Seth Godin On The Icarus Deception And Artists

As Legend has it, Icarus — a victim of his hubris — died at the Greek island of Samos. His father Daedalus, who was imprisoned for sabotaging the work for King Minos, created a plot to escape with his son. He fashioned a set of wings for himself and his son. Daedalus warned his son not to fly to close to the son. Icarus, enchanted by his ability to fly, disobeyed is father and flew too high. His wings melted and he fell into the sea and died.

The lesson of this myth, as Seth Godin puts it:

Don’t disobey the king. Don’t disobey the your dad. Don’t imagine that you’re better than you are, and most of all, don’t ever believe that you have the ability to do what a god might do.

There is another part of the myth we weren’t told. Daedalus also told his son not to fly too close to the sea because the water will hinder the lift in his wings.

Society has altered the myth, encouraging us to forget the part about the sea, and created a culture where we constantly remind on another about the dangers of standing up, standing out, and making a ruckus. Industrialists have made hubris a cardinal but conveniently ignored a far more common failing: settling for too little. They need you to dream about security and the benefits of compliance. The idustrialist works to sell you on a cycle of consumption (which requires more compliance). And the industrialist benefits from our dream of moving up the corporate ladder, his ladder.
It’s far more dangerous to fly too low than too high, because it feels safe to fly low. We settle for low expectations and small dreams and guarantee ourselves less than we are capable of. We’re so obsessed about the risk of shining brightly that we’ve traded in everything that matters to avoid it.

Godin talks about the history of work and how the “path to success” has changed dramatically. The places that used the feel safe — the corner office, the secure job — are not longer safe, yet we still strive for those spots. In essence fooling ourselves on the reality of the world.

Godin advises people to get out of their comfort zone and enter a new safety zone, one where you are uncomfortable unless you are creating, restless if things are standing still, and disappointed if you haven’t failed recently. “Creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected are the two pillars of our new society and both of them require the posture of the artist.”

Artists are people who make art. Art is not a gene or a specific talent. Art is an attitude, culturally driven and available to anyone who chooses to adopt it. Art isn’t something sold in a gallery or performed on a stage. Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another. Most painters, it turns out, aren’t artists at all — they are safety-seeking copycats. Seizing new ground, making connections between people or ideas, working without a map — these are works of art, and if you do them, you are an artist, regardless of whether you wear a smock, use a computer, or work with others all day long.

Producing art is not easy. It takes a lot of work. There is a perception that great works of art happen in a moment. Steve Martin became an overnight success after 13 years. Comedian Kevin Hart wrote that “Hollywood has a way of making everything seem like an overnight success.” It’s not just Hollywood, its everyone. We think that Stephen King became a great writer all of a sudden and forget about the 30 rejection letters he received for his first book.

Dreaming big is not a hard thing. It is very easy to say “I want to change the world. I want to leave an impact. I want to make a difference. I want to be an innovator. I want to be a best selling writer. I want to cure cancer. I want to fix government.”

It is true that having high aspirations is the first step to actually accomplish great things. Yet it is easy to get high off of romanticizing what we will become. When Tony Robbins interviewed billionaires Ray Dalio and Carl Icahn, he said that “everyone can talk about what they are going to do and what they should do. I need to lose weight, I need to save money, I need to read more.” Robbins said that the single distinguishing factor between Dalio and Icahn and everyone else is that they are greate executors.

Executing on your ideas and ambitions are not easy. They feel uncomfortable, different. They force to avoid obedience, compliance, and fight the status quo. There is no innovation in conventional thinking. To be an artist — a programmer, a writer, a financier, a politician — requires that you do what others are not doing, to go against the grain, to walk away from conformity. As Chase Jarvis says, “to zig while everyone is else is zagging.” Being an artist is difficult because it requires courage and execution in an unconventional manner.

Art has evolved. Godin writes:

James Elkins points out that schools of art used to divide the arts into only two categories: fine art and industrial art. Then the intellectuals expanded the categories to: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry. From there its a quick leap to :performance, video, ceramics, interior architecture, industrial design, fashion, and computing. To which I’d add: entrepreneurship, customer service, invention, technology, connection, leadership, and a dozen others. These are new performing arts, the valuable visual arts, the essential personal arts.

Godin mentioned customer service, which you wouldn’t think is artistry. People dislike Uber because they are not artists. They have a customer service problem. They treat their customers — their drivers — like dispensable units. Once Uber solves this problem, they will be looked at like artists because “it will touch another human being”, just how Zappos became successful for its great customer service.

Artists are very similar to linchpins. Godin wrties,

The linchpin is the cornerstone of a project, the responsibility taker, the one we would miss if she were gone. The artist is almost certainly a linchpin, but I’m adding another dimension here — it turns out that expending emotional labor, working without a map, and driving in the dark involve confronting fear and living with the pain of vulnerability. The artist comes to a detente with these emotions and, instead of fighting with them, dances with them.
The linchpin connects as a result of the indispensable nature of her contribution. The artist, on the other hand, connects because that’s what art is. The artist touches part of what it means to be truly human and does that work again and again.

Seth Godin’s book The Icarus Deception is a great read. He challenges conventional thinking and clearly articulates what it means to be an artist and to produce great work. He challenges the reader to take command of producing art, and that “blaming the system is soothing because it lets you off the hook, but when the system is broken, we wonder why you were relying on the system in the first place.” Ignore the warning and cautions, and fly closer to the sun.

Originally published at on February 4, 2015. Subscribe to the Seeking Intellect Newsletter