Why Fear May Be Killing Your Creativity

“We’d rather revisit old knowledge, doing things that work in exchange for putting yourself in situations that might not work.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why people won’t buy a $5 bill for $1
  • Why the current university model may not be around much longer
  • How to nip fear in the bud—and finally get creative

Seth Godin is the author of 18 international bestsellers focusing on the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and making an impact. Srinivas Rao recently hosted him on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss how to thrive as a modern-day creative, why higher education needs to reexamine its priorities, and why you shouldn’t wait to change the world.

Srini: What compelled you to put [What to Do When It’s Your Turn] out into the world?

Seth: I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I have to write another book.” Instead, a book only happens when the idea won’t let me go. My argument in this book is that in the economy we live in now, an economy where you are either a creative or a cog, most of us are choosing to be creatives. If you choose to be a creative, you cannot wait to be picked, because the internet is an amplifier that lets anyone pick themselves. So it’s your turn—what are you going to do about it?

Srini: What’s interesting to me is how you recognize a moment to create something that you want to see exist in the world. My first question is, [how do you] learn to recognize those moments, and what do you do about them?

Seth: No one knows how to correctly pick that moment. Almost every bestseller is a surprise bestseller. Almost every movie that breaks box office records was declined by a studio before it came out. Almost every critic has been wrong repeatedly about the books and ideas that changed our lives. So if you go into this saying, “How do you know?” then you’ve already lost. You don’t know.

Srini: Let’s talk about this idea of making things that get under people’s skin. What prevents us from even attempting to do things that get under people’s skin? I think there’s something internal that keeps people from doing that.

Seth: The reasons go all the way back in cultural, and perhaps physical, evolution to living in caves and hanging around the fire with the chief. You don’t look the chief in the eye. You don’t speak up around the fire after the hunt, because if you are wrong, you could be ostracized. You could be thrown out. So the people who were wrong didn’t have grandchildren, and that’s the end of that.

“So it’s your turn—what are you going to do about it?”

In the industrial economy, the one our parents lived their whole lives in and the one that we are leaving, we have been rewarded for fitting in, for doing well. And part of that is to do what you were told, wait your turn, don’t get under anyone’s skin. That’s the opposite of what it is to be a creative. It’s the opposite of what it is to be an impresario, to be someone who makes a ruckus to change things.

In the book, I challenge people to get a $5 bill, go to the bus station in their town, walk up to someone and say, “Would like to buy this $5 bill for a dollar?” What you’ll discover is that almost every single person will say no to you. They won’t say no because of the value that you are offering—clearly a $5 bill is worth five times more than a dollar bill. They will say no because no one goes to the bus station seeking to engage in a weird financial transaction. They will say no because they don’t trust you. They will say no because anyone who would offer $5 for $1 has got some scheme going on, and they want nothing to do with it.

Well, here’s some interesting things about that. One, if you get rejected in life, one reason isn’t that you’re not creating value, it’s probably that the person who rejected you is telling themselves a story that doesn’t match what you thought it was. The other [interesting] thing about this bus station example is that people say, “Well, I would never do that.”

Take a second to think about why you would never do that. It’s not rude. It’s not hurting anybody. What would it mean to make this offer to somebody? What does it mean to that person at the Avis counter who spends the extra 30 seconds on you when she doesn’t have to? What does it mean to stop, put down your cell phone, look her in the eye, and thank her? She’ll remember it for days. That’s hard to do because it makes you responsible—responsible for the way you touched someone else. In the industrial economy, we have been pushed to seek non-responsibility at every turn.

Srini: So many of the ideas in this book are about stepping up and doing something—taking your turn. One of the things that really stood out to me is this idea of reassurance, which ties perfectly into what you’re talking about. Why do we search for reassurance, and how do we stop searching for reassurance?

Seth: [There are] two reasons we search for reassurance. One is that it makes us feel good in the short-run—pity, sympathy, being reminded that everything is going to be okay. The second thing is that it gets us off the hook. It means that we are not the person who is responsible, because we’ve been reassured that everything is fine.

“In the industrial economy, we have been pushed to seek non-responsibility at every turn.”

