Seth Godin: Writing Every Day

Seth Godin: Writing Every Day North Star Podcast


My guest today is Seth Godin, the author of nineteen international bestsellers that have been translated into more than 35 languages. My all-time favorite is Purple Cow, which I discovered in college and became my nickname. This is my second interview with Seth, who has published an article every day now for more than a decade. If you want to be a prolific creator, Seth is one of the best teachers you can possibly find.

This interview is all about his writing practice. Seth calls himself a “professional noticer” so we talked about how he finds and validates new ideas. On the topic of shipping creative work, we spoke about the root of imposter syndrome and why Seth likes writing on airplanes, and how his book The Practice was inspired by one of his workshops. We also discussed his tactics for effective public speaking, how to improve the education system, and what we’ve learned by running online schools — his AltMBA and my Write of Passage.

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Find Seth Online:

The Practice: Shipping Creative Work

Seth’s Blog

Other Links:

Purple Cow, New Edition: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

Your elusive creative genius | Elizabeth Gilbert

Liar’s Poker

Seth’s First Interview on The North Star Podcast

Seth’s Top 100 Articles

Creativity is a Choice

Show Notes

2:32 – What inspired Seth to start his now 20+ year daily writing streak.

6:00 – The root of impostor syndrome and why Seth thinks it’s not only normal but just true.

8:14 – The evolution of an idea or a blog post into a full book.

10:50 – Why it is important to ship as a creative worker and what it means to ship your content.

13:50 – Why certain conditions make it easier for people to create than others.

16:59 – What Seth learned about creating inspiration from hard science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

20:22 – How Seth developed his unique video style and the unique way he utilizes his slides.

23:25 – What the best future of education looks like to Seth and why he believes in the dream of public schooling.

29:48 – Why the standard lecture model of the current education system is missing the point of education.

33:53 – The difference between online education and online learning and why Seth sees them as almost polar opposites.

39:35 – Why there must be space for surprises in online learning.

41:31 – How capitalism has caused certain schools to flourish less through their educational prowess and more as a pipeline to various jobs.


David: Seth Godin, welcome to the North Star podcast.

Seth: Thank you for having me, David. It’s really a privilege.

David: So you have been writing for how long, shipping something every single day.

Seth: Well, the blog streak might be 20 years. It’s hard to tell exactly. Because I switched blog platforms, 10 or 15 years ago, but it feels like that long.

David: Wow. And so within that, what was the idea or the moment that got you to take the leap to doing something every day?

Seth: Well, there are lots of things I do every day, most people do, breakfast, brushing my teeth. The question is how do we set up a streak so that it helps us go to bed knowing that tomorrow we’re going to do something that’s a contribution. And some streaks like running are good for your health until they’re not because then your knees blow out. But what I have found is that committing to show up every day with something that might shine a light for somebody is a really good habit to have. And I’ve said before that, even if no one read my blog, I would still write it.

David: Yeah. You spend a lot of time cooking, is there any relationship that you’ve seen with writing and cooking? I was thinking before this, the only thing I would like to do more than interview on a podcast is to make a meal with you one time.

Seth: Well, maybe one day. So what is cooking? For me, cooking is a way to connect with other people, but it’s also a project that is going to be over within 90 minutes. And I’ve worked on projects that have taken seven years to come to fruition and being able to balance the seven year project with the 90 minute project, I think has helped me a great deal. Because that routine of knowing that I’m starting with just ingredients and I’m going to end with a smile for the people I care about, I like that idea. That you start, you have mise en place, you have arranged your plans and you ship the work. The fact is almost nobody who sets out to cook a meal, ends up not eating. That there will be a day, a moment, an hour where it ships might not be exactly what you expected, but you could be proud of it.

David: Is there something in there with your books? Because the way that your books are structured is a lot of small little sections that are almost similar to a series of articles that you write within a particular theme. And so what I see is, it’s a serious of cooking dinners that you create, so to speak. And then at the end of the year, you sort of present all those dinners. The metaphor breaks down a little bit because food gets bad with time, but hopefully you can see what I mean.

