Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Prose Not Taken

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere pages and pages hence:
Two prose diverged in a book, and I –
I read the one less eyeballed by,
And that has made all the difference.

- liberties taken with the final stanza of the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

A few years back I saw marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin speak at an event in Minneapolis. It wasn’t a high profile appearance by any means. I don’t actually think such a thing is possible in Minnesota. That being said, Seth was as always entertaining and somewhat provocative. After his official talk I was even afforded the opportunity to chat with him a bit. During the discussion I asked him a few questions, one of which was simply “What do you like to read?”

Seth pondered my inquiry, then responded. But he didn’t actually answer the question. Instead he told me something I already understood.

Each year there seem to be a certain number of business books everyone is reading, or should be reading. In most circles, these books are referred to as the New York Times Best Seller List. I vaguely remember a book a few years ago, the name of which actually escapes me because I never actually read it, which was all the rage. It was classified as a business book but seemed to transcend this genre. I recollect the book (apparently not the name but rather the spirit of it) because I distinctly remember a conversation I had about it with an acquaintance of mine. This person was genuinely excited about the book. About how insightful it was. About how it could change what people thought about and how they thought it.

“You’ve just got to read this book.” The endorsement couldn’t have been more ringing.

“But if everyone is reading the same book about how to think differently, won’t people simply end up thinking the same?” I asked.

If you’re trying to be unique and innovative, if you’re trying to think differently, might it make some sense to travel a slightly different cognitive road? The reality I suppose, or rather duality, is that we need to have an awareness of and appreciation for the innovative ideas, trends, and techniques around us while simultaneously forging new ground. Indeed we must be informed. Yet to what extent should we copy the intellectual roadmap of anyone else? “Innovation Clones” is an oxymoron, isn’t it?

Seth Godin didn’t tell me that day about his personal reading list or literary preferences. Rather, he told me I shouldn’t attempt to think like him or be like him by simply reading what he reads.

In the world of marketing guru-ness I imagine there’s pressure to be perpetually profound. Everything you say, and everything you write must be seemingly insightful. I also imagine in the world of “Seth Godin as a person” versus “Seth Godin as a personality”, there’s a certain guardedness when it comes to sharing personal information with others. The brand must be protected. What each of us choose to read can be very revealing about our individual personalities and perspectives. So I don’t begrudge Seth Godin for not answering my question. But I already understood what he understood. I was simply interested in what he likes to read.

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