The first rule of self-help scam artists is to tell people what they want to hear, without being too obvious about it. Tell them that there’s an easy way for them to get whatever they want, or that everything bad is somebody else’s fault, but wrap it up in convincing language that makes it seem somehow logical. One example of this that has really been driving me nuts lately is Seth Godin’s “linchpin” idea. Apparently the idea is that everyone should aspire to be a post-industrial “artist” instead of just a cog in a machine, everyone has the potential to do “emotional work” at a “high level” and thus become indispensable, etc. It’s a very positive message, but I’m just not buying it.

First, while I believe it’s not possible to predict who will rise to the challenge of becoming a linchpin, and thus that we should give everyone the chance, that doesn’t mean absolutely everyone can. Many people really are cogs in the corporate machine, are not particularly capable of being anything else, and are even happy that way – saving their creative energy for other pursuits such as family, hobbies, sports, and so on. Ninety percent of the people who proudly portray themselves as linchpins quite notably do not meet the criteria, and I’d even say that they’re less likely than average to be true linchpins because the significant time they spend on self-affirmation and self-promotion is time not spent actually doing anything that would make them real linchpins. My second objection to Godin’s idea is that just because some people can be linchpins doesn’t mean all can. It’s like every child being above average. Show me an organization where every single contributor is indispensable, and I’ll show you an organization that is guaranteed to fail as the normal course of events makes any one of them unavailable. Like it or not, only a few people in any group can be linchpins and if you want to be one then you’ll be in competition with others to find that niche.

We really need to get over the idea that every worker should be a unique and pretty snowflake to deserve a place in a high-functioning organization. Somebody has to do the things that anybody can do, and as long as that’s the case there’s a need for discipline as well as self-expression. If everybody thinks they’re leading, nobody really is. Most people are unique and special in some way, but usually not in a way that any employer/client can or should care about. Ordinary people, or people who are special in non-work-related ways, can still play a valuable and even essential role in even the most creative and innovative environments. Uniqueness is not a requirement. A beautiful snowstorm would still be beautiful even if every single snowflake looked exactly alike. Real self-help would mean teaching people how to find and function in and enjoy being in a creative environment, not just telling them that they can be among its leaders. For many of them, it’s simply not true.