Striving for Authority

Image of Seth Godin for Authority Intensive

Everyone wants to play.

That kid selling cookies (or is it chocolates) is busy raising money for his basketball team (or maybe a trip to Cuba, I didn’t hear it clearly). All I know is that these cookies aren’t the real thing, they’re not Girl Scout Cookies (capitalize them please) and they’re not Thin Mints®.

That email, the one that just came in over the transom, it wants me to buy some miracle potion that’s going to make my hair grow. But of course, I’ve never heard of this person, and it cost her nothing to send me this spam.

Delete.

We opened up the world of media to anyone who wants to talk, connect or sell. We gave everyone free stamps, free paper, a free broadcast license.

And so I can watch a YouTube video that explains, in detail, how I can make a million dollars in a week if I’ll just send in some money (I think I can guess that this is precisely how you’re supposed to make a million dollars via this method, but that’s a topic for a different post). YouTube is filled with spam and scams and junk, and so is every nook and cranny of the internet.

Hence the need for authority.

Authority is recognizability and trustability.

My neighbor has authority, at least when he’s talking about what’s going on with our block. The local weatherman, by dint of his being hired by someone with an FCC license, has authority, but not about investments, just about the weather.

Obvious, of course.

What’s not obvious is the discipline necessary to earn authority. Now that you can’t be given it, now that you can’t take, now that you have to EARN it, it seems to me that many of us have forgotten that there’s a cost to earning something.

At every step along the way, you’ll feel pressure to stop earning and start taking. To include a few more links. To make a few more bold claims. To sell some ads, to shade some truth, to close the sale. Second prize is a set of steak knives, after all …

But the longer you wait, and the more generous you are, the more your authority is worth. And authority compounds. Walter Cronkite had authority, far more than Ed McMahon, because Ed was happy to put his name on this or that along the way.

Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.

Hence my headline. Authority comes from trying. From striving to get there, by refusing to compromise on the things that matter.


Editor’s Note …

We are thrilled that Seth Godin will be keynoting our content marketing and networking event — Authority Intensive — taking place May 7-9, 2014, in Denver, Colorado. See you there?

About the Author: Seth Godin is the author of 17 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and most of all, changing everything.

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  1. to me Authority is something you acquire, but Credibility is something you build …. brick by brick. Its still bad if you authority, but no credibility.

    • Authority without credibility is called fraud. We try to avoid that.

      • LOL – reminds me of the old joke: What do you call the guy who graduated dead last in med school?

        Doctor.

        Authority without a proven track record and credibility is nothing. Authorities make mistakes; credible authorities are accountable for those mistakes, own up to them, and try to make things right – without excuses.

      • Oh…I think that’s a little bit harsh! Granted, people that have ann opinion based on what is largely ignorance shouldn’t be listened to, but often poor advice is based on doing things that used to work rather than fraud!

    • Cronkite and McMahon were in two different businesses: news and entertainment. Cronkite, who read the news to Americans every night, was backed by an army of reporters, writers, and producers in an age when news was taken as gospel. His image was carefully controlled by a network that didn’t allow for scandal. The man sat there and read the news others had sourced and written. He did this night after night and got paid big bucks while the people who created the content got peanuts in comparison. He was a man in a suit who read the news. False God, false authority.

  2. Something that Seth hinted at but didn’t quite explicitly say –

    Authority is about being GENUINE.

    It is only when you come from a place of being genuine can you be a true authority.

  3. My absolute fave part:

    “Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.

    Hence my headline. Authority comes from trying. From striving to get there, by refusing to compromise on the things that matter.”

    It speaks to me in so many ways, and its just so hopeful!

    I am sooooo excited about Authority Intensive in May! I feel like one of the cool kids. See you there!

  4. “Refusing to compromise on the things that matter.” Amen. You’ve done an amazing job at this, Seth, and set the bar high for the rest of us.

  5. The discipline necessary to earn authority, I feel implies the discipline to be – ie to earn – the authority for your own life. As it is, the two go hand in hand.

    • There’s something to that, I think.

      It has always been true that when you apply excellent marketing to a crappy business, all you do is get the word out faster about how crappy they are.

      What you say needs to be aligned with what you do, and that’s doubly true now that we have all of these conversation platforms where people can talk you down as easily as they talk you up. You can’t be an authority online but a train wreck when it actually comes to delivering your promises.

      • My point exactly.

        As long as there is a market for it, authority itself doesn’t care about ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There was/is a market for Walter Cronkite and Ed McMahon, but also for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

        But because of what you SAY needs to be aligned with what you DO, someone better take care of what that is – which takes authority. So the beginning of authority is to earn authority with yourself.

