Accepting Limits

by johnmccreery

It’s absurd to look at a three year old toddler and say, “this kid can’t read or do math or even string together a coherent paragraph. He’s a dolt and he’s never going to amount to anything.” No, we don’t say that because we know we can teach and motivate and cajole the typical kid to be able to do all of these things.

Why is it okay, then, to look at a teenager and say, “this kid will never be a leader, never run a significant organization, never save a life, never inspire or create…”

Just because it’s difficult to grade doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught.

Never mind a teenager. I think it’s wrong to say that about someone who’s fifty.

Isn’t it absurd to focus so much energy on ‘practical’ skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?

And isn’t it even worse to write off a person or an organization merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?

I didn’t write that. Seth Godin did. But it says so well what I take to be one of my most fundamental beliefs that I just had to pass it on. I wonder how others will feel about it.

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70 Comments to “Accepting Limits”

  1. The most challenging people I’ve dealt with are people who kind of set up their own obstacles. Frex, I knew someone in pastry school who declared that it would be easiest (and she would much prefer) to marry someone of her own cultural/ethnic background, AND that no men from her cultural/ethnic background would want her, because she was in her 30s and, according to said background, therefore Too Old. And, yes, she wanted a relationship. But she had just made it impossible to actually find someone. I’ve known other people who do similar calculations, and I kind of throw up my hands (after gently pointing out the conundrum, if that seems warranted, I know the person well enough, etc.).

    It’s possible that someone will overcome that kind of obstacle-creation behavior, but I’ve come to believe that, for many people, it’s hard-wired, at least as much as the ability to do other kinds of things is. I suppose I could be wrong, however.

  2. There is, however, some such word as “can’t”.

  3. Narya, I knew someone like that too. She wanted a relationship, and she had a list of all the things she wanted in her mate. By the bottom of the list you knew she was either going to die alone or tear up the list.

    Dominic, this was my thought also. Obviously my cat can’t drive my car. Slightly less obviously, my friend’s daughter with Down syndrome will never run a significant organization, much as she lights up any room she’s in. If we accept that she is not off the scale of human ability but rather occupies a spot on a continuum, there will be many others less obviously disqualified who nevertheless are not going to be President no matter what.

    And of course there are structural reasons outside the scope of individual capacity why not everyone who in principle could be President and whatnot will be. The occupational distribution requires more followers than leaders, and the leaders are mostly going to be drawn from the ranks and progeny of entrenched elites. This being the case, it would be an insane waste of resources to educate everyone to the skills and dispositions of leadership. Understanding and managing this basic structural fact of class societies is the genius of Confucianism.

    But sure, in principle I’m all for teaching people as long as they keep learning, even if what that means in practice is making them more and more ill-suited to their actual lives.

  4. Sure is. As a professional propagandist myself, I have to admire a master of the art. (Seems like a pretty good guy, too. How many academics do you know who would get together a bunch of friends to contribute to a book and give all the royalties to charity? Check out The Big Moo.)

  5. structural reasons outside the scope of individual capacity

    Yes – exactly. Really like this paragraph Carl.

    Understanding and managing this basic structural fact of class societies is the genius of Confucianism.

    Yes – and it’s also what texts like Godin’s are doing – presenting an ideology of the possibility of individual self-achievement and self-realisation, the erasure of structural limits rather than the acceptance of them – except when those limits diagnose individuals’ failure to become sufficiently self-creative and inspiring – like the judgement of the market, which alone can tell the pious creative entrepreneur capitalist whether they are the best in the world, or whether only their soccer coaches care about them.

    So just like Confucianism regulating the behaviour of the mandarin class there’s a management of aspiration and conformity here, the creation of an ethic helpful to the stable continuation of the social space, to the benefit of those creative individuals who by sheer self-reinvention and spit-balling blue-sky purple-cow thinking can make the gods of the market smile upon them and judge them good.

  6. Sorry – posts crossed.

  7. As a professional propagandist myself, I have to admire a master of the art.

    Yes, exactly. I don’t know his stuff, just clicked across to his website, but I’d imagine this is part of why he’s popular – he narrativises his own position, and his own relation to his audience, so even when people know he’s making things up or concealing things we can see this as part of his skill set, something we’re here to learn from and should respect.

  8. Just curious. What do you think that he’s making up or concealing?

  9. This being the case, it would be an insane waste of resources to educate everyone to the skills and dispositions of leadership.

    How about the way that the military does it, educating for followership, then identifying and bringing along leaders as they distinguish themselves by their performance?

  10. What Carl said – he’s repackaging structural impediments as individual opportunities and failures.

  11. Successful marketers don’t tell the truth. They don’t talk about features or even benefits. Instead, they tell a story. A story we want to believe.

    This in a book called “All Marketers Are Liars” with a picture of him on the front with a long Pinocchio nose. Then:

    Marketers succeed when they tell us a story that fits our worldview, a story that we intuitively embrace and the share with our friends. Think of the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the iPod. Marketers fail when they are selfish and scurrilous, when they abuse the tools of their trade and make the world worse. Think of telemarketers and Marlboro.

    This is what I mean when I talk about his self-narrativising. What he means, of course, is that marketers fail when they don’t sell their product. There are two texts – the text in which he tells us that marketers are liars and that he’s an arch liar. Then the text in which he tells us that successful marketing is about not being selfish and scurrilous, being altruistic and generous. So he tells us that the skill he’s going to teach us is how to tell lies that people want to hear – then he tells us that this skill we’re learning is altruistic and generous and good. So there are two responses we can have – and can have simultaneously. A cynical response where we see that the narrative he’s presenting us with about marketing is an example of a deceitful marketing narrative – a narrative we, as marketers or would be marketers, want to hear about our profession and our lives; and we can learn from this example, cynically. On the other hand, we can take the lies about what success in marketing consists in as true, in which case marketing has been successfully marketed to us, we’ve been told a story we want to hear. And in practice we can move back and forth between these subject-positions in relation to Godin’s text – one moment seeing him as taking us behind the scenes of the lie, the next moment being reassured by the lie, which is no longer a lie.

  12. How many academics do you know who would get together a bunch of friends to contribute to a book and give all the royalties to charity?

