Seth Godin — Full Stop Failure

Paul: I suspect that there is a time in everyone’s life when all the conditions for who they will become are in place. This picture represents that specific time for me…

Paul age 11

From the launch of personal computers, to the potential of the space shuttle. From the bullseye on the dart board to the copies of Guerrilla Marketing and The Lord of the Rings which are in the top drawer of that desk.

Right there at about Eleven years old I felt immense optimism and freedom. I had absolutely no fear when facing the world.

Seth, I want to understand the conditions that mark the start of your journey. When was that defining time for you?

Seth: I’m pretty sure we construct these defining moments long after they happen. I remember that I’ve felt the feeling you’re describing many times–and then, of course, the notion that we were going to be an astronaut or class president or the most popular kid or a successful athlete or a great debater or whatever it is that seemed aligned at the time… that notion disappears, evanescent.
After we’ve put in the work, gotten through the Dip, survived disaster and gotten a bunch of lucky breaks, we look back to one particular one of those moments and anoint it as the one.
Sure, I can tell you how it felt when my first business worked (at least a little) when I was 14, or the silly pleasure I got when I was chosen to run a broken and failing non-profit while in college. I treasure that chemical rush, the one that makes it feel as if all the doors are open.
But for me anyway, the real memories are of the disasters, the dead ends and the moments of being cornered, doomed and done. In most of those moments (at least the ones that I’ve kept on file in my head), I’ve somehow wriggled free and moved forward. That’s the work of the art.
Cornered, Doomed and Done. Illustration by Toni Roberts.

Cornered, Doomed & Done

Paul: Tell me the story of one of those doomed moments.

Seth: I’m not going there, and I’m happy to tell your readers why.
It’s human nature to want the sentimental stories, to want the juicy stuff, the unique, hands-on grit. The problem with this approach is that instead of bringing us together (in terms of the truth, of the abstract universal notions) it divides us, because it gives us a chance say, “sure, that happened to HIM, but my case is different.”
I could tell you about finding my way home from a thousand miles away when I was 14, or about being humiliated at one sales call after another, or about making 2000 outbound telemarketing calls for a company with no way out, but none of those stories are proof in the sense that they will work for you. They will merely indulge my ego and our society’s desire for faux intimacy.

Paul: Well, I respect your answer, but I’m not convinced. I think the stories bring people together and give us a chance to say “look what happened to them and they got through it, maybe I can as well”.

Without the stories, we end up with nothing but bullet points, soundbites and infographics as the tools for passing on wisdom. We lose the context of the real people and their experiences.

So I’m going to keep pushing people for the stories. But I’ll take the abstract universal notions as well.

Seth: I don’t disagree with you in principle, which is why I tell so many stories. But one more juicy story from me isn’t the answer, I think.

I didn’t understand that there was an alternative

Paul: When you left college, you started an MBA. What was your thinking behind that decision. Was that a positive step towards your goals at the time. Or an attempt to avoid leaving the safe world of academia, or something else?

Seth: In college, my degree was Bachelor of Science in engineering and applied mathematics, with a minor in philosophy and computer graphics.
There was an expectation that I’d get a job. But doing what?
It’s easy to imagine that blogs and books and all the stories that illuminate our options were around then… that there would be plenty of people to tell me how I could have carved my own path. But there were only three business magazines and very, very few books or articles or insight or inspiration. So I needed a job. I didn’t understand that there was an alternative.
But I wasn’t qualified to do engineering, and I had learned from a very long summer (that lasted two weeks) interning on an IBM 360 that doing computer stuff would kill me.
So I went to Stanford. Mostly so I could get my first job, which I did, at Spinnaker Software. That’s where I found my footing.

It’s not fair

Paul: Whilst researching for this interview, I discovered that the actress who played the “Good Witch” in The Wizard of Oz used to live in your home town. It got me thinking about mentors and I know we share a mentor, Jay Conrad Levinson. Author of the original Guerrilla Marketing book.

For me, Jay provided a window into a world that was exciting and fun. He painted a picture of the endless ways that companies were competing and serving their customers in America. And it was a far more exciting world than the dreary local business scene that I saw in my home town.

Tell me about your relationship with Jay, what did you learn from him and how did it change your course?

Hope and fear. Who’s got your ear? Illustration by Toni Roberts.
Seth: Yes, Glinda lived up the street. They turned her yard into a park.
I wrote a post about heroes and mentors, and the distinction is important. Jay is a hero to you, I’m guessing. He was to me. Heroes scale… one can apply to a lot of different folks. I’ve found over time that many of my heroes (Jay, Zig Ziglar, Tom Peters, Chris Meyer, Dan Pink, Susan Piver, Jacqueline Novogratz) have turned out to be great people in person as well. It’s not fair to ask someone who is raising the bar for so many to sit down and do custom work for you though.
In the case of Jay, I ended up writing three of the books in the series with Jay’s oversight. In fact, that’s what turned it from one or two books to the behemoth it is now. I built the platform for multiplying the books. I also got Jay his first Mac and an email account he still uses a hundred years later.
As a book packager (that’s what I was doing then), the art was in finding great ideas, and the work was in building books that stood the test of time. My team and I ended up doing 120 books, and I’m proud of at least a hundred of them.


