A Better Alternative: What I Learned at Seth Godin’s AltMBA (Plus a BONUS For Biz Pros)

[Reading Time: Approx. 12 min]

When I was growing up, I remember valuing a couple things: sports, friends, family and… getting A’s. And as I went from middle school to high school, it became more and more apparent that the latter of these values was the most important.

Why? That’s easy.

If you get A’s then you can get into “Gifted and Talented” classes – the schools way of telling you how brilliant you are (though we already know from Carol Dweck that this is likely to hinder your growth) . And then you get into a good college (assuming you also “ace” the standardized tests). And then, you are rewarded with a “good” job (“good,” means doctor, banker, lawyer, engineer, etc – those “secure” and “well-paying” jobs where kids go to exchange their souls for boredom).

After following this path, I came to a realization – the A’s didn’t actually do anything for me in the real world. They didn’t prepare me for my first job. All they really did was ensure that I was -well –  good at school.

Seth Godin, the founder of the Alt MBA, likes to joke: “being good at school is great if you plan to ‘do school’ the rest of your life.” To Godin, school as we know it is merely “a facility optimized for meeting standards.” In Linchpin, he humorously concludes, “memorize enough answers, and you’re all set.”

Better, he thinks, to learn actual real-world skills and pair them with your interests and your strengths. Many of the important ones are what are sometimes condescendingly (and wrongly) dubbed “soft skills.”

After you establish these skills, interests and strengths – who knows – maybe even direct them a solving a problem. A problem that society, or someone, somewhere, needs solved. One that perhaps your interests, skills and strengths

Campbell Interest and Skill

are uniquely suited to solve.

But instead of continuing to talk about the problem – as he did very enjoyably here – Seth took his own advice and created the answer. He knows we need actions, not merely ideas.

“We’re not waiting to hear about your notebook of ideas.”

The result is the AltMBA: a one-month workshop designed to teach people the things that Seth believes should have been taught in school. The course is built on principles Seth has been evangelizing in his books, talks and online courses for years, but brought to life in a community of active, interactive and eager-to-create people. Ones of disparate backgrounds and interests, yet converging principles.

What is it for?

This is the question that leads off every project in which Seth Godin engages. And it is the most important question not to forget. (He talks about it here)

So what is the Alt MBA for (and who the heck is Seth Godin)?

To the chagrin of many an interviewer, It is hard to paint Seth with the following brush: “Seth Godin is a __.” Because the answer depends on context and timing.

It is much easier to say “Seth has worked as a”: book-packager, a marketer, an entrepreneur, freelancer (which are different), a writer, a speaker, a teacher, a product-maker, and 1000 other things, I am sure.

Recently, on writer / producer Brian Koppelman’s jewel of a podcast, The Moment, Seth describes what he does in all of these contexts: “noticing things” and “turning the lights on for people.”

This past weekend, at the first ever AltMBA Alumni Gathering, in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, Seth described the question of “what’s it for” as a posture. “Posture” meaning the stance you (through your work) are taking with respect to the world.

Namely, what’s in and what’s out. Who’s in and who’s out? This is the upper level of David Allen’s GTD system: what are the principles and purpose by which this thing you are making will operate.

The AltMBA is for turning the lights on. What David Foster Wallace defined as “awareness.” And Godin does this for people in a way in which traditional schooling, even MBAs from Harvard, will likely not touch on.

It is for learning “soft skills” and understanding that these soft skills, what Dan Pink, in an underrated book, calls “high touch” and “high concept” skills, are actually the only one’s that matter if you want to be a change-maker. [Here’s Seth on soft skills]

WHO is It For?

The AltMBA is for people who have something to say and a change they want to see made. But not merely just “see” it – but to create it. To act on it. To contribute. To create “art” as Godin defines it.

What is “art”? Godin has defined it like this:

“Art is a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.”

The process can be through any medium: writing, speaking, building software, constructing a bridge, communication, leading, drawing, painting, singing. The change or “art” can be anything: starting a blog about a social issue important to you, writing a book, creating a new action figure, building a piece of software, starting a company, rallying a group of people.

It requires only a few things: you want to create a change and connect on a human level, you don’t know exactly where to start, you are frightened by this uncertainty, and then, you do it anyway.

The AltMBA seeks to create a place to cultivate this pattern. To create awareness, provide some of the raw materials, generate inspiration and a community to fuel you, and then simply allow you to move forward with your art.

Michael Schrage has famously discussed the customer-centric mission statement. Not who is your company, not who is your customer, but rather, “who do you want your customer to become?!” The AltMBA wants their customers to grow into the artists that they already are and didn’t know it.