    What royalties? 😛

  13. Duncan, that’s a lovely piece of analysis. Thank you.

    If I were to pick a nit, it would be that setting up the dilemma as a contradiction between “selfish and scurrilous” and “altruistic and generous” may not be an accurate depiction of what marketers do. There is a whole range of situations between the extremes of the classic snake-oil salesman and, for example, Steve Jobs insisting on the refinements that distinguish an iPod from a Zune or a MacBook Pro from an equivalently priced WinTel laptop. It is perfectly possible to be selfish, in the sense of wanting to corner a market and become rich, and also altruistic, in the sense of insisting on doing so by delivering a genuinely superior product. There is also the observation that every truly innovative product begins as an untried idea, and is, thus, at least in the early stages of development a fiction in which those who invest in and produce it are invited to believe. The fact that the great majority of untried ideas fail is not, ipso facto, evidence that those who promoted them were scurrilous and deliberate liars.

    Re the royalties, The Big Moo has, I believe sold several thousand copies, perhaps even several tens of thousands of copies. Godin is, after all, a marketing genius. And part of the pitch was that every bit of profit from the book would go to charity, which I myself found appealing enough that I bought two copies, one for me and one for my daughter.

  14. setting up the dilemma as a contradiction between “selfish and scurrilous” and “altruistic and generous”

    Yes I agree sorry – I just thought Godin’s text was deploying (then withdrawing) the opposition – I don’t think it’s a very productive starting point.

    Re the royalties, The Big Moo has, I believe sold several thousand copies

    Yeah it was a hit I think. Misfired joke: I meant the hypothetical academic publication. How many academic edited volumes generate enough royalties that giving them to charity would do better than an office whip-round?

  15. It is perfectly possible to be selfish, in the sense of wanting to corner a market and become rich, and also altruistic, in the sense of insisting on doing so by delivering a genuinely superior product

    Yeah but Godin fudges it by equivocating around the word ‘success’. Of course one can be a success in the sense of generating big profts for your employer and also a success in the sense of leading a triumphant life in which you are admired and respected by all or all who count among the creative cognoscenti and also a success in the sense of making people’s lives better with the product your work persuades them to purchase. But there’s no particular reason why these things should go together and in fact there are plenty of common scenarios in which these things would tend actively to conflict. It’s the structural tendencies towards the creation and recreation of these situations that are one of the things Godin’s ideological product conceals.

  16. Marketers succeed when they tell us a story that fits our worldview, a story that we intuitively embrace and the share with our friends. Think of the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the iPod. Marketers fail when they are selfish and scurrilous, when they abuse the tools of their trade and make the world worse. Think of telemarketers and Marlboro

    I mean it’s a false opposition, self-evidently – as he knows and his readers know and he knows his readers know, etc. Marlboro advertising didn’t create a story that we intuitively embrace? Of course it did. Triumphantly so.

  17. setting up the dilemma as a contradiction between “selfish and scurrilous” and “altruistic and generous” may not be an accurate depiction of what marketers do

    Yeah I mean that’s right, definitely, because it’s not as if every business is an individual – one works for a firm to market a product, usually, it’s not a matter of selfish or unselfish, it’s a matter of doing one’s job. Which is another thing Godin fudges because he acts – as a lot of these sorts of business books do – as if he’s addressing a self-made entrepreneur, or someone who could become a self-made entrepreneur, inventing and producing and marketing their product from scratch, it’s the free creative individual, spinning stories out of thin air that themselves create market power. Again, it sort of works as a description of his own written output, but it has much less purchase on the activities most of his readers will be engaged in, I think, except as aspirational literature.

  18. It’s the structural tendencies towards the creation and recreation of these situations that are one of the things Godin’s ideological product conceals.

    Conceals? Or simply takes for granted? I ask because the classic demystification move begins from the assumption that something is either suppressed or repressed, i.e., actively concealed for some ulterior reason. Why not, barring specific evidence to the contrary, simply observe that this or that is taken as given?

  19. Well it’s both. He takes it for granted while smudging over its consequences. So you can read it as either knowing or naive, and it functions because you can shift registers.

  20. Again, I find your analysis compelling. My only concern is with the use of terminology, in this case “smudging over,” that suggests an active attempt to deceive and constitutes an ad hominem attack.

    I do not, I hasten to add, automatically reject ad hominem attacks. After all, in The Rhetoric Aristotle takes the character of a speaker to be a major consideration, along with facts and logic and the skillful use of tropes, in deciding whether an argument is persuasive. In this case, however, I have been reading Godin for several years, during which I have never once seen him recommend cutting corners, fiddling the books, or any other form of cheating. On the contrary, he is, on my reading, a consistent advocate of providing better-than-expected products and better-than-expected service. Not infrequently, what he says rises to the level that I would call wisdom. So to me these particular ad hominem attacks detract from–rather than adding to–an analysis I otherwise like a great deal.

  21. I mean I’ve only read a few bits and pieces of his books that’re available online & looked quickly at his blogs – like I say, I didn’t know his work before – but the subject-position he assumes for his reader – or rather the options of subject-position he provides for his reader, sells to his reader – are silly and wrong.

    My favourite line from my favourite reviewer:

    The one possible weakness of this otherwise terrific little volume is that it is aimed solely at people who are creative, intelligent and want to succeed. Those who are mediocre, unmotivated or just coasting through life will probably not get much from Godin. He is not an elitist, but his message is squarely aimed at those who want to succeed or at least achieve excellence.

    Of course it’s elitist – it’s pristinely elitist, but it’s a populist elitism that asks you, the reader, to imagine yourself as part of an elite, as one of the elect, one of those who has the creativity and the will and the ingenuity to succeed in a world that is simultaneously brutal (mercilessly punishing those without the adequate creativity and will – if the market doesn’t like the product you’re selling, too bad) and your oyster, laid out before you, malleable to your dreams and fictitious narratives (as long as you are one of the elect, capable of moving markets with the power of words and images.) Anyone is capable of being one of the elect – all you need to do is exercise your creativity and will, so it sells itself as being a hospitable world-view, giving a helping hand to all, as in the quote in the OP – but of course it isn’t, because in practice only a minority – a tiny minority – will become members of the elect, and this is so necessarily, structurally, because we’re talking about marketing and competition. So yes, Godin knows this – it’s what he’s selling, this knowledge – but he’s selling it, as he advises marketers to do, by presenting it packaged in a narrative that we intuitively embrace and share with our friends (like you shared his blog post), that makes us feel good and feel good about the product.

