Linchpin by Seth Godin - Best book an intern could read!

I began reading Linchpin as a part of an assignment for an internship I was a part of. But as I began working through the internship I began to see countless instances where the principles Seth Godin talks about are not only true, but where they helped to improve my quality of work-life. Although I don’t agree with everything Seth said, I can see how many of his points are not only valid, but helpful when looking at the future of my career path. I will now share how I used those specific concepts to enhance my internship experience. 

Meet the Company

First, a little bit about the company for which I am interning. We will call this company Agency 1. Agency 1 is a Utah-based digital marketing agency. With a current staff of about forty full-time employees, Agency 1 has recently undergone two large acquisitions, and intends to do at least one more by the end of the year. This quick expansion has lead to both opportunities to move up in the company, as well as opportunities for chaos to persist. My internship has primarily focused on reconciliations from recent acquisitions, as well as creating new company processes moving forward, as the merging of three separate sets of processes has lead to some very confused and mismanaged employees. 

Follow the Leader

“Teamwork means ‘do what I say’,” this is a quote from the end of the book, and is a good example of the CEO’s leadership style, although he would never admit it. As I entered this new arena I saw a company that honestly feared their leader. The war room would be buzzing with camaraderie until he entered, and then everyone would put their head down and get back to work. He always talked about the quality of the organization, but there were clearly very large holes everywhere. Our “team” would simply follow his lead by ignoring those holes altogether. We did what we were told, and we got rewarded for it.

The biggest culprit of this “do what I say” mentality was a gentleman who I will call Kyle. Kyle was the director of one of the departments at Agency 1 when I first came on as an intern. He would always agree to do what he was told. There was a problem, however, Kyle would agree verbally, but would rarely follow through. His agreement would fall into the category that Seth refers to as the lizard brain. The lizard brain is the part of us that simply wants to survive. We want to survive so badly that we will agree to anything we are told from someone in authority over us, just so we don’t get killed or canned. I came into this “yes sir” office with the idea of being a Linchpin in mind. A linchpin is someone who is indispensible, valuable on many levels, and creatively irreplaceable. 

Working as an Artist

It didn’t take long before I was able to see where my “art”, or my unique approach to problem solving, could be used. After a decade of “yes sir’s”, I had my work cut out for me. I started by sculpting a proposal, a plan, for what I intended to change in the office, how traditions could be changed to be more efficient, more personalized, etc. I became friends, fairly quickly, with one of the directors, so I decided I would volunteer to start in that department first. After he saw how much good I was doing for his department, he told my director and my director became more and more willing to give me latitude to pursue my “art” in other departments. Suddenly, I started to see that everyone was opening doors into their departments for me. They started to see an artist at work and were getting excited. 

The first person to install a toilet is an artist. The second is a plumber.
— Seth Godin

“The first person to install a toilet is an artist. The second is a plumber.” Seth Godin talks about how the first person with a novel idea is a genius, but those that follow the prescribed plan are simply following their lizard brains. As I entered each department, each department head would look at me like I was an artist painting them the self-portrait they always wanted to see. Not only that, but I would use members within each department to generate more creative ideas, and in turn I started to see more and more artist’s rise up. 

Creating More Linchpins

As I started to reveal my new plans to each department/team, I could see how some people would jump at the idea of a new idea, and contribute their own creative ideas. They had simply never been given the opportunity to be creative, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they had never created their own opportunity to be creative. I was simply installing that first toilet, and inviting others to do the same. 

The CEO finally caught wind of what I was doing, and pulled me into his office. From what I had heard, you never wanted to be called into the boss’s office. He told me that he had originally had a long list of things he wanted his new intern (me) to do, but he has heard from other department heads that I had gone rogue and was working on a hole number of other things. Initially I thought, “I’m fired. This is the end of the internship.” But then he said, “That is great! I want you to keep doing exactly what you are doing! And I want you to do it in every department, what every you need, you can have it.” 

The CEO was seeing how my work had started to save his company time and money, but he hadn’t yet realized how the work his teams were doing was also contributing to the improvement of moral in every department within his company. He is the type of person that is bottom line focused. Occasionally, his mindset is a bit narrow, and he is so busy counting his pennies and looking to make the next big move in the industry that he is missing the fact that his company is wildly inefficient, behind schedule, and unorganized. What he needed was a linchpin, to get in there and work out the kinks.

Where Seth and I Differ

Seth Godin seems to frown on the idea of someone going in and creating a tool for mass-production. The book gives an analogy of a pin maker to emphasize this point. “The minute mass-production enters the picture, is the minute the custom pin makers become obsolete.” Doing something really unique is only really unique until everyone else starts to do it. To add to that, towards the end of the book it talks about how art can easily become an “art souvenir factory.” It appears to me that the modern day company is either lead by, or has a few “artists” which create the vision for the assembly line, and then the rest of the workers just show up and execute their paint by number job in order to get paid. Seth says that something can be artistic, but that doesn’t make it art. Art is the original idea, the outside-the-box thought, the worker that knowingly breaks a rule in order to improve something of greater value, the person who pushes back because that’s best. 

I do disagree with Seth in this point however. I think there are many people that don’t want to be the designer of the custom pins of the world, they just want to stand in a line and get a stable pay check for producing someone else’s idea. Seth would probably say that those people are replicable, not linchpin material. However, I would argue that more and more people are trying to become “artists” and so the rule followers of the world are becoming extinct, thus making them a linchpin in their own genre. 

Passion and People

Passion isn’t project specific, it’s people specific.
— Seth Godin

Perhaps one of the best quotes of the book is “passion isn’t project specific, it’s people specific.” That has become my personal mantra during the internship. Remember Kyle? Kyle had all of the elements to be a linchpin, he was creative, and intelligent. But Kyle was missing one very important thing, passion. Kyle would be passionate for a time, when a new project would arise, but he would never have the passion requisite to sustain him to project completion. Sadly, Kyle was not a linchpin, and was let go. 

Seth Godin spoke often of how organizations needs to support their linchpins, and work to produce more linchpins. That got me thinking, does this organization sustain linchpin behavior, or is it going to simply try to bottle up the passion of a few linchpins and mass produce it through training manuals, and mandates? I don’t think Agency 1 is as open minded to linchpin’s as they initially thought they were. They were very open to new ideas at first, but then they all went back to doing things the way they have always done them. They went back to crunching numbers, and mass-producing goods and behaviors. So, I go back to a poignant quote from the text, “linchpins should surround themselves with other linchpins.” If this company does not support that type of behavior in the long run, then it isn’t for me. 

Why I Left the Job

“World class organizations hire motivated people, set high expectations, and give them (employees) room to become remarkable.” This internship has taught me that if I decide to be a linchpin, and hope to be treated as a linchpin then I need to work for a company that supports the linchpin within me. It can’t just be a company that wants to use my ideas, and suck me dry, but work for a company that truly wants to foster the creativity inside me, and reward me accordingly. I need to work for an artist if I ever hope to create art. 

“So, what do you do when it doesn’t work?” The book asks this question. What do you do when you have been creative, you’ve created the best art you think you could ever created, and then for whatever reason it just doesn’t pay off? In those moments you create more art, Seth says. So, that’s what I intend to do, keep creating.  Although I had early hopes at sticking with this company for the long run, I don’t think I can. I don’t trust that they will allow me to continue to grow. I don’t see that they will ever be able to help me succeed and progress in the ways I hope to see for my future, they won’t let me create because they aren’t being lead by a linchpin. So, I will conclude with the greatest lesson that I learned from this book: “A linchpin can’t succeed in isolation,” and I intend to be a linchpin.