Why We Are All Artists: Seth Godin in Conversation – Part 1

Seth Godin

Seth Godin

You are capable of making a difference, of being bold, and of changing more than you are willing to admit. You are capable of making art.
Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Seth Godin, one of the most interesting non-fiction writers today, is known for his challenging ideas.

In the following conversation with WTD Chief Editor Mary Jaksch, Seth Godin reveals the challenge he lays down in his upcoming book, The Icarus Deception.

Mary:  I’m fascinated by your upcoming book, The Icarus Deception. You take up the legend of Icarus – but with a twist. Can you tell us about your understanding of this legend?

Seth:   Actually, I don’t add a twist; I take a twist out of it.

For thousands of years, people were told the story about Daedalus and his son, Icarus. They were isolated on an island by the gods and Daedalus came up with a way to escape by making wings. He gave a set of wings to his beloved son and gave him two instructions.

It turns out that most of us have only heard one of the instructions. In the last one hundred years, the myth was changed because our culture changed.

In the original myth, Icarus was told two things. One, ‘Don’t fly too close to the sun because the wax will melt and you will perish.’ Two, and more importantly, ‘Don’t fly too low. Don’t fly too close to the sea because if you do, the mist in the waves will weigh down your wings and you will surely die.’

It turns out that industrialists and the systems that we live with want us to fly low. They push us to settle for less, and I think the time has come to stop buying that propaganda. My book is a manifesto, almost a creed, about how we must overthrow the mindset of being a cog in the industrial system and instead, stand up and make what I call art.

Mary:  In your book, you say art is what it is to be human. That’s a very wide definition of art. Can you please say more about your understanding of what art is?

Seth:   Art is the work of a human being – something a person does with generosity to touch someone else to make a change for the better. We can see art in the way the nurse in a doctor’s office treats us when she knows how much pain we’re in. She’s not just doing her job; she’s being a person. She is enlarging the bubble around herself to include us.

Our best work is always about standing out, never about standing in.

You never meet somebody who says, ‘I succeeded by fitting in more than everyone else.’

Mary:  I like your thought about “standing out” and not “standing in”! However, I think there is something else as well and that’s the fear of being a target of envy. In some countries, there is a “tall poppy syndrome” which means that people who dream big and achieve are resented or criticized. What’s your advice for people who are fearful of standing out?

Seth:  The “Tall Poppy Syndrome” is something that infects the entire world. At its core, it is ammunition for the resistance. The resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it, is the voice of the amygdala, the part of our brain that evolved to want to survive. The amygdala wants us to fit in and not be noticed. If a wild animal is singled out and isolated from the pack or the herd, that is when that animal is in danger.

The feeling of not wanting to be noticed is prehistoric. What has happened, in the last twenty years in particular, is that the only people who are achieving their dreams, the only people who are creating value, the only people who are being fairly compensated, are the ones who have figured out how to stand out.

We are all connected now. With one click, I can find someone cheaper than you are. With just a quick search, I can find a blog more interesting than yours (not you in particular). What we see is that attention and surplus and revenue and profit and influence all go to the people who are doing work worth doing, and those of us who try to fit in are going to get less and less and less of what we used to be able to obtain.

Mary:  So your sense is that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is something we’ve internalized to boost our resistance to standing out.

Seth:  That’s right! You don’t see a successful cricket player or sports star say, ‘I didn’t run fast on that play because the people on the bench would be jealous of me.’ We have created this infrastructure around sports, where it is expected that you will execute as well as you can, and that your team will cheer you on. That’s what we emphasize because it works.

When it came to the arts, we used to see opposite of that: your team will never cheer you on and you should just hide your light under a bushel. I think that what we’re seeing now, in the Internet world, is the opposite.

When someone builds a successful blog, when someone builds a following, when someone has a million Twitter followers, they’re no longer criticized for having something to say. In fact, they are followed because they have something to say.

Mary:  Then what is it that really holds us back from wanting to achieve, from wanting to stand out?

Seth:  I think, reading over your blog, which is very generous and important, that writing is hard, but it wasn’t always hard. In fact, the term writer’s block did not exist before 1944. Not only was there no word for it, it never actually happened. Writer’s block came to be because suddenly writing was a profession. Writing had stakes associated with it. Writing was “important”. We filled it with all this expectation. Writing itself is as hard as talking and very few people get talker’s block.

