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Permission to Excel

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Seth Godin published a book titled Permission Marketing way back in 1999. Basically, his message in the book is that the most effective way to get your message across to someone is to first ask them if they’re interested in hearing it rather than the historic “broadcasting” approach that was long the major means of marketing messaging. (How much spam do you read? Junk mail?)

Permission is a good thing to get. Sometimes. Because there is that thing about asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

But what Godin does in his latest, The Icarus Deception (Portfolio; penguin.com), is, in effect, provide permission (or maybe it is justification) for doing things that go beyond the norm, beyond the status quo, beyond what you probably do during your daily grind. As he argues, your daily grind probably is a grind because your job is probably established in such a way that there is little chance for you, as a person, to do much beyond the method that has long been established to keep things in the organization running smoothly. (And the grinding metaphor works, because when you grind a surface, you make it smoother. Generally speaking.)

If you do something that is outside the parameters of the norm, then there is the distinct possibility that you’ll be in some sort of trouble. Which is why he references Icarus, that mythical figure who flew too high, too close to the sun, and then plummeted to his end because the wax on the wings his father crafted for him melted and the feathers fell off. Godin points out that his dad also told him not to fly too low, too close to the sea, because there would be a problem vis-à-vis lift, but that’s part of the story that has not gained the currency of flying too high with disastrous consequences. Godin’s position seems to be that it is better to get a tan than a bath, to go higher than lower. Another title for the book might have been The Goldilocks Paradox, but I’m not sure that he is interested in the porridge or the bed size that’s “just right.”

Godin talks about the importance of making “art.” No, he’s not referring to releasing your inner Picasso, per se, but about getting really good at whatever it is that you do, and then pushing yourself beyond the boundaries that you have personally established (comfort zone), beyond the boundaries that have been organizationally established (safety zone). That’s because as everyone who has lived through the past few years knows, there is no sure thing anymore when it comes to your job when you’re working for someone else, particularly when that’s not someone else but something else, as in a major corporation that tends to look at employees as digits rather than as people. Art is personal. Individual. Going through the motions of a task is repeatable. Automatable. Odds are better if you opt for the artistic approach rather than the other, as the other is what can be readily replaced or otherwise outsourced.

Of course you know that. You know that distinctiveness beats formulaity every time. (Well, almost every time, because when we are buying a mass-produced product, whether it is a Big Mac or a Buick, we want to be assured that the right steps were taken to put it together. But that’s not the sort of job, I think, that Godin is talking about.)

Godin writes about the importance of making connections. Of connecting with people through what you do in such a way that they’d miss you if you’re gone because what you do, what you provide, is so indubitably you that there is no other way to get precisely what it is that you provide.

Think of the difference between a great automotive designer and one that’s merely competent. There are few of the former and plenty of the latter. For example, even non-car enthusiasts have heard of the “Hofmeister kink” and the “Bangle butt,” two characteristics from BMW designers (Wilhelm Hofmeister and Chris Bangle). They didn’t play by the “rules.” They created them. While it would have probably been easier not to have done so, it would have undoubtedly been less rewarding. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily about fame. It is about becoming indispensible. 

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