Seth Godin—17-time published author, founder of Squidoo and the acclaimed Tufts Student Resources (TSR), entrepreneur, public speaker, and, most importantly, a Tufts Alumnus (82)—has had a couple crash landings during his assent through the business world. His key advice for Tufts students during the Fall 2012 Lyon and Bendheim Lecture on November 14th was to fail, and fail often, in order to make a mark on the world.
One should not get the wrong idea from this advice; Seth does not want Tufts students ransacking the streets of Boston or investing in companies like Blockbuster, but he does want students to step out of their comfort zone. He explains that during his time at Tufts, he and his TSR partner founded 25 business ventures, half of which failed.
“That was fabulous,” Godin says. “The ones that failed were extraordinary because I learned to say ‘this might not work’ and everything I’ve accomplished since then has been based on that simple sentence.”
Godin learned more from his failures in life than from his successes, and a university education has its limitations.
“What got you in here isn’t going to get you out,” Godin exclaims. “What got you in [to Tufts] is that you are smart and compliant and obedient and really good with a #2 pencil. And now all of a sudden you’re on the same path. You’re getting really good grades, you’re doing what your professor says, you’re handing in your assignments on time, which is useful if you want to go to law school—I hope you don’t.”
Cue chuckling audience. Godin’s argument is that transcribing known information for a living will not cut it in the changing face of economy and business. “We are living in revolutionary times right here and right now.” And what do revolutions do? “They destroy the perfect and then enable the impossible.”
Perfection seems like a strange word to discuss any human interchange, but Godin explains that once upon a time, perfect industries existed—industries that were “organized in a way that regularly and reliably grew and thrived.”
For example, Godin discusses the music industry. During the age of vinyl records, music was produced, recorded, and sold in a predictable way. It grew as it was projected to grow and everybody made money and listened to rock & roll. But “the music industry is dead” now, according to Godin. While there is more music recorded than ever before, and more people listening to that music than ever before, the industry itself has transcended. In this case, the revolution enabled impossible being infinite music heard by infinite people (and perhaps we should let the math majors work that one out.)
Graduates today are walking into a “connection revolution” according to Godin, where doing work cheaply and efficiently is no longer a bragging right for one’s resume. “If you’re doing a job where there is a manual, where people have written down what you are supposed to do, we can find someone cheaper than you to do it. If you are training to be the fastest, most compliant, smartest person to do something that can be written down, you are in for a world of pain.”
To remedy that pain, Godin advises students to plan for the long-term and to try ideas that have not been put into practice before. Entrepreneurship is an appealing lifestyle for these outgoing people.
“Entrepreneurs use money—usually somebody else’s—to build something bigger than themselves,” Godin defines. “Something that makes money while they sleep. Something that exists even when they’re gone.”
While entrepreneurship may be a daunting route for some, Godin also insists that most people are not born entrepreneurs, but made—and the made entrepreneurs start with basic personality traits of impresarios.
“Impresarios put on a show. Impresarios see something that needs to be done and then they do it. They do not study it. They do not hope to have a committee formed. They do not get a permit. They just do it.”
This drive to solve problems is what connects people in this internet age. While baseline thinkers can perform menial tasks, Godin believes that the best way to improve yourself and to connect with others is to do work that matters.
“Making the rules instead of following the rules. Figuring out what’s next. Solving interesting problems. That, we have a shortage of! And nobody has ever given you an exam on how to do any of those things,” Godin exclaims. “Here is a facility just waiting for impresarios.”
The problem with this innovative spirit, Godin continues, is the fear of failure. “The only thing that could happen that would be bad is that it might not work. You might launch your business on Tuesday and on Wednesday it’s a failure.”
But the motto Godin lives by himself is that his failures, and not his successes, make his work meaningful. A real innovator, according to Godin, is like a scientist who is excited about the prospect of his experiment turning out opposite of what they expect. Information is then gained. Humanity, and not one’s bank account, has benefited.
Godin sums up his discussion with an age-old moral: the tale of Icarus:
“What did Daedalus say to Icarus? ‘Don’t fly too close to the sun because the wax on your wings will melt and you will surely die,’” Godin moralizes. “But people forget that Daedalus also said, ‘But more importantly, don’t fly too low, because if you fly too low the mist will eliminate the lift from your wings and you will surely perish.’”
“And so,” he continues, “we’ve spent all this time indoctrinating our best and brightest without saying to them ‘don’t fly too low.’ Well, low doesn’t mean lazy. Low means compliant. Afraid to fail. Unwilling to make a ruckus.”
Godin wants us to make a ruckus, to use the internet, to connect to a thousand, ten thousand, or a million people, to try an idea and to fail miserably. He wants us to connect with each other, spread an idea, destroy the perfect, and enable the impossible.
—Lenora Smith, A13