By Shawn Coyne | Published: December 2, 2011
Seth Godin is a difficult guy to figure out.
Steve Pressfield introduced me to him on a very cold January dusk in 2010. Seth admired Steve’s The War of Art and got in touch with him via email. For fun, they decided to do a cosigning/event at the now defunct Borders in New York’s Columbus Circle. They would talk about Seth’s book Linchpin and Steve’s The War of Art. Considering the fact that The War of Art was eight years old and long since consigned to the dusty recesses of self-help trade paperbacks in the darkest sections of bookstores across the country, I found Seth’s offer to share the stage with Steve remarkable. Linchpin was on all the hardcover bestseller lists at the time and it had major mojo.
Why would a guy turn the focus of a bookstore event away from his own book to help out another guy whose book was almost a decade old and in paperback?
Seth’s “head of Hoopla” Ishita Gupta and Steve’s brains behind his operation Callie Oettinger met up with three of us. Seth booked a table for five at one of his favorite restaurants. After he ordered a bunch of Vegan appetizers for the table, he saw the panicked looks that Steve and I gave one another. He laughed and ordered pizzas too. We talked about books, the future of publishing, and a whole lot of other stuff that actually made my brain hurt. Then he picked up the check.
I didn’t see him again until he agreed to meet me six months later, another gracious gift considering the hundreds of “can I buy you a coffee” requests he gets every week. I had a hare-brained scheme for a newfangled business that I thought could change the world and make me rich to boot. I asked him his opinion of it. He picked it apart in thirty seconds, broke down its potential challenges and payoffs and then asked me a simple question.
“Is that it?”
I didn’t like that.
I wanted him to say “My God, your idea is a game-changer! Not only are you going to a make a killing doing it, but you’ll prove all the pundits wrong! Start this immediately! You’re a genius!”
Instead, he gave me an expression from one of his author photos. We shook hands and that was that.
“Is that it?” though, kept poking me. It made me dig beneath the surface of the business idea and examine what it would actually mean to me. Not what it would bring to me, but what it would mean to me.
What Seth helped me do was to put the idea into the context of my “story.”
We all play the lead character in our life story, but we also play the bad guy too. I had to figure out which one of these guys in my head came up with the idea.
Are you the rebel who will prove the world wrong if you can only get that one break? Are you the responsible one, capable but not gifted? Are you misunderstood? Are you owed something? Are you not the sharpest knife in the drawer but goodhearted? Are you the one who sacrifices for the betterment of others? Do you have a code that you live by? If you could just get that promotion/one true love/perfect body/4,000 square foot house/baby to call your own/etc. would everything be okay then? Would that one satisfaction of “want” give you a happy ending to your story?
When Seth asked me “Is that it?” it prodded me to think about the stories I tell myself. That old Socratic saw “the unexamined life is not worth living” is all about our inner stories. But taking a good hard look at them is painful. It’s painful because you play both the protagonist and antagonist roles in your own narrative. And what really sucks is that the antagonist is usually winning.
This is because the loudest internal storyteller you have is that old enemy…Resistance. The Resistance storyteller uses your past against you…your past successes (I’m a really good cake maker…I won that blue ribbon in seventh grade) and as well your past failures (I can do a lot of things, but dancing is not one of them). Because you got a prize for baking in Junior High School doesn’t mean your soufflé won’t fall today and just because people laughed at you at the Homecoming dance doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to do the fox trot tomorrow. But Resistance pipes these untruths into you day and night. If you don’t question that noise, especially when making a decision, you’ll stick to Resistance’s dull script for your life.
There’s a terrific book out now that examines the way we think in a much more elegant way than I have (Thinking, Fast and Slow). I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I think it supports my contention that listening and believing our unreliable Resistance narrators leads to bad choices.
Looking at my idea with the above in mind brought me to the conclusion that the start-up wasn’t right for me. I shelved it. If Seth hadn’t asked me that one question—or if my authentic self didn’t nudge me to seek his advice in the first place—my life would be much different than it is today. And I can safely say it would not be different in a good way.
This brings me to why Seth Godin is so difficult to figure out…
This past Tuesday, Seth announced that he would not be publishing any more books from The Domino Project. By any measure, his venture was a huge success. Every single title Domino published hit the amazon bestseller list, many of them (including Steve’s Do the Work) hit number one. His innovations brought tens of thousands of new readers to Steve (he convinced GE to sponsor a free Do the Work eBook), 50,000 subscribers to the Domino Project newsletter, and slews of other packaging, marketing, and publicity promotions to the fore. And he did it with only one retailer… And yes, while Seth has the class not to equate success solely with money, in my estimation, his business was in the black from day one.
Plus he didn’t do it alone. He listened to his authors, his colleagues, and the Domino readers and changed his approach from book to book. But each and every book had Seth’s sensibility inside and out. The Domino Project proved wrong all of the corporate publishers who have told Seth that he’s crazy over the past twenty years. But he didn’t start The Domino Project to prove anything to publishers. He started it to prove something to us. He proved that you don’t have to be picked by the big six corporate publishers to share your creation with the world. That is game changing.
With all of the strurm and drang about “the uncertainty and crisis in book publishing,” Seth didn’t just talk about how publishing could work one day, he led from the front and said with his actions, “follow me.”
So why is he stopping?
I think he’s winding up The Domino Project because he refuses to let Resistance narrate his life. He isn’t a “publisher” any more than he is an “entrepreneur,” “writer,” “teacher,” “motivational speaker,” “tech innovator,” “philanthropist,” “vegan,” or “big glasses wearer.” He’s all of those things and more.
Seth demands the “what if?” of life, no matter how daunting or foolhardy it may seem to the rest of us. Once he answers a what if? he pursues another. The Domino Project has definitively answered “what if I start a publishing house?” for him. So it’s time to move on.
A very sympathetic protagonist drives Seth’s story—his authentic self.
Who’s driving your story?