On good days, Seth Godin thinks about all the progress we’re making on climate change. On bad days, he thinks about the problem of racing bibs. Though pieces of paper safety-pinned to runners’ chests seem obviously outdated, the bibs persist, highlighting how difficult it can be to change a culture for the better. And yet Seth also persists to improve the culture around marketing and work, giving hundreds of talks, writing daily blog posts, and publishing 21 best-sellers. His latest, The Song of Significance, explains why workplace culture has gotten so bad and what leaders can do to make it better.
Seth joined Tyler to discuss why direct marketing works at all, the marketing success of Trader Joe’s vs Whole Foods, why you can’t reverse engineer Taylor Swift’s success, how Seth would fix baseball, the brilliant marketing in ChatGPT’s design, the most underrated American visual artist, the problem with online education, approaching public talks as a team process, what makes him a good cook, his updated advice for aspiring young authors, how growing up in Buffalo shaped him, what he’ll work on next, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded May 23rd, 2023
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I am chatting with Seth Godin, who has a new book out, The Song of Significance. Usually, I make up introductions for the guests, but the one for Seth on his book is so good already, and I quote:
“Seth Godin is the author of 21 international bestsellers that have changed the way people think about work. His books have been translated into 38 languages. Godin writes one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world, and two of his TED Talks are among the most popular of all time. He is the founder of the altMBA, the social media pioneer Squidoo, and Yoyodyne, one of the first internet companies. Find out more at seths.blog.”
SETH GODIN: What a treat. Thank you for having me.
COWEN: I have so many questions about marketing. Let me start with one. Why is it that direct mail works at all?
GODIN: Why do people want things? They want things, first, because they need them, but then we have trained them to want them. That feeling of “I don’t have something, but I want it, and wanting it will make me happier” has been indoctrinated into us for a long time. The magic of direct mail — which is 150 or so years old — is that stamps create scarcity. If somebody sends you a piece of direct mail, it costs them something to do that. That’s different than email spam, which costs us under nothing.
So, for a long time — all the way back to the beginning of pottery with Wedgewood — we have people sending letters to the right people — because they can’t send it to everyone — interrupting them in a culturally appropriate way to sell them something that will give them satisfaction. Unfortunately, there’s also a race to the bottom, and you get a lot of junk. It’s the junk that people don’t like. Marketing that they like, people don’t call junk.
COWEN: Most of the direct mail that comes to our house is people wanting money for free. Why should I give money to someone I don’t know, rather than money to someone I do know? If personal affiliation is a goal and trust matters, why direct mail?
GODIN: Well, first, I’m not an expert on direct mail, though I am lucky enough to be in the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame. They kicked me out of the Direct Marketing Association for my stance against spam a long time ago. But I guess what I would say is this: we have developed a culture where it is accepted and expected that the recipient will guard their attention and guard their pocketbook. I don’t think that that’s the only way the world could work, but it is the way our world works. I’m not saying it’s right, but it is the way it is. So, no, don’t send money to someone you don’t know.
COWEN: To what extent is being good at marketing the same as being good at telling very short stories?
GODIN: What’s a story? A story isn’t always The Princess Bride. A story isn’t always once upon a time. A story is the way it smells when you walk into your mother’s house and you smell apple pie, because you have a Proustian connection to how that felt a long time ago. A story involves status and affiliation. It’s very complicated. I’m not ready to say that marketing is a short story. I think that marketing is a complicated story.
We know the difference from a thousand clues between a $500-a-night hotel and a $40-a-night hotel, even though both rooms are dark and quiet in the middle of the night. We want those things. Those stories inform our lives. They are why we bought the eyeglasses we bought and why we drive the car we drive. There are people who believe that a utilitarian sort of Soviet mindset is better, but even that person is driving their 25-year-old Pontiac because the story they tell themselves about that car makes them feel better.
COWEN: How do you think about the cross-sectional variation between very short stories — Coke, “the real thing” — and then very long stories? A piece of direct mail might be very long. The later Harry Potter novels — they’re very long. They’re, in a sense, ads for the sequel in addition to everything else. When do you go long and when do you go short?
GODIN: I think there’s a confusion here between the surface of a jingle or the noise we hear and what marketing actually is. Coke’s story is not a jingle. It is not “the real thing.” Coke’s story is so complicated and so expensive that when they changed the formula of Coke, it cost them billions of dollars, even though testing in a blind test showed almost everyone thought it tasted better. The thing is, we don’t live in a double-blind world. We live with a narrative that informs us.
When someone shows up to tell a story — and it’s not just someone who’s trying to sell you a soft drink; it’s someone who’s trying to run for office or an economist who’s trying to get people to adopt her ideas — they are telling a very complicated story that involves everything from how is the typeface kerned to what institution is this person part of, to what do my friends think of them? For me, marketing is humanity. They’re right next to each other. It is the stories we tell each other about who we are and where we belong.
COWEN: I have some case studies to ask you about. Feel free to pass if you don’t know anything about them. To start, what has Trader Joe’s gotten right?
GODIN: Trader Joe’s took the rule of the supermarket and found a different fraction, which is instead of being super — meaning, let’s sell everything to everyone, average stuff for average people at the fairest price we can — let’s remove almost all variety and, instead, create a place where the products themselves are unique enough in their stories that people who identify with that relationship with food and shopping will come here, even though they have to drive past five other supermarkets to get here. Every other supermarket is interchangeable. Trader Joe’s is not.
COWEN: What has Whole Foods gotten wrong by comparison?
