Linchpin by Seth Godin, and 8 Other Short Book Reviews

There are two kinds of books that I find valuable, but don’t review. Books about which I have too little to say and books about which I have too much to say. One reason I don’t review them is that with with the first kind of book, I often extract value and dump the book halfway. With the second kind, I read each book so closely and carefully, and over such a long period of time, that by the time I am done, it is too entangled with my own thinking to write about objectively. Still, I thought it would be interesting to attempt a round-up of recent reading in these two categories. These won’t be getting full-length reviews.

The Too Little to Say List

Portfolios of the Poor is a very interesting look at how complex the financial lives of the poor can get. For too long, we’ve been talking about poor-people-economics with broad strokes ideas like “microfinance” and “bottom of the pyramid.” This book (which I’ve just started reading), gets into the fascinating details of how the poor manage their cash lives. Most of the material is based on data from the developing world, but I’ve seen similar ideas in books/articles about first-world poverty. My big takeaway so far has been that for the poor, short time horizon cash-flow management is far more important than long-term capital management. The world of the poor is a bewildering one of small loans from friends and family, giving money to others for safe-keeping, borrowing at very high interest rates for short-term use, and so forth. Scanning the book, I was struck by the idea that for the poor, the volatility of cash flows causes almost as much trouble as the low volume. The other interesting dynamic is that poverty forces social networks to be far tighter because of necessary short-term personal financial relationships. You and I mostly have regular paychecks and a few relationships with lenders like banks, so we can afford to keep friends and family at arm’s length if we want to. Poor people, especially in the developing world,  don’t have that luxury.

From the impoverished to the privileged. Seth Godin’s Linchpin has been greeted with the usual rapturous applause by his devotees. I like Godin’s early work (Permission Marketing in particular), and some of his later work (The Dip, which I over-analyzed here). His previous book, Tribes, is one of only two books I have seriously panned (the other is Blue Ocean Strategy). With Linchpin, he redeems himself a bit. As with The Dip, the core idea is a very good one, that it pays to become indispensable, wherever you happen to be. As is often the case with Godin though, he turns a good, conditional and amoral idea into an overstated, absolute and moral one. The idea deserves a small, neat book, like The Dip, and it gets a longer, fluffier treatment with an unnecessary amount of poorly-justified railing against the non-linchpins of the world. To some extent, I think Godin has gone the Tom Peters route: starting off his career with some really great ideas, but getting increasingly disconnected from the real world, and at times, downright weird. In this case, he is completely enamored of the idea that to be a linchpin is to be an emotionally-invested artist, giving gifts of the spirit to the Universe (shades of The Secret here). The result is that he actually ends up undervaluing the idea. There are better, more pragmatic (even cynical) reasons to be a linchpin, and you don’t necessarily need to think of yourself as some sort of artist to be one. That’s self-indulgence. And yes, there are also good reasons to not be a linchpin on occasion, and staying a little detached. That doesn’t necessarily make you one of the replaceable-parts types that Godin sets up as the strawman antithesis to linchpins. The best thing about the book is probably the Hugh MacLeod cartoons.

Shifting gears, I speed-read three books about food recently, as part of my effort to find  intelligent material in this publishing sector filled with hype, fads and subversion by the agro-industry. After processing piles of dreck, I came up with three books and one DVD that actually made some sort of sense to me.

The first is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, a short-and-sweet book version of his popular NYT piece, Unhappy Meals. The basic idea is an attack on what Pollan calls “Nutritionism,” the reductionist approach to food, full of obscure and unintelligible (to us layfolk) talk of Omega 3s and gluten. He argues, logically, that we were eating in very healthy ways before the rise of Nutritionism, and that this shouldn’t be so damn hard. His rules are summarizable at tweet-length: Eat food, not too much. By food, he means stuff that you can actually recognize as food due to a visible connection to nature. He contrasts this with the hyper-processed, chemicalized, fortified, unrecognizable stuff that passes for food, which he calls “edible food-like substances.” The book turns the op-ed into a better organized set of principles (including such gems as “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” and “don’t eat any processed food with more than five ingredients”). The rules are good, but incredibly hard to follow, as 900 people found out in a recent Eat Real Food challenge (see this CNN report, An Inconvenient Challenge).