        Someone said the purpose of goals isn’t the goal itself, but the person you become in pursuing it. I believe that’s true – and that it also applies to (the goal of) authority.

      • I think that is the key. However in today online world, it is very challenging to know if saying matches doing or not.
        Some people, somehow get a lot of like, follow or talked up by others to the authority level… and you dont know what he/she does except talking, writings.
        On top of that, we are bormbarded with information and dont have much time or tools to verify if there is a match…

  6. It truly does take discipline and time to build authority. There are people out there who have programs on how to build authority in 30 days and other such nonsense, but it truly does take time. The unwillingness to invest the time and sweat is why most people will never become an authority.

  7. Authority sells. Authority comes naturally to honest people. And @Anupam I think you are right too about CREDIBILITY.

  8. well stated!

  9. My takeaways so far from this post and the comments:

    @Seth Godin – “Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.

    “Hence my headline. Authority comes from trying. From striving to get there, by refusing to compromise on the things that matter.”

    As @Sonia Thompson put it, the part quoted above “speaks to me in so many ways[.]” And I agree with her that it’s hopeful, because it means that scammers and spammers will not win over those of us who contribute with good content, because they’ll never spend the time and effort to build authority – they’re too focused on looking for the Easy Button and the shortcuts.

    @Anupam – “Authority is something you acquire, but Credibility is something you build”

    And building credibility – and trust – is something that takes a long time, but that can be lost in an instant if you’re not careful…

    @Daryl – “Authority is about being GENUINE.”

    So true, and it can’t be faked – or at least, not for long. (I thought about Hawkeye Pierce on MASH: “Sincerity? I can fake that!” or words to that effect.) ;-)

    Thank you Seth for another great post, and thank you to all posting comments – good food for thought here.

  10. Obviousness is obvious..

    That’s what I don’t get about marketing, reiteration of the mediocre. Come on copyblogger I thought you were better than this!

    • This is more media than marketing. And what is obvious to one person may not be so obvious to another. Plus, it doesn’t get better than Seth Godin.

    • Joe, I think it would be cool if you posted a link to your site so we can come check it out.

      For the record, I thought this was an excellent post.

      • I don’t have a site. I have my own personal thing I use for sticking photos on. There is my work’s website but I don’t see how that is relevant.

        I’ve not been in marketing long but my experience has been rather negative with about 90% of ‘advice’ being content about providing content for people who want content. That’s all well and good but surely if one is a ‘content creator’ they are already aware of this.

        I’ve not read any of Seths books but I’ve had to unsubscribe from following his blog as it annoys me, the writing style, the ‘content’ and so on. I just don’t get it.

  11. Please don’t take this the wrong way.

    Seth – you are one of my favorite reads and a HUGE authority.

    But how long do we have to provide information and our opinion without selling to become an authority?

    A month?

    Two months?

    A year?

    More?

    Being generous is important. But aren’t we training our readers they can get our knowledge and expertise for free?

    • I don’t think it’s about never selling anything. If you are a business, obviously you sell things. That’s normal and natural.

      My take is that it’s about not chasing cheap shortcuts.

    • But aren’t we training our readers they can get our knowledge and expertise for free?

      That argument was being made back in 2002, when Seth started blogging. It was being made when I started publishing online in 1998.

      It’s still wrong, but just imagine if we had let it stop either of us?

      Just do the work Yoav. Ultimately, that’s all the reassurance anyone can give you.

    • So then from what I understand you have to, on one hand, speak and strive and do your best to be an authority in your field – and that for free, offering people the best information in a genuine way, and, on the other hand, it is good to also make some business on the side to support yourself. Just like brian clark and seth godin and om malik and others, you offer the best and most authoritative advice in your field – for free, but at the same time you have to sell tailored and personalized advice and content for clients. And it works out, at least for the above named ones….

  12. Love this, “Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.”

  13. Thanks Seth for the reminder.
    We wait, we wait and we wait.
    Resisting the temptation to go for the hard sell builds authority.
    Authority opens unimaginable doors both online and offline.

  14. We all love Seth Godin. And if you’ve sold your startup for $30 million and don’t need to hustle that’s wonderful.

    But if not – what’s wrong with selling a little product?

    Ben Settle is an authority to me and he pitches in every email I get.

    Yes, you need to be Jesus to out-Seth Seth. But most niches are not teeming with superstar TEDheads.

    Serve your audience. That’s all that matters.

