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10 answers from Seth Godin: on creativity, fears that propel us and gift giving

Seth Godin has one of the most-loved marketing blogs on the internet and has penned more than a dozen bestselling books. Those who do find him stick around for his uncomplicated entrepreneurial mantras, which boil down to this: make something happen.

This time the main speaker at FORUM ONE shares some thoughts that we’ve taken from various interviews, covering creativity, our fears, gift giving and much more.

1. How do companies figure out what it is the market wants to talk about and what customers are interested in?

The first thing is that they need to embrace the weird. Instead of thinking, “What do the masses want?” they need to think about what the people who care want. They are two different things. The masses aren’t listening because they have so many other choices. The people who care are going to choose to listen. And by appealing to the people who care, it is way more likely that a company will be talked about.

2. So companies need to try to connect with their customers on an emotional level?

Well, the fact is that Airbnb is nothing but crashing on the floor of a house. But there is a bunch of people, if AirBnb went away, they would deeply miss it. Well, what is it that they would miss about Airbnb? People would be able to figure out a way to get on a couch without them but what people would miss about them, what people would miss about TripAdvisor and what they would miss about Lululemon and what they would miss about Apple is the same thing – those brands mean something to them on an emotional level. It’s not just stuff. People have enough stuff, but they don’t have enough meaning.

3. Does that mean that whatever we do we have to be artists – to create in ways that matter to other people?

The connection economy creates abundance though there are not going to be jobs like we used to think of jobs. Those jobs are going away. But the number of opportunities for tribe leaders goes up. This is because the connection machine and the marketing machine and the announcement machine that is the internet allows everyone to create.

I can’t even go to the edges of how revolutionary this all is, because people can keep coming up with stuff that is even closer to the edge. The idea that if you can’t get on TV, you will make your own show and broadcast it is happening right now. No matter what field you are in, your bluff is called. You can no longer point to boundaries that are there, because they are pretty easy to surmount, if you want to.

If you look at who is creating value, it is not the obedient people nor is it the people who are measuring bank balances. In fact, differences are now being made by people who figure out how to be trusted and figure out how to make something creative that other people choose to talk about that other people choose to care about.

4. What do business owners have to do to stand out?

Everything that Michael Dell did, do the opposite. If you look at Dell vs. Apple 15 years ago, all the decisions at Dell were about, “how do we make it a safe decision, how do we make it cheaper, how do we make it more of a commodity?” If you worked there, you were rewarded for bringing your boss things that were easy to make, cheap commodities, because that’s what the stock market was rewarding.
The way you run an organization that makes what I call “art” is that you don’t merely applaud the things that work, you applaud the efforts that lead to innovation, which means you also applaud right thinking that doesn’t necessarily pan out.

5. It’s not about the money – it’s about loving what you do and having a business that you love. Did you always follow these principles in your life?

For 8 or 9 years I was on the verge of bankruptcy and my wife and I would go window shopping at restaurants and then go home and eat macaroni and cheese. I used to have to go down the street and pay a dollar to print something out on a laser printer because I couldn’t afford a printer to run my business with so I fully understand what happens when there isn’t sufficient resources to do the work that you want to do. What I remember though about that time is I met lots of people who were measuring a certain sort of income and what I did relentlessly, even when there was nothing really to rely on, is never made a choice based on reaching the goal of having enough money to not worry about money.

The choice was always: will I be able to show this to my mom? Is this a piece of work that someone else couldn’t do or didn’t have the guts to do? Is this project I am working on generous and beneficial and connected? If I look at where I’ve been on the internet since 2000, after I left Yahoo!, I keep doing things that don’t make sense financially and I am constantly pleased that I did those things.

6. How did you end up being an entrepreneur and thought leader instead of working at a big company?

I guess the answer—and it will probably be true for most people—is that there are probably 20 things that happened to me, not one. I was lucky enough to co-found a business in college that ended up with 400 employees, and I launched 20 different projects while I was there—a project a week. I didn’t get paid to do it; it was just a non-profit that we ran as part of the university, and that was thrilling. I started a ticket bureau at a snack bar and a travel agency and a laundry service and a temporary employment agency that I took over with a partner. I couldn’t imagine how I could have more fun doing something that was called a job.
Unfortunately, after I graduated from college, they didn’t have jobs like that for 20, 21-year-olds, so I went to Stanford Business School. It became clear to me at Stanford that there were two paths being offered: One path was to fake it well enough to get hired by a big company or consulting firm, and the other path was to go make something. Once I picked the second path, that was it.

7. What does books and blog writing means to you?

I don’t write books because I want people to buy them. I write books because they give me an opportunity to have a conversation with you. My goal is to make an impact on people, not to sell books.

When I think about my blog, the question is – you haven’t missed a day in 5, 7 years. If I miss today, how many people would email me and say, “Where are you? Is everything okay?” That gap, that vacuum is what I have built with the people who, if I haven’t actually created a generous connection with them, that’s my asset. I have the privilege, it’s a privilege of whispering to a lot of people every day and say what about this.

8. What’s one action that our readers can take this week to help move them forward towards their goal of changing themselves and the world?

Well, there’s one action that you can take in the next 30 seconds, which is to write down what you’re afraid of and to be vulnerable about it, to confront your shame and to be aware of the fact that if you’re not finding it difficult to write it down it’s probably not what you’re afraid of. That act leads to you taking responsibility for the next set of choices as opposed to blaming the outside world that is stacked against you because of what you look like, who your parents are, where you were born, how you speak, how old you are, who you know, who you don’t know and what cards you were dealt. That’s all a given, right, but if we take that and put it right next to what are you afraid of, then I think you can chart a course that isn’t filled with excuses and deniability.

Most humans are afraid to do it and if you can figure out what part of that process you are afraid of, I think you are going to discover your life changes. I would be more popular if I gave more practical advice that was less scary but this is the thing I can tell you is the most effective.

9. How can we use our fears to propel us?

My answer is: The fear is a good thing. The fear is a compass, if you are not fearing the fear, you’re not making progress. We waste enormous amounts of time and energy trying to make the fear go away. Artists, like the Bob Dylan and Amanda Palmers of the world, say, “Fabulous! The fear is back. I am on to something.” And that’s what we need to do. We need to train ourselves to look forward to saying the ridiculous things and to feeling the fear.

10. At the root, you are a gift giver. You give of your time and energy to help others – and often take on projects that may not benefit you financially. Why “gift giving” is so important to you?

Gifts are not favors. If you expect something in return, it’s not a gift. I’ve found that giving gifts is transformative. It makes me better. It clarifies my thinking and allows me to do better work. I see things differently when I’m focused on opening doors for other people, and more often than not, my doors are opened as well. At the same time, I sleep better… I feel like I’m treating people as I’d like to be treated.

Don’t miss the chance to hear Seth’s Godin’s speech at FORUM ONE on September 23 here, in Vilnius.

 

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