Don’t Please Everyone
This month, I read The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. The book got its name from the classic Greek myth about Icarus, who took flight on a set of wings that were fastened to his back by wax. According to the legend, Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, his wings fell off, and he fell in the sea and drowned. Godin says that this myth has played out in our culture, and that we have all become socialized not to fly too high. Specifically, he references the Industrial Age and how it conditioned us to play it safe and stick to the middle of the road—which has stopped us from doing our greatest work.
The Icarus Deception originally caught my interest because of the fact that Godin used Kickstarter to fund the project. At the outset of the project, I remember reading his blog post, describing the venture as an experiment of sorts. He was using Kickstarter to test-market the book concept to see if the market would respond to it. If he raised sufficient funds, he would write the book. I found the idea intriguing as a way for self-published authors to pre-market their books and create accountability. I think it has promise as an alternative to traditional publishing contracts. Perhaps not accidentally, that touches directly on a central theme of the book: making art designed to meaningfully impact a small tribe, rather than engineering art that will predictably sell to the masses.
There were three central themes throughout the book that I would like to spotlight here.
1. Circumventing the traditional selection process.
Godin talks a lot about how the internet and various other technologies have made it possible to “pick yourself,” or start making your art without having to get picked by someone else. “YouTube wants you to have your own show now, but they’re not going to call you…iTunes and a hundred other outlets want you to have your own gig, but they’re not going to call you, either.” He emphasizes how there are plenty of platforms that make it possible for any kind of artist to put their work out there without first having to pass an audition. However, few artists are taking full advantage of the opportunity that exists today because they are conditioned to do it the old way.
2. Accepting that, no matter what you do for a living, you are an artist.
Godin says that we have entered “the connection economy,” an era in which connections between people are the currency that drive the world’s engine. In this light, real art—the way Godin defines it—must create a new connection. He further asserts that a new connection only gets made when someone takes a risk and exposes themselves to potential rejection. Even left-brained activity like tax accounting can be art by this definition. In fact, if connection economy theory is true, it has to be. Assembly-line work can be automated or outsourced to someone else who can do it for less. A real connection is the only indispensable economic asset of today’s world, if you follow Godin’s line of thinking.
3. Embracing the opportunity to connect with your own tribe.
Readers of Godin will find this third theme familiar. If you read Meatball Sundae (see my 2011 review), you may recall a trend called “the Long Tail.” Godin predicted a continued shift away from selling “average products for average people” toward creating an increasing number of niche products for small audiences. In The Icarus Deception, Godin talks about the impact of creating art with a mass market mindset. The drive to please everybody can compel an artist to dumb down the best qualities that might have appealed to an enthusiastically loyal fan base.
One measure of a good book, for me, is the questions that it leaves on my mind after I finish reading it. While I didn’t find the ideas radically new in The Icarus Deception, I did walk away from my reading with a new perspective on my own artistic career. This is the kind of material that I’m tempted to claim to already understand. However, when I take a more honest look at what I’ve created, I still see a pile of unfinished projects that have never seen the light of day. I have already had the experience of connecting with my tribe. For example, a number of people have reached out to me and said that they appreciated the things that I wrote on my blog. At the same time, I see vast untapped potential. Godin’s book forces me to look inside and ask “why?”
The Icarus Deception has given me a slight inner nudge. Something has just barely started to awaken inside of me: in particular, my desire to finish more of the writings that I’ve started. In 2009, I self-published two books. I didn’t worry about what the critics had to say. I told myself that I would continue at the pace of four books per year in print. I haven’t finished a single book since November of 2009. I have started more than thirty book projects. On one hand, I believe that my slower pace is a reflection of the fact that I take my art more seriously than I used to. On the other hand, I see myself using this as an excuse to hold back my work.
If you dream of a new career, or if you know that you are capable of doing something better than what you’re doing, The Icarus Deception may just be the gentle nudge that you need to jumpstart the next leg of your creative journey. Godin is definitely right about one thing: art requires risk. Taking on the journey to become a creative professional is scary, but necessary. That’s how great things get done.
If you enjoyed this post, please share your thoughts with us in the comments. What creative risks are YOU taking?