seth godin: purple cows

North Star podcast: hosted by david perell

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Episode Transcript:

David: Seth, welcome to the North Star!

Seth: It’s a pleasure! Polaris in action.

David: Exactly! So I want to start with a little observation that I had. Because of the newsletter, the blog that you‘ve sent out every morning that I have been reading for now four years, you may be the only person I have communicated with every single day during that time.

Seth: Well I don’t take the responsibility lightly so thank you for sticking with it.

David: So I want to start with your background.

Seth: I was one of those kids who had a lot of trouble sitting still in school. I told myself erroneously that I was smarter than most of the people who were trying to teach me something. And I moved really quickly. I was lucky at Tufts because I found a major in the catalog that permitted me to take as many courses as I wanted, and not have to stick with anything so I took 40% more courses than most people and studied Engineering, Philosophy, Mechanical Engineering, Applied Mathematics, and a whole host of other things and that kept me stimulated but my wife likes to point out that I made it through college with one notebook for four years. Not because I was smart, but because I was there for the breadth not the depth. And I guess the other unique thing is…a couple of unique things is I co-founded what became the largest student-run business in the United States which was an on-campus business that launched a new division every week. We had a ticket bureau and a travel agency and a temporary employee agency and a laundry service and a birthday cake service and we sold bagels door-to-door. That was really cool. It was probably the best part of my learning in college. And I was also a canoeing instructor in Canada. That taught me about teaching and led to a life long commitment to being a teacher and helping people level up.

David: In terms of building that business, doing all the things you’ve been able to do, how much of that was things that came from maybe your authentic self that emerged during your childhood and how much of all this has been cultivated through hard work and dedication and the unique worldview that you’ve been able to develop?

Seth: I don’t believe in authenticity. And I will happily tell you why. The last time most of us were authentic we were 90 days old and lying in a poopy diaper. Ever since then we have done things on purpose. We do things because they work — we do things because of how they make us feel. We make calculations. We go to work on days that we don’t feel like it. We wear a tuxedo to the prom. That’s a choice. And so I think we let ourselves off the hook a little too easily when we are talking about our authentic self. I think that instead we ought to be able to say I am responsible for these choices and the consequences that come from them, and if you don’t like the consequences, maybe you should make different choices.

David: Have your growth been conscious? What has it been led by? Hopping on the treadmill of growth and development so to speak, how did that begin?

Seth: So what I get truly charged by, professionally, is inventing interesting solutions to problems and then bringing those solutions to someone who can appreciate them and cause change to happen. The book industry was very kind to me because it was organized around the idea that you can send in a ten page proposal for an idea and if they liked it they would send you money. And then you would make the book. So I did 120 books in 10 years, a book a month, and that really got to the heart of my creative cycle. Now the challenge with that is in addition to coming up with ideas, which a lot of people want to do, you have to sell them. Which almost nobody wants to do. And selling your ideas is a craft, and it is something at least as much as inventing ideas. So, what I discovered at the beginning is that I was really bad at it. I liked selling ideas, but I don’t like getting rejected. That led me to the work of Zig Zigler, and I started with his 72 hours of Secrets of Closing the Sale, maybe it was 48 hours, and then discovered he had other programs on motivation and goal setting and living a life you’re proud of. So I ended up listening more than 2000 hours of Zig over and over and over again. And it still comes back, that is the backbone of my generous persistence is hearing those stories and reminding myself that you don’t get many chances and I got super lucky with the privilege that I have and I’m not going to waste my shot.

David: Are you motivated by goals, daily practices, systems that you have in place?

Seth: Well when I was struggling in my twenties, the Goal Planner, which Zig published, and then I was fortunate enough to get the rights and republish shortly before he died 5 or so years ago…I used that goal planner everyday. It’s a priceless habit to be able to have because when you’re faced with short termed no, having a vision of a long term yes is very helpful. I stopped doing it when I turned 30 because I was getting too focused on the cycle and I found myself becoming more committed to forward motion than I was comfortable with. So I have a little bit more of a mindful approach now but for people who are feeling stuck, I strongly recommend, I don’t care what kind you get, but get a goal planner and take it seriously.

