Be remarkable Be generous Create art Make judgment calls Connect people and ideas . . . and we have no choice but to reward you.
In a factory, doing a job that's not yours is dangerous. Now, if you're a linchpin, doing a job that's not getting done is essential.
BECOMING THE LINCHPIN
The law of linchpin leverage: The more value you create in your job, the fewer clock minutes of labor you actually spend creating that value. In other words, most of the time, you're not being brilliant. Most of the time, you do stuff that ordinary people could do.
Depth of Knowledge Alone Is Not Enough
Depth of knowledge combined with good judgment is worth a lot. Depth of knowledge combined with diagnostic skills or nuanced insight is worth a lot, too. Knowledge alone, though, I'd rather get faster and cheaper from an expert I find online. If I need a great direct mail letter, it's far cheaper and faster to hire a great direct mail writer to write me a letter than it is to hire someone and have him on staff for the one letter I need every month, right? Depth of knowledge is rarely sufficient, all by itself, to turn someone into a linchpin.
Give Yourself a D
Assume before you start that you're going to create something that the teacher, the boss, or some other nitpicking critic is going to dislike. Of course, they need to dislike it for all the wrong reasons. You can't abandon technique merely because you're not good at it or unwilling to do the work. But if the reason you're going to get a D is that you're challenging structure and expectation and the status quo, then YES! Give yourself a D.
A League of Your Own
The challenge of becoming a linchpin solely based on your skill at plying a craft or doing a task or playing a sport is that the market can find other people with that skill with surprising ease. Plenty of people can play the flute as well as you can, clean a house as well as you can, program in Python as well as you can. If all you can do is the task and you're not in a league of your own at doing the task, you're not indispensable.
The Downside of Good
Being pretty good is extremely easy these days. So yes, good is bad, if bad means "not a profitable thing to aspire to." And perfect is bad, because you can't top perfect. The solution lies in seeking out something that is neither good nor perfect. You want something remarkable, nonlinear, game changing, and artistic. Work is a chance to do art. Good art is useless and banal. No one crosses the street to buy good art, or becomes loyal to a good artist. If you can't be remarkable, perhaps you should consider doing nothing until you can.
The only way to prove (as opposed to assert) that you are an indispensable linchpin--someone worth recruiting, moving to the top of the pile, and hiring--is to show, not tell. Projects are the new résumés. If your Google search isn't what you want (need) it to be, then change it. Change it through your actions and connections and generosity. Change it by so over-delivering that people post about you. Change it by creating a blog that is so insightful about your area of expertise that others refer to it. And change it by helping other people online.
It doesn't matter where you live on the long tail, as long as the tribe of people you connect with are eager to seek you out and help you succeed.
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally. Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn't matter. The intent does. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another. Art is the product of emotional labor. If it's easy and risk free, it's unlikely that it's art. The last element that makes it art is that it's a gift. You cannot create a piece of art merely for money. If art is a human connection that causes someone to change his mind, then you are an artist. What if you were great at it?
My fundamental argument here is simple: In everything you do, it's possible to be an artist, at least a little bit. Not on demand, not in the same way each time, and not for everyone. But if you're willing to suspend your selfish impulses, you can give a gift to your customer or boss or coworker or a passerby. And the gift is as much for you as it is for the recipient.
Who Is It For?
Most of us, though, most of the time, make our art for an audience. We want to change someone else. We're seeking to make them happier, or more engaged, or a customer. There are two reasons why it's vital to know whom you are working for. The first is that understanding your audience allows you to target your work and to get feedback that will help you do it better next time. The other reason? Because it tells you whom to ignore. It's impossible to make art for everyone. There are too many conflicting goals and there's far too much noise. Art for everyone is mediocre, bland, and ineffective. If you don't pinpoint your audience, you end up making your art for the loudest, crankiest critics. And that's a waste. Instead, focus on the audience that you choose, and listen to them, to the exclusion of all others. Go ahead and make this sort of customer happy, and the other guys can go pound sand.
A lot of things are evolutionary, and it is easy to get caught up in what the geek subculture thinks. There's lots of valuable businesses that can be built there, but I think that is where a lot of people tend to spin their wheels, and I've been caught up there before. When I've had more successful things, I've thought, "Back to basics. What do I want? What do I want to see in the world?" And create that.
The Passion to Spread
Passion is caring enough about your art that you will do almost anything to give it away, to make it a gift, to change people. Part of the passion is having the persistence and resilience to change both your art and the way you deliver it. Passion for your art also means having a passion for spreading your art. This means being willing to surrender elements that you are in love with in order to help the other parts thrive and spread. And at the same time, passion means having enough connection to your art that you're not willing to surrender the parts that truly matter. If the ideas don't spread, if no gift is received, then there is no art, only effort. When an artist stops work before his art is received, his work is unfulfilled.
Shipping isn't focused on producing a masterpiece (but all master-pieces get shipped). I've produced more than a hundred books (most didn't sell very well), but if I hadn't, I'd never have had the chance to write this one. Picasso painted more than a thousand paintings, and you can probably name three of them. When you first adopt the discipline of shipping, your work will appear to suffer. There's no doubt that another hour, day, or week would have added some needed polish. But over time--rather quickly, actually--you'll see that shipping becomes part of the art and shipping makes it work.
Shipping something out the door, doing it regularly, without hassle, emergency, or fear--this is a rare skill, something that makes you indispensable.
Seeking Out Discomfort
Going out of your way to find uncomfortable situations isn't natural, but it's essential. The resistance seeks comfort. The resistance wants to hide. Discomfort brings engagement and change. Discomfort means you're doing something that others were unlikely to do, because they're busy hiding out in the comfortable zone.
