Seth Godin, a Single Strategy God

On the plane from Beijing to Amsterdam I read Linchpin by Seth Godin.

OK, I tried reading it.

I gave up after about 40 pages and 400 simplistic generalizations. I nearly choked on my salted almonds when reading that Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) and Karl Marx (Das Kapital) “said the same thing.” (Which is similar to the claim that both Barack Obama and Adolph Hitler had the same number of fingers.)

What bothered me most about Seth Godin’s book is the problem of the Single Strategy God. It is a literary style that many business books suffer from. (Though I’m afraid it’s often me, the reader, who is doing the real suffering.) The authors write from a divine perspective, and their books claim that if you want to be successful your strategy should be to “be a linchpin” or “find a blue ocean” or “lead a tribe” or "move from good to great" or “be a purple cow”.

But it’s all a load of purple crap.

If the Single Strategy God really existed He would have created all species to mimic the survival strategy of Antarctic krill. It is (measured in terms of biomass) the most successful species on our planet.

Side note: in Linchpin Seth Godin argues that workers should try and become indispensible by becoming super-specialists: different from other people, and the only ones who can do their jobs, because linchpins define and adapt jobs around themselves. He ignores that, in a complex system, generalization and specialization, scaling up and scaling out, are the effects of forces that keep adapting to each other in never-ending balancing feedback loops. If nearly everyone in an economy would follow Seth Godin’s advice and focus on specialization, and being different, then the few who would focus on generalization, and creating copies, could make a huge amount of money.

People love simplistic advice. It reduces their need to think for themselves. After all, it takes effort to understand that the world is far more complex than Seth Godin tries to make us believe. It takes brains to realize that ants, humans, and cyanobacteria are successful because their survival strategies differ from each other. Some species scale up, others scale out. Some are specialists, others are generalists. Some systems thrive in blue oceans, others in sandy deserts. Some people are great linchpins, others are superb army knives.

Any strategy that leads to success is a fine strategy.

Seth Godin’s strategy is to pad his ideas with as many stories, examples, anecdotes, and platitudes as possible, until every single idea can be published as a separate hardcover book in 200 pages, double-spaced. This strategy works brilliantly. If your name is Seth Godin.

But would it work if your name is Jurgen Appelo?

I don’t believe so.

p.s. I just returned from China, where many companies make money being unremarkable and copying/producing whatever the US and Europe want to procure, at the cheapest possible rate. It's a country of 1.3 billion army knives, not linchpins. I've heard this has helped sustain the global economy. Not such a bad strategy, it seems.

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  • Thierry Vallée

    Of course, Seth is a marketeter… Simplistic advices are more efficient to be listen than a thousand words. I agree with your comments, but I liked to read this book. It’s optimistic ! And it invites everybody to change, to move, to have a “greater” life.
    I think you don’t need this book, of course… You are a linchpin.
    And of course, it’s not so easy than Seth says. But, as we say in french : “Un homme averti en vaut deux”. Something like “a man who know the problem is equal to 2”.
    Thanks for all!

  • David Pederson

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Finally some fresh air blowing at this tangled cobweb of hype.

  • Patrick

    As a long time reader and fan of Seth Godin’s work I am glad to read your post, because it articulates the core of the cognitive issues I have with Seth’s continued rants myself. Nevertheless, all his work encompasses a world view. His view. A model. And as you know, all models are wrong, but some are useful. I think Seth’s work is exceptionally useful even though the only thing he does is write down intangible ideas, stories and rants. Why? Because it makes me think. It makes me think instead of just believing and accepting his world view. It inspires me to experiment with his models of a purple cow, a linchpin or a dip. He made me do something and I am thankful for that.
    Of course he is a single strategy God and of course he is wrong. But Seth does something nobody else does at the same scale he does. And what he does is useful. At least for me. So I am glad he is here.
    And didn’t he just made you think too? 😉

  • Markus Andrezak

    Hi Jurgen,
    OMG – I couldn’t agree more. I tried Tribes and some weeks/months ago Linchpin. As opposed to Patrick neither the writing nor the line of thought makes me think, it makes me turn my brain off, because I can not stand the simplicity and generalization. I guess we have a tough competition on who’s first to lay down the book 😉
    As a lot of guys around me always love the ‘latest Godin’, it’s nice to read another view on it 🙂

  • Peter Saddington

    After reading Godin’s book, I took away a different view… not that everyone has to be a linchpin, but rather a self-awareness that if you’d LIKE to differentiate yourself, you (should) and (can).
    Not that he has the silverbullet to it all, not everyone can be a linchpin, but rather, Godin takes a look inside people. If you want to be moved, you can move. If it’s not you, then it’s not you.

  • Dave Moran

    I always take the advice in books like Linchpin as advocating a single aspect of improvement as a focus (and to sell more books), but you definitely need more to improve on as a whole. I find Seth Godin’s writing to be inspirational, but I too wished that he would cover more than one idea per book.
    Some authors are quick, easy reads – like Seth – and others take much more time and concentration to work through their material (but at times the reading is dry). And there are those rare few who excel at being both very informative and entertaining, like that guy who wrote Management 3.0. 🙂

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