Seth: I do. It doesn’t really work that way. I was a book packager before I was an author. And I made 120 books over the course of 10 years, a book a month. And editors wanted a very specific thing, books have beginnings, middles and ends. And my limited attention span makes it hard for me to consume a book that way or to write a book that way. But they’re correct. That a book is different than… Like a new book you can read in four hours, but it’s not like browsing the web for four hours. It’s a different experience. So the hard part is saying, “Yeah, I have 182 different ideas that I’d like to share that layer on top of each other, but how do you architect it?” So it feels like it’s part of a whole. I’ve done two collections of blog posts and neither one of them has done very well because an alphabetical collection of blog posts reads differently than a book.

David: Right. Within getting into the idea of shipping, the theme of your new book. What do you think the root of Imposter Syndrome is? And why does that plague so many people?

Seth: So Imposter Syndrome was named by a couple of researchers 30 or 40 years ago. And it’s that feeling we have, it afflicts people of every gender, background, all of it. That feeling we have when we’re about to lead or do something important, a feeling like a fraud of saying to yourself, “I have no business doing this. What am I showing up doing? It’s not my turn. I’m an imposter.” And people say, “Here’s how you get rid of imposter syndrome.” People ask me what are the steps to get rid of imposter syndrome? And they’re sort of surprised at my answer. And my answer is, well, of course you feel that way because you are an imposter. And so am I. Because if you are doing work that hasn’t been done before, which means creativity or leadership, then you can’t be sure it’s going to work. Because it’s never been done before.

And so instead of denying how you feel, you might look at how you feel as a symptom that you were doing something important and generous. And when that feeling shows up, we can welcome it, we can sit with it. Because to harder, we try to make it go away, the more powerful it becomes.

David: It’s almost as if fear is the evidence, our body telling us that we’re onto something important.

Seth: That’s right. And Steve Pressfield and so many other people were pioneers in this. Steve calls it resistance. And I’m not talking about running across a highway during rush hour. I am not talking about tracking some wild animal in the jungle. You should be afraid of those things. There’s a really good reason to be afraid of them, but all of our evolutionary instincts start to become a little irrelevant when the thing we are afraid of is that a stranger across the world won’t like something we typed.

David: Walk me through how an idea of all this for you in terms of when I look at your work, it seems like it ships from a blog post maybe, to a workshop to then something like Akimbo to maybe a full on book. How would something like shipping creative work, which came from your Akimbo workshop, how does that go from a nugget in your head to this new book that you’ve published?

Seth: Right. So the book’s called The Practice. Subtitle is, Shipping Creative Work. And I kept seeing The Practice everywhere I looked. And when we ran the creatives workshop, it became clear to me that delineating, describing, outlining The Practice itself would be helpful to people. But I think it’s important for me anyway, to understand that I don’t wake up saying, “I need to make a new book or I need to make a new workshop.” What happens is if an idea needs to be in front of a lot of people, or I think it does, then I just blog it, easy and easy out. It’s going to reach a lot of people. It’s free. I’m done. Everything beyond that becomes an obligation in the sense that I feel like the idea is demanding more from me and that I can contribute more by flushing it out, by giving it structure, by creating friction.

Because I know that every one of my books has reached fewer people than my blog. So if all I want to do is put an idea in the world, I should just blog it. But that’s not all I want to do. What I want to do is get under people’s skin and help them see and change things. And it turns out that engaging with a book is a good way to do that.

David: Yeah. When it comes to sort of implied within that was reaching more people. How do you measure the success of your writing? Jason Fried from Basecamp has this great line that in the same way, that sound isn’t music, traffic isn’t audience.

