A Conversation with Seth Godin on Creativity.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin is the author of 20 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He’s also the founder of the altMBA and The Akimbo Workshops, online seminars that have transformed the work of thousands of people. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. You might be familiar with his books Linchpin, Tribes, The Dip and Purple Cow. His book, This Is Marketing, was an instant bestseller around the world. His latest book, The Practice, is already a bestseller. In addition to his writing and speaking, Seth has founded several companies, including Yoyodyne and Squidoo. His blog (which you can find by typing “seth” into Google) is one of the most popular in the world. His podcast is in the top 1% of all podcasts worldwide. In 2018, he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame.  More than 20,000 people have taken the powerful Akimbo workshops he founded, including thealtMBA and The Marketing Seminar.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Seth Godin about what it means to be creative, and how we can use the skills of creativity.

Q: What does it mean to be a creative?

[Seth Godin]: I wish we wouldn’t sell ourselves so short. Every time we say somebody else is creative because they get to write plays, songs or make art…. Every time we say ‘I don’t have that kind of talent…’ we’re selling ourselves short, we’re hiding, we’re letting ourselves off the hook.

What it means to be creative is pretty simple. It’s to do something human, something generous, something that might not work. It has to be all 3 of those things. You will find creative accountants, politicians, housekeepers and engineers… being creative is to solve interesting problems!

Q:  Does everyone have the skills to be creative, and to engage in creative practice?

[Seth Godin]: Can we begin by acknowledging that you used the correct word, ‘skills.’ If we call them skills, that’s half the battle. Creative skills are not something you’re born with, nobody is born with the ability to speak in a complete sentence or to show-up and solve problems in a way that we’re glad they showed up… we’re born naked and afraid… we learn skills because there is work to be done, and back in the day when people lifted heavy objects for a living it wasn’t seemly to whine about the fact that it’s hard to lift heavy objects- that was your job. Well, now our job is to show-up and solve interesting problems, and that requires practice.

It’s very easy to imagine it’s a miracle when you solve an interesting problem. It’s not… just like it’s not a miracle when you walk up the stairs without falling down… it’s a skill, and you can get better at it. Commitment to the process, the practice and the method comes before the success. You’re not allowed to say, ‘I’ll be successful a few times with miracles and then I’ll get serious about this…’ you get serious, you practice and then things begin to look easy.

Q: How do we build confidence in ourselves, and overcome impostor syndrome?

[Seth Godin]: Confidence is not the same as a guarantee- and I would never propose that people trust themselves to have the answer or trust themselves to succeed… it’s simply that trusting yourself is better than not trusting yourself. Shipping your best version is better than not shipping it and deciding to get better at something is the only way to get better at it.

We embrace imposter syndrome because it gives us a chance to get off the hook. If you’re an imposter it feels like the kind, mature thing to do is to not ship the work and to say, ‘no, this isn’t for me to do…’ In fact, imposter syndrome is a symptom that we are leading because leaders are doing something that’s never been done before and so of course you will feel like an imposter, because you are one! Who can guarantee something is going to work? Not you, not anyone. If you come with good intent, acknowledge that what you do has never been done before and acknowledge that you will try anyway? That’s a generous act.

Q: How can we think about competition in a healthy way?

[Seth Godin]: As soon as you show up in the world, you’ve created competitors. That’s one reason why we hesitate to show up in the world, because competitors imply that we’re going to beat them, or they’re going to beat us. The alternative is to realise that you’re not here to serve everyone and if someone decides that you have what they need, then you’re doing them a service. You’re not hurting the other person… you’re helping the customer or the person you are leading. Lifeguards don’t view other lifeguards as competitors. It’s possible for us to show up and say, ‘yeah, I wrote a book, there are a million other books and maybe you’ll pick this one, but not everyone will…’ but at least you’ll have a chance!

Q:  Do we have to balance creative vision with commercial reality?

[Seth Godin]: I have regularly chosen not to win at commercial reality. The people who make the most money are not the most creative or the most generous, they are the best at playing the game. I used to be in a poker game, and I got kicked out after a few weeks. When we got from 5 players down to 2 or 3, I would offer to split the pot. When I did the math, I realised that was the best outcome, but the other players pointed out that the point of poker is to beat other people.  You can choose to maximise short-term shareholder value, to be a pawn in Adam Smith’s capitalist machine, and you might well be compensated for that… or you can choose to say, ‘I’m not going to maximise revenue, I’m going to make a choice about making change. I’m going to do work that matters for people who care… If you are making a film and you go to Warner Brothers, they’ll give you $50 million and a whole stack of notes that will make your movie worse creatively, but more successful from their commercial perspective so it can get through gatekeepers and return the investment. You can’t be in both lanes; you have to pick one.

Q:  Do we need to redefine success and failure?

