Seth Godin on Art, Making a Difference, Settling for Less

Feeling stuck? Unsure about your design career or your place in the world? The inspiration you need may come in the form of Seth Godin’s most recent title, “The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?.” His most personal book, it’s aimed squarely at the creative professional who wonders, “What difference can I make? How can I do my best work? What’s it all for, anyway?”

Godin’s title comes from the myth of Icarus, son of Daedalus. Daedalus created a pair of wings for both himself and his son, who were imprisoned by King Minos. Affixing the wings to their backs with wax, the two escaped—Daedalus advising Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, lest its heat melt the wax. Captivated by his ability to fly, Icarus, natch, flew too high, lost his wings and tumbled into the sea to his death.

It’s a cautionary tale against hubris, overreaching, stretching beyond our limits.

But Godin notes that Daedalus also advised his son not to fly too low, lest his wings lose lift.

There’s a second lesson here: Don’t under-shoot your abilities. Don’t settle.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 11.00.52 AM“You are capable of making a difference, of being bold, and of changing more than you are willing to admit,” writes Godin, who’s speaking at the 2014 HOW Leadership Conference. “You are capable of making art. … Because you must. The new connected economy demands it and will reward you for nothing else. Because you can. Art is what it is to be human.”

Godin isn’t referring to painting or making music—but to creating bold, virulent ideas and making connections between seemingly disconnected things. “An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo,” he writes.

Those two abilities—to spot the new and to see connections—have always been hallmarks of the artist. And they’re the keystones of design thinking. They’re tools in your tool kit. Designers operate within Godin’s definition of art-making, as applied to business or social problems.

The challenge, of course, is that designers operate in environments where innovating and connecting the seemingly disconnected are considered risky activities. Creative professionals often engage with others—clients, internal customers, colleagues—who don’t exactly roll out the red carpet for risk.

Godin calls for a new selfless fearlessness, a willingness to speak up even if we’re not certain, to take a stand for something we believe to be right, to share ideas and connections that might seem risky, to care—about both the process and the outcome of our work. “An artist takes it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those we seek to connect with) personally.”

But aren’t we told to not take it personally? It’s just business, right?

How often do you throw out a bold idea and hear, “That’s ridiculous.” Or share a design and hear, “That sucks.” Criticism is never fun, but Godin suggests that we don’t really face it as often as we think we do. Instead, we take jobs where our ideas and our work syncs neatly with everyone else’s. We fear the pain of rejection, so we avoid it. “It’s the pain of possibility, vulnerability and risk,” he writes. “Once you stop feeling it, you’ve lost your best chance to make a difference. The easiest way to avoid the pain is to lull it to sleep by finding a job that numbs you. Soon the pain of the artist will be replaced by a different sort of pain: the pain of the cog, the pain of someone who knows that his gifts are being wasted and that his future is out of his control.”

Godin writes that the connection economy we’re now in (predated by previous economies based on industry and information) is built on emotional labor, on art (remember: art = connection and innovation), rather than on physical labor. Where physical labor has its limits (there’s only so much we can do), emotional labor is scalable. “The laborer in the world of connection and art embraces the opportunity to do a little bit more, not less. Since emotional labor scales so dramatically, the ability to bring a little more to the table is the chance of a lifetime.”

Godin goes on to write about what we can do every day to become better artists. He defines grit (resilience, sticktoitiveness), vulnerability and leadership as key traits worth honing. And he cites a quote from Ray Bradbury as inspiration: “Don’t think! Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”

Get more Godin at SethGodin.com, and find his books, including “The Icarus Deception,” “Linchpin” and “The Purple Cow” on Amazon.com.

HOW Design Conference

Hear Godin talk about leadership with Debbie Millman at the HOW Leadership Conference, May 12–16, 2014.

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