    Ian

    • Seth and your “superstar TEDheads” all put in the consistent effort to earn their authority and acclaim, didn’t they? What’s stopping you, or me, or anyone else? Maybe you’d “need to be Jesus to out-Seth Seth” – but who says that’s the only path to success?

      • Sorry Holly, I didn’t mean to swipe at Seth. The platform he’s built is amazing.

        Seth chooses to not sell product very often. He’s in a position to make that choice through his own hard work.

        While I don’t especially want to be the guy who steps into the ring with Seth Godin on marketing,
        I do think it’s your audience that gets to decide what they want from you.

        • I’m certainly not afraid to sell. And yet I went a year and 9 months before launching the first product off of Copyblogger.

          That’s what I think he’s talking about. I waited until the audience trusted me. Frankly, they were begging for me to sell them something at that point.

          Also, you’re forgiven. It’s good to air these things out like the big dysfunctional family we are. ;)

        • I can make that choice, too. I have a day job that supports my writing and blogging “habit.” Doesn’t mean I walk on water – or that anyone should dis me for following a different path and dancing to the beat of my own feet.

          I do HAVE a product. Several, in fact. They’re called “books,” and I am really bad at marketing and selling them. I should probably work at that. But then I tend to fall down seedy rabbit holes and appreciate, all over again, the fact that I do have a day job.

          And you’re forgiven. :) If that’s the bitchiest thing I read all day, today, on the Internet, it’ll be a miracle. The apology, though – that shows class. I was going to say, to your “over-cooked” comment, that we’ve all done that – thrown it on the wall, and been sorry it stuck. ;)

    • Did you ever stop to think what Seth did to get that 30 million in the first place? Being a hater is only slightly less becoming than ignorance.

  15. We all know it inside when we are not being genuine, and our authority leaks out of our keyboards and evaporates the more we protest that it’s just for this single moment we are lying to ourselves to get a little jumpstart.

    We could jump up and down all day trying to demand respect, but we just wind up like mice squeaking in the corner. When its really a simple process, be who we are, let other people know that and help them when we can.

    • Well said, Michael.

      Ever write something and want to slap yourself for it? There’s a little voice inside, saying, “That doesn’t sound like you at all. Your Mama would laugh her tush off if she read that – maybe slap you upside the head for being a phoney.”

      You go back, scrape bone, and do it right. Then you thank your lucky stars you haven’t bought into your own hype.

      • Thank you Holly. I have written things I wished I hadn’t more times than I want to remember. Better now, though. :-)

        • Anyone who writes can say the first part. :)

          But you do feel it, don’t you – when it happens? I swear my fingers feel typos as they happen and fix them (usually) before they even register in my conscious thoughts. Likewise, and my brain and soul feel creeping insincerity when THAT happens. (Some of us are also lucky enough to have at least a few kind but brutally honest readers to drag us back to earth and make us make it real, when we’re tempted to stray to the dark side – tempted to imitate a trend or sound like someone we’re not.)

          • Sometimes, though, my fingers hit “Post Comment” before they fix all the typos… :)

            Ever notice how any time you mention typos or grammatical errors on the Internet – particularly if criticizing someone else’s – your message somehow picks them up like LINT?

  16. Worst Copyblogger headline, ever. :)

  17. People started approaching me a few years back. “I hear you know something about this social media thing. Can I have an hour’s worth of your time?”

    What I discovered in my initial attempts to help these people is that they were actually blessed in not knowing anything about it. Fewer people would be witness to the “train wreck” state of their ventures. Add some really bad social media practices, and there would be no room for doubt.

    There was no way for me to legitimately (in my own mind) to monetize helping them. I didn’t want my name on THAT hot mess. That’s when charging would cost me too much.

    But I still wanted to help people. So if I can use a strategy whereby I generously give away content to help educate them, everyone is served. aka The Copyblogger Model.

    As Seth says, “Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.”

    We all are then just getting ready for our next and improved iteration. It stops being us vs them. White hats vs black. We are all on a track of improvement. And the whole world wins.

    If I can make the stars align, I’ll see you all in Denver. TBA.

  18. Oh, it’s good information, thanks clark

  19. Here is my version of what Seth might mean under Authority – it is telling good stories for long enough to get your name remembered.

  20. You make an interesting point that while there is a glut of information on the Internet, there is still (or maybe again) a need for high quality information. Anyone can write words and hit “publish”. Those words don’t matter unless they (or their author) are useful and/or interesting.

  21. “Do no harm.”

