Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another. – Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception
This is part 2 of Seth Godin in conversation with Mary Jaksch, the Chief Editor of Write to Done.
Seth: If you’ve accepted that the rules of the game are that you are not willing to write unless everyone likes what you write, then you’ve just announced that you’re an amateur, not a professional, and that you’re probably doomed. Whereas the professional writer says, ‘It is almost certain that most of what I write will not resonate with most people who read it, but over time, I will gain an audience who trusts me to, at the very least, be interesting.’
Mary: I suppose that’s the real advantage of the internet as opposed to the writing industry: you can always find that small group of people who will be interested in what you write.
Seth: Yes, that’s exactly right. I was in Iceland last week, Mary, and one out of every six hundred people in the whole country came to see me speak. This would be the equivalent of fifty thousand people seeing me in the United States, which has never, ever happened.
Iceland teaches an important lesson. It’s such a tiny place, yet it’s possible to have a café that succeeds. The café succeeds not because everyone in Iceland goes there, but because enough people go. Whether you live in New Zealand, Malaysia or the United States, the internet connects you to four billion people.
All you need to make a living is for four thousand to adore you. And you need forty thousand to be a hit. That’s forty thousand out of four billion! Those are really good odds!
Mary: Coming back to art, you write in your book, ‘Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another.’ What do you actually mean by ‘work that touches another’?
Seth: There’s a light switch on the wall across the desk from me. I’ve never noticed this switch before. If someone came in the middle of the night and changed it to a different light switch, I wouldn’t notice. This light switch is not art. This light switch is a piece of functional mechanics.
For it to be art, it has to be something I care about, something that resonates with me, something that I notice in a personal way, and the only thing we connect with in our lives are things that touch us at that level.
We do not connect with utility. We connect with things that change us.
When we connect, we’re willing to spread the word, we’re willing to pay, and we’re willing to care. We want to be part of that thing and, more importantly, part of the person who made that thing.
The reason I wrote this book is that the number of artists alive today is more than ever before in history, but it’s a fraction of what that number could be. What human beings want, once they have enough food and shelter, is meaning. We want to matter. We want to engage with people who matter. We want to do something worth talking about. That’s our shortage. We don’t have a shortage of stuff; we have a shortage of caring.
Mary: It still doesn’t quite explain what happens when we are touched. What’s your sense of that touch? What happens within us?
Seth: I think that we have a million words for it. We have words like nostalgia and ennui and joy and sadness. We have words like satisfaction and connection. They aren’t measurable, monetizable things like the industrialists of our culture would like us to believe. They are the things that we remember about our day – as we fall asleep at night. They are things we look forward to the next morning.
Surprise, joy, fear, and everything else that we ascribe only to human beings, are the result of art.
Industrialists, because they can’t monetize it or capitalize on it, are minimizing it daily. They say, ‘No, no, no. What people want are faster clock speeds on their processors and better mileage or horsepower in their cars.’ No, we don’t want those things. Sometimes we want the things that those things will get us, but those are merely the means to an end. The end is the stuff that makes us feel human.
Mary: In other words, work that touches another is something that makes us feel more alive.
Seth: That’s right. It doesn’t have to be alive in the sense of a Walt Disney or Frank Capra movie where we’re dancing on our way out. It could be reading a memoir of the holocaust and gasping at the enormity of the cruelty of one man towards another. Those are still elements of what it means to be a person.
Mary: It’s interesting to hear you talk about industrialists and the productivity myth because that’s really about strategy, how we can become better at what we’re doing using different strategies.
Seth: I’m certainly glad that we had one hundred years of industrialization because I get to live in an electrified, dry, warm place in the middle of December.
But in the last decade industrialism has reached its ceiling. We can’t further industrialize because we’re going to wreck the planet, and there’s no growth left if we’re looking for what used to be called “the good job”. We’ve stopped creating those jobs. We’ve stopped creating those leapfrog moments of productivity.
