day.
The part about not having an assistant has to do with how permeable do you want to be to the world. You know, I don’t use Twitter, I don’t actively use Facebook, because I can’t do them justice. But if I hired someone to answer my email, it’d be better not even to use email. Cause what’s the point of having that filter? So I try to sort of strike this balance between doing some things at an insanely quick, prolific rate and doing other things not at all.
So in terms of permeability, you run a company, and you have publishers. I’m just wondering, if you don’t attend meetings, then how does permeability work with those kinds of operations that you’re working in?
Well, you know, we just published a book two weeks ago called Read This Before Our Next Meeting, and the author Al Pittampalli argues that a meeting is a very special thing: it’s three or more people talking to each other about a decision that’s going to be made, and probably trying to get someone else to make it. And so I don’t have those. If I need information I have a conversation with one person. That’s not a meeting, that’s a conversation.
If a decision needs to be made it gets made and then followup happens about what we’re going to do about the decision, but that doesn’t need to be a bunch of people around a table either. So there’s lots of interactions I have with people. I just don’t have those things that so many other organizations have where everyone sits around looking for the tallest poppy to chop down.
Fair enough. So can you tell us a bit more about what productivity means to you, and what motivates you to be so productive? Because obviously you are very productive.
Well you know, I think that it doesn’t count unless you ship it—that planning it and noodling it and refining it and thinking about it and keeping it in a drawer don’t count. You might as well do nothing. I think there are lots and lots of people who put in way more time than me, who may even create more than me, they just don’t ship.
No one calls up a plumber and says, “Wow, I can’t believe how many toilets you unclogged this week!” No one goes to short-order cook and says, “Wow, that’s your eight-hundredth hamburger of the week! That’s incredible!” Right? That’s their job. They ship for a living. If they don’t ship, they don’t get paid. And somehow we’ve seduced ourselves into thinking that it’s okay to hide. It’s okay for a playwright to write a play every five years. What was going on the other four and half years? I don’t know. If no one’s seeing your play, you’re not a playwright.
That’s interesting because I think many bloggers tend to see writing as a creative pursuit that does require shutting yourself away from the world, and having quiet time, getting in the zone, and noodling, as you say. And you’re not just writing blog posts—you’re writing book after book. How does the creative thing work for you? Do you take time out of your other work? Or is it just part of your regular routine? Are books and blog posts different for you? How does that work?
Okay well we need to be really careful here because a lot of times creative people want to know what other creative people do to do their work, as if using the same pencil as Steven King is going to do anything for you, ’cause it’s not. I know lots and lots of productive creative people and we all do it differently. So I think at its face, it’s not a particularly useful philosophy.
I will share one tactic which is that I write like I talk. The reason that’s important is that no one gets talker’s block. And so if you wake up in the morning unable to speak, then you need a physician. Everyone else doesn’t have that problem. So if you can train yourself to talk in complete sentences, and actually come up with thoughts that are worth sharing, then writing isn’t particularly hard—you just write down what you say.
That’s an interesting point you make about coming up with thoughts that are worth sharing. You’re a marketer so I’m thinking that you’re constantly looking at the market and looking at what people need to know or want to know or have a desire for information on. Have you trained yourself or honed your thoughts to meet those needs? Or are you just coming up with ideas every day? How do you make sure that your thoughts are worth sharing?
Oh they’re usually not!
What percentage would be worth sharing?
Five, maybe two.
Well how do you differentiate between the ones that are and the ones that aren’t?
Well, I notice things. That’s what I do. If I see something that I don’t understand I try to figure it out. If I see something that’s broken, I try to understand why it’s broken. And then you say either in writing or out loud what you noticed, and if it sticks with you for ten or fifteen or twenty minutes, maybe it’s worth writing down. And then you look at the ones that you wrote down and sometimes they’re worth sharing.
So in that regard do you use your blog as a bit of a proving ground, I guess, for ideas? ‘Cause a lot of bloggers would do that—they’d use their blog as a proving ground, and then they’d go away and write a product based on what they’ve honed over time on their blog. Do you do that or is your blog just as finished as a book would be?
In some ways it’s more finished because I get feedback as it’s going. I can fix something on my blog the next day, etcetera.
I don’t have products. I don’t think about products. And I’m not trying to monetize any of this. It monetizes itself, which is fine, and if it didn’t, that would be fine. So I think that when people start to think, “What can I hold back? What can I sell? How can I move people through a sales funnel?” they start getting themselves into trouble.
Why? Specifically why?
Because then who’s the customer? Who are you serving? In a world where there’s not a lot of scarcity of ideas, and where digital stuff isn’t going to be able to be priced based on scarcity, ubiquity is a better strategy. If you can help change the conversation, if you can say stuff that’s worth saying, the money takes care of itself. And too often the $59, $99, $499 special report is neither special nor a report.
It’s true. Well, we’ve talked about the writing a bit. Let’s talk about the bigger picture. It’s very easy to look at the Seth Godin we see in the media and say, “Okay, this guy’s in the business of content. He’s a content producer.” But you’re not that. You’re also a marketer, you’re a business owner, and the reason you’re a bestselling author is because you’re one of the most innovative marketing brains in the business. So I’m wondering what do you describe as being your true passion? And how important is that passion in your level of productivity?
