Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin encouraged me and showed me how to work and live differently. The book is not so much a manual as it is a guide from a sage leader, words that inspire, elicit hope, and compel you to do what you were made to do.
In the book, Seth shows us how to rescue ourselves from our own personal Babylon (where we’ve been held captive by the promise of an easier existence instead of a more challenging, meaningful, and ultimately better life). But we can’t leave that place unless we rethink how we do things, how we dream about and navigate the future, and how we connect with each other.
Background: Make yourself indispensable, rather than interchangeable, for career security
Through stories, case studies, explanations, and elaborations, Seth tells readers how to do work that is meaningful and, at the same time, become linchpins, people indispensable to an organization. This process involves taking calculated risks, making moves that are not necessarily outlandish but are out of the ordinary. He argues that not taking risks, not speaking up, not standing out can be more detrimental to our personal and professional worth than trying to fit in and simply do what we are told by bosses, committees, etc.
The foundation of his argument is the fundamental shift in the workplace economy. For the past several generations, a worker could hold a decent-paying job by following instructions as an employee or giving instructions as a boss in exchange for relative job security. But the combination of automation, outsourcing, and the nearly universal race to produce widgets more efficiently and cheaply reduced the value of just showing up for work.
Seth proclaims the demise of the old and emergence of the new and points to the path that we should take now: “It’s futile to work hard at restoring the take-care-of-you bargain. The bargain is gone, and it’s not worth whining about and it’s not effective to complain. There’s a new bargain now, one that leverages talent and creativity and art more than it rewards obedience.”
To become a valued professional — whether at work, church, or the community — now means contributing unique insights, being willing to try creative approaches to problems, sensing and tackling new opportunities. And, while this approach is more challenging, it is also more rewarding and personally meaningful. Throughout his book, Seth shows how to adopt this new way of viewing and dealing with reality.
Lessons: Take these steps to transform your work
There’s not a formula for transforming yourself from a replaceable cog to a linchpin indispensable to businesses, organizations, groups, and communities. But there are common signposts and pitfalls along the way.
About the time I read Linchpin, I began working on a project that allowed me to apply these concepts. Though I took many stumbles, I also learned to how to become someone valued not only for my insights but also for my willingness to express my thoughts and take steps on an unclear path toward an outcome I envisioned.
Looking back at my experience, I see that the lessons from the book could be translated into specific steps for transforming your work:
Recognize opportunities in the new reality
Start by recognizing the new economic reality (which applies not only to traditionally paid positions but also to entrepreneurial, freelance, and community leadership roles). You can no longer thrive simply by doing what you are told or what’s been done in the past, following the script, handling even high-level tasks routinely, however excellently you perform.
At the same time, there is more and more demand for people who bring unique perspectives to problems and dare to try new ways of doing things.
For example, if you have performed administrative work in the past, you may be frustrated that routine duties can be more cheaply outsourced to a virtual assistant. At the same time, though, the digital services now allow you to distribute content or sell a handcrafted product to a worldwide audience with very little overhead.
To transform your work and its impact, recognize opportunities made possible by the new reality, not just as an entrepreneur but also as an employee and community leader.
Decide to make a difference
Working differently and making a difference in the world is a choice. (It’s a difficult one, but one nonetheless.)
It feels safer to follow the old rules, whether or not this method is still effective. You can easily fool yourself into thinking that doing more yourself, getting more people involved, shouting louder, more strictly enforcing rules, etc. will yield the right results. But very often, situations continue to deteriorate, relationships fall apart, customers still aren’t satisfied.
You can push more diligently in the same direction. Or, you can take a new approach based on the new reality and the emerging opportunities.
Changing the world, your workplace, or your workstation doesn’t happen because of a convergence of outside influences. It happens because you decide you are willing to be part of a different type of future.
It’s hard to describe but when you reject the follow-the-rules mentality and embrace the let’s-see-what’s-possible reality, the fork in the road and the path you should take often becomes much clearer.
Confront fear and anxiety
Daring to work differently requires confronting fear and anxiety. Seth explains that the linchpin (the person who does highly specialized, meaningful work that resonates with people and results in positive change) “feels the fear, acknowledges it, then proceeds” in contrast to how most people react, which is to stop doing whatever causes them to be afraid.
Often our fear sensors go into overdrive at the slightest discomfort or lack of guarantee that a project will work, an idea will be accepted, etc. Seth suggests that the inner resistance living inside what he calls our “lizard brain,” whatever signaled danger to our ancestors in prehistoric times, still triggers the alarm when we dare to challenge the status quo or attempt a task where standard metrics don’t apply.
Note that you should be fearless or “unafraid of things that one shouldn’t be afraid of,” not reckless. For example, a fearless person finds a way to live comfortably off the electrical grid or commercializes renewable energy products for the consumer market whereas a reckless person disregards procedures at the nuclear power plant.