Rather than trying to find a way to industrialize writing – here are the twelve steps, here are the eighteen ways to do this, here are the six things you should copy from that; that’s just going to suck all the life out of writing and turn it into yet another cog-oriented job. We should do the opposite.

We should blow up the expectations of writing and say something worth saying and say it in a way that’s personal. It turns out that the internet, for the first time in the history of mankind, says to everyone, ‘Here’s a microphone. If you want to talk, talk. If you want to write, write. If you want to make a difference, make a difference.’ How horrible it would be to refuse to take your turn at the mic.

Mary: That reminds me of your theory of comfort zone versus safety zone. Can you say something about that in this context?

Seth:  For thousands of years they were the same thing. We didn’t have a lot of time to analyze whether or not we should put our hand in the fire, whether or not we should walk down this street or that, whether or not we should apply for this job or that one. What we did, successful people anyway, was we aligned what was safe in the long run with what was comfortable. All we had to do was use our intuition and say, ‘Does this feel comfortable to me? Am I going to a place where my instinct tells me it’s safe?’

By relying on our comfort, we could stay safe. What revolutions do is separate the safety zone from the comfort zone. Revolutions destroy the perfect and enable the impossible and suddenly that place of safety feels really uncomfortable.

If we look, for example, at the revolution that hit the music industry, the safest thing to do five years ago was give as much of your music away as you could, spread it as far as you could, and engage with fans directly as much as you could. Those tactics felt unsafe to the people at the record labels. Instead, they did what felt comfortable, which was suing people, and they destroyed their industry by doing a comfortable thing, instead of being smart and figuring what the safe thing was.

Mary:  In terms of writing, what would this mean?

Seth:   Most people who are getting started in writing do not have the confidence of a best-selling author. They are not comfortable sharing their work far and wide. They’re not comfortable saying, ‘I don’t have a publisher. I’m going to publish myself. Here, I wrote this.’ They would rather have the safety that comes from saying, ‘Well, I didn’t decide this was good. Penguin decided this was good.’ ‘I didn’t decide this was worth reading. Simon and Schuster decided it was worth reading.’

My argument is that all the things that feel uncomfortable are actually the safest things you can do. To every novelist who is complaining or bitter about all the publishers who won’t publish them, I say: Take your novel, make it into a PDF. It’s free. E-mail it to fifty of your friends.

If your novel strikes a chord, they will e-mail it to their friends and the next thing you know, a million people will read your novel for free. If a million people read your novel for free, you’ll have no trouble whatsoever selling your next one.

On the other hand, if the fifty people you sent it to don’t share it with anyone, then you haven’t written a good enough novel, and you should start over. But either of those paths is better than sitting at home complaining about the fact that you can’t get published.

Mary:   I love the passage where you describe attitudes that make us safe ‘. . . going forward is uncomfortable unless you are creating change, restless if things are standing still, disappointed if you haven’t failed recently.’ Can you explain why failure is so important?

Seth:   That’s all innovation and art is. Bob Dylan was booed off the stage in 1967 when he went electric. He was booed off the stage in 1974 when he went Gospel. He’s been booed off the stage since then and yet he still fills theaters. The Monkeys, on the other hand, have never been booed off the stage and they’re just an oldies act. Being booed off the stage is a key part of being an artist.

If you want to brainwash yourself into never writing again, go and read all your one-star reviews. Go immerse yourself in exposure to all of the people who have decided that you’re a fraud. It turns out that that approach doesn’t help you. What helps you is going forward, learning from your mistakes, then ignoring what everyone else says and doing it again.

Mary:  What about you, Seth? Have you failed recently?

Seth:   Oh yeah. I don’t consider it a good day unless I fail. I’ve written thousands and thousands of blog posts. Most of them aren’t that great. I’ve written books that didn’t sell as well as the publisher wanted. I’ve launched internet projects that have fallen on their face. I’ve had negotiations where I completely misunderstood what the other person was looking for, or they misunderstood me, and we walked away from each other.

The title of the nineteen-pound book I sent to my Kickstarter followers was This Might Not Work. That attitude is what I try to bring to everything I do. If I’m getting started, or about to throw it out into the world, I say to myself, ‘Hmm, this one might not work.’ If I’m not able to say that, then I probably haven’t pushed myself enough.