If the above sounds difficult and different and you don’t quite know how to do it, but you want to do it anyway in order to connect, change and grow– this is for you.

Four “Soft Skills” I Learned (Plus a bonus for the corporate folk)

About a month after “graduation,” I was What’s App-ing with a fellow Alt grad, my new Australian super-accountant, buddy, Jason. Jason founded a successful start-up called Smartbooks Online– a company looking to spruce up the depressingly dull and dense accounting world. They’re starting with the coolest t-shirts I’ve ever seen. [Jason also has a very interesting blog here].

We were discussing the AltMBA and trying to nail down what exactly we had learned. What were the big takeaways that we would apply to our lives. We came up with quite a list.

Here are four of the big takeaways we agreed on. At the end of each learning, I have put a “try this” exercise to give you a hands-on idea of how this skill is useful. Also, at the very bottom, there is a BONUS for all those interested in how I applied AltMBA skills and learnings to my corporate job.

(1) Shipping.

Godin’s perspective is that art is not art unless you “ship.” Shipping is the act of sending your work out to the world to someone other than yourself in order to create a change in them. The scary part here is that having a ship date means it might not yet be “perfect.” And still, you will be subject to the feedback and scrutiny of the world. And, “it might not work.”

As Godin has famously said:

SNL does not ship when it is perfect, they ship when the clock hits 11:30 PM on Saturday.

This is in line with Toyota’s MVP model popularized by Eric Reis and Silicon Valley. The idea is that feedback is a good thing, not in spite of it not being “ready” but because of that fact. This is the best way to see if what you made is useful to others. And that is the point of art.

As Linkedin’s CEO, Reid Hoffman has said:

If You’re Not Embarrassed By The First Version Of Your Product, You’ve Launched Too Late

To be clear, this does not give you the right to send junk out into the world. The goal is to send the barest possible form of your best efforts. Something likely to be useful enough for constructive feedback.

This was very uncomfortable for me at the beginning of the course. It probably took me nearly a year to even start this blog and about 2-3 months to finish and “ship” this first article about my travels to spain.

In the course, you might only have a few hours to write and then you have to just send it out to the world. You might not like that one quote. You may think your introduction needs work. But you give it your best and you ship.

This has now had multiplying effects on my work. Like this post. Or that talk. Or raising my hand before my question is quite “perfect.” As Seth says – it is buzzer management:

“You need to press the buzzer before you know the answer” – not after.

Try this: Think about your next project via this “Ship-it Journal.” You will be surprised how difficult and helpful it can be.


(2) Empathy.

Yes, I know, you’ve heard it a lot lately. Empathy has become somewhat of a buzzword in business circles. But so is MVP, that doesn’t make it any less powerful of a tool. It just means a lot of people talk, but most of them do not act in accordance.

Author, Daniel Goleman, wrote the book on emotional inteligence that seemed to bring this skill to popular culture. In it, he argues convincingly, and on the back of research, that your “EQ,” or Emotional Intelligence, is much more indicative of success than your “IQ,” your intellectual Intelligence. Goleman:

“That capacity—the ability to know how another feels—comes into play in a vast array of life arenas, from sales and management to romance and parenting, to compassion and political action. The absence of empathy is also telling. Its lack is seen in criminal psychopaths, rapists, and child molesters.”

You can imagine the big hit this was with very manly, gun-toting, football-watching, beer-crushing CEOs in the world.

So what is empathy? One definition is being able to actually look at a situation from another person’s perspective.

This is incredibly difficult. George Orwell realized he wasn’t able to understand those who didn’t have his privileged upbringings until he actually lived like them. John Steinbeck did a similar thing in “Travels With Charley,” realizing that “I had written about this country but never seen it.”

[This video (11 min) is a really worth a look]

Try this: Think of an issue you are passionate about and the write an essay arguing the points for the other side. Try your best not to cop-out. Not to merely give this lip service. But to actually try and see what they see.

Think about the people who hold this view. They are not stupid. They are no more irrational than you. What is their worldview? Where were they born? Why does it make sense that they believe this — why is it rational and smart for them to believe this? Why might you be wrong. Again, do not condescend: “oh it totally makes sense that they would believe this b/c i.e. They don’t know any better.” That is NOT the right answer.

(3) Proximity is Power

The actual phrase “proximity is power” is one that I am borrowing from Tony Robbins, but there are many versions. Robbins’ mentor, Jim Rohn talked about income as the average of the five people you hang around most. The famous Framingham study showed your health is the average of the people with whom you associate. Everyone from Tim Ferriss to Charlie Munger discuss the correlation between your success and the people with whom you most consistently associate.