In addition to fear, we must also learn to live with anxiety, which is less tangible though often more crippling than fear. Seth describes anxiety as “the exaggeration of the worst possible what-if, accompanied by self-talk that leads to the relentless minimization of the actual odds of success.” As you seek to perform meaningful work and make a difference, acknowledge anxiety but don’t fuel its flame or even seek reassurance. Just keep pressing forward.
Be willing to do the emotional labor and heavy (mental) lifting that instigates change
To change the world, you need to make art (defined by Seth as “a personal gift that changes the recipient”).
Making art requires emotional labor, not simply physical effort or even mental concentration. Emotional labor involves taking the risk to reveal part of yourself in a way that resonates with another person or an audience. Such art could be a great novel that causes readers to reexamine their lives or a genuine handshake that makes a stranger feel welcome. If no one reads your book or if the stranger still feels uncomfortable, then you haven’t created “art” as defined in the book. However, evaluating what went wrong can help you refine your approach and connect the next time.
In addition to emotional labor, art-making involves exercising a unique talent and domain knowledge along with the ability to improve based on feedback. These activities involve deep thought processes, not the superficial ones we often employ as we glide through our daily lives.
For example, a chef who creates recipes and prepares memorable meals for guests is an artist, while a cook who follows a recipe is not; a scientist who designs experiments leading to a disease’s cure that relieves suffering is an artist, while the assistant who adheres to lab procedures is not.
Move forward without a map
To make a difference, to achieve different (and better!) results, to change the lives of your customers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, and/or small-group participants, you often have to create your own road-map to take your company, your community, or your church from its present situation to a better future.
Most of us have been taught (in school and on the job) how to read a map or follow instructions, but what we need to do now is create new instructions. Map-making is much harder than map-reading, both mentally and emotionally, so you shouldn’t be surprised when you see few people taking this route. As Seth explains, “Working without a map involves both vision and the willingness to do something about what you see.”
The idea isn’t just to go find a situation where you don’t have to follow the rules but instead 1) bring your unique passion and desire to connect with people in a way that is not prescribed by the manual; 2) achieve results in situations where the old methods are no longer working; or 3) take advantage of a market opportunity (which could be a commercial enterprise but may also be a community project) that is so new there are no standards to follow.
One of the difficulties here is that those without maps have no guarantees that they’ll get where they want to go. Worse, those who decide to take steps that aren’t in the manual can’t blame the system for their failures. But eventually, you’ll learn to design a map to go where others have not dared to travel or develop instructions that achieve the outcomes no one else can claim.
Even though doing things without a map sounds scary, moving forward requires simply taking the first step and doing what is within your grasp, which is often more meaningful and creates more impact than you might imagine.
Choose the right opportunities
When you start seeing possibilities and begin working differently (and more effectively and in a way that touches others), more and more opportunities tend to surface. Then, you must decide where to focus your expertise and emotional labor.
Seth provides insights into this decision: “The challenge is understanding when our effort can’t possibly be enough, and in choosing projects and opportunities that are most likely to reward the passion we bring to a situation…There’s a difference between passively accepting every element of your environment (and thus missing opportunities to exploit) and being wise enough to leave the unchangeable alone, or at least work around it.”
The timing may not be right for one project due to the mindsets of those involved but may be ripe for another. Using your best judgment (which is different than looking into a crystal ball), what do you think will bear the most fruit (and bring the most joy)? Start there.
Ship (finish and send the project)
Shipping, actually finishing the project, publishing the blog post, making the important phone call, staging the event, starting the group, etc. is crucial to making a difference (and being a linchpin). This part sounds obvious but I have noticed that many people often have big ideas they never carry to fruition. They let urgent matters dominate, they blame lack of buy-in from another group, they get scared of others’ reactions, etc. Some are perfectionists who don’t want to ship something that isn’t perfect (and hasn’t been checked and rechecked a zillion times).
Though you should strive for excellence, you can’t let the goal of perfection paralyze you from shipping. Seth elaborates: “Sometimes, shipping feels like a compromise. You set out to make a huge difference, to create art that matters, and to do your best work. Then a deadline arrives and you have to cut it short.”
Still, regular, consistent shipping transforms your work by 1) instilling discipline in the creative process; 2) getting you accustomed to putting yourself and your ideas in front of people; and 3) helping you learn personal techniques for getting faster and better (not so you can rush but so you can avoid stalling).
The idea is not that you should send shoddy work but that people can’t be changed by something you never deliver, no matter how brilliant or stunning.
How have I applied the ideas from Linchpin? First, I spent a couple of years developing a new strategic plan for my church. Next, I headed up a team to create a small-group ministry. Through this process, I met with folks who had developed small group ministries and small groups at other churches, which gave me tremendous insights into dealing with opportunities and obstacles along the way. Now, I’m developing Bible study resources to put into practice some of the things I’ve learned about connecting with people, applying scripture to day-to-day living, growing in faith, and building community.