The second food book that I think gets at something truly important is The End of Overeating by David Kessler, which shows how obesity,  fat jokes by stand-up comics notwithstanding, is not entirely our fault. It is mostly the fault of a food industry that has, over half a century, figured out how to hook our three biggest weaknesses: salt, sugar and fat. Not a conspiracy, but a case of Adam Smith unbound. The book made me reconsider my initial skepticism of the move, in New York, to ban salt in restaurants.  While I still think this is a heavy-handed Nanny State way to go about it, I now agree with the broader intention. Obesity is caused by an industry whose logic is similar to the illegal narcotics industry. An element of public-interest intervention, regulation and policing is necessary. It may seem like a matter of individual decision-making, but as with drugs and smoking, the hidden social costs have now become far too high. Some collective tyranny-of-the-majority arm-twisting has become necessary.

The third book is Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrmann, which again is based on a single principle that makes sense: eat nutritionally dense food. This generally means more colors, more textures, more complex flavors, more variety in ingredients, and closer to natural. That’s a rule I can try to follow without getting a degree in biochemistry.  This is, in a way, the prescription for the diagnosis in Kessler’s book. The book starts with a very challenging addiction-recovery sort of diet, and I might actually try that as my first ever attempt at dieting.

And finally, the DVD that ties a lot of this together is Food, Inc. It is an unabashedly leftist and preachy look at the food industry, but if you have the patience to sift through the ideology, there is good stuff there.  The locavores and organic farmers are headed the right way, even if they sometimes come across as embarrassingly simple-minded in their thinking. The big theme in the stuff I’ve found credible in my survey of food/nutrition material is that there is a very strong link between our large-scale unhealthy eating issues and the structure of the food (and ultimately, the healthcare) industry.  The only credible ideas are the ones that go beyond just acknowledging this connection to analyzing it, and basing intervention suggestions on real chinks in the food industry’s armor. No, it isn’t all about will power. I am pessimistic overall though. I think we’ve finally found the right diagnosis, but I don’t think the prescriptions (individual and social) are strong enough to fix things. We are going to keep getting fatter, more stressed and more prone to heart disease and cancer for a while.

The Too Much to Say List

In this department, three books are worth mentioning.

Some books stay on my radar for a really long time, and keep nagging at me until I read them. Dan McAdams’ The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By is one such. It is a highly original and absorbing book about how successful (or what Erik Erickson called “generative”) Americans tend to tell their life stories. Their stories tend to follow a very specific kind of pattern: a redemption narrative. The book starts with a detached, scholarly and academic take on the pattern, and then intelligently takes the high road of understanding and critiquing rather than the low road of turning the pattern into a cheap self-improvement formula.  The book looks at the positive effects such narratives have on the people who live by them, as well as the negative effects: the delusions of manifest destiny and control over fate that they foster, with the concomitant denials of reality. This book has been on my radar since it first appeared in 2005, and I immediately knew I would one day read it, and that it would have a big impact on me. But as with any big idea that is too close to my own thinking for comfort, I wanted to develop my own thinking about personal narratives before tackling it (yeah, I sometimes suffer from deep anxieties of influence). So finally, after nailing the chapter on narratives in my in-progress book to my satisfication, I was ready to tackle this. I wasn’t disappointed.

Next up is Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. I quote bits and pieces of Nietzsche a lot, love his ideas, and have read random extracts and repackagings all over the place in other works. But I have never actually tackled an original. I picked this one to start because the consensus seems to be that it is probably the most representative and accessible of his works. I am about halfway through and loving it. The book shows its age, and you can’t read it in 2010 without thinking about the century of dangerous misinterpretation that followed Nietzsche. The book seems like an easy read, since it is written in the form of an extended parable, but it is actually gloriously challenging and full of ambiguities and subtleties. On every page you find something that would be horribly dangerous if  read in certain ways. I’ll probably need to do a slower note-taking read after I finish my faster read (which is still far slower than most of my reading).

Finally, there is Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, a grand (and grandiose) attempt at reconstructing the history of human civilization. I started reading Rifkin because his much older 1987 book,  Time Wars, contains necessary reference material for my book. Rifkin is a highly political writer and an old-school leftist. Though I disagree violently with his politics for the most part, he is worth reading because he generally dredges up interesting ideas and perspectives that are worth stealing in the service of other agendas. I’ll review Time Wars in detail later this year, but I thought I’d mention The Empathic Civilization just for fun. I’ve read only two chapters and it already has me screaming in frustration. There is a lot of unnecessary politicization of apolitical ideas, far too many grand, sweeping generalizations, open and pointless warmongering, conjectures passed off as fact, and a rather dated sort of 70s-style lofty rhetoric. Still, there is genuinely an interesting perspective driving the revisionist history, and several interesting thoughts along the way. I think I’ll probably finish the thing. Sometimes, I admit, I am a bit of a self-flagellating masochist when it comes to reading. I tend to go out of my way to read perspectives that I just don’t agree with. I still can’t bear to sit through an entire episode of O’Reilly, but I am getting better.

