Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Linchpin

Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

Some books allow a person to pick a nugget of interest. Some books are of practical interest and have much that a person can apply. Every once in awhile, a book comes along that is a “game changer”. For me, “Linchpin” is that game changer. Seth Godin has a knack for talking about marketing, and for finding the unique in the world of the mundane, and how to get that uniqueness out to those who are seeking it. In “Linchpin”, Godin steps away from the idea of marketing products, and instead, focuses the attention on the ultimate marketable product… ourselves!

So what is it about Linchpin that makes me consider it a game changer? It comes from the idea that Godin presents early in the book, the notion that the “take care of you” work bargain, and the sense of security that used to exist with it, is gone forever. Globalization, changing technology and increased sophistication of technology, and a changing population and focus of energies has made the old model obsolete. This old model was based on the factory being the center of life for so many, a life that rewarded conformity, sameness and reliable repetition of labor. Just like cogs in a machine, we as workers were trained to be cogs as well. Those days are over.

Instead, Godin makes the case that the truly indispensible people in a company, or in any job, are the ones that can make value beyond their role as a cog in a machine. They offer more, and their value is not just tied to the value of their labor. Instead, their value is derived from the fact that they more closely resemble artists than drones. What Godin calls for is a return to the “old ways” where the development of the artist, and applying one’s art in the workplace, is the differentiator. It’s the artist, Godin exclaims, who acts as the “psychic glue” that makes a project, a team, or companies really work. Godin calls these people who are able to achieve this level of performance the “linchpins” of an organization.

For those unfamiliar with what a linchpin is, it is a small device used to prevent a wheel or other rotating part from sliding off the axle it is riding on. Remove the linchpin from the wheel, or break the linchpin, and the wheel will come off. Godin compares the person who learns how to bring their craft of work to the level of an artist as one who has the hallmarks of being a linchpin to their organization. The point is also made that, to be this person, will require much work and sacrifice on the part of the person who wished to obtain that level. Linchpin’s work hard and they add value over time, to the point where, if a company was restructuring, the Linchpins would not be the first to go. In fact they would be some of the last. The capital of the artist, along with raw talent, is the outpouring of “emotional labor”, and giving the best of one’s self and efforts through the hard work of emotional labor is really the only reason people are paid. It’s what is truly expected of people.

Godin also makes the point that there are two big things that get in the way of doing extraordinary things. Those two things are what Godin calls “The Lizard Brain” and “The Resistance”. Summarizing these two concepts would take more space than a single blog post could do justice, but suffice it to say that both aspects are huge elements in getting in the way of our true potential. The Lizard Brain is the idea that there is a part of the human experience that is instinctive, that tries to keep us safe, that works to keep us from doing something that we would perceive as dangerous. The Lizard Brain is well adapted to keeping us from being eaten by a predator or running away from a situation where we might die (it’s what can drive the brain to excrete adrenaline so that we can perform super-human feats when we are in actual danger). However, the Lizard Brain also gets in the way of emotional situations. The things that make us emotionally uncomfortable will also trigger the Lizard Brain to jump into action. Along with the Lizard Brain, the Resistance is also manifested in these situations, where the various situations and our perceptions of the situations feed the reaction of the Lizard Brain. Both feed each other, and both work against us to doing our best work or doing those things that may be necessary and essential, but internally scare us because we know that there may be a significant potential of failure. Doing the best work sometimes means losing the script, chucking the manual, and going freestyle. Let’s face it, living without a map can be scary. Godin states that, not only is living without a map an important skill, it’s essential to surviving in the 21st Century marketplace.

External Video: Seth Godin describes the Lizard Brain

Godin makes two main points for readers to grab onto as they apply the efforts described in Linchpin. The first is the idea of expending “emotional labor”. This is one of the key areas that Godin encourages us all to learn how to do (for obvious reasons, he cannot give us all a roadmap as to how to effectively do this. If it could be broken down into a simple scripted formula, it would cease to be art; it would render the art into another cog that could be easily replicated and replaced). Some reviewers have criticized Linchpin because Godin does not go into the details as to how to apply the ideas. I would argue that it is not possible to do that, and that the real way to do and learn how to become an artist in your sphere requires you to actually practice art in your sphere. The second point is the idea of “giving gifts” of your art. Too often, we think about reciprocity in too many areas; I give you this and you give me that. In fact, most people tend to think about this in the workplace. I do my work, you give me money to do it; If you want my ideas, pay me first. Godin makes the point that this is backwards. When we give of our ideas up front, we set the stage for being rewarded down the line. As we build our personal brands, the act of giving more of ourselves and our talents will actually develop more of a following for our personal art, and that process will allow us to develop the very things that matter to us and that will matter to others. I will confess it was this very logic and idea that prompted me to start TESTHEAD. It’s a way for me to practice my art and test what I know, or think that I know, and give me an arena to give away my insights, and to receive feedback on those insights, both good and bad (or more to the point, how it is being received by others).

Bottom Line:

For any person who has ever been downsized from a job and wondered “what could I have done differently”, for any person who has thought “what could I do to become indispensable in my chosen field or endeavor”, or even those who think “I want to become absolutely awesome at something, whatever that something is”, Linchpin is a book to put high on your list to read. The prose is engaging, and Godin keeps your attention. You learn many things that you don’t necessarily want to face, but if each of us did face those issues, and really applied the recommendations in this book, wow, imagine what each of our work worlds would be like? Is the path from cog to artist, from disposable to Linchpin, an easy one? Absolutely not, but it is definitely a worthwhile journey, and it’s one I’ve committed to taking. Likewise, when I get those feelings and that little voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t bother, that I’m not good enough to do this, that I don’t have any right to go where I want to go, I can now recognize the Lizard Brain and the Resistance for what they really are, and now that they have names, I can call them what they are and overcome their control on my greatest efforts. For those who are looking to do the same, get Linchpin and decide how you will strive to become the artist you want to be.
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