Interview with Seth Godin

Seth Godin keeps writing books, and they keep getting better. He keeps giving talks, and they keep mesmerizing his audiences. He’s in constant motion (he even switched phones 4 times during our interview!) but somehow channels his electric energy into making icky business issues clear and calmly solvable. And guess what? The business issues he tackles have tons to do with user and customer experience. He’s introduced lots of great new words into the marketing vocabulary, and yet, despite the fact that his books are best-sellers, I bet he’s probably one of the most under-read resources in the HCI community. Take a look at how his creative whirlygig mind works and I bet you’ll be ordering all of his books tomorrow.

EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW

I realized recently that I have never been satisfied with the status quo. I don’t know why. It’s probably a little bit of a curse. But the status quo isn’t enough of a reason for me to accept something. Part of being an entrepreneur is about going into a place where something isn’t happening, making it happen, and having the marketplace thank you for it.

The thing is, the stuff that’s for everybody is already sold to everybody. So you can’t win by being more average than average, because that slot’s taken.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH SETH GODIN

Conducted by Tamara Adlin on August 27, 2007 09:27 AM

Seth Godin got a toy when he was a little kid–a radio that transformed into a cool spy rifle. Ever since, he’s been talking about what happens when you shoot messages out to regular people.

Tamara Adlin:  Today, I am very excited to be talking to Seth Godin, who is a best-selling author, entrepreneur and agent of change. He’s also one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen.

He is the author of seven books, and I have them all. They have been best-sellers around the world, and change the way people think about marketing, change, and about work.

Seth’s books include Permission MarketingUnleashing the IdeavirusThe Big Red FezSurvival Is Not EnoughPurple CowFree Prize InsideAll Marketers Are LiarsSmall Is the New Big, and, most recently, The Dip.

Hello! Thanks for taking time to talk with me.

Seth Godin:  Thank you for having me.

TA:  What is the very first thing that you remember fascinating you? It could be from way back when you were a little kid.

SG:  The radio, and realizing you could switch from one channel to another. I got very into short wave radio, and then CB radio and Ham radio. The fact that you could connect with people without wires felt like magic. I still don’t understand how tuning and antennas work.

TA: So you were first fascinated by just hearing the radio, but then you discovered the kind of radio that let you talk back and forth with people?

SG: Yes, exactly. No one has ever asked me this question before. It’s interesting that there’s not a big difference between the idea of communicating with strangers on a CB radio and the way we think of email and online communication today.

On the CB, there were some people who would just yell into the microphone and bother everyone until they changed the channel. Then there were other people you could rely on. There were all kinds, and they were mostly people you never met.

I remember all these people I’d been talking to on the radio for a year met at Pat’s Hot Dog Stand one Sunday, and we got to meet in person. I don’t think I ever turned my radio on again. They were all a bunch of losers.

On the radio, it didn’t really matter, but when I met them in person and they were frightening, I didn’t want to go back.

TA:  Do you think your fascination with the CB was partly about the magic of talking to people far away – so it didn’t matter who they were or what they were saying?

SG: Sure. There was a level of safety, which is the same kind of safety marketers hide behind all the time. If you can’t touch a person, you can treat them differently. Some people treat other people better and some people treat other people worse.

TA:  I love that you met all of them at a hot dog stand and then never wanted to talk to them again. That’s funny. How old were you when all this was going on?

SG: I was 12 at that meeting. I was the youngest kid there. Most of the people were 18 to 25.

I still have this vivid memory from when I was six years old. My grandparents gave me a 007 radio, which was a radio that turned into a machine gun. I can visualize it, sitting by my bed when I woke up that morning.

TA:  A radio that turned in to a machine gun?

SG: Yes. It was real radio that had a couple of buttons you could press, and a shoulder handle came out. Then you could pretend you were James Bond shooting people.

My parents did not approve of this toy, but my grandparents didn’t ask first.

TA: But you know what, it pretty much set up your entire life. You’ve created a career thinking about the way we shoot messages off to people.