  22. I don’t know if it’s ad hominem exactly – like we said above, it’s his job, it’s a role that he’s good at, successful at, I don’t know what he’s like in person, it’s not really about selfish or altruistic for instance.

  23. I mean he doesn’t come across as a nasty guy to me, from what I’ve read, if I suggested that. And I’d certainly rather see the pitch take this form, rather say a direct celebration of the impediments we’re talking about.

  24. [“…rather than say…”]

  25. the subject-position he assumes for his reader – or rather the options of subject-position he provides for his reader, sells to his reader – are silly and wrong.

    Here we reach a genuine disagreement, which, I suspect, reflects our life situations. I am, in many respects, an ideal reader for Godin, an owner-partner in a small company (myself, my spouse, and two Japanese associates) that has prospered since 1984 by doing business along the lines that Godin advocates. As a result, I find the subject position that you describe as silly and wrong entirely congenial, even aspirational. What appears silly and wrong to me is the situation in which too many of my friends, both in academia and business find themselves, with their livelihoods and quality of life dependent on bosses who can take it all away from them or make their lives miserable if they want to keep their jobs. To operate a small business with a dozen or so happy clients, none of whom accounts for more than 20% of the business, and a good reputation that generates occasional referrals is, even in a recession, a much happier place to be.

  26. Awesome conversation. Just some stray thoughts to offer:

    “How about the way that the military does it, educating for followership, then identifying and bringing along leaders as they distinguish themselves by their performance?”

    Well as you know, this only makes sense in a ‘citizen’ military that has been decoupled from the historic roots of class dominance in the monopoly on violence expertise. Even so, until recently there were two tracks, the academy track (largely the preserve of a fraction of the service bourgeoisie) and the enlisted track (proles all). The recruitment problems caused by the conjuncture of a ‘volunteer’ military and an unpopular war have relaxed the entry barriers from enlisted to officer significantly, but there’s nothing permanent about that. Anyway, I like the model you describe, but want to further note that unless we take leadership distinction to be a matter of personal charisma, educating for followership is going to tend to create (reinforce) followers out of everyone who is not already imbued with the habitus of leadership, i.e. existing elites.

    The slip for me in conversations like this is between admiration for especially effective and humane ways to manage existing structural facts, and criticism of those facts themselves.

    John, the problem with saying that imputation of intent to deceive is an ad hominem attack is that Godin has actively staked out that ground of intentional deception as his expertise, and further smudged it by sliding back and forth between the goffmanian front stage and back stage, as he himself says and Duncan diagnoses. What this means is that he becomes a quintessentially unreliable narrator of his own practice and intent.

  27. Yeah that sounds cool – nice one.

    I didn’t mean that the subject-position of being a successful entrepreneur or marketer is silly or wrong, though, or that it’s impossible to achieve. I’m sure his own advice works for Godin, too. I meant that Godin, like a lot of aspirational business-text writers, is selling a dual subject-position – he’s selling an aspiration to success (like the success you’ve achieved) which he knows and says repeatedly can only be achieved by a few, as a mass-market, or at least a large-market, product. His skill is in making the fact that most people are going to fail in – or never be in the running for – the kinds of endeavours he’s talking about, palatable to the very audience who’ll be failing. That’s why it’s aspirational. He’s selling the fact that the odds are against you as a self-esteem boosting motivational product by saying, in lots of different ways, that you could be one of the ones who succeeds. And it’s ideological and a diversion because its aim is to make you, the reader, like the fact that most people fail: if most people didn’t fail, we, I, Godin’s reader, wouldn’t be (potentially) one of the elect who succeeds. It is the failure he’s selling – the fact that others must lose if you are to win. Selling and simultaneously concealing, because his rhetoric has that populist, everyman implication – no elitism here – as if the fact that anyone (any individual) could succeed also means that everyone could, if only they weren’t so mediocre, unmotivated, unintelligent, coasting through life – failing, not creative, not wealthy, just because they can’t be bothered, because they don’t have that divine spark of invention like Godin and (we, the readers, hope) us.

  28. the same thing happens to people who dream of the untold riches and power that accrue to the CeO of a fortune 500 company. Private jets, fancy country clubs, unchecked decision-making power. Who wouldn’t want to live like modern-day royalty? Of course, if you look at the résumé of a typical CeO, you’ll see that he endured a twenty-fve-year dip before landing the job. for a quarter of a century, he needed to suck it up, keep his head down, and do what he was told. He needed to hit his num-bers, work longer hours than everyone else, and kiss up to his boss of the moment. day in and day out, year after year. It’s easy to be a CeO. What’s hard is getting there. There’s a huge dip along the way. If it was easy, there’d be too many people vying for the job and the CeOs couldn’t get paid as much, could they? Scarcity, as we’ve seen, is the secret to value. If there weren’t a dip, there’d be no scarcity

    SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DON’T JUST RIDE OUT THE DIP. THEY DON’T JUST BUCKLE DOWN AND SURVIVE IT. NO, THEY LEAN INTO THE DIP. THEY PUSH HARDER.

  29. Oh sorry Carl crossed posts again.

  30. I mean I say it’s a large market he’s got but he’s not selling books to the proles, he’s selling to professionals, marketers, middle-management I guess, I’d be interested to know exactly who’s buying the stuff. He’s got his (large) niche – which is people who are successful, take home a decent salary, but not super-successful, not the CeOs, and he makes his audience feel good about their success (it’s well deserved, because it comes from that creative spark and will), while also very overtly and directly saying that what it really means to have that creative spark and will (it’s like Weber’s Protestant Ethic – you’ve either got it or you don’t, but the only way to reassure yourself you’ve got it is to keep on trucking) is to aim for the top, to be the very best, to keep on scrambling, and to keep on kissing up to the boss of the moment. He’s selling an ethic, essentially, which is aspirational and motivating and values originality above all else but also conformity to the demands of the workplace and which very clearly says that those who are less successful than you are less successful because of their mediocrity, while simultaneously inviting you to adopt the subject position of the CeO, the boss of the world, as the future point of view from which your own current more subordinate subject-position can be validated.

    Sticking with something just so you can be mediocre at it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    Being average is for losers.