Seth: That’s really good. I hadn’t heard him say that one before. Yeah, I don’t keep track, I don’t. I don’t know how many people read my blog. I don’t know how many people bought my last book. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I know how to make those numbers go up, but the way to make them go up is not to make my work better.

David: That’s beautifully said. Yeah, part of what I’ve taken from you is this quote from Zig Ziglar, don’t become a wandering generality, be a meaningful specific. And we’ll get into the Love, Linchpin, Leverage from one of your previous books here. But my question to you is within the practice of shipping creative work, is it just about shipping or is it about shipping and working towards a kind of brand or a kind of persona that you’re trying to develop or does that happen as a by-product of your creative work?

Seth: Well, so let’s decode shipping first. Nike sort of undermine some of what I was trying to do by using the word, just, Just Do It, just ship it. And just ship can imply what the hell? Put it in the world. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to say merely ship it, ship it without drama, ship it without trying to control the outcome, merely do the work and ship it to people who might benefit from it. And if it doesn’t work, figure out what you learned and figure out how to do it better. But the message is not don’t stop, the message is not that you should stop shipping. The message is you need to develop more empathy and rigor in what you choose to ship. So I needed to say all that before I got to your question. So let’s go back to your question, which has totally left my brain.

David: Do you want to be shipping in pursuit of an end goal? Whether it’s a brand, whether it’s an image, whether it’s a persona that you’re trying to develop or does that end goal emerge more organically?

Seth: Okay. So what I argue in the practice is the only reason to do creative work is to ship it. And the only reason to ship it is to cause a change to happen. That if you would like to entertain yourself with your own work, I think that’s great. I’m hesitant to call that creative work. I’d rather call that an artful hobby. And I think there’s nothing wrong with those. We need lots of those. But if you’re shipping this creative work, you’re doing it for a reason, you’re taking up space, you’re taking up time, you’re intersecting with other people, why? To make a change happen. And that’s really hard for some people because they don’t want to be responsible. But if we’re going to put it into the world, we are responsible. We set out to make a change, here it is. The change could be really small. I’m going to play the song so that at your wedding, you will feel something special.

I shipped the song and I changed the way the next six minutes at your wedding felt. But I made a change. So the work that we do, isn’t like digging a ditch or working by the hour, it is a passion for making a change happen.

David: How much of people’s struggle to ship has to do with the medium. And I’ll give you some context here. One thing I’ve noticed, and it’s pretty funny from a lot of people who, for example, I’ll share text messages with, is in our group chats they’ll write these long, beautifully penned essays about how they feel about something. And then the second that they get into Microsoft Word or Google Docs, they get stuck. All of a sudden they have changed the medium and they can no longer ship. What do you think is going on there?

Seth: Well, it’s almost entirely about deniability and the Pavlovian association with deniability. So it’s pretty easy for a teenager to talk and harder for a teenager to write it down and harder still for a teenager to hand it in, in an essay and hardest of all for teenager to get up in front of the class and speak it. Because as you go each level deeper, it’s harder and harder to say, “Wow, I was just saying something.” And what Pressfield teaches us about resistance is this idea that if you screw up, when you’re sitting around the campfire in the village, you could get in real trouble if the chief doesn’t like what you said. One of the things that social media has done is turned a lot of this upside down by creating mob environments where the default is to talk and where it’s easier to say something than not. And on one hand, that’s really good because it helps people understand they have a voice. On the other hand, we need people to take responsibility as well, to be able to say, “I said this, and this is the change I seek to make.”

David: When it comes to your writing setup, you said you’ve written five books, basically completely on airplanes. What is it for you that allows you to get in the zone? Is it something as simple as the TypePad software that you use, that all of a sudden you embody that mental landscape and something flips in your brain? Or is there something more music, a comfortable chair, anything like that?

