Shipping Creative Work with Seth Godin
This episode is a discussion with Seth Godin, where we talk about his new book – The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, that talks about how anyone can find their voice and put their best work out into the world. In case you don’t know who he is, Seth Godin is the author of 19 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He’s also the founder of the altMBA and The Akimbo Workshops, online seminars that have transformed the work of thousands of people. And in 2018, he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame. So if you’re listening to this podcast you’ve very likely heard of Seth Godin.
You’re listening to The Growth Manifesto Podcast, a Zoom video series brought to you by Webprofits – a digital growth consultancy that helps global and national businesses attract, acquire, and retain customers through digital marketing.
Hosted by Alex Cleanthous.
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- 00:01:02 Seth’s introduction to the Growth Manifesto Podcast.
- 00:01:26 How do you define creative work?
- 00:03:38 Creative work is about contribution.
- 00:05:45 How do you find your own creative voice? Seth believes you don’t create a voice. You adopt one.
- 00:08:25 Why Seth believes consistency is better than authenticity
- 00:10:40 If you don’t publish your creative work, it doesn’t count.
- 00:12:20 The work we are doing, if we are doing it generously, becomes a promise to our audience.
- 00:13:05 How do you overcome the fear and doubt of publishing your creative work?
- 00:16:57 How do you find out what you want to talk about in your creative work?
- 00:19:08 How do you write about topics you’re not an expert on? According to Seth you convene and connect with actual experts, go inch by inch, and commit to the process.
- 00:23:29 Generous action is the key to creative work.
- 00:24:15 A personal brand is a promise and an expectation.
- 00:25:15 How do you avoid ruining your personal brand?
- 00:26:27 People who say “I don’t have any ideas” actually mean “I’m afraid of my bad ideas”.
- 00:27:44 How long should you take to publish your creative work?
- 00:29:08 Why Seth feels like an impostor anytime he does good creative work.
- 00:31:35 “Talent is just a skill we didn’t realize we were practicing.”
- 00:32:48 People that publish creative work consistently will have good ideas pop into their mind because of the creative work they’re publishing.
- 00:33:20 How do you practice publishing creative work that requires constantly being different than everyone else?.
- 00:36:39 Good taste is knowing what your audience wants 3 minutes before they do.
- 00:38:11 How clearly defining your audience makes everything easier.
- 00:39:16 What would you advise someone who’s looking to start doing creative work?
- 00:41:46 Where you can purchase Seth’s book “Shipping Creative Work”.
People hate that because people don’t want to be on the hook. I want to point out that being on the hook is the only place to be because when you’re on the hook is when you have the leverage, is when you’re making a promise that you can work to keep. And so we’ve got to get really clear about who are we seeking to serve? Who are we helping to change? If you can’t start there, you’re going to get stuck because the first time you show up, you’re not going to get a standing ovation, and then you’re going to give up.
Alex: All right. So today, we’re talking with Seth Godin, and we’re talking about shipping creative work, which is also the subject of his latest book, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. So welcome, Seth.
Alex: Thank God the glasses are a different colour. I think that makes it much better. Cool. So let’s just get straight into it. Let’s start with defining creative work. Seth?
Alex: How do you define creative work?
We do it with respect for the customer. We do it with a practice so that we can do it regularly. Very few people have ever talked about how you get good at that. They talk about how you build a bridge. They talk about how you do SEO. They talk about how you day trade Bitcoin. But they don’t talk about how to sign up to ship creative work. And creative work is anything we do that might not work that makes things better.
Alex: Creative work is anything we do that might not work that makes things better. That seems like that would be almost everything that is worth anything to do, right? It’s across every industry.
Alex: So there’s a fear that people have around putting themselves out there. Is that right?
Alex: But there seems to be a general, I guess, confusion around the kind of creative itself. It seems like it’s like the madman style person that sits in an office and has an idea, and they sell the idea, or it’s the author that spent 20 years. And so there are all these examples of the extreme levels of creative kind of expression. And so there’s a lot of people…
Alex: They’re not that creative?
Alex: How do you mean?