Some day I should blog about my reading methods. To pre-empt the most obvious question, I generally read something like 10 books in parallel at any given time.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. “I was struck by the idea that for the poor, the volatility of cash flows causes almost as much trouble as the low volume. ” Yes, exactly. High volatility of resources in general is a persistent theme in human history (e.g., the “seven fat years, seven lean years” of the Bible). In particular, there’s a connection to the books you cited regarding food:

    We evolved in an environment in which the potentially sporadic availability of food meant it made sense for people to stuff themselves silly when they could and then have their bodies convert the excess calories into fat as a buffer against times of little or no food. Kessler’s book (which I too read and thought worthwhile — in fact, it helped me lose 15 pounds) is about what happens when brains that evolved under those conditions are constantly bombarded with food-related stimuli.

  2. If you’re trying a diet, can you take a stab at validating Seth Robert’s theories on set-point regulation? I would be very interested to know the results. The theory itself is quite elegant and has an almost fairy-tale like (well, engineer fairy-tale) story of discovery via self-experimentation and the paper, though long, makes for good reading.

    The basic idea is this: break the Pavlovian association between flavours and calorie spikes which raises the weight set-point using standard Pavlovian deconditioning procedures.

    There are many ways to do this besides the ones Roberts recommends (“teaspoon of non-odorous oil well out of phase of your regular eating”). One, which may be more fun is to change cuisines completely (with complex flavours) every two-three weeks. Your body never builds a good association between flavour and calorie and your weight starts dropping merely by you feeling less hungry.

    I tried Zarathustra too. I gave up after a few chapters, but will probably resume it some time. Interesting as you say, and I was scribbling notes for future quotation purposes. Sounded like the poor chap figured out the awful truth that the universe is amoral and ruthless and was driven mad by his discovery.

  3. Your reading method would be of great interest to many of your readers. I speak without hesitation for many who have not the courage to request that you consider a brief method on how to keep track of 10 different books (and absorb different author’s mindsets and viewpoints) while giving due attention and critical analysis to at least 5 of them (assuming a 50% “high interest” rate to warrant non-skimming).

  4. The problem of volatility actually applies to small businesses too, there are many that clapped out during the recession because of simple cash-flow problems when the banks pulled back on funding. Unfortunately, if they’d been able to find companies with cash-flow variations entirely decoupled from their own (ie not in any kind of competition, and not in the same global recession!), then they could have formed the equivalent of a mutual insurance company to smooth their flows.

    Could people have set something like that up fast enough to weaken the recession? Probably not. Might work in the future though, as interest rates start to creep back up.

  5. Frank and tubelite… It almost seems silly to use the word diet as a way to describe what should be ‘normal’ eating. A couple of centuries ago, only sick people went on recovery diets. Today, all of us are sick in a way.

    otoburb: You make it sound like a skill and a magic formula. Reading a lot of books in parallel is mostly an inefficient and unskilled activity for me. I am addicted enough that I just do it. When I say “method” I don’t mean any skills, but really, an attitude of disrespect and skimming/skipping that I think people who read fewer books don’t adopt.

    Josh: That decoupling point in 2 volatile cash flows is an interesting one. I think one of the huge dangerous of globalization is that there are fewer and fewer such hedge categories available to ordinary people, especially small business owners. Everything is correlated. Incidentally, I just incorporated ribbonfarm, so I have to start thinking about these things more carefully :)



  6. Hmm, in that case, perhaps we will be able to hope instead for negatively correlated variations. But I think leans towards vertical integration (Who has more money when you have less? The person you just bought something from!), which is sort of opposite in character to my first idea.

  7. A friend working in an NGO once mentioned how the shoe polishing kids on the streets preferred not to save any cash or receive any other object that they had no place to store safely from bigger boys who would simply take it away. They only liked to get something that could be eaten then and there. Another poor person once said he would rather spend a bit of extra cash on drinks than take it to the 10′ X 10′ room where he stayed with 15 others and having to buy something and share with them.

