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Seth Godin – Full Stop Failure.

by Paul Montreal. Average Reading Time: about 7 minutes.

Seth Godin Interview

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

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?

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 our heroes and ask questions that help me, but we 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.


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