Alex: So it’s about contributing. I think so; just for the people that are listening to the podcast, the world that we live in today is based on the internet, and it’s much, much easier these days to ship creative work, right? Is there anything on the internet that is not creative work then?
Alex: Is it?
Alex: So let’s talk about that. How do you find your own voice? Because I do agree with you that a lot of content is a regurgitation of other content. Right? And it feels like most people will have read online and will have learnt online, and then the information they know is learnt from someone else. And so then the first time they’re going to publish anything, it could be a version of that. So how can somebody actually start to find their own voice?
The second half of your question was, where do you find your voice? Controversially, I don’t believe anyone actually has a voice. I think you pick one; you adopt one. That if I had been born in Spain, I would not talk like this. It is not genetic to me. What happened was I said certain things at a certain age, and it worked, so I did it more. And then I did it more. And so now I play a role.
When I’m doing my work, I am showing up as Seth Godin with a capital S and a capital G. Whether or not I feel like it, my work is to be a consistent version of me, and that is my voice. I found it. I didn’t expose it. I found it by choosing it, by seeing, here’s a place I can contribute by being this kind of person and talking in this kind of language.
Alex: That’s an interesting one because you talk about consistency. And then you talk about in the book consistency, compared to authenticity.
Alex: There’s a massive amount of conversation these days about to be authentic. But that isn’t exactly how you would explain it, is it?
Alex: That’s the same with creative work. This is the part that I think people are going to find a hard time trying to get their head around is that consistency is more important than whatever their concept of in terms of authenticity. Right? And so to be consistent, to turn up every day, and to do something every…well per day…is going to improve on how creative a person becomes.
Alex: Is that correct?
Alex: Yeah, I have hobbies as well that I just do just to do them. And I don’t care if someone else actually listens. But then I write, and I care what people respond. And I care that that can instil some type of action. So does that mean then that people who are looking to be more creative should be okay with trying to put stuff out there, and to hit the publish button? Yes, and not just to write, but to write something and publish. Is that what you mean by ship creative work, and not just to be creative at home, in front of a laptop?
Alex: That’s interesting because I mean, I just posted something just on LinkedIn yesterday. I kind of submitted it, like constructed it. I thought about it. It was shorter than I ever would. But it’s done better. I don’t understand why. And it pains me because I want to be better every day. And I’m like, why is this post better than the other? And I guess, to your point, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. You have to publish, you have to see, and you have to be consistent with that.
Alex: Yeah, sure. Yeah, right. It’s really interesting because this starts to bring up a lot of emotions in people. Fear, doubt—all the things that perfectionism…. How do people start to overcome that? Because people have an expectation of who they are, and then when they hit the first time anyone publishes them. The first time I did a podcast like here, because I have a stutter, and all that I was like, wow, this is not going to work.
I was like, look; I’m just going to start to record. The first one was hard. And it wasn’t as good as the fifth one or the tenth one and so on. Right? But not everybody is prepared to put themselves out there and to fail. How can people start to warm themselves up to being able to publish? Because there is this massive fear of like, hey, I want to publish, but I’m scared of being embarrassed.
Alex: Yeah, sure.
That success looks like 30, 40, 50 million people. But the internet is not a mass medium. The internet is a micro medium that nobody on the internet, nobody reaches 30 million people a day. And so instead of saying, how many likes did you get on Twitter, we can say, did 100 people get touched by you in a way that they won’t soon forget? And if you can publish to 100 people, what’s the worst that could happen? It’ll just bounce off; you’ll never hear from them again. That’s it. But there’s plenty of other groups of 100; you’re never going to run out. If you can serve the smallest viable audience and overwhelm them with what they need, they’ll tell the others, and then this micro-medium kicks in and benefits you.
Alex: It’s so interesting on that point, as well, because on that point I thought, because of the stutter, it’s not going to be as good. But then everyone was like, well, wow, because of the stutter, this is really interesting, like the fact that you have this, it’s seemed to have connected with a lot more. And that was the opposite of what I thought because there’s something that happens in somebody’s head, where it’s not real, the fear that they have. They don’t understand how people are going to react.