    [The link’s to Scribd]

  31. Yeah, Duncan, I think the key point where we’re converging (love the Protestant Ethic line, by the way) is the selling of a system-enabling ideology of unlimited opportunity in a structural context where opportunities are in fact quite limited. And what’s ugly about that is how it shifts blame for failure from structural bottlenecks to individual inadequacies; while valorizing the successful in a way that never asks them to think about the costs of the system that worked for them.

    So when Godin says above “Isn’t it absurd to focus so much energy on ‘practical’ skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?” this is a classic bait-and-switch, because those practical skills are in fact the fate of the vast majority of humans in class societies, regardless of how we focus our educational energy. Even though I prefer to teach as if that isn’t true.

  32. And what’s ugly about that is how it shifts blame for failure from structural bottlenecks to individual inadequacies; while valorizing the successful in a way that never asks them to think about the costs of the system that worked for them.

    My God, we have, indeed, come to the heart of the matter, an ancient complaint. The successful must be damned as callous and uncaring. How else can the unsuccessful accept their mediocrity or worse? Is this not just the other face of Calvin/Weber? If you are among the damned, there can only be wailing and gnashing of teeth and abiding resentment of the saved — and with that emotional work done, resignation to powerlessness, which is right where the powers that be want you to be. Actually listen to someone who says, if you don’t resign yourself to your fate, there are things you might be able to do, even in the face of real obstacles? Oh, no. Better to accept your place in the world. Get used to it. Your dreams? Just illusions, you know.

    And advocates of what exactly — I hear no call to strike, to man the barricades, or even to get out the vote–prattle about ideology? Are you not, dear friends, getting yourself into the position that Nietzsche ascribes to the Christians?

  33. P.S. There is no question about it. Few of us, not being saints, will accept Christ’s advice to the young rich man to whom he spoke of camels and needles, sell all that we have and give it to the poor. But to assume that we are unaware of the conditions that support our comforts. That seems pure presumption.

    P.P.S. How is what Godin does different from what the coach of a football team down 21-0 at the end of the first half does in the locker room. Should the coach be saying to his players, OK guys, we’re screwed, here are all the reasons why we are highly unlikely to win this thing?

  34. Thanks guys –

    a classic bait-and-switch

    Yeah, exactly, and like John says it’s also upfront about the likelihood of failure while inviting you to condemn that failure as a character flaw – condemn your own failure, or at least potential failure, and the failure of those who haven’t made it to middle management for instance, and condemn all this from the perspective of the billionaire CeO who has will enough and creativity to push through the Dip and realise his and your dreams.

    The successful must be damned as callous and uncaring. How else can the unsuccessful accept their mediocrity or worse?

    But the issue is with the characterisation of those who aren’t ‘number one’ – who aren’t successful, in this and maybe lots of other meanings of the term – as mediocrities and losers. This isn’t in the first place about whether those who aren’t members of the wealthy creative elite should accept their class positions – obviously I have my opinion, but like Carl says, that’s a practical issue and also a political one – so much as what that position is: loser? mediocrity? failure? Whose perspective and whose ethic is being adopted and advocated for here? Why are all the people in middle management roles who aren’t number one in their fields – let alone the billions of members of humanity who haven’t made middle management – why are these people losers & mediocrities for not achieving a success that necessarily and structurally can only be granted to a tiny minority? Why does it make any sense to make this into a personal issue, a question of ethical attitude, as Godin does? Why does it make any sense to condemn those who aren’t members of the creative elite as losers?

  35. How is what Godin does different from what the coach of a football team down 21-0 at the end of the first half does in the locker room

    I think it’s very similar, it’s a good analogy – the difference is that a football match is a cordoned off area of social life specifically oriented to playing a game, exploring competitive rivalry and team solidarity in the face of competitive rivalry, oriented to a very specific kind of success in a highly and overtly artificial social setting, where the consequences of success or failure may be large for the participants but are, in a literal sense, a game: play. There are of course professional football players but most people will be playing the game as a game, a hobby, a recreation, and will have chosen to play it because they want to participate in and explore and enjoy that form of social interaction, aware of the fact that only one team can win.

    Godin’s talking about workplaces – about what ethic or approach is appropriate to navigating the workplace. Many of us don’t have a choice about whether we work – it’s a necessity of life. What attitude should be adopted to this necessity? Should one sort the world into the saved and the damned, adopt a criteria of success in this area of life – an area of life that will occupy just a huge amount of one’s time and activity and emotional energy – … adopt a criteria of success and failure that presents workplace hierarchies as expressive of natural justice, the core creative spark that can be realised and validated in the marketplace, and condemn all those who cannot realise that spark, probably because as mediocrities and losers they don’t possess it, as failures? Is this a good ethic? It’ll work for some people, it works for you – but my suggestion is that in general it’s not the best way to approach the workplace, that it’s not uniquely adequate to the facts, that there are better ways.

  36. Are you not, dear friends, getting yourself into the position that Nietzsche ascribes to the Christians?

    Yes – and the correct response to that, imo, is not to say ‘oh noes! slave morality!’ but to say (rightly) that Nietzsche’s opposition between slave and master morality, like his opposition between ressentiment and overflowing abundant ubermenschian potency, is an incorrect opposition, an opposition flawed even on its own terms let alone on mine, and ideological like Godin.

  37. I mean Nietzsche is the locus classicus of this kind of move, and it’s not a coincidence that he’s politically repugnant. And of course the ‘slave morality’ that Nietzsche ascribes to Christianity is just as much a response to the labour movement politics of his time as it is to any actual Christians – when Nietzsche ridicules the idea of ‘dignity of labour’ because it is in the natural order of things for people, workers, to be crushed under the wheels of history, and this natural order should be celebrated – this is not an ethic or attitude I think we should be endorsing, or using as a pep talk to make our day in the office go more smoothly. There are more humane responses to these things, on an individual quite apart from a political level.

  38. […I mean Nietzsche’s ascription is a response…]

  39. “But to assume that we are unaware of the conditions that support our comforts. That seems pure presumption.”

    Careful with that we. What I said is that the ideology doesn’t ask for this awareness. That you have it is to your credit. That lots of successful people don’t is a matter of easy observation requiring no presumption.

    Anyway that’s a red herring. As Duncan says the bigger problem is all of those people who buy into the story and then don’t succeed. It seems to me the Tea Party movement is a pretty good example of what happens when structural limitations are personalized and aspirations are inevitably foiled. They were told if they tried hard they could have it all, it didn’t work out, someone must be to blame, and it for damn sure isn’t them.

