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
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.