And so then they are thinking they’re positioning it too high, and they’re getting stuck. And so I like your point on just start with a small audience. Start with something small and publish. What does somebody start to write about? Okay, cool. Say, for example, someone says, this sounds great. I want to start. What should I talk about? How do I talk every single day about something, say, for example?
So the path is really clear once you tell me what change you want to make. Maybe the change you want to make is you want to go from being an unknown comic to being a respected comic. Oh, really? Respected by who. Right? Respected by the people who want to laugh at off-colour jokes and drink seven beers, or respected by the people who read the New Yorker? Tell me who you’re trying to change. Let’s be really specific, and put you on the hook.
People hate that because people don’t want to be on the hook. I want to point out that being on the hook is the only place to be because when you’re on the hook is when you have the leverage; is when you’re making a promise that you can work to keep. And so we’ve got to get really clear about who are we seeking to serve? Who are we helping to change? If you can’t start there, you’re going to get stuck, because the first time you show up, you’re not going to get a standing ovation, and then you’re going to give up.
Alex: That’s a super point. I think this seems to apply quite a lot to thought leadership of sorts, right? So putting stuff out to achieving a goal. And so like, on the one side of it is the music side, and then on the other side is what everyone on this podcast is going to be doing, which is, thought leadership side, the content marketing side, the content side, we’ll call it, right?
So from the content side of things, it seems that you need to have achieved some level of skill or some experience or something to be able to do that. But that’s only a perspective of the people that you’re trying to serve. Is that right or not? You know what I mean? Because if someone’s just starting out, they’re not going to be going out there saying, “Hey, I’m going to change the game,” when they’re just starting out, but they want to ship. So what does that person do?
Number two is, of course, you don’t have an enormous amount of expertise in whatever you want to do. So maybe you begin by convening people who do, by making connection happen. That in itself is a creative act. So I don’t know if you know the legend of Esther Dyson or not. Esther is one of the most important people in the history of tech. I met her in 1983. In 1983, Esther Dyson had a newsletter. It was written on blue paper, it was mailed to its subscribers, and it was eight pages long, single-spaced typed.
It outlined people that she had met in tech who were launching interesting companies. If you wanted the newsletter, it cost $3,000 a year. And she and her partner began probably with 50 subscribers. But it was so valuable to the venture capitalists and others that the word spread, you needed to be a subscriber. At its peak, I think it had 3,000 subscribers, 3,000 people paying $3,000 in 1983, to hear Esther Dyson every two weeks talk about who she had met.
So now the question is, is it worth going out of your way to meet Esther Dyson? It took a long time to get a meeting. If you got a meeting, you went to her building. There were two elevators, and she was on the fifth floor. If you took the wrong elevator it stopped at the fourth floor, so you had to send that elevator down to the basement, and then quickly get in the other elevator, so you get to the fifth floor. It was a puzzle.
Then Esther started a conference, and the only people who were allowed to come to the conference were people who subscribed to the newsletter. At the conference, she had her favourite people of the year present their companies. Now, if you are one of these entrepreneurs, is it worth it to present at the Release 2.0 Conference? If you’re one of these investors, is it worth going to the conference? Everyone wins.
What did Esther do? She convened. She created connection where there was no connection. Within five years, she knew more about the future of tech than anybody. Because she had spent her time as a convener, hearing different points of view and reflecting it back to people in a way that was generous. She hustled no one. She ended up becoming an angel investor in probably hundreds of companies. She was on the board of Meetup before it sold, and on and on.
I’ve known her off and on for years. Is Esther a genius? Yes. Was she born a genius? No. It helps that she comes from a family of geniuses, so she was expected to be a genius. If you’ve heard of the Dyson sphere, that was I think her uncle; physicist invented it. But the point is; still, this is open now to everyone to say, there is this genre I want to work in. There is this place where I want to put a stake in the ground that is generous. How will I then go to the next level and the next level and the next level?