  40. What a wonderful and, for me at least, educational conversation! To keep it going, allow me to continue to nit pick a bit.

    Why does it make any sense to make this into a personal issue, a question of ethical attitude, as Godin does? Why does it make any sense to condemn those who aren’t members of the creative elite as losers?

    The answer to the first question is, I believe, straightforward. Godin is presenting himself as a coach, as someone who helps others, what did the Army slogan say? “Be all that you can be.” The primary job of a coach is to motivate the people he is coaching, to get them to pick themselves up and stay in the game when they’ve just taken a hard knock or it looks like the other team’s day, to rethink what they’re doing and try something different. That is why it becomes a question of ethical attitude: “What are you — the individual I am talking to– going to do about this?”

    The answer to the second is that I don’t think it does make sense to characterize the unsuccessful as losers — unless this is part of the coach’s motivational spiel. Not wanting to be like them, whoever the “them” in question is is a powerful motivator. I should know. I owe a lot of my modest success to a fierce Oedipal rebellion that made me want to be as unlike my father and the jocks on my high school’s football team as I could possibly be.

    But one of the nice things I have learned by living and working in Japan is that success takes many forms. Not everybody gets to be a CEO or a billionaire. But lots of people get lots of satisfaction from trying to be very, very good at whatever they do–taking pride in crafts they have mastered. It’s cool to live in a place where ramen, sushi and pastry chefs and even “charisma sales clerks” are celebrated for displays of unusual skill. And this is one of the things I have noticed about Godin,too. His examples are frequently small restaurants or shops where people are doing something he considers remarkable. This makes me question the assumption you ascribe to him that only the billionaire CEO represents success and that only the perspective of the billionaire CEO counts.

    I also notice that, while you both refer constantly to middle management, you have never once, as far as I can see, referred to the entrepreneurs that Godin is urging his readers to emulate. You assume a “workplace” in which people are stuck in “jobs,” while Godin is saying, like the master of Zen he resembles, “Let that go. See what you can do.” He’s not saying that it will be easy or that your personal success, whatever that means to you, must be what someone else calls successful.

    Come to think of it, Zen meditation, Marine Corps basic training, SERE school, and building a business all have this in common. You will encounter dips, you will have to push through them. At the end of the day you can wind up feeling a lot better about yourself than the people who said that’s too hard and gave up. Ideology? Common sense? Both? What’s the difference?

  41. His examples are frequently small restaurants or shops where people are doing something he considers remarkable. This makes me question the assumption you ascribe to him that only the billionaire CEO represents success and that only the perspective of the billionaire CEO counts.

    Yes that’s right but the CEO is the paradigm. The imperative is: be the best in the world. He plays with this, toys with it, doesn’t qualify it, talks about CEOs and billionaires, does his aspirational stuff. Then he shifts – well of course everyone can’t be a billionaire (though wouldn’t it be awesome, just think about it, just imagine being in the jetsetting CEO’s shoes) – but if you think small enough there will be something you can be the best at. The advice is still operating in the space of the metaphorics of ‘king of the world!’ And it’s still based on the “mediocrity is for losers” idea, even when he gets modest.

  42. Part of the issue is that it’s deliberately unclear quite what level his advice is operating at. At one level he’s giving very specific kinds of advice: how to market products well, particularly if you are also in control of the invention and production of that product (small restaurant entrepreneur; self-released singer-songwriter albums; etc.) Some of that advice is, I’m sure, very good (though some of it seems to me obfuscatory and aspirational rather than realistic and helpful, even with regard to that more limited goal). But this bleeds constantly into a more general ethic – applicable not just to gaining a large enough market share for your self-produced product that you can reasonably be said to be, in the judgement of the market, the “best in the world” for your carefully chosen niche. He’s also offering general life lessons, applicable to the practice of Zen Buddhism as well as to building a successful restaurant business. Advice that may be good w/r/t the limited business task is really not good at all, in my judgement, when made into a life-ethic. And in fact it performs an ideological function within the general social space (like Confucianism).

    Being average is for losers

    That channels well the imperatives of capitalist free-market salesmanship: if you’re only average in the eyes of consumer demand relative to your competitors then it’s likely consumers will choose the alternative product over yours, and when times get tough if not before your business will be in trouble. But to phrase that practical challenge faced by business-owners and their employees as “being average is for losers”… this is icky, I think. Nietzschean.

  43. you assume a “workplace” in which people are stuck in “jobs,”

    Well this is the reality for most people. Structurally so. Who would you say Godin’s readers are, though? I don’t have a very close sense of this market, his consumers.

  44. His audience obviously includes entrepreneurs but again I feel it’s double voiced. It’s quite standard in the cultural space to offer the entrepreneur as an aspirational paradigm even to those with no realistic hope of becoming one or indeed desire to. It’s an ethic of ‘entrepreneurial’ endeavour rather than anything that has necessarily to be linked to occupying that actual social role. And this, too, is obfuscatory, because it involves a pretense of self-determination and self-control while actually insisting that what such self-determination involves is leaning into the big dip and working longer hours and kissing up to the boss.

  45. One of the things that suggesting to your readers that they occupy the ethical subject-position of the entrepreneur achieves, is eliding the fact that in fact most people are not in this empirical position. It asks you to occupy the subject position of those who own or at least control the means of production. To pretend, for motivational reasons, that you yourself are in this position.

    Or, if you are in this position, empirically, the text informs you that those who aren’t are average, mediocre, losers – that it’s their own fault that they haven’t ‘made it’, like you have.

    And if you aren’t in this position but want to be, it informs you that you might be a loser (again, like Calvinists might be damned): if you don’t eventually own or control the means of production it’s because you’re a loser, so you’ve got to try hard to get yourself into this social location, through capitalist struggle – rather than, say, disputing the ethical idea that this social location is in fact where value and worth reside, being “number one”.

  46. It seems to me the Tea Party movement is a pretty good example of what happens when structural limitations are personalized and aspirations are inevitably foiled.

