May 18th, 2014


Escaping the old paradigm's cage ...

I had wanted to read this one ever since it came out. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case with his books, Seth Godin's The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? spent a very long time hovering right around cover price, even in the new/used channels, and in my seemingly-unending “income challenged” state, I'd just not been able to justify pulling the trigger on it. Fortunately, I caught a “like new” copy for a “reasonable” amount (even with shipping) mid-March, and this went pretty much to the top of the to-be-read stack.

While I've not read all of Godin's books (I believe this is the ninth I've gotten through), I've read a fairly representative chunk of them, and I feel pretty confident in saying that this one is something of an outlier in his work. Admittedly, this has roots in his Tribes, and has very much been echoed (albeit in a more “business plan” approach) in Chris Brogan's new The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, but this is more of a philosophical statement about “art” and owning one's art, however that is expressed.

Frankly, I wonder how this book would seem to folks who haven't read much of Godin. “Knowing where he's coming from” helps a lot to make sense of the more (on the surface) outlandish bits here … as the thesis pushes the envelope on what is work, what is art, and how one can merge those into something that will produce an income in the new economy. As is so often the case in the Internet-connected world of billions of signals, attention is a key element (and often argued, the real currency of our age).
      In a marketplace that's open to just about anyone, the only people we hear are the people we choose to hear. Media is cheap, sure, but attention is filtered, and it's virtually impossible to be heard unless the consumer gives us the ability to be heard. The more valuable someone's attention is, the harder it is to earn.
In this Godin talks of “the connection economy”, noting “We're insatiable consumers of connection.”, and defines art and artists broadly:
      An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those we seek to connect with) personally.
      Art isn't a result; it's a journey. The challenge of our time is to find a journey worthy of your heart and your soul.
A concept he introduces here is the Japanese term kamiwaza, which is, roughly, “godlike” … while this may seem hubristic to some, it plays to the notion of creating, which the artist must do … he furthers this point with:
      When we strip away the self-doubt and the artifice, when we embrace initiative and art, we are left with kamiwaza. The purity of doing it properly but without self-conciousness.
This leads the reader back to the title character. Anybody familiar with the Greek myths recognizes Icarus as the son of the famed Daedalus, who had fabricated wings with wax holding them together in order to escape from King Minos. Godin argues that the part of the story which has been suppressed was that Icarus was not just instructed to not fly too close to the Sun (which melted the wax), but also not fly too low to the ocean. In other words, the Icarus myth is a “control mechanism” telling us not to attempt to achieve, and to accept the roles that society and industry have forged for us.

Two other concepts come in here, “the Lizard” (as in the “lizard brain”), and “the Resistance” … the latter is all those escapes that come to mind to keep us from doing what we know we should be doing, and, in describing the former, Godin writes:
      One part of us wants to climb the steps, to leap, to fly, to make an impact. The other, the more primitive one, wants to play it safe, to lie low, and to avoid failing.
      Our economy has worked overtime to emphasize and reward the lizard. We have built a society around making the artist the exception and heroism the rare instance that proves the rule.
Which he later expands on:
      Part of you … is painfully aware of your potential. This part of your brain seeks respect, values achievement, and knows, truly knows, that you are capable of far more than you've done so far.
      The other part of your brain is afraid. The amygdala has evolved over millions of years to optimize its ability to turn you into a puddle of quivering jelly. This part of your brain has been amplified and given a free ride by the industrialists in power. We have been brain-washed by school, indoctrinated by industrial propaganda, and mesmerized by the popular media into believing that compliance is not only safe but right and necessary.
Given that Godin is a business/marketing “guru” and theorist, the thrust of The Icarus Deception is subversive to the point of being seditious. The underlying theme here is that we've been sold a bill of goods by those in power – in government, in business, and certainly in religion – and that there IS another way to be. The “connection economy” makes it possible, if not easy, to reach beyond those structures. How do we know how to find the way? Oddly, Godin says the irritations of The Resistance are key here:
      The resistance is a symptom that you're on the right track. The resistance is not something to be avoided; it's something to seek out.
      That's the single most importance sentence in this book.
      The artist seeks out the feeling of the resistance and then tries to maximize it. …
… dare to turn your tabula rasa into something frightening, that's when you will begin to live the life of the artist. And the artist's constant companion is the screaming lizard brain.
Again, this is not a “manual” for moving into post-industrialism, Godin writes: “There are no step-by-step instructions or shortcuts in this book because those are easy to find elsewhere.”, however, he does provide a partial “Habits of Successful Artists” list to help one “when the lizard is particularly wild, when the resistance will do anything at all to stop the work”:
Learn to sell what you've made.
Say thank you in writing.
Speak in public.
Fail often.
See the world as it is.
Make predictions.
Teach others.
Write daily.
Connect others.
Lead a tribe.
He goes into examples that illustrate various aspect of being an artist, from Paula Poundstone to Christopher Columbus, with Dennis Kucinich and Don Quixote in between, and then ends with an appendix with “True-Life Stories of Fourteen Real Artists”, but these aren't the Jackson Pollock “artists” (although earlier in the book Godin relates a fascinating story about Pollock and his teacher), but folks in the work world who have done extraordinary things, and in the process “made art”. This is followed by a slightly whimsical appendix with an A-Z “Artist's Abecedary”, which includes this:
Pain is the truth of art. Art is not a hobby or a pastime. It is the result of an internal battle royale, one between the quest for safety and the desire to matter.
Needless to say, I found The Icarus Deception quite inspiring … so much so that I'm really hoping that I can convince my teenage daughters to read it, as they're in a position to take this to heart. It's available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book from the usual sources, and I think this is one of those “recommended to all and sundry”, although if one is too connected to the “old world”, you might find this unsettling. But I suspect Godin would suggest it's good to be unsettled!

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