David: On the theme of feeling stuck, I think a lot of people are scared, they’re inhibited by fear, and I know that The War of Art has had a huge impact on you. In what way has it shaped your thinking, shaped how you approach your work?

Seth: I wasn’t around when Copernicus did his thing or when Galileo did his thing or Maxwell or even Newton but I would imagine when you heard what those people described, I mean Newton didn’t invent gravity. He just named it. But once you knew that there was a name for that thing, you could understand a whole bunch about how your world worked. And I’ve read thousands and thousands of books, and I don’t know how it was that I didn’t read The War of Art. I didn’t know about it, and then one day there it was and once you see and hear about the resistance, you will recognize that voice in your head which never had a name before. And that has given me really good insight about why I hesitate and what holds me back.

David: How should young people be thinking about that in terms of the change that they seek to make and how much focus should young people have verses breadth and diversity of experiences?

Seth: We are healthy enough as a people that age doesn’t seem to me to be a useful sort of who you are. We see that there are 22 year olds that are able to start companies that change things and there are 80 year olds who do the same thing. So I am not comfortable saying that young people should do one thing and old people should do something else.

David: So then what would you recommend to young people who are struggling to find that mission and to find that North Star?

Seth: I am your guest here today and I don’t want to rain on your parade but I don’t think each of us has a North Star. I think that you can pick anything you want and make it your North Star. I was really close to becoming a movie producer, I was really close to producing broadway plays, I was really close to running a summer camp which I did for one summer, and any of those things could’ve became my North Star. I wasn’t born to do this. No one was. So I think that if you are dissatisfied with your momentum and if you are seeking that thing, you don’t need more time, you just need to decide. You just need to pick a thing. Pick a thing. And do it. And get through and dip. And once you get through the dip and change you can change but don’t change when you are in the dip change after that. Figure out something that is worth the next few years of your life and do it, and if you can’t figure out anything that is worth it, do it anyway because it is better than sitting around whining.

David: I love that. When you set out to begin that journey, how do you begin? Do you seek out mentors, do you seek out books? How do you learn the craft? Or do you getting going and stumble along the way and course correct is needed?

Seth: Well, if you think about all the things that have learned that were game changing and important. Everyone of them is something that you learned by failing. Learning how to walk, learning how to swim, learning how to talk, learning how to juggle, learning how to type. You don’t learn any of those things from a book, or a mentor, or a video. Learning how to ride a bike. You just do them poorly until you do them well. I got, as it has been famously restated, 850 rejection letters my first year as a book packager. Is it that nobody heard of me? No it was that I was terrible at it! And I learned how to get better at it over the course of years and that is the only method I can recommend to people. That’s the method that helps us discover what we are truly capable of. If you could learn it from a book someone would have learned it before you and you wouldn’t have a shot.

David: I think a lot of that, at least for me, a lot of that fear of that rejection has come from the perils of the classroom.

Seth: The only thing that we know about people who have a 3.9 or a 4.0 GPA is that they are good at school. That’s all we know. And that there is such a long list of people who are dropouts or who had dyslexia or who struggled along in school who have changed the world. At some point we have to acknowledge that the correlations are weak. You know, Joi Ito, my friend who runs the media lab at MIT, who has just been admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, who made millions of dollars as a venture capitalist and entrepreneur in Japan, never graduated from college. So if Joi Ito can be a member of the MIT faculty, and never graduate from college, then you can too. This is not about the compliance, cog mindset of middle and higher education which is all about training people to do what they are told. The fact that you didn’t do well in school, if you have generous, persistent habits is actually a good sign, not a bad sign. And carrying it around like a negative badge is a burden you shouldn’t have. What we really need to do is train people to be generous, to lead, and to solve interesting problems. And if you can do those three things then you are way ahead of the game. Way ahead.