Seth: I would say it started with Isaac Asimov teaching me about how he wrote. And basically this is my job. If I’m going to sit down and write, it’s my job. When people don’t whine about being an undertaker or being a waiter, I don’t want to whine about writing. If I want to do a different job, I would do a different job. That’s my job. And so to sit down and type doesn’t feel different to me than when I was doing other jobs that I’ve really loved, but it’s my job. And you don’t write because you’re inspired, you get inspired because you’re writing. But first you decided to write. And then in order to make it easier, you find tools. And those tools serve almost as a, again, Pavlovian reminder that it’s time to do your job. And so I can’t type on an IBM PC and I can’t write with a pencil or a pen, I just… I probably could if I had to, but it would take me months to find that noise in my head again.

And so the setup is the setup and I don’t use TypePad anymore, I use WordPress. And that was a very tricky four-week transition. Because I was used to being prompted by that UI. And I needed to give myself enough room that the new UI would also prompt me.

David: What did Asimov teach you? That sounds fascinating.

Seth: So for people who don’t remember him, Isaac was the science fiction author who pioneered the modern idea of a robot. If you’ve ever seen a robot in a movie or a book, Isaac did that. And that’s a pretty big thing to be able to do. He also published 400 books in his lifetime.

David: Wow.

Seth: Back when it was hard to publish a book. And I worked with him on a project, he was character. And one day I said, “So how do you end up with 400 books?” We were in his living room and he took me over to this little table, rickety table. And there was a manual typewriter on it. And he said, “Every morning I get up and at 6.30, I sit down at this typewriter and I type until noon. And it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not. I just got to keep typing.” And what that taught me is his subconscious said, “Well, if you’re going to type anyway, you might as well type something good.” And so something good came up. But he refused to bargain with the self-conscious ever and say, “Oh, I’m dry. I’m getting up.” Nope. Type.

David: For people that you’ve met, I mean, you’ve met so many writers. What do you think allows them to be generative in terms of new ideas? And there’s a couple of ways of looking at this, there is, do you write because you are generative or are you generative because you write.

Seth: Well, maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t the definition of generative that you’re writing?

David: Perhaps. But I think that what a lot of people feel, who struggle to ship creative work is that they aren’t generative in the first place. And maybe this goes back to Elizabeth Gilbert metaphor where the genie only comes to you once you show up every day.

Seth: Right. And Louise’s TED Talk on the genius is brilliant. Here’s my take on it. My take on it is that if you can show me page after page, after page of bad writing, I’ll start to be persuaded that you don’t know how to write. But if you tell me I can’t write because I don’t have any good ideas, then I’m not buying it. Because what you’re really saying is I’m afraid of my bad ideas. And the same thing is true for someone who wants to launch a new business, I can’t launch new business, if I don’t have a good idea. Well, do you have 40 business plans all written out for bad ideas? Show me 40 business plans for really bad ideas. And then I will accept your notion that you can’t possibly imagine a good idea.

David: Switching gears here. I have some questions for you about public speaking because increasingly I’m consuming your work through talks on YouTube. And one of the things that you do, that’s very interesting is you use very simple slides as your background, but you don’t switch the slide right as you’re speaking. So what you’ll usually do is you’ll start talking about the next slide and then kind of dance into it as if it was pre-planned. And I’ve heard you say that there’s something similar in movies that when you watch dialogue in movies, they don’t switch from one camera to the other when the speaker switch, they’ll switch a little before, a little bit after, what’s behind that?

Seth: Okay. So this is super important. I have not talked about it much in public. The movie trick is real, and that’s how you can tell the difference between amateur, film editor and a professional. Every movie you’ve ever seen, they do not switch when the speaker switches, I don’t know who invented that, but I know that that makes a huge difference. It keeps us in the flow. Because that’s sort of how life works, I think. So when I started using PowerPoint and then Keynote, there was a very specific way it was supposed to be used. There were bullet points and you were supposed to read them. And I wrote a book it’s very, very short called, Really Bad PowerPoint. And I was the first person that I know of to speak up and say, “Don’t do that, use this method of images.” And so when I started doing it, it was a really big deal.