GODIN: Well, at the beginning, John and the team did something extraordinary, which is they took the mom-and-pop health food store and multiplied it and added the shiny veneer of luxury goods. Since Amazon has taken it over, I think what we’ve seen is, they’re not exactly sure what they are measuring.
Are they measuring convenience? Which is what Amazon wants to stand for. Or are they measuring uniqueness? Or are they measuring creating surprise and delight? They alternate between all four of those things. One of the things that happens when you try to build and grow an institution is, it really helps to understand who’s it for and what’s it for. What is the change we are trying to make? I think they’ll muddle their way through, but it’s going to take leadership to figure out, what does Whole Foods do, actually?
COWEN: Taylor Swift is pretty popular. Obviously, people like the music, but what else is she getting right?
GODIN: I’m not an expert on pop music, but what I will tell you about pop is, someone needs to be Taylor Swift. It’s a mistake to reverse engineer whoever is on top of the pop chart and say, “If I was just like that, I would be next.” Because the definition of pop is, we all picked someone, and she has a lot of skill and works really hard. But you can’t reverse engineer it to figure out the next one.
COWEN: If you were called in as a consultant to professional baseball, what would you tell them to do to keep the game alive?
GODIN: [laughs] I am so glad I never was a consultant.
What is baseball? In most of the world, no one wants to watch one minute of baseball. Why do we want to watch baseball? Why do the songs and the Cracker Jack and the sounds matter to some people and not to others? The answer is that professional sports in any country that are beloved, are beloved because they remind us of our parents. They remind us of a different time in our lives. They are comfortable but also challenging. They let us exchange status roles in a safe way without extraordinary division.
Baseball was that for a very long time, but then things changed. One of the things that changed is that football was built for television and baseball is not. By leaning into television, which completely terraformed American society for 40 years, football advanced in a lot of ways.
Baseball is in a jam because, on one hand, like Coke and New Coke, you need to remind people of the old days. On the other hand, people have too many choices now.
There’s a baseball team called the Bananas. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters for baseball, and they sell out every single game. People wait in line to get in, and they create this extraordinary family experience built on top of baseball. It reminds us of baseball, but it isn’t baseball. I’m not sure all of Major League Baseball can do that, but I think the useful lesson is not how do we fix baseball? It’s how do we think about which story do we want to tell next?
COWEN: How do you think about the future of the NBA?
GODIN: I grew up in Buffalo, and we had an NBA team there.
COWEN: Bob McAdoo, yes.
GODIN: Yes, but I confess, I was a Buffalo Sabres fan, so I can’t say anything intelligent about basketball.
COWEN: You must know why you never found it interesting.
GODIN: It’s embarrassing to tell you, but it was the sweating.
COWEN: I love embarrassing. It’s what?
GODIN: The sweating.
COWEN: Too much sweating in basketball.
GODIN: Too much sweating. It felt icky to watch all these people on the court sweating all the time. Hockey was cold. People are wearing long-sleeve shirts. It made me more comfortable.
COWEN: If you think about the problems of Peloton, which did incredibly well during the pandemic but now has had a very steep fall, is that just a product problem? Or is there something in their marketing that they could be doing better?
GODIN: Peloton had some really significant advantages when they figured out that they could embrace the idea that people want to measure themselves. They want to compete against people they don’t know, and they want to see their metrics go up. Then the pandemic gave them a huge boost because you couldn’t go to the gym.
What many institutions and organizations confuse is the convenience and luck of being in the right place at the right time with building something for the ages. Peloton’s challenge cannot be remedied by fixing a device or coming up with a jingle. What they have to realize is, anything that succeeds and sticks around does so because it answers the question, “What will I tell my friends?” During the pandemic, it was easy to talk to your friends about this thing that they could do to get themselves out of their malaise.
But now, Peloton is not giving people a good reason to tell their friends, which means it’s not going to grow, and it’s easier to quit or have it fade away because you don’t feel missed when you’re not there. Institutions that last, like Alcoholics Anonymous, stick around for those two reasons: You will be missed if you’re not there, and you know what to tell your friends.
COWEN: Which brand is doing a better job marketing, a Prius or a Tesla?
GODIN: Both of them have stories that have problems right now because, as the trends shift, Toyota finds itself behind because they bet on different alternative fuels than electricity, and Tesla because their founder hoards attention.
The challenge when you buy a car is that you know that you’re going to send a message to everybody as you drive around town. That is what has driven the car industry since they figured out how to make decent cars 50 years ago. If that’s the case, the job of a car company is to live and breathe and model the story that the customers want to tell as they drive around. A lot of car heads will say, “No, no, no, I just buy the best car.” And I would say to them, “No, you buy the car that tells your story the best way possible.”
COWEN: As you know, ChatGPT is sometimes described as the most rapidly growing or most rapidly adopted consumer product ever. As with Taylor Swift, people must like it, but in terms of marketing, how do you think about what they’ve been doing? They don’t seem like a marketing company, right? It’s a bunch of engineers.
GODIN: There are so many things to talk about with ChatGPT. I would first say, I’m not sure people like it. I think people are fascinated by it. They are afraid of it. They’re curious about it. But there are things people like that deserve that word. ChatGPT is on the forefront of what many people believe is going to be our future, and so it’s worth touching and playing with. ChatGPT became a marketing problem, not a technology problem, the day they decided to open the beta to more than a few thousand people.
