Book Report – The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin

Written by The Dad

The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly is about art. It is about understanding the purpose of and need for art, and how the reader must see themselves as an artist. It is an exhortation to step out of your comfort zone and create.


This book is titled after the Greek myth of Icarus.  Briefly, Icarus is said to be a man who was given a pair of wings to allow him to fly, along with instructions to never fly too high or too low. Icarus ignored the instructions and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted, he lost his ability to fly, and he fell tragically into the sea. In this book Seth Godin argues against the “don’t fly too close to the sun” idea.icarus

Godin believes that the Icarus story, once a warning against dangerous hubris, has morphed into a warning to play it safe and never stick out of the crowd; to avoid even pursuing anything not already laid out for us, and to seek safety and comfort.  We think we’re being responsible but we’re really limiting ourselves out of fear.  We confuse timidity with humility.

Why do we make this mistake? Why are we so hesitant to speak out of turn? Why don’t we attempt to fly higher? We’re generally optimistic about our abilities, but then something holds us back from even trying to reach our full potential. What are we waiting for?

“What are you waiting for?”

The first line of this book recalls the feeling of intro to one of my favorite TEDx talks, “Raise your hand as high as you can.”

What’s the source of that inner voice that warns us against flying too high? In The Icarus Deception , Seth Godin discusses many things that cause us to hold back just a little bit, from the way our school system is designed to the stories we tell ourselves and pass on to others. Our society is built around industrial principles, and Godin believes we’re losing out by not giving artistry its due.

We’re very good at training industrialists but not as great at nurturing artists. To quote the book, “We have embraced industrial propaganda with such enthusiasm that we have changed the very natures of our dreams.”

The Industrialist vs The Artist

To paraphrase some thoughts about industrialists and artists*:

The industrialist…

…is risk-averse
…seeks permission and instruction so as to guarantee positive outcomes
…values conformity and predictability
…loves universal systems with maps, and trusts them
…values safety and comfort, rarely strays outside the lines
…shuns failure in any form
…sees the world as a series of problems to be solved
…blames “the system” when things go wrong

The artist…

…is unpredictable and incoherent
…is less attached to “positive” outcomes
…feels that unpredictability allows
…is comfortable outside the system, without a road map or book for dummies
…avoids attachment to comfort zones and paints outside the lines whenever possible
…values, even seeks out, failure
…sees the world as opportunity
…already knows “the system” is broken (hasn’t it always been?) but doesn’t use the excuse

So, What Is Art?

The point I appreciated most in this book is Godin’s definition of art; not just painting or acting or playing music, but how you do your work. Professionals in fields we might not consider artistic based would do well to consider the artistic aspects of their professions. For example: a doctor having exceptional bedside manner.

Art is anything that is new, real and important. Art is humans doing human things. Art is learning to see honestly. Art is effort and care. Art makes up building blocks to what Godin calls the “Connection Economy”.

“The Connection Economy”

Godin uses the term “connection economy” frequently throughout The Icarus Deception. He talks at length about how our economy has evolved over time, from agrarian to industrial to informational to…connection. I’ve read many books about how we’re in the “information age” or the age of the “information economy,” but this is the first book I’ve read which discusses to what comes next.

These days, information is cheap and easy. Most good information is freely available if you know how and where to find it. Most things have been optimized. Competence, technical expertise, and excellent quality are assumed. College degrees and other credentials are prevalent and don’t mean as much as they used to. Having credentials won’t necessarily get you the job, and being competent won’t help you keep it. A cheap, useful product won’t necessarily sell.

We don’t pay extra for a good product, we pay for the art. With so many easy options, consumers are choosing their products and services based on connections the product or service makes for them. If two products are the same, the consumer may choose based on the story behind it or the cause its revenue supports. Consumers don’t just want to pay for something to happen or to own a product, they also want meaning. Creating that connection is art.

We don’t just pay for the product, we pay for what it means to us.  This is the connection economy.

“Pick Yourself”

School teaches us to raise our hands to be picked, but the world is less and less likely to pick us. Art is increasingly required but it’s not taught with emphasis, so we have to learn to make our own art. The Icarus Deception is an exhortation to pick yourself, start creating, ignore the naysayers (even yourself; “the resistance” as Godin calls it), and start creating connections with meaningful art. Ignore the urge to simply do your job or to trust the system. Be bold and create.  Fly higher.

What I Didn’t Like

To avoid sounding like a complete shill for Seth Godin or The Icarus Deception I’ve included a few things I didn’t like about this book:

  • In part two Godin takes an awkward detour into the topic of myths, gods and propoganda. I believe his aim is point out how we the readers have more power than we give ourselves credit for, and that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves trick us into (and validate) limiting our potential, i.e. “don’t fly too close to the sun.” I felt, though, that this portion of the book was superfluous, didn’t add depth, and subtracted from the uplifting feel of the other parts. Godin’s veiled dismissal of myths could be seen as eye-rolling at religion. As a Christian, I wasn’t particularly offended by this section, just annoyed.

  • Godin sneers at those who would “invoke Ayn Rand or ‘the invisible hand'” to explain economic principles. I believe he means to call attention to the dismissive nature of those things, but I believe he’s committing the same offense in return. While I agree that a lot of classical economic theories don’t give a complete view of how markets work, I disagree with the intimation that they should be disregarded. Understanding Adam Smith’s philosophies and Ayn Rand’s commentaries don’t preclude a person from appreciating the artistic element of the relationship between producers and consumers. In fact, I think they go hand in hand with the thoughts in this book. Perhaps that’s a blog post for another day.

Why I Chose The Icarus Deception

I first learned about Seth Godin as he was briefly profiled by Michael Ellsberg in The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful. I started noticing his books throughout bookstores, and after glancing through a few of them, started following him on social media and watching his talks. His TEDx talk about the shortcomings of traditional education caught my attention and immediately became one of my favorite TED talks.  As my wife and I have discussed homeschooling I find myself often referring to ideas I’ve gleaned from Godin.

I loved this book because it plays on one of my pet themes; namely, that I as an engineer tend to see (and seek) engineering solutions to problems, but I’m realizing those aren’t always the best solutions. I like Godin’s picture of what makes something art and why it is important. I found that this book gave voice to a lot of thoughts I haven’t been able to formulate fully.

The Icarus Deception is a light, easy, short read that is mostly uplifting and encouraging. It will make you want to drop what you’re doing and go do something you love.  It will make you want to fly higher.  Highly recommended.

On a personal note: discussion within this book of the need to write often and write everyday, regardless of audience, is part of what encouraged me to start posting on this blog.


*These lists are not written in the book.  They’re based on what I remember and from notes I took.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s