[Seth Godin]: If we look at where you should invest your retirement money, it’s mostly with institutions that are boring- that’s where the money comes from- banks make money day after day… However, that’s not what we’re here to discuss! What we’re here to discuss is whether you want to change the world? Whether you want to change the way people experience the world? Whether you want to help people to get ahead in life? To connect with others…? These are human acts, and I’m not sure human acts increase the earnings per share of a bank…

When it comes to failure, let’s look at Sir Richard Branson. From the minute he got arrested trying to bootleg records across the border, and through a whole host of other projects, he’s failed many times… as have I! We’re probably tied for the most failures! As it turns out, creative process by its nature involves figuring out all the things that don’t’ work on your way to figuring out the things that do. You can’t have it both ways… You can’t say, ‘I want to change things, I want to lead!’ and then say, ‘I never want to be wrong, and I never want to fail…’ There’s no easy answer other than the fact that you have to see the conflict in your own mind and make your own choice.

Q:  How do you build the mental resilience for creative work?

[Seth Godin]: You have to be anti-fragile. When I was a book packager, I got over 850 rejections in a row. None of them were fatal. I had 30 different publishers and 30 different projects and sooner or later some combination was going to happen. You need to make sure that your cost of trying is low!

We also have to listen to the stories we tell ourselves when we are rejected. There is a difference between no, and no for now. No means it’s over and no for now means I learned something, but I get another try. The story is either, ‘this person knows everything about me, everything I stand for and everything in my head and they’ve rejected all of it..’ or ‘…the story is based on the three sentences I sent them, and it wasn’t for them… they are very different forms of rejection, and I don’t know many people who’ve ever got the first form, it doesn’t happen very often.

Q:  How do we get over creative block and writer’s block?

[Seth Godin]: Writer’s block was only invented 100 years ago; the term didn’t exist before that. Writer’s block is simply a fear of bad writing, not an inability to write. Nobody gets talkers’ block! Everyone can talk! Instead of calling it writer’s block, we should say, ‘I haven’t done enough writing yet, so I feel blocked.’ If you show me all your bad writing, we can have a discussion about whether you have writer’s block or not… most people who say they have writer’s block can’t show me their bad writing.

Saying you have writer’s block is like saying that unless you have a guarantee something will work, or that something will be good, you won’t even try. By speaking up, putting things forward, blogging every day, and engaging in your practice every day, that’s how you see the lie of writer’s block.

Q:  Why do constraints matter?

[Seth Godin]: Creativity is about solving interesting problems, and problems are interesting because they have constraints. There was a video game about 20 years ago called Duke Nukem which sold a lot of copies and made plenty of money. The makers worked on the sequel for more than 9 years and every time they got close to release, they were like, ‘we have more money, let’s just hold on…’ and no-one’s ever seen the sequel! Instead of fighting constraints you have to realise that you cannot think outside the box, but you can think along the edges of the box. The box is something to lever and learn against. Look for the edges of the box and don’t deny the boundaries!

Q:  How can we ensure we’re speaking the right language to get the money, to get the deal?

[Seth Godin]: If someone has a job and says, ‘my boss won’t let me…’ it’s the same as a start-up saying, ‘no investor will back me.’ What they each mean is that ‘I want someone else to take responsibility if it fails, but I want the credit if it succeeds.’ Nobody would take that deal!

The alternative is to explain, in language that resonates with the people that you are working with, every step of the journey in a way that makes sense. Your start-up may revolutionise the way people engage with each other, but it’s going to start by telling kids at Harvard who are bored on a Saturday night who they could go on a date with by showing them a book of faces. That’s the first step and you could imagine someone saying, ‘oh yeah! I could imagine someone using that…’ 20 years later, you have a platform that’s changing the world.

The same is true if you’re raising money for a movie. You don’t go to someone with a movie that will change everything (like the Matrix) and say, ‘I need $50 million’ that’s not how it works! You have to explain the genre, the style, the market, the pattern you are following.

Almost every creative breakthrough, like our own DNA, contains matches and patterns that have happened before. We have 98% of the same DNA as a chimp and a great movie has 98% of the same DNA of every other great movie. We have to figure out what we do to rhyme with the patten before insisting people go to the next level.

Q: How can we all have a more creative process and practice?

 [Seth Godin]: Your readers may be disappointed, but there’s only one thing I would suggest they do.  Find three other people and meet regularly- once a week on Zoom. Hold each other to account, the end.

Either you’re willing to do that or you’re not.  If you’re willing to do that, it will change your life.  If you’re not willing to do that, don’t whine about the fact that you’re having trouble being creative.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be

[Seth Godin]: Yeah, about 40 years ago I realised I was going to die one day… it hasn’t happened yet, but I expect it will.  I would like to be measured by what the people I taught things to, taught other people.  It’s that second layer of teaching and learning that lets you know you have done something that made a shift happen.  I’m a teacher, and I’m hoping that the people I’m teaching will spread the word.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.