    Some time ago I started the new habit of reading 2-3 books simultaneously. Last week I met somebody who mentioned she reads six at a time and I thought that was a bit too much!

  8. Seth Godin
    For me, I always wish he would be less of a marketer and more of an intellectual, but I suppose he practices what he preaches. I agree with your analysis that his central ideas are usually good and worth exploring in depth. But, when faced with a choice between intellectual honesty and emotional piggybacking, Godin seems to choose the latter. You could say that an amoral argument is “not his style.” Flattering self-aggrandizing analysis is.

    Food & Regulation
    I was surprised that you chose illegal drugs as your analogy. I happen to think that in this case, prohibiting has caused incredible harm and worse may be to come. I don’t think the downsides of narcotics prohibition apply though. There is probably no criminal empire potential in salty chips and no chip eating, underclass will be alienated. I couldn’t stomach Food inc.

  9. Just read (started reading, then skimmed) the McAdams book, The Redemptive Self. Wow, usually I love your thoughts and recommendations, Venkatesh, but this one was a disaster! I don’t like reading about “chosen people” who are not me, and although this research could have taken any number of interesting paths, based on the generativity idea and the redemptive stories hypothesis, it does nothing but write off those who do not happen to get high scores on McAdams’ tests. Are the traits he studies really more common in America? If so, perhaps America really is exceptional. It’s not clear to me why McAdams doesn’t support American colonizing the rest of the world. After all, those poor brown saps don’t have our awesome redemptive culture. (eye roll)

    To really follow this thesis in an interesting way would require studying not just those happy successful people at the top, but also the outliers. Who is happy and successful without having redemptive stories? Who has redemptive stories but fails? Why? Are the stories themselves the real causal element, or is this just a proxy for personality dimensions? How do these ideas spread among people — from genes, parents, school, what? I saw bits of these questions in the book, but nothing that looked like a convincing answer.

  10. Harlan: The book is somewhat tongue-and-cheek and is actually quite critical of people who view their lives through redemptive life stories. That may not be apparent in a skim. It is easy to miss the satire if you don’t read closely. If you skim, it can look like a self-improvement book, rather than the critique it is.

    He talks about them as the ‘chosen people’ because that’s how they describe themselves, and in the later part of the book, he talks about how their world views are deluded. He is strongly critical of how such world views led to individual and national disasters.

    Your other questions, he does answer, though of course since he is not a statistician or geneticist, he just hints at assumptions/conjectures in those areas, rather than presenting research.

    I think you may have misread the premise and tone of the book at a fundamental level. He simply went around collecting self-stories narrated by successful people about themselves, and used those stories to find a pattern. His only stats assertion is that “generative adults” in a developmental psychology sense, in America, tell the “redemptive” pattern story more often than “non generative” ones. He does not say the “generative” adult is a good personality type or form any such judgments. Most important, he does NOT believe these people are chosen or special. Just that THEY believe they are, and organize their lives by that logic.

    But enough defense. I think a close reading may change your mind, but it could be that the methodology of the book truly does not resonate with you. I like narrative psych a LOT more than statistical psych, so perhaps this is a peculiar personal taste.

  11. “The idea deserves a small, neat book, like The Dip, and it gets a longer, fluffier treatment…”

    Wow, fluffier than The Dip? Honestly, I have rarely felt so ripped off as I did after buying and reading The Dip. Important concept, yes; clearly articulated, yes…at least, up until the point where it devolved into sentence fragments repeating the same idea for the remainder of the book. The concept could have been explained within two pages, even in the book’s small-page-big-margins-big-type format. Throw in some good supporting anecdotes, the kind that not only illustrate the concept but help the reader to identify it, and you’ve got maybe 20 pages. What you don’t have, though, is a book deal for a book that you can sell for $12.95 a copy.

    (I couldn’t even think of picking up Tribes. The whole misappropriation of a useful anthropological term to be used as a name for the Cool Kid Club annoyed me too much.)

  12. @Mary Shh!! Though shalt not question God(in) :)

    I agree… the Dip should have been a 2-pager, and Tribes, the non-flawed part, could have been done in 10.

    And yes, I did find the misappropriation annoying as well. Real tribes tend to be vastly more federal/democratic than the leadership cults Godin is trying to catalyze. Leadership cultism is more characteristic of settled civilizations than tribal cultures.