023 – Linchpin

While not all of us aspire to being some famous person that holds the keys to success in an industry, we all dream of being indispensable. Of being someone that is a leader in a small field. Even if that niche is obscure, being the person that is the “go to” in that obscure field is a desirable position.

This small scale genius is available to all of us according to Seth Godin in Linchpin. We don’t have to be amazing at everything. We’re not striving to be a _polymath_1, just to have a small piece of genius for ourselves.

No one is a genius all the time. Einstein had trouble finding his house when he walked home from work every day. But all of us are geniuses sometimes.

Okay, maybe not all of us have that dream. Some of us may have had it drummed out of us by circumstance. Maybe we had crappy parents like Gru in Despicable Me. Parents who always showed little to no interest in our fledgling genius.

Again, this is where Linchpin comes in with Godin trying to persuade us that we have an opportunity to have a niche of genius.

My goal is to persuade you that there is an opportunity available to you, a chance to significantly change your life for the better. Not by doing something that’s easy or that you’ve been trained to do, but fundamentally changed and by taking advantage of this moment to become someone the world believes is indispensable.

Godin feels that the world we live in requires this niche genius. People who are willing to step out and make a difference.

We need original thinkers, provocateurs and people who care. We need marketers who can lead, salespeople able to risk making a human connection, passionate change makers willing to be shunned if it is necessary for them to make a point. Every organization needs a linchpin, the one person who can bring it together and make a difference.

We need this because the old story of being average at an average job is no longer a viable way to any type of stability. Long gone are the heyday’s of factory work, where you could show up and push that lever reliably and get paid an awesome wage and expect that you’d be better off than your parents.

Factory work offered average people with small dreams a chance to make a significant change in their standard of living. As a bonus, this new wealth came with a pension, job security, and even health insurance.

Now we are in a world where the ability to show up and crank widgets is no longer tied with earning a wage to support a family on.

What does it mean to make a difference?
Some jobs are likely to remain poorly paid, low in respect, and high in turnover. These are jobs where attendance (showing up) is all that really matters.

We may try to cling to this as we aim for a “living wage” in jobs where showing up is 98% of the skill required, but it’s simply no something that is sustainable. If you’re at a job where showing up and not being drunk are two of the main keys to your employment, then that’s something anyone can do and thus has little value creation.

Godin tells us that we need to divorce ourselves from the notion that we have a right to a job that pays well. Maybe we’ve been brought up to think that, but we’ve been lied to. Showing up and sticking it out, does not mean we will earn well or that we provide more than passable value to the economy.

You have no right to that job or that career. After years of being taught you have to be an average worker for an average organization, that society would support you for sticking it out, you discover that the rules have changed.

Much of the world is grappling with this transition, and not in ways that are attempting to grow with the change. They’re trying to prop up the old dream of showing up being a valueable skill. Many people feel that showing up should mean that society owes us.

Society owes you little outside of rewarding you for the value you create. Being a barista is not of high value. The key skill for 99% of barista’s is showing up smiling and not smelling terrible. With some training anyone can make a basic cup of coffee.

This shouldn’t be depressing though because the means to create huge value in the world is so much more accessible than it was before. There are more niches to occupy and the means of occupying them is so much easier than it was before.

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

I’m sitting here in Starbucks drinking the cheapest coffee on the menu writing. While I have an iPad and a portable keyboard and numerous other things that make the experience easier for me, none of them are required. A $200 computer gives you the same access to the market that I have. That $200 is all the means of production that you need.

What it Takes to Become a Linchpin

If the means of production are similarly accessible to most of us, what does it take to become a Linchpin. It takes the acknowledgement that the rules of work have changed and instead of whining about it, diving in to learn the new ways that we can create value for our employers and for the market at large.

In every case, the linchpins among us are no the ones born with a magical talent. No, they are the people who have decided that a new kind of work is important, and trained themselves to do it.

For most fields this means that we also need to eschew the standard ‘multitasking’ that is a requirement and single task. We need to sit and focus on our field and value creation and by doing so we’ll outpace those around us. The sad part is that in the midst of this being a required skill, focus is one of the resources we have that is fast being trained out of us.

Cal Newport wrote a whole book talking about how single tasking and focus are keys to being awesome at our work. This single quote will give you a good idea what Deep Work is about.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. – Deep Work

While many people rail against the change and strive to bring about rules to govern wages which attempt to bring back the old equations, they forget that if they’re in a job that competes on price they’re an expense on the books.

If you want a job where you don’t need to be creative because the company’s cost structure is so aggressive that customers just materialize, don’t be surprised if the low cost structure costs you your job.

Instead of asking ourselves “How can society take care of me” we should be asking ourselves how we can get better.

If your organization wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for?