Paul: I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with this series of interviews. Reach out to heroes and ask questions that help me, but also share that knowledge, so lots of other people get to benefit as well.

Seth: The thing is, it’s so easy to hide. And one easy way to hide from the responsibility of making a difference is by using the excuse that you don’t have a good enough mentor. It’s nonsense.
But that’s not the specific answer you were looking for, about mentors. I’ve had at least a dozen people make that sort of difference in my life, but none of them were famous and none of them are the kinds of mentors you see in the movies. More often than not it’s a single quiet conversation or a standard that sticks.

Paul: I’m a big fan of Napoleon Hill’s virtual mastermind idea. Building an imaginary board of advisers. People who represent different standards you want to live up to. It’s a process that requires no contact with your hero whatsoever, but lets you benefit from the guidance of their standards, so long as you’ve read enough of their work to get a good feel for what those standards are.

Seth: Bingo.
So many potential captions, so little space. Seth in canoe. Photo by Jill Greenberg.

900 rejection letters

Paul: I think there is probably a point for all entrepreneurs where they have to go “all in” on an early business venture. Surviving that gamble changes them. They no longer see getting a job as a viable fall back position. They become bolder and more independent.

Tell me about the first time that you really went all in.

Seth: As an adult, the launch of my book packaging gig was the real deal. I was choosing to go into business. I sold my first book the first day to Warner Books for $5,000. I got half. Off to the races!
And then…
And then I got 900 rejection letters in a row, turned down 30 times each by 30 top publishers. Over the course of a year.
Full stop failure.
That’s when I realized I had no real options and this was the real deal, the course of my life. Stay in or get out, and I really had no choice. I was in.

Paul: I totally understand the “no choice” thing. But there’s always a reason why we feel we have no choice. I was a pretty entrepreneurial kid, but at 16 someone suggested I learn a trade as something to “fall back on”.

My teenage interpretation of that, rightly or wrongly, was that they thought I would fail as an entrepreneur. That desire to prove them wrong cut a path in my brain that gives me the certainty of “no choice”. I’m in, if it kills me.

What was it that made “sticking with it” inevitable for you? 12 Months of failure seems like plenty of rational incentive to say “I’m out” for most people.

Seth: I think that’s a totally valid point, and I wonder (deeply) about our internal thermostat. Who sets it? Can it be re-set?
I think we can reset our inclinations. I’m certain that pretending we can is way better than admitting we can’t.

A lockbox, enough money to keep going

Paul: You’ve said in the past that you almost went broke 3 times in early ventures. What did you learn to prevent a 4th occurrence? Or, does the way you push the boundaries not entirely remove the possibility of a fourth “close shave” in the future?

Seth: Stopping wasn’t an option for me, so the cushion was essential. A lockbox, enough money to keep going. I’ve never bet everything on a venture, because that’s just foolish–great work can make up for less investment.
If you pick the right project, there’s not much of a correlation between how much money you risk and how well you do. Another key decision was only seeking out projects I could afford to fail at. Many entrepreneurs miss this, always overreaching. If you under-reach a little, nail it, succeed, declare victory and repeat, you’re probably better off.

Paul: I know your father has been an inspiration to you. And you’ve talked about various male mentors and heroes. But what about the women in your life? I’ve only ever seen one other man consistently use the female gender as their default, in all their writing. Tell me about your motivation behind that and tell me about the woman who has most inspired you.

Seth and Family
Seth: It’s my mom, for sure. She died in 1999, and I miss her every single day.
She was the first woman on the board of trustees at the famous Albright Knox art museum, she pretty much invented the modern museum gift shop and was always watching my back, raising the bar, insisting on high standards and believing that the world could get better.
I’ve been blown away by thinkers like Jackie Huba and Pam Slim and Blair Miller and Catherine Casey and Pema Chodron, and touched by the work of my colleague Ishita Gupta as well.
The female pronoun is a regular reminder to me that society often defaults to expectations and rules that don’t always make sense or open doors as much as they could.

Pick yourself

Paul: Going back to the Wizard of Oz theme. In the story, our ruby-shoed protagonist spends much of her journey hoping to be saved by the Wonderful Wizard. But when the gang arrive at their destination, they find out that the Wizard has been pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. What pervasive myth have you discovered just isn’t true?

Seth: Pick yourself.
It’s that simple, really. Two words.
Society isn’t organized to teach kids to pick themselves, but some do.

Paul: I want to fully understand this. What are we talking about here — confidence, self esteem, the value of selfishness in an objectivist way?

Seth: Objectivism is nonsense, the mantra of teenagers with nothing better to do than read Ayn Rand. No, I’m talking about the guts to take responsibility for your art. Not to blame the system or the teacher or the parent that didn’t open the door, but the guts to open the door yourself.