  22. Seth Godin writes a guest post? Hot damn.

    Or maybe it’s just a ruse designed by those same clever people who faked the moon landing. *queues twilight zone music*

  23. Being on purpose doesn’t take much discipline if you know yourself. I’ve met myself daily for over 30 years in meditation. There is no more truthful or genuine experience than facing yourself and seeing that you alone are the author of your life. The art of being in surrender and of inner listening awakens you to the reality of your highest authority: The Self. Seth Godin simply knows himself.

  24. “But the longer you wait, and the more generous you are, the more your authority is worth. And authority compounds.”

    Karma.

    I can wait.
    :-)

  25. Oh wow. Seth Godin on Copyblogger today is a wonderful thing to see!

    Said it from the best himself.

    You are not going to make any money (whether on the Internet or in the real world) without the absolute necessity of credibility used to build u your authority in your specific niche.

    How long does it usually take to build a high amount of authority? (sorry for this broad question based only on unique situations and result)

    Do you think guest blogging can become your chief source of action to fill this cup?

    The importance is there and one more thing to add: unique, high functioning design is another piece of pie to the whole thing “authority”.

    Thanks Seth

    – Sam

  26. YES! Thank you.

  27. Attempting to define true authority and credibility is skating on a very thin ice.

    There are at least five billion people who drinking Coke. This indicates that Coca Cola Company has a terrific authority and even greater credibility.

    After all, five billion people can’t be wrong (that’s the marketing mantra).

    Right?

    Dead wrong.

    Coke is a product which inflicted tremendous health and financial damage to the world’s population.

    The same is valid for all food manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, and I could go for ever.

    All these companies have authority and credibility.

    But who am I to talk; I have neither authority nor credibility.

    Being authentic, truthful, and generous in a very sick world, in terms of perceived authority and credibility is a pie in the sky.

    Authentic people are rejected, persecution and finally killed; ask any prophet.

    So, who is responsible for all these?

    To a great extent; marketing.

    Marketing is the most destructive instrument ever devised by man. It’s designed to misinform, deceive, and control the human mind.

    It exploits the lowest common denominator of the human psyche. It’s the major reason why humankind cannot progress in the right direction.

    Marketing is also a reason why we can’t have honest, serious conversation.

    Now you might ask; who the hell are you?

    Well, I am a coward and a hypocrite who has no guts to be authentic and speak the truth.

    For I fear rejection, persecution and poverty.

    • What a bleak, dismal outlook on humanity, never mind marketing.

      Unfortunately, I think you’re right. And some things are worth dying for.

    • I’m pretty sure this is why Seth closed comments on his own site. You clearly have no idea about what his thoughts on “marketing” and ethics are, or you wouldn’t have posted your bleak little poem here.

      • I didn’t say a word about Seth, I was talking about authority and credibility.

        I am sorry that you are not aware of my little bleak poem being played out in front of your eyes. But, somehow I don’t believe that you don’t see it.

        You just don’t want to admit it; it’s not good for business. And you are a marketer.

        That’s precisely what marketing is all about; tell them what they like to hear again and again. Who wants the truth, truth is too bleak.

        And then we are talking about credibility.

    • I agree. Having a presence does not equal authority. Being the best SEOed site on your subject does not equal authority. And even if you are authoritative it does not equal truth.

      You seem to state what I’m realising about marketing – it’s all spin. There seems to be this belief that you can market snow to Eskimos if you’re good enough.

      The whole ‘content is king’ attitude is a large game of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ where few people have anything profound to say so the same thing is recycled over and over and is self-reinforcing. (A bit like a religious cult). Dissenters must be excommunicated!

      • Dissenters must be excommunicated!

        No, even dissenters who don’t have websites and have never created content (much less content marketing) and therefore have no idea what they’re talking about are not excommunicated, they’re just not credible. By your own admission, you are the exact opposite example of what this post is talking about. So thanks for that.

        • I’ve created a lot of content for my company. Just that most of it is solid factual information rather than vague ephemeral notions that tell and don’t show.

          • Come on now, you can’t say we create that kind of content. We’ve been demonstrating while teaching, practicing while preaching the entire time.