One way to become creative is to discipline yourself to generate bad ideas. The worse the better. Do it a lot and magically you'll discover that some good ones slip through.
Freedom Feeds the Resistance
The freedom of the new kind of work (which most of us do, most of the time) is that the tasks are vague and difficult to measure. We can waste an hour surfing the 'Net because no one knows if surfing the 'Net is going to help us make progress or connections. This freedom is great, because it means no one is looking over your shoulder; no one is using a stopwatch on you. This freedom is a pox, because it's an opening for the resistance. Freedom like this makes it easy to hide, easy to find excuses, easy to do very little.
When the resistance tells you not to listen to something, read something, or attend something, go. Do it. It's not an accident that successful people read more books. When you feel the resistance, the stall, the fear, and the pull, you know you're on to something. Whichever way the wind of resistance is coming from, that's the way to head--directly into the resistance.
By forcing myself to do absolutely no busywork tasks in between bouts with the work, I remove the best excuse the resistance has. I can't avoid the work because I am not distracting myself with anything but the work. This is the hallmark of a productive artist. I don't go to meetings. I don't write memos. I don't have a staff. I don't commute. The goal is to strip away anything that looks productive but doesn't involve shipping. It takes crazy discipline to do nothing between projects. It means that you have to face a blank wall and you can't look busy. It means you are alone with your thoughts, and it means that a new project, perhaps a great project, will appear pretty soon, because your restless energy can't permit you to only sit and do nothing.
When I put myself on an Internet diet (only five checks a day, not fifty), my productivity tripled. Tripled.
Leo Babauta's brilliant little book Zen Habits helps you think your way through this problem. His program is simple: Attempt to create only one significant work a year. Break that into smaller projects, and every day, find three tasks to accomplish that will help you complete a project. And do only that during your working hours. I'm talking about an hour a day to complete a mammoth work of art, whatever sort of art you have in mind. That hour a day might not be fun, but it's probably a lot more productive than the ten hours you spend now.
The best way to overcome your fear of creativity, brainstorming, intelligent risk-taking, or navigating a tricky situation might be to sprint. When we sprint, all the internal dialogue falls away and we focus on going as fast as we possibly can. When you're sprinting, you don't feel that sore knee and you don't worry that the ground isn't perfectly level. You just run. You can't sprint forever. That's what makes it sprinting. The brevity of the event is a key part of why it works. "Quick, you have thirty minutes to come up with ten business ideas." "Hurry, we need to write a new script for our commercial . . . we have fifteen minutes."
You need a platform that makes it easy to turn your insight into a movement. I'm trying to sell you on the idea of building a platform before you have your next idea, to view the platform building as a separate project from spreading your art. You can work on the platform every day, do it without facing the resistance. As the platform gets bigger and stronger, you get to launch each idea a little farther uphill. It's not easy to get to this point. A valuable platform is an asset, one that isn't handed to you. It takes preparation and effort to set the world up so that your ideas are more likely to ship. But that's effort that the resistance won't be so eager to sabotage. By separating the hard work of preparation from the scary work of insight, you can build an environment in which you're more likely to ship.
THE POWERFUL CULTURE OF GIFTS
A business coach writes and gives away a two-hundred-page e-book jammed with useful tips and secrets. Everything he knows, online, for free. Is this generous or stupid? Is there an easier way to make it clear that he has wisdom to spare? Gifts not only satisfy our needs as artists, they also signal to the world that we have plenty more to share. This perspective is magnetic. The more you have in your cup, the more likely people are to want a drink.
Old-school businesspeople argue for copyright and patent protection and say, "I can't tell you my idea because I'm afraid you will steal it." Old-school thinking is that you get paid first, you sign a contract, you protect and defend and profit. They say, "Pay me." Artists say, "Here."
The street performer is a great metaphor for you and your work. She stands on the corner, busking for tips. Most people walk by. That's fine. If someone walks by, changing your act to attract her or running after her is a foolish game. The performer seeks the people who choose to stop and watch and interact and ultimately donate. Great work is not created for everyone. If it were, it would be average work.
The Magic of Living Below Your Means
When you cut your expenses to the bone, you have a surplus. The surplus allows you to be generous, which mysteriously turns around and makes your surplus even bigger.
Nostalgia for the Future
The linchpin is able to invent a future, fall in love with it, live in it--and then abandon it on a moment's notice.
THE CULTURE OF CONNECTION
Do you know someone who is more open to new ideas or more agreeable than you? More stable or extroverted? More conscientious? If so, then you better get moving. It's so easy to fall into the trap of focusing on using a spreadsheet or a time clock to measure your progress, but in fact, it's the investment you make in your interactions that will pay off.
Here is one way to think about the list of what makes you indispensable:
Providing a unique interface between members of the organization
Delivering unique creativity
Managing a situation or organization of great complexity
Providing deep domain knowledge
Possessing a unique talent
Possessing a unique talent
When you meet someone, you need to have a superpower. If you don't, you're just another handshake. It's not about touting yourself or coming on too strong. It's about making the introduction meaningful. If I don't know your superpower, then I don't know how you can help me (or I can help you).
WHEN IT DOESN'T WORK
What Do You Do When Your Art Doesn't Work? Make more art. It's the only choice, isn't it? Give more gifts. Learn from what you did and then do more.
Now that you know what to call the fear that has held you back all these years, what are you going to choose to do about the resistance? Now that you understand that society rewards you for standing out, for giving gifts, for making connections and being remarkable, what are you going to choose to do with that information? You have a genius inside of you, a daemon with something to share with the world. Everyone does. Are you going to continue hiding it, holding it back, and settling for less than you deserve just because your lizard brain is afraid? There lies regret.