Creativity and Significance

Let’s review Seth Godin’s latest and apply it to our current circumstances

Tim Brunelle
6 min readJul 1, 2023

Given the urgency and influence of AI…

Now would absolutely be a productive time to discuss the significance of creativity, never mind the significance of the work and impact each of us aspires to deliver.

AI is here — and it’s already come for the kind of work I do every day. And yet, I suit up and show up because I see plenty of opportunities. Thriving in this new world begs important questions:

Does creativity — especially the work we create individually — still matter?

How does the value of “work” transform, if humans aren’t doing it?

How might we balance the benefits of technology and industrialization with their unavoidable threats?

Each of us has our own ways of solving life’s riddles. I tend to read, then occasionally annotate and scribble in the margins. Seth Godin’s latest, The Song of Significance, provides a deep and nourishing well of useful perspective. This book arrives right in this moment, and asks us to consider fundamental questions related to purpose, culture and the results we choose to be a part of. It’s only 187 pages long, yet packs a punch.

Various images of marked up pages inside Seth Godin’s latest book the Song of Significance

Can we industrialize creativity?

Back in September 2014 Godin published Stop Stealing Dreams, a manifesto I consider the roots of his latest effort. His central question then: “What is school for?” suggested it was time to rethink public education. (TL;DR — Seth’s bot summarizes: “According to Seth, this system is outdated and fundamentally flawed, as it frequently serves to crush creativity and innovation rather than nurturing them. Our schools often force-feed a standardized curriculum and measure success through a narrow definition.”)

Much of our current AI circumstance seems an inevitable progression in that long history of rules-following. Show up on time and do what the boss tells you. Except now maybe the boss is an algorithm, and you use a large language model instead of a paint brush.

Song of Significance asks us to wrestle with our centuries-long addiction to the assumed certainty, murky guarantees and perceived singularity of industrial culture.

Oof. Part of your brain just rebelled.

Quickly — this book does not besmirch or deny the greatness of our foundations. This book isn’t asking anyone to smash the gates around standardization, scale, or uniformity; all of which remain useful. As Godin puts it, “There will always be jobs (and organizations) that do work that can only be accomplished via management and top-down compliance. They’re not going to go away.”

What the book does ask is for us to accept and explore the necessity of an alternative approach. Godin continues, “But we shouldn’t pretend that all jobs need to be this way, nor should we encourage people to take an industrial job believing that it will serve their soul.”

If we’re going to thrive in the age of AI, we need to recognize we’re making a different choice. About how we accomplish work that matters. About the systems we support to fuel our work. About the rules, expectations, and habits we need to take advantage of a fresh reality.

The first choice is to distinguish between entrenched industrial management and the significance of leadership.

1️⃣ Management isn’t Leadership, and vice versa — the difference is “a feeling of control”

“The manager seeks compliance,” writes Godin. “The leader seeks to create the conditions for people to make a change happen.” The book spends a lot of time distilling important contrasts between managing and leading; with fear playing the litmus.

“Management is the hard work of getting people who work for you to do what they did yesterday, but faster and cheaper.” And that hard work is often rooted in fear. Do what you’re told or lose your job. Our shares will decline if we don’t maintain the status quo. While leaders seeking significance embrace and counter their team’s fears.

“Industrial managers tell us to be HERE, precisely where they say and when they say it. Here doing this work, this predictable, measurable, specific work.

But leaders seek to help us get over there. It might not work, it might not be precisely what we expected, but that’s where we’re going.”

The central thesis is “giving up the feeling of control.” Industrial management isn’t wiser or more prescient. It just benefits from a learned, familiar preference by teams which fear a perceived loss of control more than anything. Better to be certain and wrong than uncertain. We’ve all been in that meeting.

As AI unlocks knowledge management, we’re going to see an intriguing tension emerge, especially within orgs which prize “the feeling of control.” Or as Godin puts it,

“There’s a huge difference between the backward-looking work of quality improvement and the forward-looking dance of making decisions about what happens next.”

2️⃣ Tension is a positive sign you’re seeking significance

No one wants to be found incorrect.

No one wants the boss to call us out for uncertainty.

“Fail fast” are words on a poster, not a quality celebrated in performance reviews.

Within industrial-minded organizations, tension is a negative indicator. And those seeking hierarchy and a feeling of control leverage that negativity. But wait. “Tension is not the same as stress.”

Organizations seeking significance can’t live without some amount of tension.

“Tension always accompanies change, and change is the hallmark of significance. Tension is good. It’s a sign we’re onto something. Tension is a tool. We can use it to make change happen.”

Godin isn’t alone in espousing the benefits of tension. From Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc., to Kim Scott’s Radical Candor, from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit to Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, and woven throughout Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art we learn how tension indicates useful potential. Those of us seeking significance welcome the uncertain, we recognize tension opens a door — regardless of what’s on the other side. “Valuable contributors aren’t consistently right, they’re consistently contributing,” writes Godin.

When we notice tension, we’re wise to name the accompanying fear. It might just be a very large, yet unimportant, shadow. After all, “you can’t walk on a rope unless it’s tight.” Godin reminds us:

“Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the willingness to do things that are so important they’re worth doing even (especially) when we’re feeling the fear.”

3️⃣ What if productivity = creativity and humanity?

One of the myths of industrial culture is productivity. The image of the factory, the clock, the assigned desk, the check-in, the status meeting, timesheets, the dashboard, the stand up scrum — all try very hard to suggest we’re accomplishing something.

I was assigned a “return to work” campaign in 2021 for an organization which had achieved historic milestones in productivity the previous year while a significant percentage of employees worked from home. So, return to what? Had we not been working? 🙄 But we come by it honestly, don’t we — this desire for familiar, unquestioned, binary attributes which define how we work with one another?

Godin asks us to consider, “Just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Or that it matters.”

This book asks us to re-evaluate what it means to be productive.

Especially, and again, in this newfound age of AI. We are gaining exponential perspective and capability. Should we constrain these advantages in the containers of industrial behavior? Or can there be a worthwhile alternative? “The work of significance embraces the very things that industrialism seeks to stamp out.”

“Significance is inconvenient.”

Which is exactly why it’s worth pursuing. Significance is the harder work we can embrace now that we’ve systematized and automated the work we could. The inconvenience is only an industrial mindset. Godin asks us to (re)consider the tools and advantage at our disposal as the means to utilize tension, to lead versus manage.

How might we measure productivity through a lens of significance?

  • Document creative potential — as evidenced by the risks we took, and the insights we shared to make our teams stronger
  • Celebrate transparency — by “mak[ing] promises openly and consistently — and then keep[ing] them”
  • Invest in dignity — as measured by our efforts to understand and to be understood

(More of the same on pages 96, 97, 118, 142, 163–165 in the hardcover edition.)

I had the good fortune to spend a few minutes with Seth Godin right before he keynoted the 2009 Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association’s annual Summit. (For those keeping score, this was the year we invented Lil’ Seth to help hype the actual Seth’s appearance.) You could sense the melody taking shape even then. Along with Linchpin (2010), This Is Marketing (2018) and The Practice (2020), Song of Significance articulates a clear choice available to all. Here’s hoping more will take up the call.

“When we embrace the mutual commitments of significance, we embrace the conditions for a shared understanding that our work, our actual work, is to dance with the fear. And dancing with fear requires significance, tension and the belief that we’re doing something that matters.”

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Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.