Seth Godin on The Icarus Deception
I was fortunate enough to have a chance to interview Seth Godin about his new book, The Icarus Deception, last month. I’ve had the interview transcribed, check it out below. Note: I’m trying out a new transcription service so if you notice anything out of order below please leave me a comment (I’ll send you a copy of my new book)!
If you’d rather listen you can hear it at Marketing Over Coffee.
JOHN: Welcome to Marketing Over Coffee. I’m John Wall. We have a special holiday gift for you today, a guest we’ve had on the past. He’s written over a dozen books, many of them best sellers, spoken at TED, and is here today to talk about his new book, The Icarus Deception. I’m very happy to welcome Seth Godin. Seth, thanks for coming on today.
SETH: Thank you, sir. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, John.
JOHN: Great. So, the new book is The Icarus Deception. Give us the elevator pitch. What’s the big idea?
SETH: I think it’s a pretty big idea, which is that we all grew up during the Industrial Age. Everyone knows about the Industrial Revolution. It revolutionized the world, invented jobs, created productivity, made us all rich, and now it’s over. And there’s a Post-Industrial Age here now and growing every day. I’m calling it the connection economy. The connection economy is coming to us via the connection revolution.
The important thing to understand is this: we have been brainwashed by eight generations of propaganda into believing things about the world that don’t have to be true. When we start keeping score of things like permission and trust and reputation and connection, many of the things that used to be part of our life—like scarcity, jobs, a career—start to fade and get replaced by something else. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. What I wanted to do was, as vividly as I could, paint a picture of the chance of a lifetime, because it’s right here if we want to take advantage of it.
JOHN: Right. You mentioned that the connection economy is at the heart of this. I thought it was interesting. It’s a very human thing. You talked about the assets that matter—trust, permission, remarkability. Is that a major transition point, the fact that it’s more about what you do as a person? Tell us more about the connection economy.
SETH: Well, if you look at it through the lens of industrialization, then what big companies are doing is just say, “Oh, great! I can grab an email address. I can get a Facebook follower. How do I take these tools and go back to making more crap? How do I take advantage of the new marketing to continue making average stuff for average people?”
It goes so much deeper than this. What it’s doing is saying average stuff for average people is no longer a viable marketing strategy. What it’s saying is that slogans and jingles are not a brand. A brand is a set of promises and expectations that an organization needs to keep or it doesn’t keep. It says that owning a building isn’t nearly as important as earning a reputation. When we start keeping score of something different, suddenly the Internet economy makes a lot more sense.
JOHN: Yes. This is a question I want to ask you, something that’s kind of been rattling around in my head. At first, the fear was that this Internet economy was going to destroy everything. You’re making that point pretty clearly. But the thing that’s kind of surprised me, so you have Psy, this artist who’s done this music video and has exploded globally around the world. The question is, there’s all this fear at the beginning of the Internet economy. It was going to blow everything up and it was going to be worse. But is this actually going to be bigger? As this new connection economy grows and all these new opportunities open up, are we actually even more better off? Are we going into an age of prosperity?
SETH: Well, understand that it doesn’t care whether it’s going to be bigger. It just is. We have to start by understanding it doesn’t matter what our opinion is about whether this is good or not. It’s just true.
If you’re a 58-year-old steel worker and you’ve been trained your whole life to do one thing, it’s pretty clear this is bad. If you live in an underprivileged country where, suddenly, you have access to world markets with one click and don’t have to live on $3 a day, it’s pretty clear this is great. There’s going to be a reshuffling. We’re not going to know for 50 years whether this unbalance was something we would have wished for or not.
But the magic here is this: you get to pick about whether you’re going to be defending the status quo in a losing battle, or whether you’re going to jump, shift, and switch sides, that the people who are working at record labels busy suing their biggest fans aren’t going to do as well as Psy is going to do because they’re fighting a rear-guard action that just can’t lead to a happy outcome.