The same way — and I’m sure you remember this — when Google came along — I was at Yahoo at the time — when Google came along, if you took Google results and results from Bing or Yahoo, and just switched the logos at the top, people would say they prefer the Google results, even when they were looking at the Microsoft results, because Google didn’t have a technology problem. They had solved a marketing problem, which is that Marissa Mayer figured out that by taking off 180 links on the homepage, the way that Yahoo had 183 links, and just taking it down to 2, they sent a message.
When you think about how people use ChatGPT, one of the brilliant things they did was, when we first started using it, it typed slowly. It didn’t just sit there waiting until it had the whole sentence figured out. It typed a few words, then it typed a few more words, then it typed a few more words. There was no technical reason for that. That was a marketing decision because it made us imagine that there was a little man or woman inside the thing typing back to us. They intentionally created personification.
COWEN: How happy are you with your own bot of you, the Seth bot? That’s personification. You created it. Now you’re immortal in a sense. Does that feel good, or you’re scared?
GODIN: I worked hard with the WordPress folks, the Automattic folks, on the bot. The first thing I did was, I made it so it would never use the pronoun I. If it does, that’s a bug. It doesn’t say I think this and I think that. It says, Seth wrote about this and he said so and so, and then it gives links. What I like about it is that it is, in and of itself, very clear about what it’s good at, and it doesn’t pretend that it is me because it’s not me.
I just had a call yesterday with a really big, famous tech company, and they’re talking about bringing out a bot that does none of those things. That’s basically an engineering gimmick that will trick a whole bunch of people into thinking it’s smart, but after you poke it twice, all the air comes out of the balloon. I think that’s a huge mistake.
What we need to do, no matter what we market, no matter what opportunity we bring people, is make it fit in the box in which it is contained. Go to the edges, but don’t imagine that pretending it’s bigger than those edges is going to last because it won’t.
COWEN: Will there be an open-source bot — a bit like the Sydney character that was part of ChatGPT for a while before they neutered it — that everyone will just talk to, maybe for many hours? Maybe only 10 percent of the population, but they’ll have some kind of emotional relationship with the thing.
GODIN: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see thousands and thousands of variations on LLMs because now that we know the problem can be solved, it’s going to be solved in many different ways. But what is it good at? I think it’s good at a couple things. First of all, it works cheap. Second, it’s always on. The combination of those two things is what most people are missing. They’re saying, “Is this as good as asking Tyler a question about today’s news?” No, it’s not, but that’s not what it’s going to be good at. It’s good at being always on and cheap.
What that means, for example, is that cognitive behavioral therapy, which is so effective for some people — instead of waiting all week for your 50-minute session, you’ll have 20 sessions a day. You’ll just touch it every time you’re feeling anxious. It will give you an exercise based on who you are and what you said to it last time. Then you’ll go back to what you were doing. All around us, things in our life are going to be enabled by this omnipresent cheap thing with a memory.
Yes, some of them are going to have a personality and it’s going to wreak chaos in a whole bunch of different ways, especially where you started this conversation: direct mail scams, spam. Imagine instructing a ChatGPT, “All right, here are 5,000 people on LinkedIn. Go learn about each one of them. Compose an email to each one pretending you know them, mentioning facts and connections, and scam them out of something. And by the way, please do that over and over and over again forever.” That’s got to be happening right now. It’s going to be a mess.
COWEN: Are there general truths about how marketing to women is different from marketing to men? I don’t mean always true, but generalities that are mostly true.
GODIN: What we do when we do almost any work that involves statistics, whether it’s economics or marketing or sales or engineering, is we make assumptions and generalizations about these people that we are seeking to serve. We assume that a bunch of people are going to be right-handed. If this thing has to preference right-handed or left-handed, it’s going to preference right-handed because we have to make these assumptions.
All of the generalizations are false, and many of the generalizations are useful. Is it useful to imagine that, in general, a large group of undifferentiated men will respond to something differently than a large group of undifferentiated women? Yes, but it is not useful or fair or moral to then take that useful generalization and apply it to an individual.
COWEN: What is an important truth about marketing that very few of your peers would agree with you on?
GODIN: About marketing? My peers?
COWEN: People you respect and are smart, but you think, “Well, here’s this thing. I believe it’s true, and the rest of them just don’t quite get it yet.”
GODIN: Well, I think that some of the things you and I have been bumping into as you’ve been sharing your questions and your readers’ questions gets to the heart of it. I don’t think most people understand what marketing is. Most people think marketing is hustle and hassle and hype and self-aggrandization and cheating and stealing.
Well, those need special names, but that’s not what marketing is. Marketing is telling a true story that serves the people you’re telling it to and that spreads. That’s what marketing is. If somebody says they’re a marketer, and they’re busy hassling people, I say, “No, you’re not.”
COWEN: If you’re looking at a young person, talking with a young person — they’re thinking they might, in some way, become a marketer. I know that term is not entirely well defined. They might just be a content producer. But when it comes to marketing, what are the skills you look for to identify who will be good at it? Of course, intelligence, hard work, but what would be a nonobvious answer, something you look for?
GODIN: Anybody who has actually done marketing — not worked in a marketing department and gone to meetings, but actually done marketing — has found that the only thing that matters is empathy. When I get a note from someone who says, “I want to be a marketer,” I point out that of my 21 books, only 6 are about marketing. If you want to be a marketer, go market something. Go buy a bunch of stuff at a garage sale and sell it at a profit on eBay. Go raise $20,000 for charity.