David: And is that something that has to be trained by an external source to do? I know a lot of people, I think the magic of the internet is a lot of these things can be done on our own. I know the AltMBA is done through the internet, how do we get going with training ourselves to be generous, to be persistent — how does that work begin?

Seth: The AltMBA is a thirty day intensive workshop that I have been running for a few years, and it works extraordinarily well. It revitalizes people and undoes a lot of brainwashing. Our culture brainwashes us and the places we work brainwash us and I think we can undo that if we focus on the things that matter. This isn’t the only way to do it, there are a lot of ways to do it, but the job you have is to dig deep and build a culture around you that expects you to do this work. It is that expectation that means so much. Mentors don’t tell people how to do things better. All they do is create a list of expectations so that you can figure out how to do things better.

David: One of the reasons why I am so drawn to your work is that I think you counter a lot of mainstream narratives. I was with a friend the other day who said, “Go as fast as you can to put advertisements on the podcasts. And get people’s attention through that you can make money really quick!” What do you see about marketing that counters the mainstream narrative?

Seth: Well you need new friends. I mean the guy is telling you to ruin your podcast in a race to make $100. It’s silly. That doesn’t make any sense to me. You can make the commitment to be in it for the long haul, which means building an audience of people who trust you, which means figuring out how to have a place where you can stand and have leverage. If you can do that and find 100, or a 1,000, or 10,000 true fans it seems to me that making a living will come easily. The other choice you have is to chase the short term in which case you’ll always be chasing the short term and you will never build an asset.

David: How did you begin to cultivate this worldview because it is one that has shaped how I approach my work every single day. It has shaped my worldview and I am wondering how you came to it yourself.

Seth: You know, the only way I know how to build a brick wall is by one brick at a time. And I’ve been laying bricks since 1986. When I started laying bricks in 1986, I had no idea this was the wall I was building. But you keep laying bricks and you see what is going on in the outside world. You copy people you admire. You are generous in ways you can be generous, and then you lay more bricks. The path to becoming an overnight success is best followed if you are willing to wait 20 years to become an overnight success.

David: And who are those people that you do admire and you’ve looked up to? Who are the people that you try to emulate?

Seth: And I try to give them credit often. Certainly my parents who I miss both of them, then people like Zig, being able to work with Jay Levingston, science fiction authors I’ve been able to work with, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. People who written books like Steven Pressfield, or Lewis Hyde, Pamela Slim. The thing to understand about books is there they are a screaming bargain. For $15 or $20, someone is willing to give two years of their life. And I don’t understand people who say “Oh I don’t want to know what they have to say.” Why wouldn’t you want to know what they have to say?

Let’s talk about time for a second. It doesn’t matter where you were born. You get exactly the same amount of time as everybody else. It is the great equalizer. I decided when Seinfeld went off the air to stop watching television, and I also don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. And I don’t go to meetings at work. So I already have about 7–10 hours of free time everyday that most people don’t have. That’s huge. If more people did that you would be amazed on how much you could learn. We’re the richest people in the history of the world, and yet we are squandering our time doing things that make no sense. I don’t use a day planner. I am very internally motivated because when you are a freelancer working form home and you’re failing, it’s really tempting to take a nap. To hide. And once I stopped doing that by making a rule no napping, it creates a cycle and you fill it with the best available use of your time and it is obvious what that is but at least you can try.

David: I want to jump back to goals because something just popped back into my mind. In terms of goals, how do you make them so that they are broad enough that we can course correct for what we discover through the journey of creation, but specific enough that we have an end point that we are going towards.

Seth: Tell me what is behind your question I am having trouble figuring out what is it that you are not seeing that I am trying to help you with.

David: Absolutely. So I am building the North Star. I am not really sure what the end goal here is, I just absolutely love the journey of getting to interview people like you, and I’m not really sure what that end goal looks like.