Now, the interesting thing when you bring up Gangnam Style is if his goal is to use this momentary blip to turn around and go back to the old model of selling records, he’s going to fail. What he did was he earned the privilege of talking to a hundred million people. Next time out, what’s he going to do with that? It turns out, if he tries to leverage connection and create abundance through that connection, he can build an entire career on it. But, if he just wants to go back to being this generation’s Monkees, he’s going to fail, because the scarcity that allowed the Monkees to profit for years on television doesn’t exist today.
JOHN: Right, it’s a whole different take. Shifting further, you talked about propaganda and dogma as a big part of this as far as the death of the Industrial Age, that this has been built up around us. You mentioned cottage, cathedral, and castle. Could you talk a little bit about that and propaganda?
SETH: Mythology is the original cultural touchstone. It goes back tens of thousands of years. I took the title “The Icarus Deception” from the story of Icarus. Most of us think we know the story, which is fly too close to the sun and you will get burned, that hubris is a bad thing. But in fact, that’s not what it says if you read the 1850 edition or you go back to what historians said people told each other. In fact, the myth was that Daedalus said to Icarus, “Don’t fly too close to the sun. But also, don’t fly too low. Don’t fly too close to the sea, because if you fly too low, the water in the mist will weigh down your wings and you will surely perish.” Well, that means that someone pushed us to tell our children only half the story. We were pushed to encourage people to fly too low because industrialists want us to fly too low. If the book has only one message that I had to pick, it would be fly closer to the sun.
What we’re doing with the Internet is we’re handing people a microphone. We’re handing them an ability to talk to people who want to be talked to. And yet you’re sitting here doing this generous work of making a podcast, and you’re peers aren’t. They’re just waiting for the phone to ring. And yet, there are 10 million, 20 million active blogs, which means, there are 4 billion people on the Internet who aren’t doing it. And yet, there are millions of people who use Twitter, but the vast majority of Tweeter re-tweets. We’re wasting it. We’re afraid to stand up because we’re afraid that someone’s going to say, “How dare you? What right do you have? What hubris for you to stand up and say you know anything?”
As Brené Brown has talked about, vulnerability then kicks in, which is it is impossible to connect unless you’re open. To be open means being vulnerable to feedback. Vulnerability ignites the enemy of arts and creativity, which is shame. Everyone carries some shame around. We don’t want it activated. We don’t want to be called out for flying too close to the sun. So it’s easier to just hunker down and wait for things to get back to normal.
And so I guess my looping answer to your question is that we need to go back to the original myths, the myths that we passed from one person to another that were basically arguments that we could be like the gods. The only reason myths are interesting to us is that the gods are us. The stories of the gods are stories of what we could do and what we could become.
The Japanese have a term for this, which is “kamiwaza.” “Kamiwaza” means god-like, with no wasted motion, with confidence, and yes, with hubris. And so, when we see a cheetah running through the jungle, we see kamiwaza, because the cheetah could not run any better, any more fluidly, any more perfectly. But when human beings set out to do it, we check ourselves. We hold ourselves back. We imagine that a platform is for other people, not for us, because we haven’t been picked. Oprah didn’t call. Howard Schultz didn’t put us in charge of this steering committee. It turns out that in this new fluid economy, waiting isn’t going to be a particularly productive plan.
JOHN: In the first half of the book, you’re setting up the fact that this opportunity is here. And then you spend a lot of time digging into, okay, so now, what does it take to be an artist and to do this stuff? There’s a whole section talking about grit and what goes into that. It’s kind of funny, I think there’s maybe a generational gap. “Grit” isn’t a term that you hear used as much as maybe a couple of decades back, but I think it’s very relevant. It’s important, especially, talking about perseverance, if you could tell us some more about that.
SETH: Well! You remember that newspaper that they talked about in the comics?
JOHN: Right, exactly! How you could make millions.
SETH: Yes, they never said you could make a lot of money, but they did say, you could get the radio and the radio-controlled airplane and all that other stuff. Grit, it turns out, is something psychologists have been talking about a lot lately. If you do a Google shopping search, you can actually buy grit by the pound. They sell walnut shells that they used for sand blasting and cleaning up stuff. Grit is, yes, that stuff in the spinach, that when you’re eating it gets stuck in your teeth. It is the stuff in carborundum grinding wheels that grinds down the things that are opposed to it.