Any industry you can name that has a successful player in it has a successful player because they got there an inch at a time. Starbucks didn’t start with 12,000 stores, it started with three, and they didn’t even sell coffee. They just sold beans. So, the process is available. You got to commit to it.
Alex: You got to commit to it, and you have to take action. It seems like action is the key to all this. Is that right?
Alex: Generous action.
Alex: So we’re really talking about kind of almost creating a personal brand, isn’t it? This is what this is about, in a way. Is that right?
You can wreck your brand in one day if you want. But that’s your brand. Most people don’t have a brand, they just have a logo, because I am not willing to give them enough of my time and attention for them to earn anything because they haven’t shown up in a way to have gotten my time and attention.
Alex: People that listen to this, they may be thinking, if I go out and publish, how do I not ruin the brand in a day? Just like what you just said, it’s like, I don’t want to ruin my brand in a day. So how do I avoid that?
On the other hand, if you show up and say, “Hey, I’m Mike Novogratz. I’m swinging big bats here. And this is the most volatile weirdest thing ever. Maybe I’ll be able to double our money.” The people who invest in you are like, go for it, Mike, because they knew what the promise was.
Alex: So how do you come up with the ideas? Because to write 7,000 posts, some days, you must be sitting there thinking, what am I going to say today? What’s your process?
Alex: Yeah, there’s a video version of the podcast too, by the way, so they can see it.
Alex: And then the psychological part of it is that you have to be okay in choosing the best of those 99 and just publish.
Alex: And just publish, and how long would you take to publish something? What’s the timeframe that somebody should have? Is it half an hour? Is it six hours? Is it two hours a day? What is the amount of practice somebody should be putting out there?
The promise is really clear, which is if you don’t like this, just wait till tomorrow, there’ll be another one. That promise enabled me to not have to sit with a post for a long time. If it’s controversial, if I’m dealing with something where I’m over my head, I’ll work on it for a month for sure, and other people will read it for sure. But my best blog posts, 20 minutes.
Alex: So you do take time if it’s controversial because you don’t want to risk the promise, the brand, right? And to say the wrong thing. I think if people are out there…because this comes to the imposter syndrome, which everyone has at all levels. It gets easier the more that you write, but it feels like…
Alex: So you feel like an imposter anytime that you are doing great work. Is that what you said?
Alex: And why is that?
Alex: So you keep pushing yourself, and that’s the creative part of it, isn’t it? That’s where the creative muscle almost starts to play. It’s when you get into the zone almost, right? The flow state, and then all of a sudden stuff starts to come out from somewhere. Where is that place? What’s that place called where things come?
Alex: Where do the creative ideas come from? Because at the beginning of this, you spoke about the muse.
Alex: The muse that will come up with that idea. I have found that sometimes, I might be on the beach or I might be out somewhere, something will pop into my mind that will change everything. Right? We’re not talking about that right now, are we? That’s something different, isn’t it? Or is it similar? I don’t know.
Alex: I can confirm that, by the way. It’s hard to get the good ideas though. And I think to that point; it does … So just to confirm, so people that ship creative work consistently will have the good ideas pop into their mind because of the work that they’re shipping. And that changes their psychology, because the more they do it, the more experience they have and the greater their context.
Alex: So what about the Mad Men style creative ideas, right? Say, for example, if that was your job, right, and you needed to come up with ideas that were not the same as everyone else, and that was your job. Right? And I don’t know, like, it was like a logo design, or it was, I don’t know, some story which you had to create. It was like an ad, let’s say because this is like a marketing podcast as well. How would you practice that kind of work; of shipping that kind of work?
It’s really easy for someone who invents TV shows for a living to come up with MTV Cops. And if you come up with MTV Cops, you have Miami Vice, and suddenly you’re a genius. But it wasn’t very hard. The hardest part was other people had come up with Miami Vice before but had discarded it because it felt too risky because it felt too far afield from the junk that network TV was broadcasting. So he had the wherewithal to consistently, persistently get that show made without compromising it into just a version of Mannix. Right?