Seth: Work worth doing involves changing people. That is what we do. What change are you seeking to make? Who are you seeking to change? Once you are clear about those two things, then you can focus on what do they believe. Where are they now? What do they want? And then you can focus on: how can they find out? Who will tell them? And then the path becomes a lot more clear. So, if you’re Mark Maron, who has built one of the biggest podcasts in history, it is a deliberate process where you say who am I trying to change? How will they find out about it? They will find out about it because I will persuade the 10 people who are currently listening to find it so remarkable that they tell 10 more people. And how will I fund it? Well I will fund it because over time, as I get bigger, some people will want to reach my audience and they will pay me to do so.

David: One of the things that I’ve loved about what you said is don’t go big, go small. Focus on making a change for 3 people, focus on making a change for 5 people. And what is it about that idea that is so promising?

Seth: It’s like burning your boats when you land on the island. You have no escape. People who want the biggest possible audience compromise all over the place. Because they say I have to because I am going for the biggest possible audience. But if you commit to the smallest viable audience, then that is all you got. So you can’t shortchange a customer service note because you’re busy running across the street to do a sales call. This is what you got. That idea of committing to the smallest possible audience changes everything.

David: I know a lot of my friends, a lot of the people I speak and collaborate with feel this way too; we don’t feel like we don’t have enough experience to have that unique worldview. To say something with conviction sometimes.

Seth: Yeah, thats crazy.

David: And I think that that is a fear that a lot of us have to push through.

Seth: I would remind you that my peers are saying they are too old to have a point of view and a conviction because people your age won’t understand it. So everybody has an excuse. Everybody. This is silly. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg changed the whole world because he had a point of view when he was 19. A point of view is a choice. It is not something that one day you wake up with and you’ve earned it. It’s a choice. And I would argue that most of your friends got brainwashed into not having a point of view because they got pushed instead to do well in school.

David: So how can we cultivate that point of view?

Seth: You just have one! And then you bring it to the world and you discover it doesn’t work. So you have a new one. You come up with an articulation of how you think the world ought to be. Right, that if you think that misogyny is unacceptable, then every time you see a man mistreating a woman, you speak up. If that doesn’t work, you say:: where else in the chain of culture do I need to go to bring this to the floor? The point is there are many points of view that are available to people whether they are 22 or 57. And we have been tricked into thinking that we shouldn’t have one. It belongs — it is somebody else’s privilege to have a point of view and that silly right, You don’t have to run for congress just to have a point of view. What you have to do is use this platform that we have given you, speak up, and do it in a way that people will tell other people.

David: That is so empowering. One of the things in the AltMBA is to get used to shipping. To ship over and over again. Is that the best way to make change happen?

Seth: It is the only way! It is the only way. Right? I have a dear friend named Leo. He is 1 years old. Leo can’t walk yet. But he is really close to walking. Leo does not sit around on the couch waiting for his body to be ready to walk. He is not… one day roll off the couch and walk across the room. Instead, he stumbles. He is a professional stumbler. And that is what we all are.

David: In terms of our fear to fail in public, I think a lot of people do feel that. How do we let go of that fear?

Seth: You can’t! It doesn’t go away. If you are hoping for it to go away before you do something you are going to be waiting the rest of your life. You can’t make the fear go away. You can learn to dance with it. When you think about people who finish the marathon versus people who stopped at mile 22, what is the difference? They both got tired, but the person who finished figured out where to put the tired. The person who finished didn’t finish untired. They figured out where to put it.

David: Well Seth, thank you so much, I really appreciate this. How can we connect with you, how can we subscribe to your newsletter, and how can we soak in more of your ideas?

Seth: Well, first, I want to thank you. This is generous, difficult work, and I hope your listeners understand that it is lonely sitting there with a microphone and that you are showing up on a regular basis to help them which is priceless. I am super glad you are doing this.

You can find my blog by typing Seth into your favorite search engine, and my latest book, Your Turn, is at The altMBA is a, and I am now running a marketing seminar which you can find at So lots to do!

David: Great! Thank you so much Seth.

Seth: Thank you David. A pleasure. Cheers.