If you’re out there raising money for charity, and you’re calling on a billionaire to get them to put up a few million dollars to name a building after themselves, you’re saying to yourself, “I would never put $4 million into this campus to name a building after myself.” Well, if that’s what you’re saying, you can’t serve this person because they have all their short-term problem solved, and what they’re looking for is a legacy and status. This is a bargain at $4 million.
The empathy that is necessary is to say, well, I wouldn’t drink Coke for breakfast, but this person likes drinking Coke for breakfast, and I wouldn’t wear pantyhose, but this person wants to. The short version is, you don’t need to be a cancer survivor to be an oncologist. What you need to be an oncologist is to have empathy for somebody who’s been through cancer.
COWEN: Which is the best Miles Davis album?
GODIN: Well, even though I’ve heard many of them, when I have the choice, I still play Kind of Blue.
GODIN: I think those are great choices. For me, Miles’s journey is at least as important as Miles’s music.
COWEN: Which is the best or your favorite Stephen King novel?
GODIN: I can’t read scary books.
COWEN: You just don’t do it?
COWEN: Do you like horror movies?
GODIN: Nope, can’t even walk into the theater.
COWEN: Do you find the Three Stooges funny?
GODIN: The Three Stooges episode where Curly is in the tub with the pipes, and they keep leaking? Yes, I love classic Three Stooges. There were not that many classic Three Stooges moments, but they were just so good at what they did.
COWEN: What is the complicated thing they did? How do you think about it?
GODIN: It’s a cartoon come to life. We know they don’t hate each other, and we know they’re not actually being injured. In later iterations of slapstick, particularly in Hollywood in the ’80s or ’90s, they lost both of those things. They either made it too personal, or they made it too real. As a result, they got into an uncanny valley where it didn’t feel like a cartoon anymore. I think I need it to be jittery 1936 footage for me to suspend disbelief and to imagine I’m just watching a perfectly timed cartoon.
COWEN: There’s a Thai restaurant you mentioned in one of your books. Forgive my pronunciation, but I think it’s SriPraPhai. Is that correct?
GODIN: I think she pronounced it SriPraPhai.
COWEN: What makes that restaurant special? Why did you mention it?
GODIN: Okay, well, first, it’s closed on Wednesday. If you want to go, don’t make a special trip because you’ll be disappointed
COWEN: Tell us where it is.
GODIN: She has a couple branches in Queens and New York. What she did was, she showed up when everyone was pushing edge case restaurants toward the center — dumb it down, serve Pad Thai, make this thing popular. What she did was, she made food for her family, and she did it without apology. She showed up with this warmth and connection.
My family and I would go often, and she would greet us, and we would sit with her. It’s grown to four times the size, plus opened a couple others. But it hasn’t lost what she set out to do, which is, if you want to make a lot of money, you shouldn’t open a restaurant, but if you want to make a difference and stand for something in your culture, this is a good way to do it.
COWEN: In the last year or two, auction prices for Jasper Johns have gone down somewhat. Do you think he’s viewed as too classic or too fusty? What’s going on with his work? Why hasn’t he ascended to just being America’s artist and holding that designation forever?
GODIN: As I mentioned, I grew up in Buffalo. My mom was the first woman on the board of the Albright-Knox. The Albright-Knox is a —
COWEN: A great museum.
GODIN: Great museum, one of the most important contemporary art museums in the country. You walk into the Clyfford Still room, and you see magic. You see Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol. You see what happened when we started to separate craft from art in the post-photography world. All of that is real.
What is not real is how much paintings cost at auction. How much paintings cost at auction is a by-product of half money laundering and half speculation. It is a by-product of what do you think is going to go up in value tomorrow, not what is good art. People who love art tend to understand the difference between the two, the same way a company can still be a good company and their stock price might not go up.
COWEN: Who to you is the great underrated American visual artist?
GODIN: Oh, I have so many choices. I might say Shepard Fairey. He was right on the edge of the gallery world and decided not to do that and pulled back a little bit. I would say Jill Greenberg, the photographer who has reinvented herself several times over and really shifted the way people look at photography. I’m sure a couple will come to me as soon as I stop talking, but I’ll put those two out first.
COWEN: I think I might say Richard Serra, who certainly is highly rated, but I meet smart people all the time who think he’s a fraud, and it’s amazing.
GODIN: He is not a fraud. If you go to Dia Beacon and you have a heart and a soul, you will not leave Dia Beacon thinking that Richard Serra is a fraud.
COWEN: Jeff Koons — how does his work strike you? Genius, fraud, something else?
GODIN: Anyone who’s willing to go that close to bankruptcy that many times cannot be a fraud. You can look at any given piece of art — the balloon animals or the porn series — and say, “Yeah, it’s like he’s taken Duchamp too far.” But then you see what he had to do to make the balloon animal such an extraordinary specimen of what it could have been, how much it cost, how long it took, with no promise it was going to work. It’s a different kind of craft, right?
I had a back-and-forth with someone the other day about Duchamp and The Fountain. For people who are listening at home, one of the most important pieces of art of the 20th century is a urinal that is widely attributed to Marcel Duchamp. But in fact, it’s quite possible that the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven created it, and he just put his name on it so that the misogynistic art world would see it.
But what’s interesting about it is, once you have a readymade urinal in an art exhibit, what do you do after that? That’s why Duchamp was often called the last artist because he got the joke. He said the joke out loud. He put a bench from the hardware store in MoMA.
But after that, we still have artists because what art is, is a story that resonates with the viewer and changes us. That’s what the book is about: significance, the search for meaning. It’s not just visual artists that look for meaning. All of us want meaning. If you can find meaning at Dia Beacon, that’s fantastic, but every day when we go to work, we’ve got to figure out a way to find meaning.