Think about 1962 or ’63 when we said, ‘Let’s put a man on the moon’, and eight years later we did. In the last eight years, we’ve figured out how to get a YouTube video from one end of the planet to the other.
We don’t have as much room to grow in terms of making more stuff more cheaply; we just can’t make it more cheaply. A BIC pen is never going to cost less than it costs now. So where is the growth going to come from? I think growth will come from leveraging the wonderful resources we have now, with the kind of work that’s harder to measure and more important.
Mary: You say at some stage: ‘A strategy is empty without change, empty without passion, and empty without people willing to confront the void.’ As a Zen person, I’m particularly interested in “willing to confront the void”. Can you say more about this?
Seth: The void is back to “this might not work”. We have no trouble persuading the ninth person to follow the other eight people across the bridge because ‘It worked for the eight of them. I might as well follow them’. The one who steps out when she’s not sure it will be alright, the person who writes the novel in a new format or experiences an interaction that she’s not sure will work; that void is what separates the one who is willing to do art from someone who has been brainwashed into just following the status quo.
Mary: So it’s really about embracing not-knowing.
Seth: Not-knowing is the point. If I look on the web, the non-fiction web is filled with bullet points, lists, Dummies’ guides, proof, case studies, research – all designed to tell someone, ‘If you do this, it will work. You should be a cog in this giant system.’ Yet the people who follow all those steps are seen as mere imitators. They aren’t the people we’re paying attention to or meeting or doing business with.
Mary: I think it’s important to see art as a journey.
Seth: Yes. Joni Mitchell has a great line in one of her live concerts. All these people in the crowd are yelling requests and she says, ‘I wonder if Vincent van Gogh had to deal with this. Did people yell, “Paint a Starry Night again”?’ Of course, the answer is no. The thought that you should paint the same painting over and over again – maybe Salvador Dali could have made a living doing that, but no longer.
Going forward in a digital invitation that’s available to everyone is always going to be free. The only thing we’re going to pay for is the next thing, the irreplaceable thing, the bespoke thing, the moment as opposed to the history.
Mary: You’re laying out a real challenge to all of us, aren’t you?
Seth: Oh, yes! If I wanted to sell books, I would just write Permission Marketing Part II, The Proven Handbook. I’m not doing this to sell books. I’m doing this to make a ruckus. This is the kind of thing you have to chew on and think about for a long time. You have to discuss it with other people, take baby steps and say, ‘You know what, it’s not fatal. In fact, this is why I’m here.’ ‘I am here’ is what we need to say to ourselves to do work that matters.
Mary: You would say more than that because you say, ‘You have to find a journey worthy of your heart and your soul.’ That’s a big challenge.
Seth: It’s funny, because the people who have found it treat it as an “of course”. To them it is obvious. They wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think it’s a little selfish to not share that feeling with folks who haven’t found it yet, with folks who have bought the propaganda that they should get an ‘A’, fit in, do what they’re told and wait their turn. Your turn’s not going to come. This is your turn. Take it or leave it.
Mary: What does this mean for writers, in particular?
Seth: We’ve just eliminated scarcity. There used to be scarcity of shelf space, scarcity of publishers, and scarcity of paper. All that’s gone. There’s unlimited shelf space, unlimited digital paper, and an unlimited number of publishers. You can’t continue to blame scarcity for the fact that your writing isn’t in the world.
You have to accept that putting your writing out there is no longer difficult. What’s difficult is getting someone who encounters your writing to share it with someone else. That changes the kind of writing you should be doing. You shouldn’t ever again be writing to please an editor.
Mary: I was recently re-reading your book, The Purple Cow. In it, I found a very interesting passage. You write: ‘Why do birds fly in formation? Because the birds that follow have an easier flight.’
A lot of people follow a similar strategy. They think they can wait until a leader demonstrates a breakthrough and then rush to copy it. In the Icarus Deception, it seems you are now focused on the lone bird flying into the unknown.
You seem to have changed your perspective. If you have done so, what has occasioned the shift?