What did you love in high school?

SG: When I was 14, I started a little company that sold biorhythms, which are the spiritual, intellectual and emotional cycles that are supposed to change every month.

TA: I remember there were machines in bowling alleys that would print them out for a quarter.

SG: Exactly. This was before that. I had access to the local university computer center and found a program that would print them out. I donated three of them to the public television auction, and valued them at $30 each. The people who bought them wanted more, so I became a publisher at the age of 14.

At 16, I started the school ski club and brought 50 or 60 kids skiing up near my house in Buffalo every week.

Then when I got to college at Tufts, I ended up co-founding the largest student business in the country. So my entrepreneur scene goes pretty far back.

TA:  What drove you to that? Did you just want the money?

SG: No, not at all. I never, ever did it for the money. In college, we set it up so we would only get paid $50 a week and never saw the profits. I didn’t know anything about pricing for the ski club. I priced it so I would sort of break even.

I realized recently that I have never been satisfied with the status quo. I don’t know why. It’s probably a little bit of a curse. But the status quo isn’t enough of a reason for me to accept something. Part of being an entrepreneur is about going into a place where something isn’t happening, making it happen, and having the marketplace thank you for it.

TA: It also sounds like you don’t like being bored.

SG: Yes, I have a bit of an ADD problem.

TA:  It works for you though.

SG:  Yes, it does.

TA: When you were at Tufts, what did you study?

SG: Computer science, philosophy, and mechanical engineering.

TA: Did you create your own major, or did you do all three?

SG:  I made up my own major and I abused it so badly that they took the loophole out of the catalog the year I graduated.

TA:  The loophole for doing your own major?

SG: Yes. I couldn’t be a liberal arts major because I just wasn’t clever enough to do the foreign language requirement. In order to be an engineering major, I had to take all these very difficult engineering courses. There was one loophole that allowed me to count philosophy and other classes toward my major, so I skipped every single one of the hard engineering classes.

I actually took more classes than almost any one in the school. It was all you could eat for the same tuition, and my dad encouraged me, so I took six courses a semester.

My philosophy then, and my philosophy now, is that learning the first 80% of something new takes 20% of the effort. My goal in college was not to become an expert on phenomenology or civil engineering; my goal was to understand the framework of as many disciplines as I could.

By never taking the hardest course in any department, I was able to get this great overview of a bunch of stuff, but become an expert on nothing.

TA: There is that dilettante streak in a lot of people who have been really creative in the field.

You just said something very interesting: you didn’t do a foreign language and you don’t feel you’re really wired to do a foreign language. Why?

SG: Here’s the thing. I failed Spanish in high school. It was the only course I ever came close to failing. I think the reason was that I am really good at looking at situations or systems and creating a mental map to understand them, and this doesn’t work for languages.

That’s one of the reasons I’m able to do what I do. People enjoy hearing me talk about the connections that I can find when I look at situations or systems.

If I have to learn the lingo of CB radio, or the Internet, for example, I start with a construct I’m familiar with, and then piece-by-piece I can add stuff. I can figure out the difference between “10/20″ or “10/4″, or the difference between IRC and AIM.

In Spanish, all bets are off. You don’t know anything. There’s no foundation to start with and it’s almost impossible to bootstrap it. And once you learn a bit of Spanish, like 20 words, you’re not on your way to knowing French.

Instead, you have to open yourself up to absorbing a whole new thing. I’m not good at that.

TA:  That is such an interesting way of looking at it. I guess part of what you are saying is that to get really good at a foreign language, you have to learn the whole thing, down to the details. And that’s not fun.

SG:  It is for some people. But yes, you’re exactly correct. I am more interested in looking at a sculpture by Rodin or Picasso and understanding the architecture of it, than I am in admiring the way Michelangelo sandedDavid‘s chin. That part’s not so interesting to me.

TA: Right. So it might be interesting to study the history of the romance languages and why they are similar, how they’re different, and how that happened than the specifics of learning to speak Spanish fluently.