COWEN: Who’s an example of a major visual artist whose work you just don’t get?
GODIN: I think that there is a bunch of art from the ’80s, where it was mostly assemblages of trash, and then we added to it video and noise. Often, when I’m at MoMA or someplace like that, you’ll walk into one of those side rooms where they’re playing something like that on repeat. It’s quite possible that if I spent a few hours sitting with it and looking at it and thinking about it, I could get what the artist was after.
But there’s so much other stuff in the museum that might pay off that time better that I tend to move on. It’s not that I don’t like these people. I don’t even know their names. I’m just saying I don’t get it.
COWEN: How has immersing yourself in the visual arts improved the other things you do, other than the obvious, “Oh, I try to have my work look nice”?
GODIN: Oh, it has nothing to do with making my work look nice.
COWEN: I know.
GODIN: It’s about the liminal space between here and there. The best audiobook ever recorded is Just Kids by Patti Smith. It’s not about Patti Smith the rockstar; it’s about Patti Smith on a journey from someplace that’s sort of safe to someplace that’s important. When I see artists — whether it’s Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock or Shepard Fairey — do that, that’s what I want. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
I am not trying to build companies and make a profit. I’m trying to feel that feeling again of, “Did I do something generative where I explored a liminal space between here and there?” The coolest thing about contemporary art is you can feel that feeling in three seconds if you’re in the right place at the right time, whereas it takes much longer when you’re reading a book.
COWEN: You’ve been very active in online education. What is the biggest problem with scaling the education itself?
GODIN: Oh, this one is really worth diving into because you’re a teacher too. There’s a huge difference between learning and education. Education is compliance-based, top-down authority, certificate-granting. It is checking the boxes and proving that you have this thing that used to be scarce is yours now. Learning is all autodidactic. Learning is, did you change by doing a thing?
When online showed up, we had the chance to create online learning, and yet, almost all the money and almost all the time went into online education, and that’s heartbreaking to me. I think online education, while it’s pluralistic in the sense that we can get to more people, is a pale shadow of what online learning could be, and my hope is that AI could help with that.
COWEN: What, concretely, do we need to change to make that happen?
GODIN: Well, the first thing is accreditation and certificates because they have to go with education and they cannot go with learning. Learning is a body of work. It is who you become, not what piece of paper you get. When you watch somebody . . . Let’s say you want to make someone into a baseball fan. I’m assuming, from your question, you’re a baseball fan.
COWEN: Not since I was young. It’s too slow and boring for me now, along the lines of your comment. But let’s say we want to make a baseball fan.
GODIN: Yes. You don’t teach them the history of baseball, give them the baseball encyclopedia, quiz them about Abner Doubleday, and if they do well on the test, let them go to a game. What you do is get them enrolled in the journey of being a baseball fan because five minutes of it was fun, and they want it again. The next thing you know, they’re learning statistics because they want to. They’re learning facts because they want to, not because there’s going to be a test.
The magic of the original LOGO software for kids, the magic of all the interactions we’ve been capable of encouraging people to have online, is people choose to learn, and then their body of work follows from that. What we can do with a patient AI or a properly structured workshop online is create the conditions for people to want to do the work, never because it’s on the test. If someone says, “Will this be on the test?” you know which kind of room you’re in.
COWEN: Is the subscription model the future of online education? It will be free. It’ll be not-for-profit. What does it look like if things go the way you want?
GODIN: Well, many of the things that have become ingrained in our online lives are free. Email, Wikipedia, for now, ChatGPT. Free is a really compelling way for an idea to spread. But enrollment often comes with some risk and tension. The enrollment that you feel if you paid $50 to be part of a community — you’re saying to yourself, “Well, this is a sunk cost, but I better defend it. I’ve got to show up tomorrow.”
There are other kinds of enrollment, other kinds of commitment. My hope is that as the marginal cost of these online learning institutions goes down, we come up with other forms of socially appropriate emotional enrollment so that people, regardless of their income or where they live, can do it if they’re committed.
The Carbon Almanac, which I did a year and a half of my life full-time as a volunteer — 300 other people did it with me. Not one of us got paid. Some people lasted for an hour, and they were gone, and other people were there hours and hours and hours and hours. They emotionally chose to enroll, and that’s what created the magic. We need to figure out how to do that for others at scale.
COWEN: What makes for a good motivational speaker?
GODIN: All motivation is self-motivation. What a motivational speaker does is not say, “Sending me money will get you what you want.” They do the opposite of that. They establish the emotional connection by transferring that emotion to the recipient so that person can create the conditions for them to achieve what they thought they could achieve.
Anything beyond that starts being a scam. Anything beyond that, where you are promising you can heal someone’s illness or you’re promising they can be a millionaire — that’s not what motivational speaking is for.
COWEN: When you give a talk, what is it about that process that you enjoy? What’s the complex, fundamental thing that gets you excited each time?
GODIN: For the last 25 years, I’ve probably given a thousand speeches altogether.
COWEN: And you’re not bored, right?
GODIN: I am definitely not bored. I will tell you, selfishly or generously, depending on your point of view, I don’t fly anymore because that was the part I hated the most. Schlepping there, spending 12 hours to get to a place where, for 45 minutes, I could do my work and then have to figure out how to get home. I also didn’t like the way it felt to burn quite that much carbon for just that reason.