Seth: Mike Moritz, the great investor, said that he doesn’t invest in the flock; he invests in the bird that’s going to do something interesting. My late teacher Zig Ziglar used to say that if you watched birds in formation, you would see that after a while, the lead bird shifts and another bird takes its place, because it’s so tiring to go first.
In both Purple Cow and Icarus, I’m saying that being the last bird is easy but not useful. What makes a purple cow purple is that it’s the first one that makes ‘being purple’ something worth talking about. What is remarkable is that it went first.
The difference between now and then is that ten years ago I didn’t have the proof or the following to be as audacious as I’m capable of being today. In the ten years since I wrote Purple Cow, so many things I talked about have panned out, that it has become more and more clear. Whether you’re a writer or the maker of widgets, you won’t be able to keep going if you’re boring.
Mary: You’re also audacious in the way you’re publishing the Icarus Deception. First of all, you’ve created a free sample of the Icarus Deception, which I think everyone should read. Secondly, you’ve made it possible to pre-order the full version at a big discount.
Seth: I started in June by doing a Kickstarter to demonstrate that organizing your readers is extremely valuable. About 4500 people pre-purchased 10,000 copies of various forms of my book from the nineteen-pound, eight-hundred-page behemoth to a four-dollar, four-day digital preview of the Icarus book.
It took a few days to sell the thing out. But once we had that group aligned, I had all the power, because publishers realized that that’s the hard part. The first four thousand readers are the hard part. I had already done the hard part, and I hadn’t even written the book yet!
Many writers would say, ‘I can’t get that many people to trust me.’ And I would say, ‘Exactly. The reason you can’t is you haven’t been giving stuff away every day for seven years like I have. You haven’t been building a tribe one reader at a time like I have. The best time to start that was seven years ago. The second best time is right now. So start!’
As you build this following for your short stories or your cartoons or your non-fiction or your blog posts, over time you will reach the point where you can organize them and say to them, ‘All right, now I’m going to do something that’s going to take some money, but here’s my promise to you.’ I did that in June, which meant I was able to spend the whole summer writing, not for unknown readers, but for the readers I already knew, which is a really fantastic shift.
I’m not even trying to sell books. I’m merely trying to sell an idea. If enough people like my idea, the money will take care of itself.
Mary: There is another challenge that you’re laying out for writers: you are known to be generous with your work.
Seth: I wonder why anyone would hesitate to be generous with their writing.
I mean, if you really want to make a living, go on Wall Street and trade oil futures and rip people off, right? We’re writers. We’re doing something that is inherently a generous act. We’re exposing ourselves to the muse and to the things that frighten us. Why do that if you’re not willing to be generous? And paradoxically, almost ironically, it turns out that the more generous you are, the more money you make. But that’s secondary. For me, the privilege of being generous is why I get to do this.
Mary: In all of this, looking at an emerging writer absorbing this interview, what is your suggestion to him or her as the very first step they can take today to move towards this new vision of being an artist?
Seth: There are three steps: write, ship, share. When you write and ship and share and you see whether or not it resonates, you will get better at what you do.
The more you write and ship and share, the more people will come to depend on what you’re doing and the easier it’s going to be to spread your ideas. At some point, people will come to you and say, ‘I’m not getting enough of what you’re doing. Here’s some money’, or ‘I’m not getting enough of what you’re doing. Please come speak to my group’, or ‘I’m not getting enough of what you’re doing. Please coach me so I can do it too.’ But none of that happens until you write and ship and share.
Mary: Thank you, Seth. You’ve been so generous in sharing your ideas. All I can say to our readers is, ‘Go buy the Icarus Deception!’. Click here to get the free sample.
Seth: Thank you, Mary. You absolutely made my day. If your tribe hasn’t told you, thank you for leading. The work you’re doing is really important.
Seth Godin is a marketing guru, entrepreneur, author and public speaker. He has written fourteen books that have been translated into more than thirty languages. Every one has been a bestseller. Click here to subscribe to his blog.
Image: Woman writer courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com
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