Tim Ferriss interviews Seth Godin

Published on Nov 8, 2020

The headline says it all. 

Episode #476 of The Time Ferriss Show #476 of The Time Ferriss Show is absolute gold. I strongly encourage any entrepreneur or creative to listen to it. 

I listened to it for a second time and captured the key insights that jumped out at me.

On quality

If you want to be a perfectionist, quality is a great place to hide. You don't want to be an enemy of quality. When someone says, "I can't ship this yet because the quality isn't there," or "Why are you racing through that, don't you want to put quality into it?" we are defenseless. Someone who doesn't want to ship their work is going to stand behind perfectionism. Perfectionism has nothing to do with perfect, and perfect doesn't have a lot to do with quality. 

Quality has a very specific definition: meets spec. What's a better quality car, a Toyota Corolla or a Rolls Royce? The answer is Toyota. It meets spec. It more reliably does exactly what it's supposed to do when it's supposed to do it. A Rolls Royce is a different thing. It's luxury and ostentatious spending of resources to create something that most people can't have. That's a fine thing, too, if you want it. It's easy to show that high-fashion goods, luxury purses, etc., don't actually last as long as less expensive equivalents.

There is also the concept of magic. Once you know how the trick is done, it's just a trick and the magic is gone. In the case of great writing, great customer service, great theater, the first time you experience it, the unexpected moment when lights turn on for you, that's magic. Now that we have AI and robots, the work that's left for us is the work to create magic.

The smallest viable audience has never been more attainable. 

99% of people in America have never read a Seth Godin book. 

On writer's block

There's no such thing as writer's block. Writer's block is real but it does not exist. It's actually a misnamed way of saying "I have a fear of bad writing."

The way through is to do bad writing. You don't have to ship it to the world, but you have to do your bad writing. Bad writing over time, if you do enough of it, can't persist. Good writing will slip through. Seth learned from Isaac Asimov, who published 400 books back when it was harder to publish. Every morning for six hours, Isaac would sit and type. It didn't matter if it was good or not, he had to do six hours of typing. Obviously, he didn't have a typing problem. At the end of the shift, he would throw out the bad writing and keep the good stuff. His subconscious understood that if he's going to type anyway, you might as well type something good. 

Forget the phrase "just do it." Replace the word "just" with the word "merely." 

Merely do the work.

The time you are spending narrating yourself doing the work, the time you are spending catastrophizing the work is not helping anything.

What matters is finding your smallest viable audience, understanding your genre, and explore what it means to make magic in the small so you can repeat it.

On the decision when to ship

Generosity doesn't mean free. Generosity means you are expending emotional energy to help somebody else. Once you shift to helping others instead of yourself, it makes it easier to merely do the work.

Seth said his latest book was inspired by one quote:

Process saves us from the poverty of our intentions --Elizabeth King

Tomorrow morning when you wake up, you probably won't feel like engaging in the practice. If you do, then you might not feel like engaging the next day. What we do is once, decide. We decide to be a runner, and runners run every day. We decide to be a blogger, and bloggers blog every day. That decision lightens the cognitive load because there is no reason to negotiate with ourselves. 

Authenticity is overrated. The problem with authenticity is it's selfish. Authenticity enables us to say whatever we want, and if people don't like it, well I was just being authentic. It is a ticket to self-absorbed inconsistency. What people want is consistency. People want us to make a promise and keep it. The reason it's called work and not a hobby is because I made a promise. 

The way we act determines how we feel way more often than the way we feel determines how we act.

Attitudes are skills and impatience vs patience

There are hard skills that are easy to measure, but there are also learnable skills that are harder to measure but just as important.

How do you take an attitude such as honesty and convert it to a skill?

Examples: Being a good listener and being charismatic. We know what makes someone be seen as a good listener and as charismatic, so in the beginning, you can do those same things. Just like falling asleep, in the beginning, you will be faking it. But then, just like falling asleep, you will be doing it.

The mantra "Do what you love" is for amateurs and "Love what you do" is for professionals. 

Most struggling entrepreneurs are impatient when it comes to things that look like an external hustle. They are emailing people too many times, looking for a shortcut, they have an elevator pitch, they have the fancy business cards, they are pushing and pushing externally. That's the wrong place to be impatient. When it comes to confronting the thing they are afraid of, they can make a really wide berth around it instead of figuring out how to be honest. 

Where we need patience is confronting the things we are going to get better at and strapping in for a useful journey. Where we need impatience is with our fear and selfishness. 

On anxiety

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. After it's over, we don't call it anxiety anymore. We are in grief or rebuilding. When it might go wrong, worrying or anxiety is what we feel when we are imagining that it did. That's not helping anything. How do we focus that part of our attention on something generous instead? Anxiety and worry are almost never in service of someone else, they are in service of our need for the status quo and reassurance. 