But that aside, here’s this group of people who are giving me the benefit of the doubt. Not completely, but enough that for the first three minutes, they will follow me on this journey. What can I do in three minutes to earn six more minutes? Then, nine minutes into it, how can I bring something to that room that people will talk about to themselves and to others tomorrow or in six months?
I don’t memorize my talk. I have 180 slides, none with words on them. A slide comes up, and I tell a story about it, and I’m listening and interacting with the room. On Zoom, I can do my work, but I have to pretend I can hear the room. That is really exhausting because what I discovered is, it’s that interplay with the tension that enables me to do my work the best way.
COWEN: In which regards do you think of a talk you give as a team process in the way that you discuss in your book, The Song of Significance?
GODIN: On Zoom, the way I do it now is, I use breakout rooms. What I do with breakout rooms is, if there’s a hundred people, we’ll divide into 20 rooms of five. When people go to that room of five, something magic happens, something that does not happen to them at work. It is extraordinary to see what happens when you are in a room for seven minutes with four other people and there is social pressure for you to speak and connect, not to be judged, not to be criticized, but to be generative.
It moves people — sometimes to tears — to be seen, to be treated with respect, to not have to worry about the boss. It has highlighted for me how rare that is in our days, that what we’ve done with our days is, we’ve grooved them into a script, and we’re just waiting to find out if this will be on the test. How do I get an A? How do I do what I did yesterday? So, part of the inspiration for the book is to help people understand that human beings are capable of extraordinary contributions if we just trust them enough to listen.
COWEN: When you meet and talk with anthropologists, are you impressed by them? Or do you feel there’s something missing in their worldview? Do you feel you’re one of them or you’ve transcended them? What’s your take?
GODIN: I have a confession to make. I don’t know if I’ve ever met an anthropologist.
COWEN: [laughs] But that’s endogenous.
GODIN: In your line of work, they’re probably just down the hall. But aren’t we all anthropologists?
COWEN: That’s my view. It’s the most fundamental of all the social sciences, and we’re all doing it. They get this funny designation as if they’re the ones doing it. I look at them, not in a hostile or critical way, but it’s like, “What made you an anthropologist? Is it just age?”
GODIN: You can say the same thing about economists, couldn’t you?
COWEN: Absolutely, and I do. [laughs].
What makes you a good cook?
GODIN: Lacking all humility, I am a really good cook. The reason is, I don’t follow recipes. I dance with them by understanding what the person who made the recipe had in mind. Having created recipes myself — there’re some on my blog — when someone’s making a recipe, they don’t test — unless they’re Kenji — the difference between half a teaspoon and three-quarters of a teaspoon of something. They’re not sitting there doing 4,000 variations. They just make the thing, and then they write down the way they made it, but the way they made it is not the only way to make it.
There is a project here. I cook every night because I like the short-term nature of the project. You can visualize the outcome, and if you understand the components, you can make it. It will be slightly different every time, but it will be delicious because you understand. When I find people who don’t like to cook or who say they are bad cooks, it’s simply because they’re trying to follow a recipe, and that feels like being an indentured servant.
COWEN: I am also a good cook. Given your methods, how should one think about choosing a cookbook?
GODIN: For me, cooking changed when my wife got me a cooking class with Chris Schlesinger, who wrote the book Thrill of the Grill. It’s one of the simplest cookbooks in the world. You take protein and you put it on fire.
After that, I bought a few foundational books: Think Like a Chef, some books from Alice Waters, Daniel Leaders’ groundbreaking books on baking. I didn’t buy books of recipes. I bought books where someone who understood how to cook had a narrative about how it all fits together. Now I own a lot of cookbooks, but I almost never touch them because the internet, because Kenji — you just type Kenji and then the name of whatever recipe, and you’ll find the best version of the recipe.
But you need to understand the fundamental. That’s why certain kinds of baking are so hard because baking is magic. We don’t know, really, what’s happening. There, you pretty much have to follow a recipe for certain things. The other stuff — sweet potato noodles with sesame oil and buckwheat groats or whatever it is — you know what’s going on, and you can taste it as you go. How can you cook without tasting?
COWEN: Chemistry is a way to think about what many cookbooks offer. Knowledge of chemistry, but you couldn’t get it from a chemistry text.
GODIN: Yeah, Harold McGee has done that beautifully.
COWEN: What’s your best dish?
GODIN: For a long time, my best dish was my crispy tofu, which I put in the footnotes of my book Survival Is Not Enough, because I needed the world to know about my crispy tofu recipe. Lately, I’m going to say it’s my tahini ginger date cookies because they’re so simple and you can’t stop eating them.
I also have a Pacojet, which I would strongly recommend to any crazy home cook. You can freeze stuff to 10 degrees below zero and then put it into this thing that spins in a vacuum at 10,000 rpm and turns whatever you froze into a creamy, delightful vegan dessert.
COWEN: What did you learn from Isaac Asimov?
GODIN: Isaac worked with me when I was 24 years old. He wrote and published 400 books. I was sitting in his living room in Lincoln Center in New York City, and I said, “Isaac” — being presumptuous — “how do you go about writing 400 books?” He said, “Here’s the secret.” He pointed to this old manual typewriter. He said, “Every morning, I sit in front of this typewriter at 7:00 am, and I type until noon. It doesn’t have to be good, but I have to keep typing.”
The lesson is, once your subconscious knows you’re going to keep typing no matter what, it becomes sufficiently embarrassed by the bad stuff that it will let some good stuff in. People who think they have writer’s block don’t have writer’s block. They have fear of bad writing. If you show me all your bad writing, sooner or later you’re going to have to show me some good writing.