Mary:  Does this mean allowing ourselves to be in a danger zone?

Seth:  Actually, Mary, I want to use the words uncomfortable zone because it is, in fact, a very safe place to be because it’s not fatal. No one ever died writing a blog post. What we’re saying here is that for a while anyway, the safest thing you can do is to be as uncomfortable as you can stand to be.

Mary:  Maybe we need to rethink the word “failure” because it doesn’t take into account that failure makes us better.

Seth:  Yes. Remember, we’re living now in the connection economy. The connection economy says, ‘I don’t care how big your factory is and I don’t care how big your house is. I care about how many people trust you and how many people are interested in you. The thing is, I’m not going to trust you, nor will I be interested in you, if you are boring and repetitive.’

Mary:  I suppose there’s also something more fundamental about failure. For example, a toddler who learns to walk doesn’t think of falling down as failing.

Seth:  I haven’t spent as much time with toddlers as I used to, but generally, they certainly don’t view it as success. The toddler wants what’s on the other side of the room enough, though, that they’re willing to go try again. That’s the key part. I will admit that when I write something and people don’t get it, I feel like I’ve failed. I failed my idea. I failed my readers. But I don’t think of failure as permanent. I think of failure as momentary. I figured out one more way not to connect with people.

I feel that it didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean that I personally have become a failure. It’s just this effort that failed.

Mary:  I think that’s what happens to a lot of people; they take failure personally.

Seth:  That’s right. When we think about writing in particular, failure feels very personal – when you’re writing certain sorts of work, when you hand it to someone and they don’t get it, or worse, they don’t even finish reading it.

Find out how to find success as a writer in the conversation with Seth Godin – Part 2 

Click here to get a free sample of Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception

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.

How to become a Successful Writer: Seth Godin in Conversation – Part 2

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40 Responses to “Why We Are All Artists: Seth Godin in Conversation – Part 1”

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  1. jasko says:

    Insightfull, indeed, Seth Godin for sure has something to say. Thanks for this.

  2. jasko says:

    Insightfull, indeed, Seth Godin for sure has something to say. Thanks for this.
    Reply
    jasko recently posted..A CountryMy Profile

  3. Seth is the sharpest mind I know, mostly because he won’t stop poking at things.

    A baby’s guide to failure would be pretty useful. The concept of “learned helplessness” is that when people (or animals) see failure as permanent, personal, and pervasive, they accept helplessness and give up.

    Babies certainly see falling down as failure. But they don’t see it as permanent, because they get right back up. They don’t see it as personal; it’s not their fault. Just ask them when they’re old enough to talk. And it’s certainly not pervasive; just because they fell down walking across the room doesn’t mean they won’t try eating a handful of peas later, despite the fact that most of them fall on the floor.

    Failure is great stuff, but the only people who believe that, who live it, also believe that it is temporary, that it’s not a moral judgment about them, and that failure here has nothing to do with success somewhere else.
    Joel D Canfield recently posted..Practical Advice from ‘The Woman Who Changed Her Brain’ by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (An Actionable Books summary)My Profile

  4. Wow. Thanks for sharing great interview.

    This is what it is all about. People believe in scientists all you want but those hacks can’t even calculate Pi.

    Blogging is your stage and your time to shine.

    Don’t fly too low classic.
    Darnell Jackson recently posted..How to avoid Guest Posting Night Mares – pt1My Profile

  5. Heidi Haaland says:

    Could not stop reading and impatiently await the arrival of Part 2.

    I have also noticed how the “flying too low” admonition has fallen away from the retelling of the Icarus story. Maybe two weeks ago I was sorting through some books and turned up a copy of Myths and Legends of the Greeks, by Nicola Ann Sissons. A Christmas grab bag prize when I was maybe seven, although it was published in 1960. Anyway, a nice book so I kept it and had it right here as I was reading this piece:

    “Icarus, listen carefully to my words. Follow close behind me in your flight. Do not fly too low or the dampness from the sea will cling to your wings and make them too heavy for you to life. Do not fly too high or the sun will melt the wax of your wings.”

    And the very last line: “Daedalus, heartbroken at the loss of his son, flew on to Sicily, took off his wings and never flew again.”