Now, what I discovered when I switched to Keynote is there’s something built into Keynote that almost nobody uses called Presenter View. And it only works on your screen, it does not work with an external monitor. So it makes it hard for the gigs where I’m going to set things up. So when I’m on stage, I can see my next slide before anybody else can. And I use that to engage the audience and to allow me to be present. Because the slides aren’t driving me now, I’m not doing what so often happens, which is you watch the speaker, look over their shoulders, see what the next slide is. And then they start talking. I change the words of every talk I ever do, but I know that one of my friends is coming up next because those slides are my friends. And I got 183 slides in a typical presentation. And I know where it’s taking me. I can use different words to get there, but the rhythm is such that I want to drive it, not have the slides drive me.

David: Yeah. There’s something interesting what you said, you said 183 slides, and I think that it is something unique about your speaking style is, it is a lot of snappy stories that you go from one story to the other. And what you seem to do is use a metaphor to make an idea concrete, tell a quick story, then challenge somebody’s assumption with the story, prove the main point, and then go on to the next one. And your talks are almost like a constellation of stars within a single galaxy of an idea.

Seth: Well, if Neil deGrasse Tyson was here, he’d be thrilled at that. So thank you for that. That was very nice of you. I’m not sure that’s a question. I’m just going to accept the compliment.

David: There we go. Within school where I’d like to go next, because you have the altMBA. Why do you think homeschooling isn’t more popular? What is it about our trepidation to change the structure of school that’s holding us back?

Seth: Okay. Well, there are a few things there. First of all, homeschooling is unavailable to many, many families because they can’t afford it. Homeschooling is really expensive because somebody needs to be home. And among families that can’t afford it, homeschooling is scary. And it’s scary because it requires accepting responsibility for one of the most important things in your entire family’s life, for which you have almost no training. And it’s also socially frightening because it is not the norm. Now, I am a huge believer in public school. I think we have really significant benefits from if it’s a quality education, people getting the same thing, it builds culture. But I also wish we could homeschool every kid from three o’clock in the afternoon until 10 o’clock at night. Because most of what we learned, most of what we believe came from what happened in our home.

And if you are fortunate enough to win the birthday lottery and grow up in a home that’s filled with stability and possibility and encouragement, that is a huge advantage over people who don’t have that ability. And we’ve got to figure out how to build structures and support in a remote world, in a video world, in a digital world, so that this is all much more evenly distributed. Because we’re paying for it every day.

David: Yeah. One of the things I think a lot about is how the road to college starts. I was sent a photo a couple of weeks ago from my friend Mason, she’s working hard to transform schooling. And she sent me a photo of a kindergarten. And on the top there was a green sign that said the road to college starts here. And I wonder if there’s something within the school system where it’s so outcome driven that it makes it hard for kids to explore and let their minds wander.

Seth: I think outcome driven is fine. I think picking the wrong outcome is wrong. Picking the wrong outcome is a mistake. Purpose of kindergarten is not college, right? And there are prizes to people who get a certain level of prestigious college education. There’s no doubt about it. But life is long. And the question is, what are we training people to do? What culture are we building? What is the point of 12 or 16 years of compulsory education if it’s not about learning and possibility and community and resilience and care and generosity and justice? I mean, if you have all of those things, why are you going to have someone who’s good at standardized tests? Why would you pick standardized tests?

David: Yeah, so I co-lead a summer camp for nine to 11 year olds. And one of the most surprising things is it’s based on… So just some background it’s based on design thinking and project based learning. And so we’ll have these nine-year-olds and on the first day, we’ll say you get to pick a problem that you want to research. And by the end of the week, you are going to solve the problem in the way that you see as best. And the hardest part of running the camp, isn’t helping kids solve problems. It is realizing that they have the agency to choose in the first place.

Seth: Exactly because compliance and authority scale way better than freedom and responsibility.