SG: Three years ago, I spent more than a year studying why the alphabet is in that order.

TA:  Really?

SG:  Did they put it in that order because it made a good song? It turns out there’s no reason for it to be in that order; it just is.

TA:  How did you find that out?

SG: No one has ever written a book directly about it, but there are some recent books about the origins of the alphabet. Some of them are quite fascinating, but they all mention the order of the letters.

What I love about it is that you had to put the alphabet into an order, because otherwise you couldn’t remember what all the letters were. The order they picked is as good as any other. They just picked it.

That’s a critical thing that people who design systems often get hung up on. They lose the distinction between things that build on each other because they are logical, and things that are just because they are.

For example, when CD-ROMs were young, and the web was young, people tried to make the interfaces into a metaphor. There was a desk. Paper was on the desk. If you wanted to put something away you had to open the drawer.

Interface creators were struggling mightily to fill this logical construct. What was brilliant about what they did at Xerox PARC, and with the Mac was to say, “We’re going to make up a whole bunch of stuff that’s sort of like the old stuff, but we’re just going to make it this different way because we want to. We’ll build a logical construct on top of that.”

TA: That’s a slippery slope, though, because you end up assuming people are capable, and willing, to learn a whole bunch of stuff in order to use something new.

SG: Absolutely. The art of it is making the number of default anachronisms, or non-logical pieces, as small a set as possible so that your primitives are only a handful. Then once you learn the primitives, the rest is all going to make sense.

TA: Right. It is still that idea of translation, and making it a pleasant experience to learn the new language, rather than an annoying one. Like learning the new iPhone interface.

SG: That’s why words are so important. Most of us never get the chance to design an iPhone. But we do get the chance to write a brochure, or design a sales letter, or have a conversation that is difficult.

More often than not, if we don’t use the right words, we’re not going to be able to set the foundation for the rest of the conversation to follow.

There’s nothing in Purple Cow that’s earth shattering. There’s nothing in my new book, The Dip, that people didn’t already know. But giving people aword that didn’t exist before lets them have a shorthand way of talking to each other. Helping people with the shortcuts is important. Words and shortcuts help make sure everyone is on the same page when they get to the good part of the conversation.

TA:  Conversations get so tangled up and political, especially in business.

SG: Different people have different positions on what the word ‘quality’ means, for example. If there are too many definitions of the word quality, you have to stop using the word and replace it with a new word that everyone can agree on.

TA: Did you use this idea at Yoyodyne when you were working with your clients?

SG: At Yoyodyne, we sold clients games and promotions we’d invented.

If they didn’t want to buy what we had “in stock,” we’d invent something new for them.

TA: What kind of things did you invent?

SG: We were the first people to give away a million dollars on the internet. We invented permission marketing and the idea of only sending email to people who asked for it. We invented a promotion where you could go to win a car, and we had five sponsors, and you could pick which car you wanted to win.

If you picked the Volvo, the rest of your interactions were about Volvo, which made sense because you had decided you were interested in a Volvo.

We would then go to different car companies and say, ‘Do you want to be one of the prizes?’ We ended up building this entire suite of interaction and promotion. We’d get hundreds of thousands of people learning about cars because they wanted to win one. We would then sell slices of that promotion to different companies.

TA: One of the things Amazon does really well is ads that feel like features.

I think that’s part of what you are talking about – building experiences that are intriguing.

SG:  I love that. Jeff (Bezos) is one of my all-time heroes.

TA:  I think both he and Steve Jobs are really amazing. They are these monarchs of the interactive world, which makes them challenging to work with.

SG: They’re not monarchs because they weren’t born into it.

What’s interesting is they both are very strong-willed, but they get what they want in very different ways.

TA:  What do you think the big differences are?

SG:  I think of Steve as an artist who doesn’t hesitate to throw a tantrum if necessary, and I think of Jeff as an architect who isn’t willing to settle even if it’s expedient.

TA:  I think of Jeff as this amazing idea generator. It’s sort of like he’s a Tasmanian devil that’s flinging off ideas off at 1,000 mph and many of them are really good.

