Linchpin – Book Summary

Prolific business writer, Seth Godin, released the book, Linchpin, in 2010. The book is an attempt to exhort the reader to take a different approach to work. The subtitle, “Are You Indispensable?” gets us to the heart of Godin’s theme in Linchpin.

The economy is changing and we’re no longer guaranteed reliable, lifetime jobs with employers. The approach that may have worked for our parents and grandparents is no longer the path forward. Godin gets right to it and lets us know that average no longer cuts it. Trying to fit in and keep our head down doesn’t do us any favors. Going above and beyond, trying to find ways to better serve our constituents, and being willing to step forward and figure things out are the essence of value in today’s economy. Godin walks us through how things used to be, where we are now, what we should be aspiring to become, and touches on some fears we have built into us which get in our own way.

Godin believes we all have it within us to differentiate ourselves from the masses. Each of us have likely faced a circumstance that offered a challenge and figured our way through it. If we’ve done it once, we can do it again. No one does this type of thing 100% of the time. Godin is trying to plant the seed that we have sound reason to believe in our ability to become a Linchpin. “The best future available to us is a future where you contribute your true self and your best work.” This is best both for the businesses we serve as well as to ourselves personally in terms of fulfillment and meaning. However, this isn’t how things are being done in most places.

Godin takes us on a trip to the past where we see how the business environment we still see largely in place today is an offshoot of decisions made 200 years ago. Factories were created to mass produce stuff. These factories were staffed with people. Desirable workers were those that would show up, be capable of being trained, and efficiently execute simple tasks all day long. The better the systems were that guided the people, the less valuable the people were. Edward Deming, one of the father’s of modern management theories, believed that systems were much more important than individual capabilities and ingenuity. Deming wrote “the system that people work in … may account for 90 percent of performance”. The businesses responsibility was to create an environment where a workers job was crystal clear and easy to train. Much of management in the past revolved around creating replicable processes. The system received the investment. People were an after thought to be inserted. What was valued was the ability to show up on time, reliably, sit down, shut up, follow instructions, do what one was told, and work hard. In exchange for delivering those attributes a worker would be rewarded with a reliable, reasonably paid job for life. Over time, a few benefits were added to keep workers begging for more.

Schools were designed and set up to accommodate the development of the kinds of skills that factory employers would continue to require. Compliant, obedient, generic workers were what was desired and this is what the education system begin to build itself around delivering. This process worked to benefit both factory owners and workers for several generations. The middle class grew. Steady work was largely available for those that wanted it.

However, the last 25 years has changed things. Increased globalization has outright removed many of the factories workers relied upon for jobs. Many white collar jobs are now being affected as well. Mostly those for which white collar is really just a clean blue collar worker. That is, someone that is performing routine, repetitive tasks, following a process or procedure. Whether this is being done inside or outside, this is the type of work that is disappearing as it moves to a domicile that allows it to be completed cheaper than in the Western world. Godin writes, “The educated, hardworking masses are still doing what they’re told, but they’re no longer getting what they deserve.”

We have been trained by schools, employers, and society to think that our job is to follow instructions and fit in. Unfortunately, this isn’t working anymore. However, Godin believes we can train ourselves differently in order to matter and be considered indispensable to our organizations. Standing out instead of fitting in.

“Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.” -David Mamet-

The pace of change continues to increase. The future becomes increasingly difficult to predict. Being part of the compliant masses willing to follow instruction doesn’t help when the map no longer applies. Godin writes, “What we want, what we need, what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care.”

Part of us liked fitting in and following other’s instructions as it absolved us of both thought and responsibility. We could mindlessly meander through our days. However, when everyone is standing around waiting to be told what to do, the value of this becomes increasingly less. The more process dependent the business, the less valuable the individual workers will be. Businesses used to strive to increase their PERL or Percentage of Easily Replaceable Labor. This isn’t inspiring to be part of a company’s PERL. One can’t possibly hope to be either appreciated or well compensated in this environment. It’s no fun being fungible. “There are no longer any great jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do.” Leave those jobs to others.

We have been pushed since childhood to conform, produce, and consume. We were taught to fit in. Then we were taught to not care about our jobs and do as little as possible. Somewhere along the way, “It’s not my job” became our corporate chorus. Finally, we were encouraged to consume. This was done to suggest that was the path to happiness but also to ensure we’re more likely to be in debt and, therefore, dependent on our jobs.