David: One, there’s a book called Leisure, as the Basis of Culture by a guy named Josef Pieper. And he talks about the root of school, going back to ancient Greek is scholé and that leisure and school actually have the same root. And so they used to be synonyms, but now they’re antonyms. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about of like, are we… And this is why I asked the question about being outcome driven. I worry that when we are so outcome-driven, we don’t have that time for leisure and for thinking that I think at least parts of school require.

Seth: Well, I think the bigger challenge is leverage. That what we have done in the last 50 years is leveraged everything. So, whereas in the old days of business might be able to go four or five days with no revenue because they didn’t own the bank, anything because they didn’t know the mortgage, anything. Now, if you want to compete, you need to have raised the money, to have run the ads, to have lower the price, et cetera, et cetera. So one business after another, big and small are leverage to their eyeballs. And we’ve done the same thing with education. That if other people are leaning into it, levering up, competing for scarce slots, it’s really easy for a parent to believe that balance will be punished. And there’s no way to win that game against someone who’s unwilling to compromise. So what you have to do instead is play a different game. And you had to figure out what other agendas are available for my kids and my family.

David: Where have you with the altMBA and your study of education, where have you landed on the flipped classroom model? What do you think about it is right? And when is there the right time for students to be lectured in a live cohort model?

Seth: So Sal Khan, when he first told me about this a long time ago, totally blew my mind. It’s so obvious, so clear. I can not think of a reason, particularly if people are on Zoom to lecture, people live. I can imagine why seeing a comedy show with a thousand people, that’s not interactive, but it’s community. You need to hear other people laughing to get the joke. But I don’t understand why we would take this precious thing, real time, synchronization, public space, and waste it with someone reading from their notes. A friend took the bar exam 30 years ago. And the way bar review worked, he was called Pieper, is that people would stand in the front of the room and read his notes, all day for eight hours. And you paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars for this. And every once in a while, he would say, “Not for your notes.” And telling the side and not one person would listen to what he was saying.

This is absurd. The reason it’s absurd is synchronization is more expensive than asynchronization. It’s absurd because you can speed things up and slow things down if you’re on your own. But mostly it’s absurd because interaction is where we learn things. So if everyone comes together, everyone might only be eight people or 80 people having all seen the lecture the night before and then actively engages in problem solving with each other, that is the way human beings have learned everything, always. This whole idea that we have to put people in a room and read something to them because it’s the best technology has to offer, there’s about 75 years out of date.

David: That’s beautifully said. My favorite class in college was taught by a named Ann K. Hill. And she was the only teacher I had who embraced this flipped classroom model. And every class we would read at night, then we would have to write an 800 word review. We would submit it. And then during class, we would all come together in group discussions and then we would start off and we would go from small groups to big groups. So we would start off in groups of two, then grow up to groups of four. And in those groups of four, we had to explain what the other students had said. And we then spoke as a whole class at the end. And it was so effective because I think it follows this model of consume the baseline information at home, digest that information by trying to put it into your own words and then have a collaborative discussion the next day in class, where you can synthesize those ideas and then hear all these different perspectives that you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.

Seth: But the secret to the whole thing, and the reason that some people who are listening to this are being skeptical, is are you in the business of education or learning? Do you have enrollment? Because people I know, I was just having this conversation yesterday. Someone who was describing how easy it was for him to slip through classes without doing anything. I was like, “But you just spent a hundred thousand dollars on these classes.” The purpose is not how little can you get, the purpose is how much, that’s learning. Education is about do I get the degree? Okay, you’re going to get the degree. But learning says, “I am eager to transform myself into someone who understands what I just read.” Well, if that’s what you want, then you should be excited about Anne’s class not the other way around. And earning enrollment is hard because from the time that kid sees the sign in kindergarten that they can’t read, it says the road to college starts here, they’re being reminded that enrollment doesn’t matter. And all that matters is the certificate.

David: In terms of the pedagogy of online education, how much are you borrowing from traditional models and how much do you think online education is just fundamentally different?