SG: Yes.

TA: I just realized that, when we talked about Yoyodyne, we skipped something. You were a wacky, independent major at Tufts who decided he liked looking at the big picture of things rather than diving in and looking at the way Michelangelo sanded David’s chin, and then you got out of college and made some decisions.

What was between college and Yoyodyne?n

SG: There was quite a bit. I’m older than you think. When I got out of college, I realized I was going to have to get a job as an engineer, because that’s what my degree said, but I didn’t know how to do engineering.

I didn’t have the guts to go start my own business, so I applied to business school and got into Stanford, where I was the second youngest person in the class. I got there and I realized I was in really big trouble. The typical MBA student has spent the last two years wasting time at a bank so he could get into business school. They’re the kinds of people who really like tweaking a spreadsheet and really get into all the detail work.

The first couple of months of business school were no fun at all. Then I went to a class and, for whatever reason, I didn’t have time to prepare for it. Someone opened and said something, and I couldn’t help myself. I raised my hand. I was the only one who did. I riffed. I didn’t use any of the numbers; I just riffed. And it worked.

I discovered in every class the professor needed somebody who was willing to talk about the big picture. Then I had it made. The rest of business school, all l did was bring the class back to reality by saying, “Who cares what the numbers say? This is what the people involved care about.” I was really lucky that I got away with that, but I did.

My second year in school, I had a job in Boston working for a company calledSpinnaker Software. I commuted from California to Boston every week to do the job and the MBA at the same time.

Spinnaker was the first company that brought educational computer games to the mass market. We had Fisher-Price stuff, and we had science fiction stuff like Bradbury and Clark. We sold millions of copies of our titles.

I was a brand manager, in charge of marketing for a few of the company’s brands. I was really young at the time. It was a great laboratory for me to engage with technical people. I had about 40 engineers working for me, and I got to make sales calls on Target and Radio Shack and other big companies.

I stayed there until ’86, and then I left to become a book packager.

TA:  A book packager?

SG:  Book packagers do what movie producers do, except instead of making movies we make books. I would find teams of people who could put together a book worth reading that was too difficult to be written by one person. I came out with about a book a month, on everything from gardening to business to computers. I did a book called The Internet White Pages, some books about words, and books about stain removal.

There’s no question that if the Internet had existed then, I would have been the kind of person who was building websites. But instead of building websites, I built books. The advantage was that you got paid up front, and you got a royalty if it worked.

I did that for five years. I started in the same office as the company that became Yoyodyne, which is where I met Mark Hurst. He came to work for me.

I ran Yoyodyne and the book business for about six years. Then the book business got too big and I got too tired, so I sold it to my employees. Then the Yoyodyne Internet business got too big and the timing was good so I sold it to Yahoo!.

TA:  Why did you start Yoyodyne?

SG: I was online in ’76 in my high school. I knew about email, and from Spinnaker I knew all about games. It just felt to me like the time was right for something to be built in the online space.

It felt a lot like the book business, but it was a faster moving, more lucrative industry. I spent some time at Prodigy and discovered what they needed. It turned out they wanted sticky interactions that people would only use for a few minutes a week, so I designed a trivia game program for Prodigy calledGUTS. It was the most successful product of their entire six-year history. That gave me the momentum and incentive to build a business

TA:  When you were at Yoyodyne and building your company, how did you choose people to work with? That’s such a critical choice. You had to have a way to decide whether or not they were going to be any good at this stuff.

SG: It’s true, because you certainly couldn’t look at their resume.

At the beginning I probably wasn’t that smart. I hired people I liked, or people like me. That’s not a good way to build a balanced organization. Over time I quickly shifted gears and started focusing.

We were hiring 10 or 20 people in a good month when we were growing fast. I took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. We started having open houses. At the open house, 50 people would come, and I would give a speech for 15 minutes so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself 50 times. Then we would divide everyone into groups of five. I’d have one of my employees sit at each table and group-interview people so we could get a sense of them.

