Q&A

“More peo­ple are go­ing to find an in­come from from cre­at­ing other sorts of val­ues in other sorts of less re­li­able ways” Dig­i­tal guru Seth Godin on a fu­ture for which schools have yet to train any­one

The Australian - The Deal - - News - In­ter­view by: He­len Trinca Pho­to­graph by: Brian Bloom

Dig­i­tal guru Seth Godin pon­ders the ever-chang­ing na­ture of the way we work

AMER­I­CAN Seth Godin works alone in an apart­ment in a small vil­lage on the Hud­son River. It’s a quick train ride to New York but Godin doesn’t have to ven­ture into the city to feel con­nected to the rest of the world. For more than three decades since he left Stan­ford armed with an MBA, he’s been work­ing in the dig­i­tal space as a mar­keter and strate­gist. In 1995 he launched on­line mar­ket­ing com­pany Yoy­o­dyne and three years later sold it to Ya­hoo! for $US30 mil­lion. His 1999 book, Per­mis­sion Mar­ket­ing, over­turned con­ven­tional the­ory and prac­tice in the sec­tor. Ahead of his visit to Aus­tralia next month, he talks about the end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties of the in­ter­net.

What are the big­gest changes in the time you have been work­ing?

There are two. The first is the abil­ity of an in­di­vid­ual or a small or­gan­i­sa­tion to reach large num­bers of peo­ple. That used to be im­pos­si­ble. When I was com­ing up, there were six mag­a­zines and that was it. The chances of an in­di­vid­ual be­ing no­ticed with­out sig­nif­i­cant am­pli­fi­ca­tion was zero. We all re­mem­ber that (back then) if you were an au­thor, the only thing that mat­tered was get­ting on the Oprah

Win­frey Show and now the show is hardly im­por­tant com­pared with ev­ery­thing else. The sec­ond is the ex­tra­or­di­nary rise and power of tribes and con­nec­tion on­line. As soon as in­di­vid­u­als could be heard, they were heard, not by every­one but by cir­cles of peo­ple, and this idea of net­works and cir­cles and fol­low­ers and per­mis­sion is to­tally trans­for­ma­tive to ev­ery area of our lives from busi­ness to pol­i­tics to spir­i­tu­al­ity.

When you wrote Per­mis­sion Mar­ket­ing, did you think then this is where we would be?

The fu­ture is al­ready here but it is un­evenly dis­trib­uted. Who said that? Wil­liam Gib­son I think. I had a vi­sion of a whole bunch of things that would hap­pen and some of them hap­pened too soon and some didn’t hap­pen soon enough. I was re­ally wrong about the World Wide Web – it hap­pened much faster than I ex­pected – but on the other hand, the idea of a real, im­mer­sive on­line ex­pe­ri­ence hasn’t hap­pened nearly as quickly as many ex­pected. I knew some­thing big was up but I have been bad at fig­ur­ing out when.

What do you mean when you say the deep im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence has not hap­pened?

When I walk into a Star­bucks, or a con­fer­ence room or con­ven­tion cen­tre, I no­tice within 30 sec­onds who is there, what is hap­pen­ing, what the vibe is, whether peo­ple are com­ing in or out, what the tone is, is it warm, what does it smell like? I get an enor­mous amount of in­for­ma­tion in a heart­beat. When I sit in front of my lap­top I get one email at a time, if I look at a web­site I judge it by its colour, but that’s it. So you can call it vir­tual re­al­ity but it is not re­al­ity by a long shot and once it is, it is not vir­tual any more. When we get bet­ter at fil­ter­ing and bring­ing other bits of data in front of peo­ple we will look back at what we have now and think it is like a silent movie.

What im­pact has all this had on the no­tion of work?

Work is a fairly new con­cept, only 500 years old. Four or 500 hun­dred years ago, you were a farmer, or you worked for roy­alty, or you worked in the fam­ily busi­ness. The idea that you would go to a build­ing and do what you were told by a stranger… Let’s call that the in­dus­trial paren­the­sis be­cause it is go­ing away again, and more and more peo­ple are go­ing to find an in­come from cre­at­ing other sorts of value in other sorts of less re­li­able ways that hope­fully come with more sat­is­fac­tion. But our school sys­tem hasn’t trained any­one for this way of life and the other things, the way we pay for things and the way we in­ter­act, aren’t or­gan­ised around this way of be­ing. Be­ing in a project life is very dif­fer­ent from be­ing in a job life. I have em­braced the project life … and more and more peo­ple will go there, but it will never be as sta­ble and con­sis­tent as the in­dus­trial age was. So if we mea­sure it by that ruler we will be dis­ap­pointed.

Are you say­ing that we in­evitably have to change our at­ti­tudes to work?

In many sit­u­a­tions, we al­ready have. If you hang out with peo­ple who are Broad­way ac­tors, the con­ver­sa­tion is com­pletely dif­fer­ent than if you were hang­ing out with peo­ple work­ing for in­sur­ance com­pa­nies. If you work on the stage, un­em­ploy­ment is the norm and be­ing in a show is the ex­cep­tion and peo­ple or­gan­ise their lives around that mind­set. They don’t get de­pressed if they go six weeks in a row with­out be­ing cast be­cause if they did they would be de­pressed all the time. So we have to fig­ure out how to train our kids to think that it is OK (to work on projects) but also that you have to fig­ure out how to or­gan­ise a life so there are the up moments, oth­er­wise you are go­ing to be­come a bum.

What do you say to those who say they have no op­tion but to go into struc­tured work? Not every­one is so creative that they can work in that way you talk about.

Whether some peo­ple are not creative, I would say: when you were four did you do a fin­ger paint­ing that no one had done be­fore; when you were five, did you tell a joke no one had told be­fore; when you were seven were you in a school play in a way that seemed au­then­tic and real? So if those things were true when you were four, when did they stop be­ing true? I am bet­ting that it was not be­cause your genes changed, but that you stopped be­cause you got scared. It is very nat­u­ral to be scared. No, I am not buy­ing the idea that some peo­ple are lucky enough to be creative (and oth­ers aren’t). I will quote my high school teacher, who wrote in my re­port, “you are the bane of my ex­is­tence and you will never amount to any­thing!”

But if you don’t have the fi­nan­cial base to pur­sue project work, is it pos­si­ble for you to go to work for 40 years and not be­come ground down by the sys­tem?

Every­one will be ground down but ground down doesn’t mean done in and over. I think every­one will lose their job sooner or later and the ques­tion is, till that hap­pens what will you do with your spare time? Will you sit and watch TV or will you spend one hour a day to feed the com­mu­nity first, one hour a day to share your best in­sights on books, or load your pic­tures. Thomas Hawk is well on his way to post­ing a mil­lion pho­tos on­line for peo­ple to share, and the ques­tion is, has his act of do­ing this made it more or less likely that Thomas Hawk will be hired as a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher. I think the an­swer is ob­vi­ous.

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