COWEN: How was he with you? Encouraging? Gruff?
GODIN: What a delight. I licensed a lot of stuff in my career as a book packager. Getting the rights to the robots novels was surprisingly inexpensive. We worked together in figuring out what the video that we made was going to be. He always gave me — at 24, 25 years old — the benefit of the doubt. He always had a useful contribution, and he never got petulant or brought his ego to . . .
“Didn’t you know I invented the robot?” He never said that. He just said, “How can we make this better together?” So many people who partner want to control, and he just wanted to make it better.
COWEN: In 2006, you published a famous blog post, “Advice to Aspiring or Young Writers.” How would you change that advice for 2023, if at all?
GODIN: I’m pausing because I have written a lot of blog posts. Give me a second to —
COWEN: You wrote two blog posts on advice to aspiring writers. There’s a former and a latter.
GODIN: Okay. Got it. Now I know which one you’re referring to. We can proceed.
People send me notes — which I admire them for — saying, “I’m writing this book or writing this thing. What should I do?” I decided to just list all of the things I could think of. If you type “advice for authors” at seths.blog, you’ll find them. The short version is, publishing is not a business; publishing is an organized hobby.
And there are things in book publishing that are metrics that appear real that aren’t actually useful. So, the first step is to ignore the useless metrics. The New York Times Best Seller List is a fraud. It is not based on actual fact. Don’t bend your life out of proportion to show up on a list that doesn’t make any sense.
But beyond that, why are you writing the book? Who are you writing the book for? What change do you seek to make? Writing a book is a magical thing. It will make you better. Everyone should write one.
Publishing a book is a totally different project, and most people shouldn’t publish their book. Maybe they should just give it away. The shortest version of the advice is — particularly if it’s a novel — take your first novel, post it on the internet for free, send it to 50 friends. If it spreads, if other people want to read it, your second novel will get published, but if your first novel doesn’t spread when it’s free, you probably need to write a better novel.
COWEN: The story behind your new book, The Song of Significance — what was the anthropological reasoning you went through as to why the world needs this book now?
GODIN: Amazon lost a third of its annual profits to turnover in 2021. Former Amazon executive David Risher, who’s now at Lyft, ordered all employees back to headquarters so he could watch them and surveil them even though they don’t want to go, and productivity is the lowest it’s been — correct me if I’m wrong — in 70 years of measuring it. All of which are a way of describing how we’re sitting here, watching billionaires firing disabled people online for kicks and living in a world where AI and robots and the race to the bottom is making a whole generation say, “Count me out.”
What occurred to me is, everyone knows the answer to the question, “What’s the best job you ever had?” If I ask you about the best job you ever had, you will remember not just how it made you feel, but how productive you were.
COWEN: Podcast host is my answer, of course.
GODIN: There you go.
So, the question is, why can’t we create the conditions for people to have the best job they ever had? Because it’s not that you didn’t have to work that hard. It’s not that you got paid a fortune. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. It’s probably that people treated you with respect, that you achieved more than you thought you could, that you made a difference, that you did work that matters with people you care about. Well, if we’re going to spend 100,000 hours at work in our lifetime, don’t we deserve that? Why don’t we build that? That’s why I wrote the book.
COWEN: What do you think is the central insight you have about how to build that, that is otherwise under-emphasized?
GODIN: I think that Frederick Taylor’s demise is long overdue, that the purpose of a beehive is not to maximize the amount of honey we produce. The honey is a by-product of a successful beehive. That what we have is the chance to get what we want by connecting with people who have a choice about where they work, who choose to enroll with us, to avoid the false proxies of “You look like me” or “You sound like me” or “I want to have lunch with you” when we hire people, and instead dance with the people from whatever background that are going to make our project better.
When you lay it out that simply, people go, “Well, of course.” Then they go back to work in some place that demeans them and undermines them and asks them to phone it in. It just breaks my heart to see that gap.
COWEN: What’s the most important thing you changed your mind about when writing this book?
GODIN: I vacillate wildly between optimism and pessimism. I find that optimism is a really useful way to do better tomorrow, but pessimism seems like a likely output from looking up close at what the world is really like.
I have changed my mind about pockets of corporate America. I’ve changed my mind about the caste system and misogyny and how deeply it is rooted in so much of what we do. I wrote an 800-page book that weighs 18 pounds, called What Does It Sound Like When You Change Your Mind? I like that sound. I like changing my mind. I try to do that a lot.
COWEN: What is it that you have become increasingly optimistic about?
GODIN: When we started working on The Carbon Almanac, the first two months, almost all of us were in a stupor because it was so bad — the world and the trajectory of the world. What I am seeing is that a whole bunch of gears are turning around the world — how many solar plants China is building, and how fast we’re moving on fusion, finally. Also, just an awareness. I just have a hunch that maybe we will figure that out.
COWEN: What is the detail you have become most increasingly pessimistic about?
GODIN: I think that our ability to rationalize our lazy, convenient, selfish, immoral, bad behavior is unbounded, and people will find a reason to justify the thing that they used to do because that’s how we evolved. One would hope that in the face of a real challenge or actual useful data, people would say, “Oh, I was wrong. I just changed my mind.” It’s really hard to do that.