Seth: I don’t do online education. I do online learning. I think online education plays right into the hands of the factory mindset. If you want it to make the most efficient education system in the world where education is, do what I say, and you get a prize, it looks like solo machine, I’m going to use machine learning backwards. Machine learning in which the machine is drilling, practicing somebody until they get the right answers. And it’s about regurgitation and compliance and authority to a scalable machine. Online education is going to be a disaster because we don’t need more people who are online educated, online learning is spectacular. It causes deep and permanent change and it works at scale, but it doesn’t work if you don’t have enrollment.

David: Yeah. In terms of where online learning is going altMBA is at the very high end of the market. So besides the live component, what do you think will continue to be the differentiators between world-class programs and average courses online?

Seth: Okay, well, again, courses is a tricky word because courses is about education. I think that we are already seeing for people who can enroll on their own lots of free ways for people to find the others, work together and do something. If you want to be a video editor, go find four other people and use YouTube videos to learn the technique and then challenge each other to get better at video editing, do it together. You don’t have to pay anybody anything. And the mistake we’ve made with the college industrial complex is saying the scarcity of the university, the more it costs, the more it costs, the more it’s worth. And so we have famous colleges and famous colleges charge a lot because they’re in high demand. But the thing is, once you go online, you don’t have to have scarcity because you can have an unlimited number of people take it.

So MIT has put all their courses online for free, but people still go to MIT, the institution because they’re selling a different thing, which is the place and the paper. And I think it’s important as we look at the evolution of online learning to say, if we don’t sell enrollment first and foremost, none of it’s going to work. And a lot of what we do at Akimbo with all the online workshops we run, which costs much less than altMBA, the hardest part is getting people to trust themselves enough to enroll. And then once they’re in it with passion, the amount of learning goes through the roof.

David: You spoke about the importance of people being able to meet each other. And it’s something I’d like to double click on with you. How do you think about the balance between like a top down community design and then allowing community to naturally emerge bottom up? I’m thinking like a Brasília metaphor, the capital Brazil-

Seth: Sure.

David: -That was very top-down impose versus like a Jane Jacobs Greenwich Village.

Seth: Right. So Wikipedia came from the grassroots, but there are only 5,500 people out of the millions who have edited Wikipedia, who have editing privileges without approval. Because if they didn’t do that, Wikipedia would disappear in three days. And if there wasn’t a structure and a method to keep down trolls and to eliminate vandalism, to model successful behavior, to establish cultural norms, then organic community that isn’t based on something tangible is really hard to build. It’s happened, but not often. So in Jane Jacobs case, if you didn’t have the money to rent a place or build a place, you didn’t get to play. There was only eight buildings on this block of Jane Street, only eight. And if there had been an infinite number of buildings on an infinitely long Jane Street, I don’t have a lot of confidence that the village would be what the village became. So there’s scarcity there.

And scarcity is either created by geography or by man-made structure. And in the case of the internet, there is no geography, really. So what you’re left with is what are the boundaries? And who’s enforcing them? And I think a big piece of the mess that social media has enabled is their aversion to boundaries. And I don’t think it’s paying off. I think that you don’t walk into a bank wearing a stocking over your head and expect that somebody’s going to honor your request for withdrawal. And so I think we want to find communities where people are taking responsibility and are enrolled in a similar journey.

David: Within these online experiences, to use a hospitality metaphor, so at, at DoubleTree, there’s a famous DoubleTree cookie that you show up, you check in and you get a hot cookie and it’s a delight. It’s a delightful experience. All these high-end experiences they give you things that are generally small, but they’re surprises. Is there room for surprise and delight in creating online learning experiences. And what do you see that looking like?