    Yeah that sounds right, thanks Carl. I don’t have a good enough sense of what’s going on on the ground in the U.S. now. But I definitely think that this kind of ethic, which was really mainstreamed and made prominent with Reagan I think, to benefit the elite, is an important causal factor. The U.S. is unusual I guess because it has such a strong on-the-ground libertarian streak that is sincere: i.e. that isn’t just using ‘libertarian’ as a proxy for ‘capitalist’ but that really would be happy to build little communities in the middle of nowhere that are armed to the teeth and self-governing and in some ways self-sufficient (and they do). But that isolationist impulse has definitely intersected with this kind of capitalist ethic to make something really potent: it’s gotten out of the Republicans’ control – it’s no longer serving the elites. It’ll be interesting and potentially scary to see what happens next. But yeah, certainly I think part of the mess is an ethic similar in some ways to this one, with government as the only ‘structural’ impediment, which is therefore opposed. Perfect storm: the crisis & economic woes; the isolationist impulse; the ideology; and a black president releasing all the racist politics that the right have been stoking and successfully using for political gain for years.

  47. Hmm – on reflection, scratch what I said about the CEO perspective, sorry, that’s not really right. I think the rest stands.

  48. “The U.S. is unusual I guess because it has such a strong on-the-ground libertarian streak that is sincere: i.e. that isn’t just using ‘libertarian’ as a proxy for ‘capitalist’ but that really would be happy to build little communities in the middle of nowhere that are armed to the teeth and self-governing and in some ways self-sufficient (and they do). But that isolationist impulse has definitely intersected with this kind of capitalist ethic to make something really potent: it’s gotten out of the Republicans’ control – it’s no longer serving the elites.”

    Just wanted to underline this especially-fine piece of analysis among lots of such. I agree about the sincerity of folk libertarianism in the U.S., which is why although most of the other needles point to fascism right now I’m not actually worried about that. As you say, ‘government’ is the lone visible structure and therefore it must be resisted. And I agree that although it’s gotten assembled with elements of Reagan neo-liberalism, it’s not a proxy for capitalism nor really controllable by the Wall Street elite, despite the kneejerk marxoid optic wanting to see villainous Friedmans lurking behind every Bush. That Republican coalition is actually a big mess, as the varied reactions to Palin show.

    John, I agree with everything you’re saying. In a person-by-person, day-by-day sense Godin’s approach is admirable. I like people a lot better when they embrace their possibilities and make the most of their situations. Again, this is the genius of Confucianism, and as you say, Zen, both of which are philosophies that developed historically to create an ideological superstructure for class societies by aligning people’s energies, expectations and objective positions in a structural order. I think what’s different about Godin is that he has to drop that ethic into a situation it doesn’t fit, in which structural order exists but is denied, and therefore in which there’s no compelling account of why everything isn’t possible for the man who refuses to listen to reason.

  49. structural order exists but is denied

    Could you elaborate a bit on this? I am, of course, aware of the no social classes here, land of opportunity rhetoric I was taught in elementary school and the fact that in terms of actual social mobility rates the USA ranks below the UK and Europe. But, was it just because I grew up in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement in a heavily military community? I don’t recall ever being unaware of good, better and bad sorts of people, officers and enlisted, winners and losers. From being told to “remember the starving children in China” and clean my plate to consciousness of good and bad neighborhoods, good and bad schools, good and bad jobs, good and bad churches (We were Lutherans, and thus inherently better than superstitious Catholics and vulgar Baptists). It was always part of the impetus to work hard that you wanted to improve yourself and not wind up like “them.” Is “denied” the right word here when it comes to “structural order”?

  50. And this, too, is obfuscatory, because it involves a pretense of self-determination and self-control while actually insisting that what such self-determination involves is leaning into the big dip and working longer hours and kissing up to the boss.

    This statement is obfuscatory because it sets up a false contradiction between a “pretense of self-determination and self-control” and “leaning into the big dip and working longer hours and kissing up the boss.” It obscures the essential fact that structure, while real, is never all-controlling — even in high-security prisons there are options that can lead to the prison gym, the library or solitary confinement. And what does it counsel? If all we do is flip the terms of the objection we get, what? Giving up when you hit a setback? Slacking off? Being a pain in the ass and getting yourself fired?

    I agree absolutely that there are structural conditions that limit people’s possibilities and give others unfair advantages. But what then? Resistance? Reform? Revolution? To what end? And was anything ever achieved by resisters, reformers, or revolutionaries who weren’t willing to lean into the big dips, work harder than the opposition, and stroke potential allies and supporters when that was necessary?

    End of rant. Simple question. If not Godin, what?

  51. Carl –

    That Republican coalition is actually a big mess, as the varied reactions to Palin show.

    Yeah, you’ve got a division within the party, those pursuing or participating in this kind of Glenn Beck craziness, who’ve had the upper hand with opposition to the health bill for instance, and then there’s a pushback from the more realistic wing of the party. But I think there’s great fear about what happens if this on-the-ground stuff gets sufficiently detached from party policy.

    This is totally off topic, I’ve just been meaning to ask – I want to read some G.H.Mead: what would you recommend? Mind, Self and Society?. I found this fabulous online Mead resource, but now I’m spoilt for choice. Just asking ’cause I think I remember you mentioning that you’re a fan.

  52. John –

    But what then? Resistance? Reform? Revolution? To what end?

    Well that’s a bunch of political questions that probably take us too far afield from the topic at hand. (I don’t think one’s answer to those questions will be very strongly correlated with one’s attitude to Godin, so it’s probably a separate discussion.) For myself though: in a nutshell, I think that we (as a society) have sufficient resources, wealth and productive power that it would be possible to quite dramatically reduce the centrality of work to a huge number of people’s lives, as a matter of institutional reform; that this would enable people to aim to achieve the different kinds of fulfillment that a fair bit of Godin’s stuff gestures towards in social environments much more conducive to achieving such fulfillment; and that this would involve the ability to participate in different social ethics and draw on different motivational resources from those that Godin advocates, many of which alternative ethics could in my opinion be more generous and hospitable. Like Carl says though – structural reform is in many respects a separate issue from choices we make within existing structures. [That said, existing social structures are in the end just the sum of what we all do, so in that macro sense it’s the same question.]

  53. Well that’s a bunch of political questions that probably take us too far afield from the topic at hand.

    And that, my friend, is a cop-out. We’re going to slam Godin because he offers some hope and advice that we take to be ideological. But when push comes to shove, we’re going to wiggle away when the argument gets too close to that lowest of low-blow questions: can you offer a serious alternative?