At first glance, you may not think of this as a “skill,” but I wouldn’t be so sure. A “skill” simply the ability to do something well, or a particular competence. For me, the ability to identify and improve upon the influences in my life is an ability that has taken a lot of time to improve upon.

In the first week of the AltMBA, a group member of mine made the following comment and it has stuck with me, as much for its unwavering truth as for its simplistic bluntness:

“This kind of conversation doesn’t happen in my life.”

What Dominick (codename: Jedi) was saying was – the kinds of ideas we were exploring as a group and the kinds of conversations we were having were not only atypical, but non-existent in his day-to-day. And this was what he felt was the greatest asset the AltMBA had to offer.

More than anything, the AltMBA is a community.

It is a group of people looking to create changes – in their own lives and the lives of others. And to be apart of that community is inspirational and energizing. Just by dint of collecting these people into an interactive, open and generous environment, the value is multiplied many times over.

Groucho Marx once said: “I would never join any club that would have me.” I think, for this one, Groucho might make an exception.

Try this: think about the five people you spend most of your time with. Do you want to be like them? Are they going in the direction you’d like to go? Do you your most valuable principles match up? If not, it might be worth it to consider spending your time in other circles…

[Click here for a more elaborate version of this activity from Entrepreneur Mag]

(4) The Project Method: Bonfires and Little Bets

In Linchpin, Godin discusses how he tends to be most productive and creative in a fulfilling way: he works on consecutive (not simultaneous) projects. He decides at one time, what one thing he is going to work on and then he concentrates most of his time and efforts into it.

In terms of all other projects, he simply says “no.” But – and this is at the heart of the method – he says “no” – not forever, but “for now.”

That subtlety allows him to place that other project into the back of his mind, continuing to pick up steam in his subconscious (Dr. Barbara Oakley discusses how this is possible), whilst placing full attention on the task at hand.

Then, in 6-12 months, he picks up on the other. Or another one that has taken his interest and therefore taken its place on the yes.. “for now.”

At a recent blogger conference in Boise (nerd alert), podcaster and blogger Sean McCabe recently explained this to me with a great metaphor: bonfires. Imagine you were on a beach and you wanted to start multiple bonfires. How would you do it?

If you merely get a flame started on one bonfire and then go off to the next, your flame will likely burnout before you get the other one started. It is the start and then building that first bit of momentum that tends to take the most time.

But, if you concentrate enough energy and time into that first bonfire, you can gain substantial momentum. And then, while the first is going, you can start on the new bonfire.

For those (Jews) of you with sleep-away camp “rope burn” experience – or if you’ve ever made a fire while camping – you know that you can make a fire that will burn by itself through the whole night with a strong enough foundation.

Prior to taking the AltMBA, I was struggling with what Barry Schwartz calls, the “Paradox of Choice.” I had so many things I wanted to work on.

The AltMBA made me realize two truths: (1) keeping this “problem” of mine was simply a sneaky way of hiding. Hiding from having to start and stick to any given one of these projects. (2) I could do all of them, if I simply viewed them as a sequential.

Specifically, my two coaches: Paul Jun and Parin Patel gave me key insights. As well as my weekly groups.

Try this: Peter Sims wrote a book called “Little Bets.” In that book he discusses the importance of making “Little Bets” like gmail or the post-it notes had on the trajectory of companies and people.

His suggestion would be to spend 80-90% of your time on your main project. But then, make a few side bets on 1-3 other projects. These would be minimum time, effort and money explorations into other projects. If you think you might want to open up a bakery, take a cooking class. An actor? Sign up for improv. Get an MBA, trying taking a class on Coursera or downloading the syllabus for a prospective class and doing it.

Bonus: The Five Takeaways I Applied to My Company

After taking the AltMBA workshop, I wanted to (i) show my CEO that I hadn’t wasted his (and my) time and (ii) apply what I had learned to improve the company.

And so, I took it upon myself to put together five takeaways and learnings from the workshop (complete with references and sources) and pitched ways that we could apply them to immediately improve the company. I then sent that to my CEO and COO a couple weekends after the course. They were impressed.

Not a week after they read it, they already put me to work on projects applying several of the five skills.

I have provided a link here to that document, for those interested in some extra-curricular reading [and a way to persuade your boss to let you attend the workshop].

I hope you have enjoyed the above and I will continue to write about experiences I have and things I learn.


Justin (look how cool I am)

4 Comments on “A Better Alternative: What I Learned at Seth Godin’s AltMBA (Plus a BONUS For Biz Pros)”

  1. Thanks, Seth. Of course, the real value is in the content that inspired it. Thanks for everything.

  2. Thank you very much. Have you taken the workshop? Highly recommend it. I have a hard time seeing how anyone—whatever your interests/profession— cannot get more value out of it than it costs.

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