Then I would go around to each table and ask everyone exactly the same question. I would say, “As a group, I want the five of you to answer this question: How many gas stations are there in the United States?”

TA: Those evil questions.

SG: The evil Microsoft/Mount Fuji questions, totally unfair. But it’s different when you ask it to a group. When you ask it to a group, the same thing happens every time. Two people would say, “That’s an unfair question; I hate that.” Two people would say, “Well, uh…” and one person would take out a pad and start telling the other four people what to do.

I always hired the fifth person.

TA:  Let me tell you how I would answer that and you tell me whether or not you would have hired me. I would have said, “Why do you want to know? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?”

SG: That’s a valid thing to say. I would say, “Look; I don’t care how many gas stations there are in the United States. I’m trying to figure out how you answer a question when you don’t have enough data to answer a question. I’m trying to find out how comfortable you are with saying things that aren’t correct. That’s what we do every day here.”

TA:  Isn’t it just as interesting to find out what the real problem is? Asking one question and trying to find the answer is one thing, but what if it’s the wrong question?

SG: I totally agree. I think that’s completely valid. There were a couple of people who, for the right reasons like yours, wouldn’t answer the question. They would say, “If I can’t challenge false premises, I can’t do good work.” I was totally going to hire those people.

There were two people who looked at me and said, “I don’t have a car,” and walked out. One of the people came up to me shortly after I sold the company. He would have been a millionaire. He apologized for walking out on the interview.

TA: So what he said was actually fine, and the mistake was walking out after he said it.

SG:  Exactly.

I really believe that hiring for talent is not nearly as important as hiring for attitude. If you get the right attitude, you can teach the talent.

TA:  It sounds like you were looking for an attitude of ‘let’s try this together’. So my answer actually wouldn’t have been good, because in a group situation, the answer you’re looking for is different than what you’d be looking for in a one-on-one situation.

SG:  Exactly. I’ve had nothing but extraordinarily good luck hiring for attitude. I would say less than 5% of the people who I hired because I thought they had a good attitude actually didn’t.

TA:  Do you think that’s the way people should hire today?

SG: Yes.

TA:  Why don’t they?

SG: Because it’s scary. I’ve been able to make a career out of challenging people who think that utility is what consumers purchase; who think that facts are more important than stories. That’s what you were taught in school for 20 years. You were taught that you have to have your facts right; that you have to get 1,600 on the SAT.

Now that my kids are in school, I’m aghast at how much time is wasted teaching facts. It’s not an accident that most organizations hire the way they were hired. They hire the way they were trained in school, which is, “Show me you’ve done this job before for someone else, and I’ll hire you.”

That’s bogus.

TA: It’s certainly boring. I’m fascinated by something you just mentioned, which is fear in companies. I think my whole consulting business is built on standing up in a room full of people and saying, “This doesn’t make sense,” when everybody else is afraid to.

I want to hear what you think about fear in companies.

SG: Fear is far and away the largest impediment to doing great things. There’s way more fear outside the United States than inside the United States, but there’s still too much fear here. There’s too much fear to act like an owner; too much fear to announce that the Emperor is not wearing clothes; too much fear to do the right thing in the moment. As a result, a lot of stuff is mediocre and a lot is riskier than it would be if people did things that felt scary.

Once again, we come back to the iPhone. There’s nothing in the iPhone that was hard or that Motorola had never thought of before.

The iPhone is merely a triumph of guts. It’s a triumph of someone forcing people to do things they were scared of, and thus completely changing the paradigm of a multibillion-dollar industry.

TA:  Do you think it’s also related to the fear that causes us to go for the lowest common denominator? Well, not the lowest, but THE common denominator? The iPhone was designed and built for Steve Jobs, right? And it works.

SG: Right; it’s not for everybody. The thing is, the stuff that’s for everybody is already sold to everybody. So you can’t win by being more average than average, because that slot’s taken.

TA:  I love that quote.