What would it take to be that person that is so much more valuable? Would it take a dedication to reading? Would you need to spend some of your own money on courses? Do you need to step out of the safe cocoon of coddling and take a risk?

Yes this risk means that you may fail. You may need to get up again and see if it works the second time, or the third time, or the 568th time. But, are you willing to take a risk and provide more value?

Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare. – Grit

Linchpins are Average a Lot of the Time

While we may agree that being a Linchpin is worth huge value, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that Linchpin’s are brilliant all the time. In fact, Godin says that the more value we create the less time we spend doing that activity.

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.

Mark Manson echoes this in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck but brings in the additional ideas that the mundane seems so much less desirable because of the polarities we see in the media today.

Our lives today are filled with information from the extremes of the bell curve of human experience, because in the media business that’s what gets eyeballs, and eyeballs bring dollars. That’s the bottom line. Yet the vast majority of life resides in the humdrum middle. The vast majority of life is _un_extraordinary, indeed quite average. – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck

While we must recognize that much of our life is average and that almost everything we see on the news and social media is a highlight reel, we need to ensure that we don’t organize our businesses around average.

Organizing around the average means that the organization has exchanged the high productivity of exceptional performance for the ease and security of an endless parade of average performers.

Average is safe and secure but it holds back those among us that can be exceptional. The exceptional will chafe against the inane rules that are brought about. They’ll be exhausted by the rules bringing about mediocrity and leave to be amazing somewhere that’s nowhere near your average.

Finding security in mediocrity is an exhausting process. You can only work so many hours, fret only so much. Being a slightly better typist or a slightly faster coder is insufficient. You’re always looking over your shoulder, always trying to be a little less mediocre than the guy next to you. It wears you out.

Seriously, who woke up this morning and wished to be average. While it may not have been work success that you wanted to excel at, it may have been being an amazing parent, or to have the best lawn in the city. We all want to stand out in some way.

There is also a fallacy in thinking that once we have a job that we wanted we will finally be amazing, we’ll rise to the challenge.

If he waits for a job to be good enough to deserve his best shot, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever have that job.

Your fabled job that is ready for your awesomeness, is looking for awesome people. While you wait to be awesome you’re teaching yourself that it’s okay to be average. To show up and quarter-ass something. You’re not in a position where your ideal job would even consider you.

If you want a job where you can full-ass something, you need to be full-assing it now. You need to be reaching out and creating value somewhere, even if it’s in the evenings and weekends on the side with your crazy project idea.

It’s that crazy idea that will build you into the person that gets work that is totally on board with your full-assing.

Being just a bit faster or better than the competition is not a key to being a Linchpin either. Cranking out 2 extra widgets a day will not significantly increase your value.

Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can.

Someone is always willing to put in another hour and do just a bit more. They’re willing to do it for just a bit less. They’re willing to race you to the bottom and in the global economy we have online, many of them have a huge advantage in their economic leverage. They live somewhere that the cost of living is so much lower that working for 10% of your wages means they are fabulously wealthy relative to their peers.

More faster is rarely the answer to success.

The Resistance

So, where does that leave us? How do we find a space where we can be a Linchpin? A space where we can carve out value and enjoy doing it?

It’s not way out in the middle of a new niche. Then you have to train all your potential customers that there is value in what you do. It’s along the edges of what is currently seen as value.

Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where the audience is, that’s where the means of production are available, and that’s where you can make an impact.

Many people do some reading, but few people dig deep and write about the books. I’m pushing against the edges of the box as I look at books. I turn that into some value by producing reading lists for topics so that you don’t have to wade through the wealth of material out there. I’ve done it for you and that’s valuable.

Simply reading isn’t valuable though. Shipping material based on that reading is valuable.

I think the discipline of shipping is essential in the long-term path to becoming indispensable. While some artists manage to work for years or decades and actually ship something important, far more often we find the dreams of art shattered by the resistance.

The biggest hurdle to shipping is friction. Shawn Blanc has a great post about the need to remove obstacles to promote output. The Resistance is friction. It’s the idea that we’ll find any reason at all to not put ourselves out there.

Instead of writing we’ll organize our sock drawer according to ISO standards. We’ll publish all kinds of images on social media to show our productivity. We’ll walk the halls and talk to people and furiously return email instead of getting down to creative work2.

Looking busy is not the same as fighting the resistance. Being productive at someone else’s task list is not the same as making your own map.

Looking busy is so bad because it tricks us into thinking that we’re making forward progress when we’re really shuffling deck chairs on the sinking ship of our productivity.

Another fear in shipping our work is that it won’t get the traction we hope. By not shipping we can keep fooling ourselves into thinking that if we shipped we’d be successful3.

