People Like Us Do Things Like This

Seth Godin explores the ‘Culture and our Memetic DNA’. And how you can look at it and take the leap.

Do the hard work of showing up, creating a ruckus. Because someone is going to do that. Why not you?

Monkey experiment

5 monkeys in a cage and there is a ladder. As soon as one climbs up, there is a water spray. After some time, everyone pulls down anyone who tries to climb up.

A new monkey is replaced with an old one. The naive monkey tries to climb but the rest pulls them down. One by one new monkeys are added until only new monkeys are remaining. But none have experienced water spray. Still, they will pull down anyone who tries to climb the ladder.


None of this is true. This was written in a book called ‘Competing for future’ in 1996. The authors made up this story based on another experiment.

The takeaway is your culture is how you do things. It is way stickier and subtle than you can imagine.

DNA is permanent. So giraffe’s height won’t increase if they stretch their neck. Similarly, your eyes will stay the same color no matter how hard you try.

In humans, DNA isn’t the drive, culture is. And culture is way harder to shift because it is invisible and powerful.

The Blockbuster Story

They had the chance to demolish Netflix who has just launched a subscription service for DVD with no late fees.

Blockbuster had a chance to do the same with their business. But their board of members didn’t approve the change because they made $800 million in late fees. So they developed as a company which strives on late fees.

Similarly, the ongoing conversation between print and digital books. Many people claim digital isn’t growing much.

The question is why do they care. By doing so they are establishing themselves as if they are in the business of chopping down trees. They are not.

In Pennsylvania, the coal mining industry is going to go away. So there exists a training program for the workers. But many people don’t show up. And all of this training is free. It begs a question of why they would do so.

Let’s consider Encyclopedia Britannica isn’t being printed. The point of their business matters. If their goal was to have many volumes in the audience home then it failed. But if their business is to make the audience know more stuff then they have succeeded.

Changing Is Difficult

Yahoo could have bought Google but they didn’t because then they had to acknowledge their directory method was not good. Also, AOL could have bought Yahoo but they didn’t because then they need to acknowledge their business was failing.

Prodigy could have bought AOL but they didn’t because then they need to acknowledge their infrastructure investment was for nothing.

The point is business – small or large forget their first principle of culture. They think their job is to collect late fees, cut down trees and so on.

So you need to ask some basic question to move forward:

  1. Who do you serve?
  2. What do they need?
  3. What does your business own?
  4. What do you know?

The key thing is to serve. Be clear on who you are serving. It doesn’t matter if the path changes as long as you are serving. Don’t get caught up in the wrong notion of your business.

Book publishers shouldn’t be upset if their audience buys a Kindle to read ebooks. Because you aren’t in a business of cutting down trees. You are in a business of sharing knowledge. Shift your offering with the time.

The Netflix Story

Netflix didn’t fall in love with late fees. They would send the DVD in an envelope. Once the internet came up, they started streaming movies.

So they are still offering entertainment – the platform or path has changed. They didn’t get hung up like Blockbuster in old things.

After 10 years, now they make their own movies, documentaries. So they have positioned themselves as a movie production company. They did this by obtaining more knowledge and they understood their audience, core values, and their offerings.

They changed with the new demand still offering entertainment.

If you put bananas on top of the ladder then something will find a way to climb that ladder despite many pulling you down. Someone is going to figure out with time, it better be you.


  • There is so much content. Does it cheapen the art?

There is always been abundant of ‘cheap’ content. Radio stations, movies, comics, and many others. Making ‘cheap’ content is easy because it is safe.

More and more people are going to have content. For you, the important stuff will land for you.

  • What is the role of curators?

Curators have a reputation at stake, unlike gatekeepers. So going forward, curation keeps going on value.

Often taxonomy is decided by people in power. For example, men are often labeled as leaders in book business and women as self-help in the miscellaneous category. What’s your take?

Yes, that is the point of Big sort episode. Often many creators have been punished by sorting. It happens so often that is unfair to creators and audience alike. One of the thing you will see at the airport, ‘famous authors’. They get the benefit of the doubt. It ain’t fair.

But there is an opportunity to find the curator. So that you can get the benefit of a doubt. Which is hard work you need to do.

Something To Make You Think

A work from Beethoven music which made Seth think. I guess you can listen to this charming notes and calm your nerves. Or use it as a background to keep making your ruckus.

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