Reassurance is futile. There is never enough reassurance to reassure you about the things you truly care about. If we get all Buddhist here, it’s because we’re all going to die, and no one can reassure you that you’re not going to die. The forms of failure we imagine in our head [evoke] an emotion similar to the emotion we have for death. No amount of reassurance is going to make you the artist you want to be. It’s not going to make you the parent you’re capable of being. It’s not going to make you the contributor, the linchpin, the impresario, the employee you could be. Reassurance is futile. We need to stop looking for it and accept the fact that what we do for a living is deal with that feeling. That’s our job.

Srini: You said something in the book that I have underlined: “When success doesn’t occur, the easiest thing is to walk away and not make the mistake of speaking up again. The most important thing to do, though, is to do it again, to care again, and then seek to make change again.” I get the feeling that there are people who, when success doesn’t occur, actually don’t take their turn again.

Seth: Almost everybody.

Srini: Is that something that we can overcome?

Seth: For sure. Most of the people learned how to walk sometime between the time they were six months old and three and a half. The only way you learn how to walk is by not walking, falling, not walking, falling, walking a little, falling, walking a lot, falling, walking. If we had given up, we never would’ve learned how to walk.

When I started as a book packager, there were 50,000 books that came out every year, which means that 50,000 people went through the effort and took the risk to bring a book into the world. Now there are 50,000 books that come out of the United States every two weeks. We’ve increased by a factor of 25. That raises the bar for everyone, including people like me, because you’re not one in a million anymore. You’re one in some [bigger] number. That means we’ve got to dig even deeper and find something even more worth caring about, and then bring that to the world.

Srini: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that we have the opportunity to choose between [being a] creative and a cog. Why are there people who would still choose cog?

Seth: Well, you’re completely off the hook. If Delta Airlines messes up someone’s flight, the flight attendant can look you in the eye and say, “Hey, I just work here.” It’s not your fault. You are not responsible, and that’s a tremendous freedom.

[Also] the industrialists made a promise 150 years ago and generally, until recently, they’ve kept it: “Do what I say, and I will pay you and I will pay you. I will keep paying you on a regular basis for 45 years, and then you’ll have a retirement.” That was a pretty seductive offer to someone who grew up in a culture where that’s as far as you can go.

“The best way to make money is to be an impresario, to establish things that need to be established, to make a ruckus that people are willing to pay for.”

There are countries on this planet where the highest aspiration is to work at the post office, where it’s steady, safe, and air-conditioned. To say to that person, “No, you should start trading and establishing futures in rice! It’s going to be quite a rollercoaster. Let’s go!” That person looks at you like you’re crazy because his parents were peasants, and working in the post office is a pretty good deal.

Srini: That takes me to the next question. There’s a section in your book where you went to talk to [young employees] at an investment bank. One of them talked about waiting until their debts are paid off to go and actually do something that makes a difference. It’s a conversation that I have with myself every day because I have student loan debt. Yet [I think to myself,] “If I get to the end of my life, and I haven’t paid off the debt but I’ve done this, at least I’ll have contributed something of significance to the world.” I’m interested in your perspective on that narrative.

Seth: I used the example from the New York investment bank because it was just such a profound contrast. [You’ve got] blue-suited, privileged kids whose parents are masters of the universe, who got this job because someone knew someone. And their narrative, which clearly belies their position, is “I need to wait.” If they need to wait, then everyone needs to wait. So the point was they don’t need to wait—they want to wait.

Once they wait long enough, they’re going to keep waiting, because then they’re going to have kids, and they’re going to have a mortgage and a Tesla. It’ll never be the right time. I went to business school with people who told me 35 years ago that they were going to be an entrepreneur, and they were just waiting for the right idea. At the reunion just a little while ago, many of those people said they’re still waiting for the right idea.

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Now, if your goal is to make enough money to get out of debt, the best way to do that is not to go work for someone who tells you what to do all day. The best way to make money is to be an impresario, to establish things that need to be established, to make a ruckus that people are willing to pay for. But thinking that you need to be miserable day in and day out for 5, 10, 15 years because you went to school for four years, ostensibly to change the world, seems ridiculous to me.