There was a piece in The Times just the other day about the bibs that long-distance runners wear at races. There is no reason left for them to wear bibs. It’s not a big issue. Everyone should say, “Oh, yeah, great, done.” But the bib defenders coming out of the woodwork, explaining, each in their own way, why we need bibs for people who are running in races — that’s just a microcosm of the human problem, which is, culture sticks around because it’s good at sticking around. But sometimes we need to change the culture, and we should wake up and say, “This is a good day to change the culture.”
COWEN: So, we’re all bib defenders in our own special ways.
GODIN: Correct! Well said. Bib Defenders. That’s the name of the next book. Love that.
COWEN: What is, for you, the bib?
GODIN: I think that I have probably held onto this 62-year-old’s perception of content and books and thoughtful output longer than the culture wants to embrace, the same way lots of artists have held onto the album as opposed to the single. But my goal isn’t to be more popular, and so I’m really comfortable with the repercussions of what I’ve held onto.
COWEN: What was your first job ever?
GODIN: My first job was as an entrepreneur at 14, selling biorhythms that were done on the University of Buffalo computer system. Then I did some volunteer help, writing marketing material for a ski binding company that my dad worked for. My first real job was cleaning the grease off the hotdog machine at the Carousel snack bar in the Eastern Hills Mall, where I broke two coffee canisters my first day and learned the hard way that this wasn’t for me. Then I got a job in a bagel factory, where I was almost killed by a bagel mixer capable of mixing 100 pounds of flour at a time.
COWEN: How do you think that growing up in Buffalo has shaped you?
GODIN: Buffalo is not New York, even though it’s in New York State. Buffalo is the Midwest. Buffalo is hardworking people who like to make a thing, and it is juxtaposed with a music hall and a science museum and an art museum. At the same time, most of my parents’ friends would happily go to the city to watch a football game, but never once went to the city to go to the museum. So, I think what I learned is just how different people who seem the same really are.
COWEN: Until what age did you live in Buffalo?
GODIN: Until I was 18.
COWEN: Were your bagels good?
GODIN: It’s a source of controversy. My bagels were good, but The New Yorker, famous for its fact checkers, wrote a piece about the person who invented the everything bagel. All I knew as I read that piece is that, at 17, I had been making everything bagels four years before that. So, facetiously, I wrote a piece on my blog, saying, “If this person invented the everything bagel, I invented the everything bagel.” Not meaning I actually did, just meaning it’s in the air. Of course, there’s always been everything bagels.
Now, my kids and others regularly josh me about claiming to have invented the everything bagel because that’s not what I meant.
COWEN: I like minimalist bagels, just cream cheese, smoked salmon, nothing else.
GODIN: There you go. I’m with you.
COWEN: What has been the best job you’ve ever had?
GODIN: I’ve had so many great jobs, but the one that is worth highlighting is what happened to me at Spinnaker Software in 1983, a job I got at the last minute because I needed to move to Boston for the summer. The chairman forgot to tell the company he had hired me as a summer intern. I walked in the first day, and David Seuss, the CEO, came out of his office to my cubicle, welcomed me, shook my hand, went back into his office, shut the door, called the chairman, and said, “Who the hell is that?”
It could all have gone downhill from there, but David just opened doors, and he said, “You’re going to make mistakes, and we trust that none of those mistakes are going to be so bad that they’re a problem. Go make a ruckus.”
I got another job that same day at Parker Brothers. I should have taken the Parker Brothers job. Every statistical inference said, “Go to work for Parker Brothers.” A week into the summer, Parker Brothers laid off the entire department. I would’ve lost my job after five days.
COWEN: Why didn’t you take it?
GODIN: Because there were only 30 people at Spinnaker. Even though I grew up with Parker Brothers, Spinnaker felt like the future, and Parker Brothers felt like the past. I figured I could have a chance to do something different there, but I couldn’t have defended it if you’d asked me. It was one of the great lucky breaks of my life.
COWEN: If someone read your current book, The Song of Significance, they would be more or less likely to make the same choice that you did?
GODIN: I think that it would be way more likely because I asked all the wrong questions when I was looking for that job. I thought about all the wrong things when I did my analysis, but ignored them.
Back when I was building one of the first internet companies, we struggled to hire people. I was sitting in the office of the guy who was running disney.com at the time, and he had a stack of paper on his desk two inches thick. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Those are the résumés that came in last week.”
Why were all these people applying to work at disney.com and not for my company, which was doing pioneering work? The answer is, because you could tell your friends you worked at Disney. I could have told my friends I worked at Parker Brothers the year I was in between at Stanford, but instead I said, “I want to tell my friends I worked at a company they never heard of.” Maybe we should do that more, because if the conditions in that job enable you to grow and are treating you with dignity and respect, then that’s where you should work.
COWEN: So, being too long on status is one of those bibs you were talking about.
GODIN: I agree, yes.
COWEN: Very last question, Seth: what is it you will do next?
GODIN: [laughs] I ask that myself every day. I have created a life where I have to ask myself that question every day. The day I get tired of it, I should commit to something that lasts more than a few years. The magic of a book is, it’s a big chunk of your life, and then it’s not. There’s a new space right in front of me, and I don’t know.
COWEN: It doesn’t have to be a book. Just proximately, what is literally the next thing you will do?
GODIN: Oh, the next thing that I will do is give a talk at Harvard on the book, but the next thing that I will do that isn’t related to the book is, I am diving deep into how communities and software connect. I’ve got to get smarter about a whole new generation of software that I’m a little out of sync with.
COWEN: Seth Godin, thank you very much.
GODIN: What a pleasure. Thank you, Tyler. This is one for the record books. Appreciate your time.
Photo credit: Darius Bashar and Archangel