So back to you. You sold Yoyodyne. I don’t know if there’s something after that, but then you started to publish. Now, you write and write and write. From what you’ve just said, you write things that already exist. The ideas exist in the world, but you put them in a way that is eye opening; that makes peoples’ brains act like popcorn and fizz in a good way.

How did you choose to do that? That’s brave. If you really think what you’re doing is re-stating the obvious in a creative way, that’s a brave thing to build a career on.

SG: Brave or crazy.

TA:  Is there a difference?

SG: I think there is a difference. Most people are afraid to do something like that, so for them it would be brave. I wasn’t afraid to do it, so for me it was just ‘why not’.

As a book packager, I found that there was a lot of pressure to write in a certain way and have a certain credential to be a writer. I would have to go out and get a credentialed person to put their name on something, even though I wrote it.

What it led me to understand is that some people like reading my writing. I was OK writing like I talk. It’s sort of orderly and yet amusing.

That was good, because I was only going to write in my voice. I wasn’t going to start a career where I had to do all that work that I didn’t want to do in college about sanding David’s chin.

I said to myself, “If I’m going to write, I’m not going to have any graphs, tables, charts or proofs. I’m just going to lay out ideas that I think I can defend. If people want to run with them, I think they are smart enough to do that.”

I was very fortunate in that Permission Marketing was the perfect book to start with. It was released on the perfect day of the perfect year. It broke through.

Because it broke through, it gave me the credibility to keep writing the way I write. If it had failed, I would probably be working at a gas station.

TA: No you wouldn’t. You would have done something else, or you would have at least redesigned gas stations.

SG: Of course. I was being a little humble.

TA:  So you go all over the place, and you talk. Do you love it? How do you feel when you speak?

SG: I hate traveling. I hate it so much that I’m turning down more gigs than I ever did before

When I started doing what I do now, I asked myself, “If I am going to make change, how am I going to do it?”

There’s a whole spectrum of ways you can do that. A book reaches lots of people, but changes only a small percentage of people who actually read it.

A book gives the people it does impact a tool to change others. I think that’s when books work the best: When someone hands you a book and says, “You gotta read this, and we have to do something about it.”

If you’re a therapist and see someone an hour a week for three years, you can have a lot of leverage on them. If you are a parent and spend a lot of time with your kid, you can have a lot of impact. If you are a consultant…at least with the tools available to me, I don’t know how to change an organization by doing consulting. There’s too much implementation challenge if you’re just an individual.

Then there’s the public speaking. What’s interesting about public speaking is that there are people who will never be moved by a book who can be moved by 50 minutes of someone jumping up and down in front of them on a podium.

From a personal point of view, the fact that I am 100% on duty for an hour and then completely done allows me to give everything I have, and then not have to worry about the chance that I am going to be overwhelmed for months afterwards.

The combination of writing books that people can share with their friends, and then 30 or 40 or 50 times a year standing in front of a group of people and adding some color to those ideas, seems like the perfect mix for me.

TA:  Again, a crazy connection, but if you stuck around and had to do the consulting and the change in the organization, it would almost be like hanging out with all those people you met at the hot dog stand. You almost don’t want to deal with them one on one.

SG: That’s interesting; sometimes I do. I do consulting on an amateur, free basis for non-profits sometimes, and I find that in a group of a dozen people, there are usually three who I completely connect with, who get it, and I can just see they are going to run with it.

I end up having to spend up all my time with the other nine.

TA: You are always swarmed, I assume, after your presentations. I know that because I was one of the people who swarmed you at your presentations. I am sure you get a lot of the same questions or comments. Are there any that surprise you, or make you crestfallen because they happen so much?

SG: Yes. One complaint happened so much that I wrote an entire book about it: “My boss won’t let me.” That goes right back to the fear of saying, and seeking permission, and taking a risk.

TA:  It’s a management problem too.

SG: Yes, it is. In fact, the boss will let them. What the boss won’t do is say, “You have carte blanche, do whatever you want, I’ll take responsibility if it fails.” That’s what they can’t get over; they can’t get that.

