Brain Pickings

Seth Godin on Vulnerability, Creative Courage, and How to Dance with the Fear: A Children’s Book for Grownups

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“If you just pick one human you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.”

At the 2014 HOW conference, Debbie Millman, host of the excellent interview show Design Matters and a remarkable mind, sat down with the prolific Seth Godin to discuss courage, anxiety, change, creative integrity, and why he got thrown out of Milton Glaser’s class. She used an unusual book of Godin’s as the springboard for their wide-ranging conversation: V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone (public library) — an alphabet book for grownups illustrated by Hugh MacLeod with a serious and rather urgent message about what it means and what it takes to dream, to live with joy, to find our purpose and do fulfilling work.

I had the pleasure of seeing and recording the conversation — transcribed highlights below.

On how moving away from the economy of scarcity is changing the motives for making books:

[You used to] create an item that is scarce, and that thing that you created that is scarce has value because it’s scarce and you can sell it. In the world we live in now, none of those things are true — we don’t know the people that made the internet, we don’t have to pay them. And we type something, or we design something, and it can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, if it spreads. That’s a whole new way to think about how we make things. So why bother making a book, ever again? What’s the point, if can reach ten times as many people with a blog post as will ever read one of my books? … If I’m going to make a book, there’d better be a reason experientially.

On why he used the format of a children’s book to shake grownups into absorbing a serious message:

I wanted to capture the way [that] I felt as a three-year-old when my mom read me a book. I wanted to capture the way, as a parent, I felt when I read a book to my kids. And that feeling isn’t something we get when we hand a kid an iPad in a restaurant and say, “Don’t bother me.” Something magical happens when we read a book to a kid, when we’re read a book.

So I wanted to steal that feeling — that’s why the format looks like a kids’ book, so that I could get to that part of your head that’s pre-cynical, the part of your head that isn’t yet afraid of what other people are going to think of you, the part of your head that has the bravery to do this work that matters. If I can steal that and get in, that’s my goal.

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you'll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn't make you better.

On what telling ourselves that we’re limited in our work by faulty others — crappy clients, bad bosses — is really about:

My thesis of humanity is that we are not squirrels. If you watch squirrels in the fall, they all do the same thing — they hide the acorns and stuff, they never help each other out, and they don’t do anything non-squirrel-like. They’re just squirrels — that’s their job. We’re beyond that, I would hope. And if we’re spending a lot of time in squirrel-like behavior, we’re selling ourselves short.

There are so many people in this world that don’t have the leverage and the trust and the promise that we’re lucky enough to be born with. With got this huge head-start, and to use it just to hide acorns feels to me like a cop-out.

When we see the designers that we admire and the people that we look up to, they also have lousy clients. They also have bosses that are pushing them to fit in — but they refuse. Because it’s hard to refuse, and that’s the work. The work isn’t kerning — everyone here knows how to kern… Kerning just gets done for you — that’s not the craft. The craft is looking the client in the eye and saying “No” — that’s the part that computers are never going to be able to do for us.

Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we've made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we've given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.

On anxiety and Steven Pressfield’s notion of the Resistance in creative work and the value of being disagreeable — for the right reasons — in the client business:

The discipline … is to first understand that “No” might mean you want to make art, but “no” might also mean you’re hiding — that being disagreeable is a perfect way to hide from criticism, because if you’re disagreeable enough, you won’t have any customers, you won’t have to do anything scary… I think we have to be disagreeable in the service of the client, not disagreeable in the service of the Resistance — that when we’re being disagreeable, we’re doing it on behalf of the client achieving more — not our ego achieving more, not us being more famous, but the client getting more of what he or she wants. That means you have to pick clients not who pay, but who want the things that you want.

Quality, like feedback, is a trap. To focus on reliably meeting specifications (a fine definition of quality) is to surrender the real work, which is to matter. Quality of performance is a given, it's not the point.

A beautiful definition of design:

Design, at its core, thrives when a human being cares enough to do work that touches another — it doesn’t thrive when it gets more “efficient.”

On how what to do, as creative people, when our amphibian brain begins to whisper into our mind’s ear every possible disaster scenario and assuring us of our prospective failure:

That is what we do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

On reconciling making art with making a living and how the sacrifices that art necessitates clash with our chronic discomfort with uncertainty, using Patti Smith’s time as a starving artist as a humbling example:

There’s a collision of the cultural and the Resistance and many other things, which is: “I would like to make art, but I’d like to do it while making a steady income, and I want to make sure that steady income is respected by everyone around me and has no uncertainty associated with it.” Well, there’s a good reason not a lot of people make art, and that’s one of them. If you read Patti Smith’s book about her and Robert [Mapplethorpe] called Just Kids … she was homeless for years — HOMELESS! — living on bread from the garbage can, sleeping in the park, to make her art. And what’s fascinating about the first third of the book is never once does she say, “I’m a homeless person.” She says, “I’m an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.” She’s on her way to being an artist and the homelessness is a temporary moment…

But what the industrial economy seduced us into believing is that the deal was simple: You work your day doing something you’re not proud of, and you decompress at night with television and whisky, and on weekends you can go for a run. Right? Do that forever, and forty years from now you’re dead — that’s the deal. And we sold that deal to a lot of people.

Gifts are the essence of art. Art isn't made as part of an even exchange, it is your chance to create imbalance, which leads to connection. To share your art is a requirement of making it.

On the difference between those who want more and aren’t getting it and those who want more and do get it:

It’s back to this idea of what are we truly afraid of. I am more afraid of settling — I am more afraid of not giving what I can give — than I am afraid of doing it. And so when we’re sitting quietly, there’s a debate we have to have with ourselves all the time, which is: “What is my work?” And if “My work is to have more impact,” I don’t think we start by asking — I think we start by giving… Once you get hooked on that, culturally, then doors open — doors open because your work precedes you. You are your work — not your resume, but the ruckus you have made before, the people you have touched before…

Can you name someone who has built a life around that who’s a failure? I can’t!

Zabaglione is a delightful Italian dessert consisting mostly of well-whipped foam. It takes a lot of effort to make by hand. Each batch comes out a little different from the previous one. It's often delicious. It doesn't last long. It's evanescent. And then you have to (get to) make another batch.

On creative courage — something Millman herself has addressed beautifully — culminating with an exquisite addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

The full conversation is well worth listening to, and V is for Vulnerable is an unusual delight in its entirety.

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