This has led us to where we are and devalued workers. As consumers we’ve participated in supporting pushing the cheap, efficient alternative. As workers, we’re now at the mercy of businesses consumed with a race to automate in order to satisfy our urge for the cheaper product or service. Two classes evolved from this system. Workers and factory owners. Karl Marx, Nietzsche, and others saw the world as two separate opposing classes. Godin offers that now a third class of worker that is capable of owning the means of production now exists thanks to technology. A computer and the internet empower the average person to become a creator and contributor on a level not seen before. This presents an opportunity. Godin quotes Hugh MacLeod, “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.”

The rules have changed. We have no right to a job or a career. We aren’t guaranteed an average job at an average company. The path forward is to stand out, make a difference, be remarkable. Defining this capability is difficult. That’s the point. If it was easy to define, it would be a job description and be easily replaceable. Godin writes, “If it wasn’t a mystery, it would be easy. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth much.”

It is up to us to figure out how to be remarkable in our context. It’s the opposite perspective to that of “it’s not my job”. Can you recognize the reality of today while seeing the path towards a better tomorrow? That’s useful. That’s valuable. To be a Linchpin is to bring curiosity and initiative to bear. You’re trying to explore and expand your role and your employer’s business. Godin offers that the key skills in today’s economy are the ability to solve interesting problems and to lead.

Godin uses the metaphor of a Linchpin to define the desired role we’re targeting as employees. It’s a small, unassuming piece of a unit that is essential to its function and to holding it together. A Linchpin isn’t glamorous, but it’s difficult to replace. Businesses need these, want these, and you can become one. We all know what one is when we see it. We’ve all had the experience of receiving great service somewhere such that we buy because of the person, not the product or business. If the person left to go work down the street, we’d follow the person. Our loyalty is to the service they provide more than the business. That’s the mark of a Linchpin. Yes, depth of knowledge is useful. However, it’s not about being the best rule follower. It’s a combination of deep knowledge coupled with insights. This requires an open, exploratory mind set.

Godin offers the example of Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing that then took over troubled Ford. Mulally was able to make major progress by converting the mindset of the leadership team from waiting to be told what to do to figuring out what to do. This mindset shift largely led to Ford coming through the credit crisis in 2009 far better than other North American car manufacturers. Linchpins are able to tolerate uncertainty and are comfortable working without clear instruction. Linchpins are those that lean into problems, look forward to contributing value to fix challenges, and enjoy helping others. They do these things not because they’re seeking a tip or enhanced compensation, but because it validates them. They command respect by being indispensable.

Godin offers some advice for how to present your abilities as a Linchpin to prospective employers. It’s not about redoing your resume. You need to show, not tell about your efforts. Control the results of a Google search of your name. Ensure the things that help you stand out are part of the results. Show customer testimonials. Show projects you were a part of. Present your reputation. Build a blog. “You are not your resume. You are your work.” Do you care enough to try to make things better?

What holds us back?

After building his case for where we are and what we need to do to create positive work futures for ourselves, Godin dives into a few reasons why even with the knowledge of what we can do to distinguish ourselves, most of us holdback. Fear in our feet, we retreat to hiding in the crowd at work. We run from responsibility because of our deep need to fit in. We’re scared of so many things. We’re scared of failing. We’re also scared of succeeding because more will be demanded of us. Our fears hold us where we are. We seek the status quo. We want things to remain as they are. We want the future to be more like today. We fear change. Godin points out that this is the riskiest and most vulnerable position to take. The world is moving forward. We need to get on board or we’ll be cast aside.

Godin writes, “Successful people are successful for one simple reason: they think about failure differently. Successful people depersonalize from failure. They learn. They don’t see themselves as having failed. They don’t see it as a reason to not try. They see it as something to learn from, improve, and get back into the game. Developing comfort being uncomfortable is the goal. Teaching a tolerance for ambiguity is what we’re after. Seeing the rules as relics of the past and being willing to both see and take action towards a optimistic future is what’s valuable. We have to internalize that “becoming more average, more quick, and more cheap is not as productive as it used to be.” What’s left is standing out and making a positive contribution. It’s not about boosting resume virtues and trying to be more “accredited”. It’s about leading change, making maps, and paving paths.