How dare I waste it. How dare anyone.

Paul: Often, the people I meet with the strongest motivation are fueled by a desire to prove someone right or someone wrong. (A parent, a teacher, a school bully etc.). What is driving you and to what end?

Seth: I often run into people who are trying to prove someone wrong or teach that skeptic a lesson. But you know what? The skeptic has moved on and won’t learn a lesson. So it’s wasted anger.
For me, I feel opportunity and don’t want to waste it. There’s this buffet, this all you can eat candy shop, this endless selection of mp3s… what are you going to choose, what are you going to do, what impact are you going to make?
How dare I waste it. How dare anyone.
Seth, Seth’s jazzy shorts, Dad and Great Grandmother

Shipping art that touches people is my process

Paul: I feel like we are getting closer to something with the phrase “How dare I waste it”. That is a passionate statement. Even angry. It hints at a set of deeper values, obtained from somewhere or someone, that fuel your drive.

That’s what I’m digging for, to understand better, what are the underlying values that make you tick.

Seth: I think there’s a huge difference between passion and anger. Anger generally requires an enemy, and it always requires some sort of destruction. Passion, on the other hand, has a lot more in common with love and art.
What makes me tick? Philosophers love questions like this, but they’re about levels of abstraction. At some point, it’s blood and neurons and useless biology we can’t impart meaning to… and the abstractions necessarily bring in a new level of falseness each time.
I’m way more interested in habits and mantras and processes that make it more likely you get desired results. And for me, that’s about shipping.
Shipping art that touches people is my process.

Paul: So, the process of challenging the status quo, and even worse, writing down your challenge and then shouting about it at the top of your lungs, is one that we seem physically pre-programmed against doing.

Where do you sit at this stage with managing the stress of putting out a new idea. Both the mental and physical pressure?

Seth: This is loaded stuff, and it changes over time.

Paul: How so?

Seth: “Loaded” as in there were a dozen deep ideas in just a few questions, and my answer to those questions isn’t the same each day. People aren’t cars. You don’t say, “use this gas, change this oil, and you’re fine.” No, there’s a constant re-negotiation going on internally. Are you in a valley or on a hill or near a cliff? Different math. Are you 20 or 30 or 50? Have you recently won an Oscar?
Post 50, I have a different posture than I did ten years ago. Not sure if it’s good or bad, but it’s true. As my leverage goes up, I can’t help but take smaller bets. It’s easy to get addicted to the feeling that this might just be the one, that it’s ALL on the line and that you and only you can sink this basket or score that goal.
Maturity kicks in, though, and you start to realize that opening doors is just as important as walking through them yourself.

The 10,000 hour rule is legit

Paul: I worked with a super smart tech guy once. People would fire seemingly impossible technical problems at him every day. He would nod at them and say “hmmm, that’s interesting”. He approached every impossible situation as an interesting puzzle and he was a puzzle-solving machine. That perspective was a key feature of his operating system.

What makes the Seth Godin operating system run?

Seth: Mostly I notice things. If I don’t know why something is the way it is, I try to reason it out. Do that a lot and “hmmmm” becomes a habit.
The 10,000 hour rule is legit. If you spend enough time working through really difficult challenges, you’re just going to get better at it.
In terms of turning things into puzzles, I think most of us can learn a lot from Pema Chodron and the notion of Shenpa and biting the hook.
If you let the lizard brain run amok, if you turn problems into referenda about you, about your goodness as a human being, it’s not going to end well. A key to discernment is to figure out the truth of what you’re looking at and act on it, not let it act on you.
I’d like to be better at this, but I’m better than I was.
Don’t let the lizard brain run amok. Illustration by Toni Roberts.

What you need to do right now

Paul: So, we’re all being held back by our fears. Fear of criticism. Fear of learning the truth about ourselves. Fear that we aren’t smart enough to trust our own instincts. Fear that we’re putting our faith and time into a project that isn’t going to pay off.

What can readers of this interview do right now to get past that fear and move forward with that project they are stuck on?

Seth: It’s actually not complex…
The single best way to overrule your fears is to call their bluff by making the fear come true.
Do something you know will fail.
And then fail again.
Once you fail at what the lizard brain is so petrified of, it will lose its power over you.

Go Fail

Paul: Readers, here’s my challenge to you. Go get out your list of failed attempts. If you don’t have one, make one, right now. You don’t need me to tell you what to put on the list. It already popped into your head. That call you were going to make. That email you were going to send. That decision you’ve been putting off.

Look at it again. Try harder. Ask yourself, what would I do if I wasn’t afraid of failing? Then do whatever you need to do. Fail. Gloriously.

If you’ve got a website and a dream but you’re not getting the results you expected, I’ll show you how to turn things around at:

Special thanks

To Seth, especially for digging out the personal family photo’s.
To the amazing illustrator Toni Roberts
And to photographer Brian J. Bloom for the opening portrait.