    That said, the notion of dramatically reducing the centrality of work is an intriguing one. It is, among other things, a theme explored in classic science fiction, usually via a plot device in which robots do all the work and humans are left wondering what to do with themselves.

    Anyone up for examining the various dystopias found in works that range from Asimov’s robot series to Neil Asher’s Polity universe?

  54. Giving up when you hit a setback? Slacking off? Being a pain in the ass and getting yourself fired?

    All of these can be a good idea in different circumstances, yeah – though you want to be careful about getting fired if you don’t have anything to fall back on, obviously. (And if you do and you hate the job, usually better just to quit.) Slacking off can be a really good idea in lots of workplace situations, I think – a lot of jobs involve tons of guff that don’t really need to be done; but also lots of workplaces involve sort of unquenchable pressures towards productivity, and if you let those pressures push you to the limits of your abilities or stamina you’re going to have a miserable time of it: slacking off in strategic and often semi-sanctioned ways is a large part of how many people actually get through their days, I think. (Or they deal with it and do the work – but that’s not in and of itself an ethical virtue.) It’s like management texts say: a large part of the challenge of managing an organisation is getting staff to be as productive as you can: there’s a constant ebb and flow in most organisations between employees’ understandable desire to do less for the same pay, and management’s understandable desire for them to do more for the same pay (management, of course, channeling objective market pressures). One of the things that texts like Godin’s do is try to present the drive to productivity as an ethic, rather than as just an external pressure. Though like you say, in his advice he’s not necessarily pitching himself at this location in organisations. He’s got a slightly different audience and pitch from a lot of work-hard motivational literature.

  55. Sorry – comments crossed again.

    But when push comes to shove, we’re going to wiggle away when the argument gets too close to that lowest of low-blow questions: can you offer a serious alternative?

    No I answered the question – I gave a brief summary of my preference w/r/t macro-social alternatives. But I also pointed out that a discussion of such alternatives is largely a different conversation from this one about Godin – that’s all.

  56. usually via a plot device in which robots do all the work and humans are left wondering what to do with themselves.

    Yeah this always puzzles me a bit, this move – that we’ll suddenly run out of things to do if we don’t spend so much time working. Have humans ever lacked ability to invent a bunch of shit to occupy their time?

  57. Interesting that you use the phrase “bunch of shit.” Oh, what a utopia we envision, buried in growing piles of fecal matter.

    Also, FYI, I call your attention to this interesting item discovered by a quick Google search for “literature ennui boredom melancholy” by someone named Daniel Silver.

    Prolegemona to the Study of Boredom in Modern SocietiesDaniel Silver Prepared for the SSSA 2006. Working draft, not to be cited, even with the author’s permission. Introduction: On the Introduction of Boredom 1.1 The language and goals of political life have been shifting for some time now. Politicians and political theorists still discuss issues of labor, justice, class, and welfare state benefits. But these issues have been increasingly joined by traditionally aesthetic questions: how do political and social forms foster or stunt novelty, creativity, and contingency? What makes a city or nation bored and routinized rather than engaged and interested? How should we interpret these changes? What does it mean that, over the past couple of centuries, the boring and the interesting have become, in some sense, authoritative standards of success and failure, alongside the just and the unjust, moral and immoral, sinful and redemptive, or vicious and virtuous? This paper argues that analyzing the emergence of the problem of boredom in modern culture and thought can help us to understand such questions. Poets, philosophers, and novelists have long given vivid accounts of boredom. But boredom, together with a range of negative stances, has recently risen in salience for political and social theorists (Dienstag, Giesen, Joas, Pippin, Taylor). Some have begun to address the concept head on, connecting its increase, in more or less satisfactory accounts, to the distance between modern citizens and the modern state (Nisbet), the decline of close, affectively tied communities in globalization (Scheuerman), and the way modern thought privileges a quantitative, standardized view of human life over rich, qualitative distinctions (Goodstein). This paper builds on these developments and sets out and assesses three interpretive models for understanding the nature and power of boredom in modern political life: a perennialist position (where boredom is a basic, perpetual problem built into the human condition), a functionalist position (where boredom is a symptom of certain social conflicts), and a historicist position (where boredom is a historical phenomenon, tied closely to changes in the relation between labor, leisure, and time). Though each position has much to offer, they are all importantly limited, and much of the paper is taken up with exposing these limitations. Finally, an alternative approach is sketched out that attempts to see boredom as more than the result of 1. the human condition 2. social conflict 3. historical changes but as also, and more revealingly, 4. a core negative element within the modern aspiration for a free, creative, self-expressive life and social form — such a life must be attuned to an appropriate sort of failure within it, I argue, and boredom comes to increasingly name this sort of constitutive openness to what I call… [This is the first of 35 pages]

    I haven’t read this yet, so I can only offer vague impressions. It seems to me, however, that most of the examples of the voluminous literature of ennui with which I am familiar describe the experiences of individuals who do not have work to do, typically because they are not members of the working classes.

  58. Oh, what a utopia we envision, buried in growing piles of fecal matter.

    Oh sure, feces on the philosophy of history. But my point (the reason I used the phrase) is that it doesn’t need to be utopian or noble to be worth aiming for. I don’t care if people spend their time making models of the Taj Mahal in matchsticks, or writing critical criticism, or piling up the manure to grow the perfect marrow – like Godin says, there are lots of ways you can find some sort of fulfillment. I don’t think that Godin’s channeling of market imperatives as advice for how to attain this, though, is the best approach in general.

  59. the experiences of individuals who do not have work to do, typically because they are not members of the working classes.

    ennui, yes, definitely – it’s a leisure class category. Boredom, though, is all over. Lots of jobs are boring.

  60. “In general,” perhaps not. But for his intended audience — and I take that to be everyone who doesn’t want to remain stuck in a place they don’t want to be until someone else does the grunt work of the revolution–it still seems like pretty good advice to me.

  61. Divide and rule. Do you have what it takes to be special? The first thing to understand, if you do, is that being average is for losers – only lizard-brained cowards lack the creativity and will to succeed.

  62. The brain is divided, for Godin – there is the lizard brain, and the distinctively human brain. Those who succeed have conquered the lizard brain, not let it control their actions. Those who fail are letting the lizard brain rule. They are, in quite a direct way, less human (more lizard) than those like Godin who succeed in their professions.