You know, I have way too many conversations with myself about this. I would say that my passion is having people surprise themselves by what they’re capable of. And if I can be present at least a little bit for some of that internal dialog, that’s a privilege and a thrill for me. And when I hear from somebody who was working as a janitor for some company, and then four years later they own it, and they give me, right or wrong, some of that credit, I’m pretty pleased with that.
Because I think that people have way, way more potential than society lets them believe, and if I can help unlock that, that’s a privilege.
So that’s what motivates you when you get out of bed in the morning?
It is. It’s exactly what it is. I think if I was trying to make money, I would do something else for a living. There are certainly more lucrative ways to spend one’s time, and I think if I was trying to work on my tan, I wouldn’t sit indoors in front of a computer screen all day. So yeah, this is why I’m doing it. For that.
So how do you prioritize? That’s your passion, and it drives you to do a lot of different things, so how do you prioritize the different interests that you have? And how do you decide that you’re going to add something new to the list? Cause I’m imagining that the list is pretty full.
Yeah, I’m very bad at this. The answer is “poorly.” I decide poorly. That’s my only answer: I’m bad at it.
So what kind of internal struggle, if you like, do you go through when you’re facing doing something new. For example, if you were thinking of writing a new book. You’ve just written a book, but how do you decide when it’s time to start a new project?
Well, books are different. The only reason I ever start a new book is because I have absolutely no choice. There’s no excuses, delaying or anything else left. The book forces itself to be written. That’s been true for the last probably seven books. It’s such a long journey, it’s so frustrating, it’s such a hassle, so few people read it compared to my blog. There’s only going to be a book when the muse insists on a book.
Okay, so what about things like new businesses? Because you’ve started dozens of companies, so how did thy get onto the list?
I have, but I’m getting better at breaking that habit. The last company I started was six years ago, and Squidoo is doing really nicely—we’re the 76th biggest website in the United States. But I started that because there were some people I really needed to work with and they wouldn’t work with me unless I had something to work on.
But there’s tonnes of businesses that someone who was willing to work harder than me would start if they saw what I see; it’s just really hard to persuade myself to sign on for a ten-year project like that. I probably should get better at that.
Right, so I’m just thinking one of the things you mention is delaying, delaying projects and also the ten-year thing, the timeframe. So do you prefer to go for things that are a bit of a shorter timeframe or … I’m just trying to get an idea of how you would sift out these things. ‘Cause obviously you’ve got lots of ideas and lots of possibilities and I’m just thinking if, indeed, the average person has this great potential that you see, then that’s potentially overwhelming to have that potential. So I’m trying to get an idea of how you would prioritize.
Yeah, the book I wrote, The Dip, I take very seriously. I think that being the best at what you do is far more important than most people think. Which means that you need to make the thing you do small, so that you can be the best at it. And I also believe that we live in revolutionary times. Which means that…
You know, Henry Ford could have done anything he wanted once he got started. He could have started any one of 500 other businesses. And you know, he did cars, then he did trucks. But he could have done golf carts, he could have done boats, he could have done motor scooters, he could have done motor cycles—all these things. At one point Henry Ford had Ford shepherds who were tending Ford sheep so they could shear Ford wool to weave it on Ford looms to make fabric for Ford seats to put into Ford cars. Because he could.
You need to make the decision about what change are you passionate about making, cause it’s all a hassle. And there’s no formula. You just have to have an instinct, I think, for how hard are you willing to push to be the best at that thing. That’s why I don’t use Twitter, right? Because I get why people think it’s fun. But I also know that I couldn’t be as good as it as I could be and still do everything else I do.
Thinking about Twitter, and Facebook—you said you’re not on Facebook—and you don’t do meetings, are there any other tools or approaches or philosophies that you have to manage all the tasks that you do? Obviously not doing, not subscribing to certain things that you can’t give your all to is one of your approaches for getting through all the tasks, but are there any others that you can share with us?
Well I think, you know, I posted a couple of weeks ago about the Zig Ziglar Goal Planner that we published, and it really is my secret weapon. I mean, it saved me from bankruptcy. There were seven or eight years in a row where I was within two weeks of running out of money. That’s a really long time. 900 rejection letters from publishers everywhere. Window-shopping in restaurants cause there wasn’t money to buy a plate of spaghetti. And the Goal Planner saved the day.
We’ve update it; we’ve modernized it, but I don’t care which version you use: there’s something extraordinarily powerful. I have never met anyone who has seriously written down their goals, and done it properly, who is stuck or is considered a failure. Not one person.
Excellent. That’s great. Just before you go, I wanted to ask if you could share with us one piece of advice that you’d give to other bloggers who want to increase their creative productivity to a level that they can use to generate a full-time income.
Oh, I don’t think you should do that.
Excellent! And why not?
Because then you just, you’re doing it to generate a full-time income, aren’t you? And this is amateur media; this is not professional media. And every once in a while an amateur gets so good that people come to them and beg them to take money. But if an amateur sets out to be a professional, she starts making short cuts and she starts trading in relationships for cash. And I don’t know how to tell people to do that.
So obviously for you the relationships are where it’s at, not the cash.
Yeah, because if you do care about cash, sooner or later enough people who admire your work and trust you, it’ll turn into cash. But in the long run, we never ever keep track of how much cash someone has. We always keep track of what their reputation is.
Very true. Well, that’s an excellent note to finish our interview on. Thank you very much for your time, Seth.
Thank you Georgina, it was a pleasure.