You become a winner because you’re good at loosing. The hard part about losing is that you might permit it to give strength to the resistance, that you might believe that you don’t deserve to win, that you might, in some dark corner of your soul, give up.

Winner ship and fail. Then ship and fail. Then ship and get a bit of traction. Then more failure and more small traction. At some point it all comes together and they have a winning combination. The key is they shipped instead of sitting back on and staying successful in their head.

There is no Map for Becoming a Linchpin

I know you may have been hoping that by reading Linchpin, or this look at it, you’d come out with a clear map of how to become a linchpin. How to win at work and gain the success you want.

Well, you won’t find it here or in Linchpin by Seth Godin. Godin says that maps are for cogs in the wheel. You don’t become a Linchpin by being a cog and following the well trodden path of others.

That’s how you become average, one among many.

Your road to becoming a Linchpin will be lined with ideas you’ve tried and failed at4. You trial your ideas, evaluate them in light of their traction with others and their traction in your work. Then you adjust and pilot again.

You must make the choice to try new things, to show your ideas, if you want to be seen as a linchpin in your field. You can’t hide behind the tried and true processes that others have followed.

What will make someone a linchpin is not a shortcut. It’s the understanding of which hard work is worth doing. The only thing that separates great artists from mediocre ones is their ability to push through the dip.

While Godin doesn’t provide us with a great way to evaluate which ideas are worth pursuing and which aren’t he has written a whole book about when to push forward on ideas and when to drop them. In The Dip, Godin gives us three criteria for deciding what to move forward with.

  1. Am I panicking
  2. Who Am I Trying to Influence
  3. What Sort of Measurable Progress am I Making?

Using these three questions, which I explored deeper in my look at The Dip, we can get a decent idea of the worth of our ideas.

But I Can’t sell my Ideas and Others Are

I’ve been in the position where I see phrases I use get much more traction in the mouths of others. It’s infuriating and for a time I let the success of others with “my ideas” harm me. What I realized eventually was that though I came up with the idea first, I didn’t have the career capital5 to gain traction yet.

The core idea of this book is simple: To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers – So Good They Can’t Ignore You

At work your ‘crazy’ idea is not valuable in the eyes of your boss because you have never taken the time to establish that you have anything valuable to say. Many people have been convinced their whole life that by virtue of existing they have valuable ideas that everyone should listen to.

Too often, heretical ideas in organizations are shot down. They’re not refused because they’re wrong; they’re refused because the person doing the selling doesn’t have the stature or track record to sell it.

Your idea may be great, but if you want people to listen to it you need to spend time showing them that you have the track record to back up the crazy. A wall of participation ribbons is not how you do this.

Focus on making changes that work down, not up. Interacting with customers and employees is often easier than influencing bosses and investors. Over time, as you create an environment where your insight and generosity pay off, the people above you will notice, and you’ll get more freedom and authority.

I have a coaching client who wanted to change the language at work around ‘preventable accidents’. This implies that the person could and maybe should have, avoided the circumstance. That extends to one of their work trucks getting hit while parked. This language placed blame on the person in the eyes of my client.

But he was new at the job and thus didn’t have the capital to get his boss to make a change. He did however have the career capital to make a comment about the language to colleagues in the safety department, who almost always agreed with him.

Then his thoughts started to invade their conversations as a team and the boss heard about it. They are now in discussions about changing the language officially on their forms.

Taking the longer term approach allowed my client to make a change and increase his career capital because everyone acknowledges that he originated the idea.

Should you Read Linchpin by Seth Godin?

Before I give you my verdict, let’s look at one final quote.

When you meet someone, you need to have a superpower. If you don’t, you’re just another handshake. It’s not about touting yourself or coming on too strong. It’s about making the introduction meaningful. If I don’t know your superpower, then I don’t know how you can help me (or I can help you).

If you want to be a Linchpin, you need a superpower. If you want to develop a superpower, then you need to read this book. If you’re not sure that you need a superpower and feel like showing up should be worth huge value, you should read Linchpin. You won’t like reading it because you’ll realize showing up is of almost no value, which is why you’re getting paid so little, but you need to read it anyway.

So, yup you need to read Linchpin by Seth Godin.

Get Linchpin on Amazon

Photo by: minifigphoto

  1. I hate this buzzword which has been used so much as to become entirely without meaning. 
  2. Stopping this ‘looking productive’ is much of what Deep Work is about. 
  3. This is one of the key avoidance strategies discussed in Reach, which of course I wrote about
  4. This idea of piloting is about the only good idea in the otherwise hippy dippy dismal book Pivot. You can read about Pivot here but don’t bother with the book. 
  5. I explore So Good They Can’t Ignore you here, which is a whole book an building Career Capital.