    I’m sure it is motivating – it’s very motivating to fear you’re sub-human and try to escape that fate; it’s equally motivating to regard those around you as subhuman (lizardy), and to enjoy this differentiation. Is this accurate, though? Is it correct to differentiate between the lizard brain (which responds to emails) and the non-lizard brain (which comes up with innovative marketing strategies)? Is it reasonable to divide people into more and less lizardy in this way?

    Is it nice?

  63. In case it isn’t clear, there are two different issues here, which Carl has already distinguished. It’s not just that Godin doesn’t discuss or advise a structural transformation of society – which would pretty clearly exceed the bounds of his genre even were he so inclined. There’s also the question of whether, given the structural status quo, Godin’s advice is a humane, admirable, accurate response to the workplace situations we, his readers and potential readers, find ourselves in.

    Godin’s advice is necessarily exclusionary. It is necessarily saying ‘fuck you’ to a large portion of his readership – let alone the vast percentage of humankind who are not members of the market his books are aimed at. Godin’s rhetoric works by inviting you, his reader, to believe that you are not one of those lizardy millions whose efforts will ultimately result in failure. You are part of the non-lizardy club. And as part of this club, Godin invites you to feel contempt for those who are less successful – attribute this lack of success to reptilian mediocrity. This is in itself an unpleasant and inaccurate attitude, which I dislike and invite others to dislike – this kind of contempt is ugly; it should be discouraged and disparaged.

    But there’s another layer, because of course Godin doesn’t know you, has likely never met you – all you’ve done is buy his book or read his blog, he can’t possibly know if you’re really part of the club, you could be a loser through and through. So Godin’s rhetoric confronts you with this possibility – maybe you are a loser, maybe your lizard brain is winning – and then tells you that, if you want this not to be the case, you need to follow his instructions and participate in his ethic of contempt: this is where the “motivational” part comes from. Godin tells you that he’s helping you to overcome your fear, but he’s also instilling fear – fear of being lizardy and mediocre; he’s telling you that if you want not to be part of the loser-masses, you need to follow his guidlines.

    The lie here is the creation of this idea of the loser-masses as objects of contempt, of course. It’s an ethical lie – those who aren’t successful creative professionals and entrepreneurs are not in fact being controlled by lizard impulses, and do not in fact deserve the contempt associated with this nonsense concept – and it’s a practical lie, since there are many many other reasons (besides latent lizardyness) why people would and do fail to achieve what Godin regards as success (class impediments, racial or gender prejudice, illness, not wanting to). This contempt for non-success is ideological.

  64. We appear to have come full circle. To me, you appear to have an idée fixe. I have sure the reverse is also true. What you take to be a lie, I take to be an acknowledgement of current realities and sound advice on how to escape being stuck in a rut.

    I suppose that, in Carl’s terms, I am a bit Chinese. I do not think myself better than others in any categorical way. To the Dao we are all straw dogs. I am, however, very, very lucky and sometimes good at what I do. Come the revolution, you can shoot me. I am not holding my breath.

  65. John, I’m not going to shoot you – honestly, where does this idea come from? I say that the attitudes Godin advises his readers to adopt have some pretty nasty implications – nasty in the sense of thinking ill of lots of people when there’s no reason to. I advise adopting different attitudes, without such implications. Somehow that translates into my wanting to shoot you? Sheesh.

  66. Is it an acknowledgement of current realities that people who spend lots of times in meetings are being governed by their lizard brains? Because to me it sounds more like nonsense.

  67. But I think you’re right about full circle. Cheers for the conversation…

  68. I don’t know Godin well enough to know if he mirrors admiration for ‘success’ with contempt for ‘failure’. It’s certainly a familiar feature of his genre, and I agree with Duncan on that being repulsive for all the reasons already covered. This is the ugly side of capitalist ideology, just as murderous anti-elitism is the ugly side of Left ideology. I don’t see anyone in this conversation being ‘guilty’ of either of these extremes.

    I do think it’s worth distinguishing the ideological projection of zero-sum capitalist ethics into hapless wannabes who are structurally barred from success in those terms from a more ‘artisanal’ orientation toward accomplishment. I take John, at least, to be advocating the latter. On this view (again, consistent with although not always paid off on by Confucianism) the successful life is one in which we come responsibly to grips with our allotted place in the order of things (our dharma, in the Hindu variant) and commit ourselves to being the best possible version of what we are. Recall Hegel’s maxim that freedom is the recognition of necessity. And on this view there is no contempt for the lower orders – admiration may and should be given to those who excel at their craft and station.

    As I’ve been saying, a distinctive feature of the U.S.American version of capitalist ideology in particular is the way it hides our interdependence and abstracts the individual from enfolding systems of function and meaning. It’s an ideological system uniquely prone to blaming people for things they can’t control.

  69. Carl, blessed are the peacemakers.

    Duncan, I am not in the least afraid that you would shoot me. Please forgive. Ironic overstretch is one of my perennial faults.

    Carl, again. I must say that I have never seen Godin explicitly advocate contempt for failure. His spiel is, if anything in a classic Norman Vincent Peale power of positive thinking mode and what he consistently promotes to businesses large and small is remarkable quality and service. Your “artisanal” characterization seems to me spot on.

    I note, too, that winners and losers need not, logically speaking, be equated with Calvin’s the saved and the damned.

    Have I told you the story about what Shoji Takashi (then head of creative at Hakuhodo, later President and CEO) did when a bunch of us came back from Europe dragging our tails behind us, having just lost a major piece of business to Satchi and Satchi? The story began two years earlier when Hakuhodo was invited to pitch and I was a member of the team that won the pitch for the pan-Europe launch of the Canon EOS autofocus camera system. The second year, we were invited back to pitch for the Autoboy, point-and-shoot camera account, and we won that one, too. The third year, we were invited to pitch for the Canon 8mm video camcorder account and, to make a long story short, Satchi and Satchi cleaned our clock.

    Any regular reader of Advertising Age could tell you that in the USA losing a major piece of business usually meant a pink slip. Shoji took the team out to lunch at a very nice Chinese restaurant and told us, as best I can remember, “Advertising is like baseball. You win some, you lose some. You guys are still batting over .600. Get out there and win the next one.” He made it clear that we might have lost this pitch, but that didn’t make us losers.

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