Reassurance is futile because you never have enough of it. It feels great to have reassurance, but it does not last. All the worrying about the negative outcome is worse than the rejection when it finally comes. 

Merely do the work, be generous with the work, and improve skills to do it again.

On learning

We learn things by becoming momentarily incompetent. We used to feel like we were in control and understood things, then all of a sudden a new fact arises that counters what we know. In that moment, we are feeling incompetent. That's when most people quit. But then we get through it, and now we know something more than we used to know. Pacing this process is tricky.

The challenge is not to dumb it down, but to figure out the useful chunks of tension that you can create where someone can feel the tension, get through the tension, absorb it, and be ready for another bit. 

Tension is in all forms of teaching and culture. 

The purpose is to create tension and allow learners to resolve the tension on their own.

Don't steal the revelation. Open the door and let them find a revelation.

On constraints

Having constraints lets you get to the edge. Constraints are arbitrary but necessary. In the beginning, the cost of starting over is tiny but the cost of making constraints after you have started going down the path of the idea is enormous.

Constraints on starting a business:

  1. Which resources are you willing to put into the business? Resources you are willing to expend to get or resources you have such as time, risk tolerance, and money.
  2. Who do you want your customers to be? If you hate your customers, you'll hate your business.
  3. What do you want to get out of this? Are you looking for something that makes every day better? Or are you looking for a long slog so that X number of years later you win a prize?

You don't get to reverse the answers to these questions from what you started with as your germ of an idea. These constraints are not about the idea at all.

If you're really a freelancer, you have no employees. You only sell your number of hours per week. At the same time, if you want to make ten million dollars a year, you're going to be unhappy. You can't be a sole-practitioning freelancer who is making ten million dollars a year.

Sunk costs are the unspoken minefield of mistakes. We rationalize why we have to justify what we already have. We invent new meanings for the word "momentum" and we imagine we have to stick with what we did. Much of the time, learning to ignore sunk costs is the single most useful thing for people.

Risks of betting on outcomes

Current Western mindset is tell me if it's going to work, then I'll do it. Part of this mindset comes from school. You know you're in school if someone says, "Will this be on the test?" The phrase "will this be on the test" means I'm willing to momentarily memorize this if you're willing to trade me for an A. If not, I'll zone out because I have other things to do. 

Seth finds the question "What would you do if you knew could not fail" to be unhelpful (Tim laughed at this as this is one of his key questions.) Seth thinks this is a "genie" question that gets you nowhere. Seth's version of the question is "What would you do if you knew you would fail?" What would be worth doing even though it's not going to work? If you have things on that list that you haven't been doing, ironically, those are the things that are most likely to work because other people are not doing them either. Most people enter the Boston Marathon knowing they aren't going to win, but they do it anyway.

On writing his new book The Practice

Writing a book is a ridiculous venture. It takes a really long time, and then when you're done with it, almost nobody says "Fantastic!" like they do when you make a new record. When you make a record, people say, "Oh, I'll listen to it!" When you make a book, people ask for a prize because they've finished reading it. As a result, Seth only writes a book when he has no choice. So, what makes it so that he has no choice this time?

Once he starts working on a set of ideas, he owes those ideas something. He owes them a package or a venue that will allow them to come to people in a way that will help. The thing about a book that is not true for any other electronic media that are easy to share is when you hand someone a book, the whole package is right there. He feels that this set of ideas is "book-worthy."

The subtitle is "Ship creative work." Either you do that for a living or you don't. If you don't do that for a living, good luck. You are a cog in the system that wants to replace you. If you ship creative work, ship means if it doesn't ship it doesn't count. Work means you do it even when you don't feel like it. Creative is where the joy is because creative is "no one's ever done this before" and "here, I made this." 

On learning to be more creative

If you want to learn to be more creative, you have to show me an enormous number of bad ideas. Pick the smallest region/domain/niche and start listing your bad ideas. Keep listing your bad ideas. Let's prove that your bad ideas are not fatal. Domain knowledge and genre matter. It is true that every once in a while, an outsider shows up with an idea that nobody on the inside ever thought of. This is not usually what happens. What usually happens is someone who has good taste decides to be willing to be creative. Good taste means knowing what your audience wants ten minutes before they do. You can't have good taste without good domain knowledge and understanding of genre. 

Genre means what am I expecting when I encounter your work. For a book, it's the section of the bookshelf where it's located. We don't know what to do with a creative idea that doesn't rhyme with anything else. Genre says there is a box and you can't see outside the box, but once you know the box you can move along the edges.

Creativity is a generous act. Get out of your own way. Don't ask for a guarantee. Merely ship the work without drama and without dialogue.