Godin suggests the path forward is to adopt a posture of generosity. Seek to give more. Godin notes that certain Native North American tribes viewed giving as a sign of strength. Those that could afford to give clearly had ample supplies. It was a way of demonstrating power. This is the perspective we should be seeking to emulate. Giving makes us indispensable. It earns us the respect and attention of others. Gifts don’t necessarily mean physical gifts. They can be words and actions. In the digital era, our words and actions can spread far and fast. This leverages our gift further empowering us. Gifts also offer the added benefit of strengthening bonds between people. Adopt the perspective of how we treat our families, Godin encourages. Give for the sake of giving. It’s not done because something is expected in return. It’s done to build the relationship. Gifts are done to help. Their scarcity is their value. The difficulty to offer the right thing is effort. It’s the exact type of thing that artificial intelligence will struggle to deliver. Godin writes, “The most successful givers aren’t doing it because they’re being told to. They do it because doing it is fun. It gives them joy.”

The best way to reward someone that offers gifts is to recognize them with respect. Thank their efforts. Showcase and celebrate them in front of their peers. It’s not about giving them added compensation.

We are left to determine what a gift is. It is context driven. There’s no map to giving. There’s no map to being indispensable. There’s no map to becoming a Linchpin. If there were, the value would be eroded. Godin encourages us to lead. Those that become Linchpins start with open eyed awareness. They recognize both where they are and what the future is likely to look like. They can then seek to connect the two. This clarity and ability to pave a path are what the essence of being indispensable is all about. Linchpins are aware of what they can control and what they can’t. They don’t get caught up worrying about things they can’t control. They work with reality as it is. They have a curious and interested mindset that encourages them to explore their world. They are focused around the concept of how to make things better. How do we recognize where we are and try to make things better. Relentless pursuit for improvements are at the heart of a Linchpin. They are seeking to explore and expand their worlds. They use awareness coupled with curiosity to see the world clearly. They then use their initiative to take action. A Linchpin figures out what’s next. It’s a proactive posture of responsibility. It’s not waiting to be told. It’s not being the passive participant in someone else’s agenda. It’s not pleasing the system. It’s a choice. Godin writes, “You can either fit in or stand out. Not both.”

One way to identify what skills may be indispensable is to think of where Artificial Intelligence is likely to struggle to gain traction. If the task can be described in detail, it’s future is in jeopardy. The certainty or clarity around a function, at a minimum, caps the value the role can have. Those tasks or areas of the business that have “magic” or a “secret sauce” are where opportunities lie. One of these areas involves people skills. Empathy, developing common ground, helping people feel good and welcome are all areas that are likely to become more important. The irony is that these “soft skills” aren’t often focused on during interviews or don’t show well on resumes, yet these are characteristics that are most welcome in the workplace.

We can see the value of personal relationships in the arena of sales, particularly that of business to business. If the product or service is largely standardized, we’re not buying the item as much as we are the relationship with the individual. Do we value them? Do they value us? Is our relationship being nurtured? Godin writes, “We have everything we need, so we’re not buying commodities. We’re not even buying products. We’re buying relationships and stories and magic.” Those that are able to do this are successful. The opposite to this is where we see businesses operate with scripts. Call-centers or sales staff that toe the company line parroting platitudes offer no value. This is an automatic turnoff. We see right through the absence of authenticity. We want to deal with real people. We want to be seen. If we can “be good with people”, we can distinguish ourselves in today’s workplace.

Godin wraps up the book trying to put some meat on the bones of what kinds of things a Linchpin may be able to do. He offers 7 areas where one may be able to add value. Some of these include working to connect and reduce friction between members within an organization, managing complexity or difficult situations, leading customers, and inspiring staff. Focusing on these areas as places to look to see where one may be able to move the needle is the closest to a plan we have. Pursue a posture of giving. How can I help? Seek to help others. There’s no guarantee that your efforts will be rewarded, let alone recognized, but the path forward is the best one available to us in uncertain times and offers the best way to be indispensable and fulfilled. Hiding isn’t sustainable. Or fun. Trying to find a way to bring your best self to your role and the company you serve is. Our efforts matter. We do ourselves, our peers, and our organizations a disservice by not giving our best.