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Seth Godin on the Power of Stories

Career Entrepreneurship
Seth Godin on the Power of Stories


  • How to give back to your mentor
  • How luck and skill combine to produce success
  • Why we should integrate Random Acts of Initiative into our daily lives

Seth Godin is the author of 18 international bestsellers focusing on the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and making an impact. He recently sat down with Ryan Hawk on the Learning Leader Show to discuss the power of the stories we tell ourselves and the world around us.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

Ryan: I’m curious—when you think about performers, artists, people in general who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time, what are some of the common traits that those people all seem to share?

Seth: I think that we have to be really careful with the word “excellence.” It changes in definition over time. To be an excellent performer before contemporary culture [and technology], you had to repeatedly deliver your stuff. If you went to hear a symphony orchestra, you never heard that music before, and you would never hear it again, because there were no record players. Once we leave that realm—I would argue it extended all the way into the ’40s or ’50s—just being Frank Sinatra isn’t [going] to be excellent anymore. You’re not a music box, you’re not a wind-up toy. You have to be willing to fail. To be an excellent creator now is to be okay with doing things that might not work, because that’s the interesting part.

Ryan: What are some examples of things you’ve tried that have not worked within the last few years?

Seth: I’ve tried many times to build engines of philanthropy that would raise significant funds for charity. Some of the ones that sort of worked raised a few hundred thousand [dollars], but I have repeatedly failed at figuring out how to create an engine of philanthropy.

On my blog, half of my blog posts are below average. I’m well-aware when I write a blog post that doesn’t resonate with people. But [when you’re] able to post every day, you have the luxury to not waste a year of your life, just a day of your life, to discover something else that might not work.

“If you tell yourself a story that gets in the way of you getting better, then you could will it into something much worse.”

Ryan: You’ve written thousands of blog posts and [eighteen] books. Once you’ve gone on such a productive run, have you felt after like you’ve been in a bit of a slump? What advice would you give to others who are going through slumps right now?

Seth: There is no such thing as the kind of slump that you are describing. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an entire book about this; if we account for randomness, a three-game slump [for example] isn’t a slump at all—it’s to be expected. The real problem is [figuring out] what to do when that random event occurs. If you tell yourself a story that gets in the way of you getting better, then you could will it into something much worse. As a salesperson early in my career, I would think, “You’re not going to buy anything from me today either, are you?” That self-talk can cripple somebody’s career.

The alternative is to understand that placebos are real, self-talk is real, and we get to pick what it’s going to be. So, if you can improve your performance by talking positively to yourself, then you should. I wrote a blog post many years ago about the world’s worst boss. My theory is that everyone has met this person, and this person is you. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to anybody else.

Ryan: So you focus on positive self-talk?

Seth: Maybe honest self-talk instead. Honest self-talk that points out, “This isn’t really a slump—it just feels like one.” Honest self-talk like, “Well, this thing I’m bringing to somebody to sell them is worth more than I’m charging, so actually, I’m here to give them a gift.” If we can tell ourselves the truth, it makes it a little bit easier to work with somebody.

“Placebos are real, self-talk is real, and we get to pick what it’s going to be.”

Ryan: You wrote a blog post about [your friend] Chip Conley called “Random Acts of Initiative.” When you both were first-year Stanford MBA students, Chip picked out four other students, strangers to him, and invited them to weekly brainstorming sessions to discuss business plans and entrepreneurial ventures. Why should we implement random acts of initiative? How could that impact the lives of others?

Seth: Almost everyone at Stanford Business either feels like a fraud or is an arrogant jerk. I was the second-youngest person in the class, and I believe Chip was the youngest person in the class. We were nervous, and the reputation [of the school] made us feel ill at ease. It’s really hard to be generous in that setting and see other people for how they need to be seen. Chip decided two or three days into the semester to put a little note into my mailbox, along with three other people—people he had seen foolishly speaking up in class, people he had seen trying their best.

The note said, “I’m organizing these [brainstorming sessions.] You want to come?” All four of us said yes, and those sessions changed our lives. I am forever grateful that he took that initiative. Because the thing about initiative is that it’s never given to you—you have to take it. When I think about how the world has changed in the 37 years since then, it’s only changed in one direction. It’s easier than ever to take initiative to organize something, but too often we get hung up in our own narrative of being a fraud that we forget that the people around us can’t wait for us to lead them.

