Godin, Goading, and Guts

I used to read Seth Godin, back when he wrote about marketing. In recent years, though, he's become a scold, and I don't much cotton to scolds. My aversion to his scolding started a couple of years ago, when he obliquely derided my profession by proclaiming that "too much data crowds out faith" and that data killed innovation. I responded to that with a sentence I am still proud of to this day: "...it's wrong to say that 'data crowds out faith.' Data is a crutch for the faithless."

We love the myth of the "golden gut". It's a populist rant, and when you are in the business of pushing books, populism is just a sales strategy. Yesterday, Godin beat the drum on another populist myth, the "inadequacy" of MBA graduates to take risks. I'll quote his opening, verbatim:

Too many MBAs are sent into the world with bravado and enthusiasm and confidence. The problem is that they also lack guts.

Make no mistake, this is just another calculated populist rant. The vast majority of Godin's readers won't have MBA's, and to hear Godin denigrate them as--let's face it--gutless, is meant more to validate the life choices of his mainstream readers than to reform the educational system.

It saddens me to see a smart man attack people, and not ideas.

See, the gist of Godin's post is this: MBA students get all that book learnin', but no *wisdom.* They are crippled by data; too reliant on "proof" to take the risks that others might. People like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who didn't even need undergraduate degrees. Because, you know, they have "guts."

Know this: using Gates, or Zuckerberg, or any other extreme outlier as an "example" is intellectual chicanery. Gates and Zuckerberg are once-in-a-generation outliers. Proclaiming, as some populists do, that you don't need an education, all you need is the "entrepreneurial spirit" and some "street smarts," is a false choice. The outliers make do with one, or the other. For the rest of us--myself included--having both is a better strategy.

I know plenty of people who didn't get undergraduate degrees, let alone MBA's, who are successful. But when those people make the leap to say that you don't need a degree to be successful, they are offering unqualified advice--a dangerously undiagnosed prescription. My other half has something to say about "advice;" needess to say, it's typically more about the advisor than the advisee. What those people would say is that they don't need an MBA or a college degree, because they attended the school of hard knocks. Again, that's a false choice, and a dangerously prescriptive one. At some point, we all get to attend the school of hard knocks. And some of us get to do it with the added benefit of an education. Why would anyone bash that?

Most MBA-bashers don't have an MBA. I have one, and let me tell you why I have it. In 1999, I took a BIG risk. I showed some guts. I was the youngest VP in the largest pure-play radio company in the world, and I quit my job, moved to London, and became a partner in a startup. I made this move purely on a vision. I put in long hours, made decisions based upon imperfect information, and took that great leap of entrepreneurial faith.

The company ended up folding 18 months later. We had a poor revenue model, and our operational reach exceeded our grasp. When I returned to the US, I made up my mind that even though marketing was my discipline, I was never again going to be put in a position of ignorance about the operational and financial aspects of my business(es), whatever the future might hold. I already had two degrees, but decided in my mid-thirties to return to school--full time--and earn my MBA. I'll never regret that decision, nor would I ever presume to advise anyone that they should get an MBA. It was the right decision for me.

When people tell you that you don't need an MBA, they are presuming to tell you what the right decision is for you. Those people are spectacularly misguided, if not arrogant. Only you can make that call. Anecdotes and outliers are fine, but ask yourself this: why would anyone try to talk you out of furthering your education, except for their own personal reasons?

When I got my MBA, I already had guts. I think a lot of MBA's do. Re-examine the Seth Godin quote I printed above, and replace the word "MBAs" with the word "people." See it differently now?

We all must make our own choices. I wouldn't presume to advise you on yours. The choice to get ANY degree must come from within you, not from gurus trying to sell books or drive traffic.

I think commiting to continued education shows its own kind of guts. Vilifiying advanced education is gutless.

5 responses
You can make cases for both. Having been in higher education finance for years, I saw plenty of people who were piling up degrees (and massive quantities of debt) for no logical reason. One student amassed $225K in debt for a prestigious art degree that would lead to a debt default shortly after graduation.

There is a lot to be said for getting the basics in school, something that my martial arts teacher reinforces constantly. Practice, polish, and perfect the basics first. There is also something to be said for taking that out on the road and escaping academia.

In the martial arts, there's actually a formalized system for this. Once you're done with "school" and degrees, you are put on a musha shugyo - a warrior's journey - as you test out your knowledge and see the subtle nuances of your knowledge as applied to the real world.

You can get the basics of marketing without a degree, in the same way that you can get a good martial arts education by going to the local dive bar, insulting the patrons, and waiting for the action to start. After a few trips to the hospital, you'll have a valuable, real-world, hands-on education that Godin and the MBA-bashers love to tout. You'll also likely have some hefty dentist bills.

The formula that my teachers advocate and that I follow religiously these days is knowledge + experience = wisdom. That's the winning combo, and requires both brains and guts in order to work.

I don't disagree! Again, it's a choice - and you can get the basics without a degree. As I said, I know plenty of successful people without any degree whatsoever. It's the constant stream of MBA-bashing that sickens me. I don't denigrate the choices of others; don't denigrate mine. No one is an expert on me except me. The worst is when writers (like Godin, but there are others) try to set off MBAs in some kind of Guts vs. Brains argument. Book smart vs. "street" smart. That's a juvenile argument. An MBA won't give you guts, or wisdom. But it sure as hell didn't take mine away.
Brilliant as usual, Tom. Hilarious comment re: learning martial arts at the local dive bar, Chris.

I graduated with an MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler in May 2009 and understand both sides of this coin, particularly as the founder of a start-up.

The start-up community - particularly the hacker community - LOVE to gang up on the MBA community. As you suggest, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of these people don't have an MBA or don't know of anyone that earned an MBA from a top-tier business school.

Instead of going on and on and on - which I could - I'll simply link to a couple posts I've written MBAs and start-ups:




Arent you scolding Seth Godin with your article. Does that mean we should stop reading your blog?

Make sure your actions are congruent with the words you are writing. What you do speaks louder than what you are trying to say.

I'm disagreeing with his point. That's not the same thing.