If you went to school because you wanted to do more binge drinking and join a fraternity, then it was the most expensive party of your life. If you really went because you wanted to open doors so that you could mean something, the time to do it is right now, not when this mythical date in the future when you’ve saved all this money. Because guess what? You probably haven’t.

Srini: This makes a perfect setup to talk about something that has been a real hot button [issue]. What do we do with education, and how do we change it? It’s clear that it is broken. People like Mark Cuban are saying it’s the next bubble that’s going to burst. When I call the student loan vendor, I keep thinking, “How long can you guys continue this before the roof caves in and the whole thing just collapses?”

Seth: College is a bubble. As the return on investment declines and [student] debt goes up, there’s no way that it can be sustained forever. I don’t know when it will end, but it will. That doesn’t mean colleges will disappear, but it means the idea that college is an extension of high school is hard to [maintain] in the face of free massive online courses.

As parents and students, we have this opportunity—if you’re paying a quarter of a million dollars, you’re the customer. [You can] say, “I the student and I the parent refuse to write you this check because the degree you’re selling me isn’t worth what you’re charging. We need it to be something else.”

What we see at places like Northeastern, which has 94% of its people graduating with a job, is that the customer has spoken and said, “We want to come to an institution that is going to push us and train us to do work while we’re here and after we leave.” We also see institutions, and there’s a whole bunch of them in a book called 40 Colleges That Change Lives, that are focused on a true liberal arts education that pushes students not to get good grades, but to actually learn to think.

The goal of that education is to make you thirsty. If you leave thirsty, you will always be able to drink at the fountain of knowledge that the internet is giving us. Too many people get home from work and turn on Netflix as opposed to turning on Coursera. We are sacrificing our future as adults by refusing to be thirsty enough to learn.

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I am significantly more interested in K-12 public schools because I think public schools [present] an extraordinary opportunity to universally set the culture and the level of thirst that people have. I think it has been abducted by people who want it to be a school for folks who are going to get a factory job, a school to teach people to be compliant.

We are not asking the key question which is, what is school for? If we start asking that question, we’re going to discover that the people who are in charge don’t have the same answer we want them to have, and we ought to dig in right away and make a school that does what we want it to do.

The people who have the power to [create] change are the parents. Everyone is afraid of the parents. Everyone works for the parents. If enough parents show up just for a week asking the same question over and over again, the school will start to change. There’s no question about it.

For me, we need the kind of spirit that we have in kindergarten to extend all the way to fifth grade—playing, creating, asking hard questions. Then from sixth grade to 12th grade, we need a sprint where we teach kids to be thirsty. We teach them to lead and to solve interesting problems. That’s what school is for.

Srini: Let’s talk about this idea of thirst. There’s a story in the Your Turn challenge that somebody had put up—they had attended one of your weekend programs, [but] hadn’t done anything since the program. Whatever idea that they had come to work on, whatever project they wanted to put into the world, they had done absolutely nothing with it. In my mind, I thought, “Okay, something happened to the thirst there.” Where does that thirst go? How do we get it back, and how do we keep it up so that we can keep drinking?

Seth: The enemy of creativity is fear—that seems pretty clear. But the enemy of fear is creativity—that doesn’t seem as obvious. When you find yourself getting stuck, it will express itself by you “not feeling like it.” You will associate “not feeling like it” with losing your thirst for new knowledge. We’d rather revisit old knowledge, doing things that work in exchange for putting yourself in situations that might not work.

These are all ways that we express our fear. We just say, “I don’t feel like it… What’s in my email box? I’ll check that instead.” In my experience, the way to deal with it is you create a habit: every time the thirst starts to go away, you call it out, you label it, and then you do something creative.

Srini: Is that why you’ve made a daily habit of writing?

Seth: I think everyone should write a blog every day even if no one reads it. If you know you have to write a blog post tomorrow, something that will be around six months from now, you will start looking for something in the world to write about. You will seek to notice something interesting, and to say something creative about it. Well, isn’t that all we’re looking for? Generously sharing what you notice about the world is exactly the antidote for your fear.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.