And so the original idea of Miami Vice took less than a minute to think up and less than half an hour to draw out. The hard work was not compromising after that, in all respects, like what should be on the soundtrack? And what should be the colour scheme? And why is it like this? And who is it for? And what do I say to the critic who doesn’t get the joke? Right? But those things are all executions on an insight that comes from a deep understanding of genre.
Now it is possible to just get lucky and show up with your thing out of the blue. But those people tend to be one-hit wonders because they don’t have the discipline to keep doing that work with passion. And so the problem I have, other than the moral problem, with people who hustle is they’re building their whole thing on the slimmest of ideas with almost no execution behind it. They lose interest after a few weeks. That’s not how you build something great.
If we think about—and I don’t think Facebook is something great—but if your goal is to create a change in the culture, or create a lot of money, Facebook had it. Facebook had one idea for 100 people at Harvard. Right? Obviously, there are two ideas. Idea number one, you don’t have a date. Idea number two people are talking about you behind your back; you want to hear what they’re saying. That’s it. That’s all Facebook is. And then 15 years of hard work.
Alex: And there are a few other things, but yeah. I get what you’re saying. So you just talked about the risk of something, say, for example, the Miami Vice, but that was a risk. Right? And it seems to be that like some of the best stuff feels inside of you a bit risky.
Alex: So is risk a good sign that maybe this is the right path? How do you know when it’s too far? It’s too risky?
There are people who have gone too far, and they … So someone like Brian Eno. Brian Eno is respected and revered by a very small group of people. And it’s a small group of people because he was too far ahead to get the masses to get his joke. But if you wanted to, you could have made a living just taking a Brian Eno idea and bringing it out a year later.
Alex: You talk about the audience as well. Yeah. So is it clearly defining the audience? Is that a really key part of this process? Is it clearly defining who you’re talking to? Is that going to make it easy for people?
And certainly, that’s what Condé Nast did for 50 years. Right? The kind of person who reads Gourmet is not the kind of person that reads Architectural Digest. Pick your audience first. You don’t have to be super specific, but it certainly helps if you can be clear about who that tribe is, and what they need from you.
Alex: Yeah, okay. Okay. So, to the people that are listening, that have started to think, okay, cool. I want to start something now. I’m inspired by Seth; I get it. I’m scared. But I’m going to do it anyway because I have to be consistent. Well, what would you advise them? What’s the first thing they should do?
And if you fall on your face, you never have to go back to the figure skating rink again. It’s invisible. Practice over there, practice over there, practice over… So I started in the book packaging business because the beauty of it is you’ve got two stamps, you could send a letter to anybody in the book industry. And if they liked your idea, they would mail you money. I got 800 rejections in a row. I was a complete failure. But no one knew that I was getting 800 rejections because each person only rejected me 20 times.
Eventually, I figured it out. I got the joke. And so I could play in that space. And then when the web came along, it’s a totally different group of people. But I knew how to pitch idea people. So I could go pitch AOL, and I crushed it at AOL because I was better… AOL had this greenhouse thing where you could pitch them an idea, and they would meet. I broke the record for the fastest yes. Fourteen minutes after I pitched them, they agreed to give me six figures for my project. How did that happen? Because I’d been pitching the book industry for 15 years, right? You pick your minor leagues, then go to your next leagues. That’s how I would begin.
Alex: That’s the same for anybody that hasn’t shipped creative work before, right? Because there are people out there that are extremely experienced in their field but have never shipped something creatively. And so now their ego is going to be their biggest challenge, right, is that they’re scared that now they’ve got all this status, and then they’re going to publish something, and their status is going to be rejected. So it’s a really good idea to…
Alex: Got it. Got it. Seth, this has been a fantastic conversation. This book, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, how can people purchase it? Where can they purchase it from?
Alex: That’s awesome. The book as well is so interestingly written in that every chapter is really short and punchy. And so it’s really easy to read anywhere because it just takes you a couple of minutes, and that’s one more chapter. It’s extremely well written, so I highly recommend it as well. Thank you so much, Seth. This has been such a fabulous conversation. Have a great afternoon, I guess, there.
Alex: Thank you.
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