“The thing about initiative is that it’s never given to you—you have to take it.”

Ryan: I get a number of questions from young people who, in mentor-mentee relationships, are [wondering] how they can add value to the life of their mentor. From your perspective, how does a mentee offer value?

Seth: I talk about this in my new book, [This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn To See.] Empathy is at the heart of our culture, and at the heart of marketing. Empathy is realizing that the people around you don’t want what you want, don’t need what you need, don’t believe what you believe. Often, if you’re having trouble figuring out how you can repay someone, you might say, “If I were in their shoes, what I would want is _____.” But you’re not in their shoes. A mentor probably wants two things. One, to see you do bold acts of leadership—taking the head start you’ve gotten from the mentor and leaping forward in ways that you would [not have] without them. The second thing they’re looking for, I think, is for you to become a mentor to somebody else.

Neither one of those things is a tit-for-tat repayment. Too often, if you’re even thinking of it as a mentor-mentee relationship, you’ve made it small. You’re thinking of [the relationship] from a scarcity point of view, as opposed to an abundance point of view. If there’s enough in the world, then the way you repay this person is by making the world even shinier, brighter, more connected.

“Empathy is realizing that the people around you don’t want what you want, don’t need what you need, don’t believe what you believe.”

Ryan: One of the things that you’re really good at is what standup comedians would call an “economy of words,” meaning you get your point across in as few words as possible. How have you developed this?

Seth: You’re very kind. I made a decision a really long time ago to write like I talk, because if you can write like you talk, writing goes much faster. It also makes your talking better. So before I tried to make my writing better, I tried to make my talking better. I chose to believe, “If I’m going to be in the world, I’d better be willing to stand for what I say.” Not a lot of whiz-words, not a lot of room for maneuvering—simply say it. If you can learn to talk that way, then you can learn to write that way.

Ryan: Switching gears, I’m curious—how much of your success over the years [do you] attribute to luck?

Seth: 98.2%.

Ryan: So what’s the other 1.8%?

Seth: A generous, relentless persistence. I won the birthday lottery—born to the right parents, in the right year, in the right town. That’s 92% right there. Then I had some amazing teachers along the way.

“The way you repay this person is by making the world even shinier, brighter, more connected.”

But lots of people have had that same lucky streak. The question is, “What do you do with it?” First, [I had] a bias for carving my own path as opposed to being a cog in the industrial system. My parents taught me that. Then the second thing is, how do you deal with rejection? Do you just repeat yourself and become annoying, or do you learn from it and go back into the system? I’ve chosen to learn an enormous amount from rejection. That combined with the persistence to do stuff that I think would make other people’s lives better, has worked out.

Ryan: I want to talk about a couple of things in [your most recent] book, This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See. One of the big words that come up is “culture.” You say that culture beats strategy so much that culture becomes strategy. What’s your thought process towards that?

Seth: How do we treat somebody when someone in their family needs help? How do we talk to each other in a meeting when we disagree? How do we talk to our customers face-to-face? And how do we talk about them behind their backs? These are all cultural choices. Too often, entrepreneurs, whose lives are so hard at the beginning because they’re scraping everything together, say to themselves, “I’ll deal with culture later.” So they put up with a bully, because they need that bully in their sales department. Or they cut some corners on an area that might be ethically difficult, because they need that profit margin in order to make payroll. It is in those moments that you’re building a culture, when it’s hard to do the thing that you’d like to be proud of.

Ryan: What’s helped me the most, personally, is being able to say no. From a practicality standpoint, that can be helpful.

Another key part [of your book] is that marketing changes people through stories. The leaders who have moved me, who have inspired me, who have helped me, who have served me, are really good storytellers. What are the keys to being a better storyteller?

Seth: Our parents grew up when there wasn’t enough stuff—factories were needed to make enough stuff. Now, we have too much stuff, too many places to buy the stuff, too many choices. So you’re not going to win by being the maker of stuff—you’re going to win by being the creator of stories. Those stories won’t work on everyone, but if they help us feel seen. If they help us feel safe, if they raise our status, then you can help people on the journey they want to go on.

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