Poke The Box – by Seth Godin

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Poke The Box – by Seth Godin

‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ (Poke the Box)

Imagine that the world had no middlemen, no publishers, no bosses, no HR folks, no one telling you what you couldn’t do.

If you lived in that world, what would you do?

Go. Do That.


Grab a copy of the book here: https://www.bookdepository.com/Poke-Box-Seth-Godin/9780241209035/?a_aid=adamsbooks

Check out Seth’s free Poke The Box Workbook here: https://whatyouwilllearn.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/PoketheBox_Workbook.pdf

Poke the Box Summary

Imagine that the world had no middlemen, no publishers, no bosses, no HR folks, no one telling you what you couldn’t do. If you lived in that world, what would you do?

Go. Do that.

The Buzzer Box

This is where the name Poke the Box comes from. Seth tells a story about the time his cousin was born. Seth’s uncle was a PhD from MIT and built a ‘buzzer box’. It was a metal box with a chord that plugged into the power socket. The box had two switches, a few lights, and some other controls. If you flipped one switch, a light went on. If you flipped both switches, a buzzer went off. Pushing different buttons and flipping the switches did different things. In the child’s mind, he’s beginning to understand: ‘If I do this, that happens’. Like a mathematical function, if you put in one variable, you get a result. 

“Life is a buzzer box. Poke it”.

‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’

The job isn’t to catch up to the status quo; the job is to invent the status quo.

  The Initiator

Poke the Box begins with a story of a lady named Annie Downs. One day, she said to her boss: “I’ve got an idea and I’m going to start working on it tomorrow. It won’t take a lot of time and it won’t cost a lot of money, and I think it’s going to work”.

With those two sentences, Annie changed not only her life but also changed the direction of her company for the better. You’re probably wondering what her idea was.  You might even be curious about how she pulled it off. But that’s not the point. 

That is the wrong question. 

The change was in ‘posture’. Annie was no longer waiting for instructions or working through a to-do list; she took initiative. It’s all about becoming someone who starts something, someone who initiates, someone who is prepared to fail along the way if it helps make a difference.

  Your Turn

“Imagine that the world had no middlemen, no publishers, no bosses, no HR folks, no one telling you what you couldn’t do.

“If you lived in that world, what would you do?

“Go. Do that.”

Today, intermediaries and agenda setters and investors are less important than ever before. Money and access and organisational might aren’t the foundation of the new, connected economy. Initiative is.

  The Seventh Imperative

  1. Be aware – aware of the market, of opportunities, of who you are
  2. Be educated – so you can understand what’s around you
  3. Be connected – so you can be trusted as you engage
  4. Be consistent – so the system knows what to expect
  5. Build an asset – so you have something to sell
  6. Be productive – so you can be well priced

But you can have all of these things and still fail. “A job is not enough. A factory is not enough. A trade is not enough. It used to be, but no longer. The world is changing too fast. Without initiative, you have no choice but to simply react to the world. Without the ability to instigate and experiment, you are stuck, adrift, waiting to be shoved”. 

The seventh imperative is frightener and therefore easy to overlook or ignore. “The seventh imperative is to have the guts and the heart and the passion to ship”.

  The Difference of Go

One simple thing separates successful individuals from those that languish. The same simple thing differentiates exciting and growing organisations from the ones that stagnate and die. The winners have turned initiative into a passion and a practice. “The challenge isn’t in perfecting your ability to know what to start and when to stand by. The challenge is getting into the habit of starting”.

  The Buzzer Box

  • This is where the name Poke the Box comes from. Seth tells a story about the time his cousin was born. Seth’s uncle was a PhD from MIT and built a ‘buzzer box’.
  • It was a metal box with a chord that plugged into the power socket. The box had two switches, a few lights, and some other controls. If you flipped one switch, a light went on. If you flipped both switches, a buzzer went off.
  • Pushing different buttons and flipping the switches did different things. In the child’s mind, he’s beginning to understand: ‘If I do this, that happens’. Like a mathematical function, if you put in one variable, you get a result. 

“Life is a buzzer box. Poke it”.

The Elements of Production

  • An idea
  • People to work on it
  • A place to build or organise it
  • Raw materials
  • Distribution
  • Money
  • Marketing

That’s what economists and university lecturers and wall street investors have long believed are required to make things happen. But all of these are wasted if the least understood (but most important) input is missing: you need someone to say “go”. It’s all wasted unless someone insists, pushes, cajoles and launches. “All of the other elements are cheaper and easier to find than ever before”. This makes the ‘motive force’ so critical. 

Is flux the same as risk?