    Perhaps when we don’t fly right/fulfill our promise, others may give up, as well.

  6. Beth Havey says:

    Wow, Seth packed so many thoughts into this interview. And he addressed so accurately thoughts that I have everyday about writing and competition and how the internet has changed what writers do.

    Thanks, Seth and Mary. I too am eager for the next installment.
    Beth Havey recently posted..Boomer Highway Holiday Gift Ideas: Nonfiction BooksMy Profile

  7. What a great read. I loved hearing about the forgotten 2nd instruction given to Icarus: ” ‘Don’t fly too low. Don’t fly too close to the sea because if you do, the mist in the waves will weigh down your wings and you will surely die.”

    I love that metaphor and can think of so many forms of ‘mist’ that we let weigh down our wings, like expectations, comparisons, the need to fit in, and the simple fact that it can be in others interest to weigh us down.

    Great interview, Mary. Can’t wait for part 2!
    Dave | a small field recently posted..noticing notes: shift and returnMy Profile

  8. Sarah O says:

    Intriguing interview! This quote caught me right away: “Art is the work of a human being – something a person does with generosity to touch someone else to make a change for the better.”

    Excited to share this with my daughter who is a serious student of acting and contemplating how she can make a difference in the world by doing something so ‘frivolous’. Although this notion of failure being important for growth has been bandied around quite a bit, Seth brings it home. Being booed off the stage is key to being an artist. As is getting up again and again!
    Sarah O recently posted..Is There Love Even Here?My Profile

  9. Jim Bessey says:

    Fantastic interview, Mary!

    So nice to get up close and personal with Seth Godin. Now I have a much better understanding of Seth’s appeal.
    I’m really looking forward to Part 2, and will make room for Mr Godin in my reading list, for sure.

    Thanks to both of your for taking the time to do this in-depth interview. ~Jim
    Jim Bessey recently posted..Here’s our quick and easy December Jackpot Contest: “Best Opening Sentence”My Profile

  10. PJ Reece says:

    “The safest thing you can do is to be as uncomfortable as you can stand to be.” You know, I’ve always imagined writing as a spiritual act, a way of busting down my belief systems… and this line of Seth’s describes that spiritual discipline perfectly. In fact, Seth is part of my daily regimen — his daily tidbit is the one thing I insist on reading before I even brush my teeth.
    PJ Reece recently posted..Get This Book for Your DaughterMy Profile

  11. I really enjoyed the parts of the discussion regarding safety zones and failure. I found Seth’s insights to be fascinating and absolutely in sync with what has happened in the music industry recently as well as what is happening in the writing industry today.

    A writer must dare to give away their product to garner maximum exposure, be willing to have a project fail and learn to take advantage of the new information paradigm that exists in the world today.

  12. I had the good fortune to stumble upon Seth’s Kickstarter project for The Icarus Deception. As a supporter, I received a copy of the book, as well as the ’19-pound behemoth’ he mentioned in the above interview. Both are wonderful additions to your ‘bookshelf,’ though I have yet to figure out just where that 19-pound book is going to go. :) Highly recommended.

  13. This reminds me of Marianne Williamson’s quote: “Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

    I’m making these ideas a part of my essence more and more every day.
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted..Colorism’s Roots & RoutesMy Profile

  14. Koundeenya says:

    That’s really great. I am one of the biggest fans of Seth. I do check for his blog updates daily and love his writings. Reading the first and second part together, felt awesome.
    Koundeenya recently posted..How To Get Blog Post IdeasMy Profile

  15. Gary Korisko says:

    Very nicely done, Mary.

    I’ve been catching up on my post reading and I’m glad I stopped by here. I’ve also been enjoying Seth’s Startup School podcasts lately – so this was a nice extra dose of Seth.

  16. Chris says:

    “On the other hand, if the fifty people you sent it to don’t share it with anyone, then you haven’t written a good enough novel, and you should start over. But either of those paths is better than sitting at home complaining about the fact that you can’t get published.” That is key. Entering one of those make-or-break phases myself right now where I’ll soon find out if a project doesn’t reach the “good enough to share” level. It’s scary, sort of. But exhilarating, as well. Like Seth said: “This might not work.” But maybe it will.
    Chris recently posted..The Great Diet Soda DebateMy Profile