        • Authority- Bit of an oversimplification, no? Keep in mind that many of your customer base are probably employees, trying to accomplish something for their employer. It would make sense they not share that employer’s website. I see you point about the spin, Joe, in terms of many other fields of marketing or perhaps in the past. But you too are oversimplifying. In this new economy, after the worst recession since the Great Depression there isn’t much room for “New Clothes.” Content marketing brought clarity and standards to marketing. I mean we could go on and on, but I won’t as luckily, we are posting on a website devoted to this entire subject ;) I see what you are saying about Godin, and I think Joe & Brian, the original complaint was about that, not about the whole Authority site.
          Those of here don’t yet have authority, and that is why we are here. Doesn’t mean we can’t-and don’t contribute.
          For what it’s worth, sometimes the Godin tributes do seem cultish. Loyalty without flinching, never, ever criticizing or questioning someone’s work, even when it is ineffective in relaying it’s message-these are all cult traits.
          As for me-I personally love this post. It’s really one of Godin’s better ones. Thank you for this! (Even though I did pay for it :)

  28. Love it. Thanks, Seth.

  29. I am trying to enter the wonderful world of blogging again. I blogged last year but every article had an offer….(yup spammy spam I am!) Now by reading articles like Mr. Godin’s (Mr because I have respect for him) post on authority I see where I have lacked any ounce of authority during that time. I have since went back into my archives and removed the majority of the offers from the articles and made a choice to offer quality content two times a week to people who are interested in losing weight and working out.

    I have read many of the articles on the copy blogger site and I would like to thank you for your time in creating such useful and relevant content for me to learn from. Any tips on helping me create more authority for myself this year? I really want to do this right. Thanks everyone!

  30. Hi,
    nice article! :)

    Authority come from sharing great content without asking anything in return; from helping other people; from remaining humble!

    Authority and Ethics – in my opinion – are very very near, and goes hand-in-hand…

    Thanks! bye bye!

  31. From merely an observational perspective, I think you have been unkind to Seth Godin. Wrinkled brows are fine – they represent maturity, inquisitiveness, an age-long tolerance (tested by exasperation), and much else.

    However, physiologically, such wrinkles do not extend to the sides of the skull. The skin’s muscular depth will not allow it.

    Photo-lying here, me thinks.

    Come clean, Copyblogger.

  32. Authority and credibility are necessary.

    But what of quality? Surely, before all else, we should be focusing on delivering content/products/services that are of the highest possible quality.

    That said, quality is subjective.

    Huzzah for the philosophy of marketing.

  33. Authority is the difference between a sustainable business model and being a flash in the pan.

    Ask any venture capital fund how much profit they expect a new business to make in the first year and they’ll laugh. Then they’ll tell you that they don’t expect to break even until the second or third year, let alone make a profit. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand that it takes time to build a business. A venture capital fund will invest money into the business to grow it until it is capable of supporting itself, and they know it will take time to reach that point.

    So, the question shouldn’t really be “how long will it take before I can start selling?” but more “do I want to build a business, or run around like a chicken without a head every day trying to find someone else to buy my stuff?” I know what I want to do. I don’t want to have to worry that my business is so dependent on someone else (read Google) that I’ll be worried sick I won’t have money to put food on the table next month. I’d rather be patient.

    As I see it, building authority is all about putting other people first. And even if you give it all away for free, people will still want to repay you. As Mr. Clark said, he had people begging him to sell something. Yes, there will always be those people who’ll just take advantage of the free stuff and never give back, but you’ll generally find the great majority will.

    And why does it have to be about being profound? Why can’t it simply be about my interpretation of a concept, even if it might be considered recycled? Some of the greatest and most profound people never came up with an original idea, just a new angle to a concept as old as time.

    Okay, I think I should stop here because this comment is turning into an essay! Thanks Copyblogger and Mr. Seth Godin for an inspirational post!

  34. What a refreshing post to read. I really like the lines “Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.” And I like how you said that we need to strive for authority.
    It is true. For me, authority is about establishing yourself as the real deal and just a one trick pony, in simpler words. Because it is through this, that you are able to build your credibility and gain trust. Everything follows. So yes, telling the truth is a must but this trust must be of value to people too.

  35. These words really rang true for me. (A simple concept that takes a lot of discipline to implement :-))

    “Authority comes from consistent generosity, from truth telling, and from empathy. It comes from showing up. It comes from telling your truth and consistently sharing your point of view.”

  36. With so much information and things on the internet moving at the speed of light will there be a time, whether sooner or later, where authority and credibility will not be enough? If so what is the next criteria?

    • …will there be a time, whether sooner or later, where authority and credibility will not be enough?

      We’re talking about human beings here. It’s not an Internet thing, it’s a people thing. We look for authority and credibility, among a few other strong indicators like social proof, when we make decisions. Human nature would have to fundamentally change, and that isn’t going to happen because of technology (until we merge with it).

  37. I’ve been writing about Authority since 2010.

    Ok so nobody read it, but the point is, professionals even way back then should have been thinking about this and working to establish themselves as an authority in their fields.

    I also agree perceived authority is not actually credibility, reliability and accountability.

    thanks