  • ‘Flux’ is when things are moving, when there is flow. ‘Risk’ involves the chance of winning and losing; we put something at stake and it may (or may not) pay off. 
    • Risk is seen as bad by some people, because it comes with the possibility of failure. Some may even see risk as the same as failure, and just the thought of risk is enough to shut you down and stop you from taking action. “Risk is avoided because we’ve been trained to avoid failure”.
  • Seth defines “anxiety” as experiencing failure in advance. “If you have anxiety about initiating a project, then of course you will associate risk with failure”. 
    • People have begun to confuse ‘flux’ with ‘risk’ too. We think that if there is flow and movement, then something is at risk. 
    • We think anything that is unpredictable is risky. Fearful people try to avoid collisions, so they avoid movement altogether. These people have made two mistakes:
  1. They’ve assumed risk is bad
  2. They’ve confused risk with flux
  • Because they fear flux and movement of any kind, they’re stuck.
    •  They’re stuck with the status quo, stuck with defending their position in the market, stuck with their current level of education, stuck because they’re afraid of anything new, stuck because they don’t like asking hard questions (of others or of themselves). 
    • This probably didn’t matter in the past, but now the whole world is in a constant state of flux. “If a project doesn’t have movement, then compared to the rest of the world, you’re actually moving backwards”.

“Like a rock in a flowing river, you might be standing still, but given the movement around you, collisions are inevitable. The irony for the person who prefers not to move is that there’s far less turbulence around the log floating down that same river. It’s moving, it’s changing, but compared to the river around it, it’s relatively calm. The economy demands flux. Flux is what we’re in for. Fortunately, flux is also what we were born for”.

  The Trail of Failure

  • “The more you do, the more you fail”. That’s true. But it’s also true that if you learn from every failure, you’re always a step closer to success. 
  • We’re not talking about failures that lead to disrespect, or shortcuts that shouldn’t have been taken, or the sub-par work of someone who doesn’t care. 
    • We’re talking about the failure of people with good intent, people seeking connection and joy and the ability to make a difference.

  The Epidemic

“So many people are frozen in the face of uncertainty and paralysed at the thought of shipping work that matters than one might think that the fear is hardwired into us. It is.” 

  What can you start?

“Somehow we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that the project has to have a name, a building, and a stock ticker symbol to matter”. That’s not true. We don’t have to start something risky and world-changing to start something. Anyone can do it. Anyone can start something. That spark is simple to describe, but easy to avoid. Just start something – anything. If it’s so obvious and so simple though, why doesn’t everyone do it?

  When can you start?

“Soon is not as good as now”.

The First Rule Of Doing Work That Matters

“Go to work on a regular basis”. “Art is hard. Selling is hard. Making a difference is hard. When you’re doing hard work, getting rejected, failing, working it out – this is a dumb time to make a decision about whether it’s time for a nap or a day off or a coffee break”. 

As Zig Ziglar says, “make your schedule before you start”. Don’t let setbacks or blocks or anxiety push you off task, or your lizard brain will look for the easy way out every single time. In short: show up. Regularly.

   Brainwashed by the Pitboss

Factories need compliant workers to stand on the production line and perform their assigned task. Casinos need employees that will do exactly as they’re told. NASA requires astronauts who don’t question orders in a routine mission. 

  • Factory owners once had a choice. They could choose to “trust their workers to use their best judgement, to figure things out, to make things better,
    •  or they could work to eliminate individual initiative and instead trade the upside of improvement for the certainty of compliance”. 
    • We’re now seeing the consequences of this choice; factories are finding themselves stuck, unable to innovate, unable to improve. 
  • “You can’t grow by becoming even more predictable and ordinary. You might have a dependable and predictable and cheap product, but if the market wants something better, you’ll be stuck trying to play catch up”.

  When in doubt…

Look for the fear. That’s almost always the source of your doubt.

  Pick me! Pick me!

We’ve been brainwashed for generations. The system has created an expensive misunderstanding. We think that we have to wait to be chosen. 

  • Authors think they have to be picked by and agent, and then by a publisher, and then picked by bookstores so that they can be picked by customers. 
  • Entrepreneurs are waiting to be picked by venture capitalists to receive funding. They think they need to be selected in order to have their idea validated before they actually get started on building something.
  •  Employees wait to be picked for a promotion before they increase their output, or wait to be picked at a meeting before they speak up. 
  • “’Pick me, pick me’ acknowledges the power of the system and passes responsibility to someone else to initiate. Even better, ‘pick me’ moves the blame from you to them”. We think that if we don’t get picked, it’s their fault, not ours.
  • “Reject the tyranny of being picked. Pick yourself”.

  The Season’s Pass

For the price of about six or seven days worth, you can by a ski pass for the full year. Buyers realise it’s easier (and cheaper) to make the decision once, rather than making the choice again and again all ski season. Initiation is like that. “Instead of initiating on an ad hoc basis, worrying each time, getting permission each time, selling each time, why not buy a season’s pass? Why not sell your boss or your colleagues on being the initiator?” That can be your job – you’re the one that start things. Ask once, do many. 

  No free lunch

Initiative is scarce.

Hence valuable.

“Sometimes what you start doesn’t work. The fact that it doesn’t work every time should give you confidence, because it means you’re doing something that frightens others”.

  The lizard misunderstands the economics of poking

“When the cost of poking the box is less than the cost of doing nothing, then you should poke!”

“The cost of an innovation is far less than the cost of being boring”.

   Don’t tell Woodie

Seth’s dog lives inside an invisible fence. There’s a wire around his small year, and when his dog Woodie gets close to it, her collar buzzes. If she goes a bit further, she gets a little shock (Seth thinks she has been shocked exactly once). Woodie learned to associate the buzz with the shock and now she never goes near the edge.