Free Prize Inside is all about how you deal with that issue. There have been plenty of times that I’ve been very disappointed because there are people who have been struggling with something for six months or a year or two years, and they think that if they can just get me to touch it, a great thing is going to happen for them.

It really bothers me for a couple of reasons.

One, I know there are other people who do what I do for a living who take advantage of that emotion and sell something in exchange for playing off that hope.

Worse, I feel badly for these people who have forced themselves to becomeDon Quixote; who are embracing a project that can never go anywhere. Because if you’re working on something that can never go anywhere, you don’t have to worry about it ever going anywhere.

That weird uncle who’s always got some board game he’s dreaming up is safe. His board game is never going to get bought by Mattel. His board game is never going to change his life. He can live under the illusion that he’s challenging the status quo, when in fact he is hiding.

TA: That’s really interesting. These are the constant complainers, or the people who expound on politics at the dinner table but never do anything about it.

SG: Yes. Because it is so important to me to be independent as a consultant and never have to give up and go get a job as a bank teller, I forced myself to work on projects small enough that I can actually succeed, as opposed to having the crutch of a giant dream that never goes anywhere.

TA: It’s interesting to hear you say that. I’m a consultant now, and I really do want to try to change something by touching it. But the only way to do that is not to have it be about me, but to have it be about me as a catalyst helping people start speaking the same language in a company.

It’s not about helping to redesign a product. It’s about helping people talk to each other internally.

Like you said, Motorola already had all those ideas that are in the iPhone, but they didn’t know how to use them. They couldn’t talk to each other.

SG: Let me make a flip distinction between the two of us.

I say, “Look at me, look at me! Now take that and do something great with it.” You say, “Look at you, look at you.”

TA:  I love that. I also like it when people look at me because I get a kick out of giving presentations too. But I don’t have as much to say about things as you do yet.

SG: Of course you do. But the fact is, you have a skill I don’t have, which is I could never have the conversation you’re having with me. I couldn’t have this conversation with you. I am too impatient and too much of an egomaniac to draw out of you the kind of stuff you’re getting me to say that I’ve never said before out loud.

TA: Well, that is a great compliment. Thank you.

For someone like you who helps to get people thinking in a new way, what makes you think in new ways? What fascinates you now, looking forward?

SG: I have to be careful because it’s very easy for me to use a series of parlor tricks to find small insights that people like hearing. Maybe one out of every five of my blog posts is like that. I can go to Union Square Market or the supermarket or watch the TV at the airport and find five things that are bloggable in five minutes.

But if I do nothing but that all day, I won’t be digging deep enough and I won’t be pushing myself hard enough. So what my homework assignments tend to be bigger, harder, more conceptual things that I don’t even see the first five times I look at something, but instead notice the sixth time.

That’s what led to Permission Marketing, which was a success. It led toSurvival Is Not Enough, which was a failure. It’s what led to The Dip, which was a success. I am challenging myself to get out of my comfort zone, which is smaller than most peoples’ comfort zones, but still too big.

TA:  Because you get such great attention from things that come easily to you?

SG: I wouldn’t even say great attention. I would say there’s a large group of people who are delighted with the interaction when I deliver that to them.

An example I give is if you’re at a really good sushi bar, you can get a great piece of tuna sashimi or a yellowtail roll that’s better than any you’ve ever had. But it’s not hard for the chef to make those after a couple of years.

What’s hard is for the chef to invent something brand new, like miso cod that makes people say, “Wow, I didn’t even come for that, and here it is.”

I’m trying to balance those two things. I think I’m pretty good at making sushi now, but I want to push myself to do something that’s a little bit outside that.

TA: I could think of more questions to ask you, and talk to you for hours, but I think that’s a great place to sum it up.

There was a book that I read when I was a kid about witches, and there was a trick the witches had. They could dance between the raindrops, and a raindrop would never hit them.

I think you are one of those witches. You see what’s going on in between the stuff that’s all over the place, and that’s a magical thing.

SG:  I am very flattered; thank you.