Seth: Oh, there better be. Because if there isn’t, it’s not going to work. Think about the look on a kid who’s been trying for hours to ride a bike and then they can ride a bike. Does anybody in that moment have a frown on their face? Right. No one expected it would feel like it feels. You don’t go, “Oh yeah, this is exactly what I expected.” It’s surprise and delight. And the surprise and delight comes from seeing the world differently and becoming a different, better version of yourself. And we see this in online learning all the time. We see it when people learn to program, we see it when people learn to sing, it’s that structure that lets you feel like you leveled up according to a construct that was there before you got there. People who don’t know how to ride a bike, know that there is a thing called riding a bike. And they’re imagining that there’s a level they can reach. And levels work, they’re not there to create a hierarchy. They’re there to create a chance for self achievement.

David: Yep. I love that analogy because I still remember Camp May there 2005, my silver diamond backed bicycle with the red logo and I will never forget what it was like to ride a bike for the first time. I mean, it felt like soaring through the skies and just flying for the first time. I mean, it felt that magical of an experience. Sticking on the college theme, why do you think that so many of the top colleges have become vocational schools for investment bankers, management consultants and people who were really going into finance? When I look at the people that I know who went to Ivy League schools, that seems to be where the most talented people repeatedly end up.

Seth: Yeah. I read something just the other day. I wish I could remember who wrote it, that if you talk to freshmen at Harvard, not one of them says they came to Harvard so they could get a job in finance. And if you talk to graduating seniors, they’ve somehow persuaded themselves that that’s exactly what they’re going to do. So what happened? Well, they’re not vocational schools in the sense that they teach you how to be an investment banker. But there are definitely labeling and finishing schools in the sense that they make it easy for investment bankers to know where to go, to get more investment bankers. The thing is that colleges that chose not to play this game got less famous. The ones that said you’re here to read great books, you’re here to explore what it means to be on the planet, you’re here to think deeply about meaning and philosophy and connection didn’t attract the same people to their placement office.

Which meant a signal went out to parents. And the signal was if you’re about to invest $200,000 or go into debt for something choose wisely and your peers will judge you for it. And so we created this capitalist driven ratchet that says money and success are the same thing. And that success means you’re a good parent. And success means you have a good kid and we’re defining that success in terms of money, but there are plenty of ways to make a living where you can be happy and make a contribution where the goal isn’t to make the most money.

David: Yeah. When it comes to college this last year, I took a class at Columbia and it was in the Philosophy Department and I audited the class because my friend was taking it. And it was all focused on one book, The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic by Max Weber. And it was interesting sitting in there because I had previously taught myself economics just by watching YouTube videos. But I was in that class and I was thinking to myself, the conversations that are happening here, Honneth, my professor who comes from the Frankfurt School in Germany, was the kind of person who I would never have been able to interact with in this way online. And my opinion here from that experience is I wish that colleges would go back to embracing those liberal arts rules with teaching modes of philosophical discourse, because that was the kind of experience that I can’t find online.

Seth: If you read Liar’s Poker, which was an extraordinary preview, so much of what’s happened in the last 20 years. One of the things Michael Lewis points out is that almost no one at Salomon Brothers had a college degree. That what they did was assemble a group of narcissistic killers who just wanted to win. And so the idea that we need a finishing school to send people to investment banking is not borne out, but more important, better humans are what matter. Now, I didn’t take that many liberal arts courses in college. I was an engineer. And I want to speak up on behalf of the engineer. Because one of the things you learn, if you study engineering in your education is you have to ship work and you have to ship work that’s either right or wrong. And I think we need a blend of that and thoughtful commentary on how the world works.

Because it’s too easy to just become a critic. I think we got to be able to say, “I built this bridge and it stands up.” And I think we got to be able to say, “And the bridge needed to go live on Tuesday. And it did.” Because we live in a world that’s based on bridges and dates. But within that, I think we can learn to become the people we’d like to be.

David: That’s a beautiful place to end. Seth Godin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Seth: This was great. I really appreciate the leadership you’re bringing and the prep you put into this. Thank you for having me.

David: Thank you.

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