But the thing is, the wire broke a year ago, and the system no longer works. But Woddie still associates the collar with the behaviour, and she only leaves the yard when Seth takes the collar off. “The boundary is in her head, not in the system”.

    Starting implies (demands) finishing

“What’s the distinction between carrying around a great idea, being a brainstomer, tinkering – and starting something? Starting means you’re going to finish. If it doesn’t ship, you’ve failed. You haven’t poked the box if the box doesn’t realise it’s been poked”.

“To merely start without finishing is just boasting, or stalling, or a waste of time”.

“At some point, your work has to intersect with the market. At some point, you need feedback as to whether or not it worked. Otherwise, it’s merely a hobby”.

  Shipping and Fear

“The challenge is to focus on the work, not on the fear that comes from doing the work”. When you start something, it’s going to be criticised or at least misunderstood. If you focus on what people are going to think, you’re bound to hold back.

The person who fails the most usually wins

It’s not the person with the biggest failure that wins. Because if you fail once, and it’s a really big fail, you’re a failure because you’re busted. You also don’t fail the most if you never fail, because that means you’re either playing it too safe, you got really lucky, or you’ve never shipped anything.

“But if you succeed often enough to be given the privilege of failing next time, then you’re on the road to a series of failure”. Talk to anyone who’s been successful and they’ll happily tell you about their long list of failures. The winning part comes from LEARNING from each and every failure.

  Juggling is about throwing, not catching

We’re conditioned to make the catch. We’re conditioned to hurdle whatever obstacle is in our way. We’re conditioned to save the day, not matter what, and to not drop the ball. “If you spend your time and energy and focus on catching, it’s inevitable that your throws will suffer. You’ll get plenty of positive feedback for the catches you make, but you’ll always be behind, because the throws you manage to make will be every less useful”.

“Paradoxically, if you get better at throwing, the catches take care of themselves. The only way to get better at throwing though, is to throw”. Throw poorly, then throw again. Throw well, then throw again. “Get good at throwing first”.

    The fear of wrong

“It’s not surprising that we hesitate; starting maximises the chances of ending up wrong”. 

Here’s the nightmare: “the boss finds someone who did something wrong and hassles/disciplines/humiliates/fires them”. And if you’re never wrong, that’s never going to happen.

The other scenario is: “the boss finds someone who didn’t start, who never starts, who always studies or criticises or plays devil’s advocate, and then hassles/disciplines/humiliates/fire them”. Oh wait… That never happens. 

“The typical factory-centric organisation places a premium on ‘not wrong’, and spends no time at all weeding out those who don’t start. In the networked economy, the innovation-focused organisation has no choice but to obsess about those who don’t start”.

“Today, not starting is far, far worse than being wrong”.

“If you start, you’ve got a shot at evolving and adjusting to turn your wrong turn into a right. But if you don’t start, you never get the chance”.

     A lunch meeting

If you start starting things, some bosses may tell you to ‘cool it’. They may instruct you to just sit in your cubicle and wait for instructions. It’s possible that you have a boss like this now. Seth has a boss like this in his brief career at Yahoo after he sold his company to them for $30m and became their Vice President of Direct Marketing. 

If your boss is like that, Seth recommends two things:

  1. Ignore Poke the Box (for now)
  2. Start looking for a new gig, ASAP.

There’s a third way, but it shouldn’t be taken seriously unless you’re impatients, bold, and determined to make a difference. The third option: ignore your boss and keep starting things. It works out in the end.

   Fear on the left, fear on the right.

“Some of us hold back when we should be starting instead. We hold back, promise to do more research, wait for a better moment, seek out a kinder audience”. This habit is extremely common, and it eats up our genius and destroys our ability to make the contribution we’re quite capable of making. This is ‘hypogo’ – where we get trapped into not enough starting.

  • The flip side is also true. ‘Hypergo’ is starting too much, dealing with our fear of shipping by starting something else instead.
    •  The person who constantly asks questions, interrupts and takes endless notes isn’t just annoying – they’re also self-sabotaging and hiding. If you’re always dreaming, you can’t be held responsible for your work: first, because you’re crazy, and second, because you’re too busy doing the next thing to be held responsible for the last one.
  • “If you’re not making a difference, it’s almost certainly because you’re afraid”. 
    • That fear can manifest itself on either end of the spectrum.
    •  It’s not good to be too fat or too thin, or to have blood pressure too high or too low, and in the same way, it not’s good to start too little or too often.

    Starting as a way of life

“Innovation is mysterious. Inspriation is largely unpredicatable… But once the habit is ingrained and you become the starter, the centre of the circle, you will find more and more things to notice, to instigate, and to initiate”.


Selling is not safe. You might be rejected.

Speaking up is not safe. People might get offended.

Innovation is not safe. You Fail. Perhaps badly.

“Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what are you going to do about it? Hide? Crouch in a corner and work as hard as you can to fit in? That’s not safe either. Might as well do something that matters instead”.

“You can’t lose”.



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