What we see in successful people is this sort of generous persistence, when we are faced with the initial no, or the third no, or the fifth thing that doesn’t work, people with grit figure out a different way to move forward—not an obnoxious way to move forward but a way to move forward that demonstrates commitment and tenacity. Over and over again, when we hear the stories of the Richard Bransons, the Oprah Winfreys and the less famous people, it’s almost entirely stories of grit.
One of the reasons that lottery winners end up having such miserable lives after they win the lottery is that coming into a whole bunch of money doesn’t give you grit. The money goes away pretty fast because you don’t know what to do when it doesn’t work out the way you hope it will work out.
Grit is a choice. It’s an attitude. It’s not something you’re born with, nor is it something that is given to you. That really excites me because it means that, unlike the Revolution of 1910 or 1880, where it mattered who your father was, it doesn’t matter who you know. It doesn’t matter where you were born if you at least were in a semi-privileged environment. What matters is that you choose to put yourself into this world as a creator, an actor, an artist, a leader. That’s just a choice.
JOHN: You talked about shame and vulnerability. You already touched upon that a bit, because that’s another part of it. But, again, this whole back section of the book is talking about being an artist and how to pursue your craft and put something out there. You have a whole section about 14 real-life stories from artists. In fact, this section is “Think Like an Artist.” Tell us what you’ve learned on that front and what you’re sharing about being an artist.
SETH: I guess later we’re going to talk about the Kickstarter. One of the things I did in the Kickstarter was I wanted to come up with the most absurd level of prize I could. And so I offered five people the chance to not only get all of the loot that I created but to have a paragraph in my book about them.
I didn’t do it because I was craving and trying to raise an extra couple of thousand bucks. I mean, I ended up losing money on the whole Kickstarter anyway. That wasn’t the point. I did it because I wanted to prove that I could take anybody’s story who was successful enough to raise their hand and make it clear that this art is available to all of us. And so I added nine other people to mix in with the five. What you see there, and that was the 14 people, is everyone from the independent software consultant all the way up to people who are running successful enterprises, what they all have in common is that they don’t have anything in common.
That what they have in common is that they have chosen a path as opposed to being told to follow a path. What still happens—and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised after 25 years of doing this—I still see the look in people’s eyes, because what they’re really hoping I will give them is a map. What they’re really hoping for are step-by-step instructions that include the word “easy” and “straightforward.” Here I am, showing up on a regular basis saying “fuzzy,” “difficult,” “hard work,” “simple but not easy.” That goes against everything your parents and your schools and your bosses taught you. So I’m not a particularly good marketer because I’m not selling people what they want. But I’m trying very hard to tell people what I think they need to hear.
JOHN: You mentioned the Kickstarter project. I’m astounded to hear that you lost money in this project, so this is going to be great to talk about. It ties into so much of the stuff you talked about already with the book. But to give everybody some background, here are a few things: We’ve talked about Kickstarter on this show once or twice before, but the idea is it’s an open exchange. You actually go to this website, and people are offering projects of all kinds of different types, and it actually gets crowdfunded. People buy certain levels of packages. If it hits a certain level, the project actually gets done. There has been all kinds of stuff in there, a lot of tech gadgets, roller skates you could put on a camera tripod so you could make a dolly. These are things that normally would be 500 to 1,000 bucks, you could get it for 30 bucks, and things like that get funded.
So for Icarus Deception, you put one up there. I saw it with a $40,000-goal, and you brought in $287,000. I have to say, this is the newest kind of marketing campaign that I’ve seen. I mean, everything was a surprise right down to a box from you that weighs 25 pounds filled with all kinds of stuff. Tell us about that. What have you learned from this? What brought this whole idea about?
SETH: The Kickstarter platform can be used in many different ways. The people who founded the company have a vision of it that I disagree with. They’re changing Kickstarter to make it even more difficult to use than it used to be. The way that most people use, both buyers and sellers, is it’s an interesting new kind of store, the way eBay was an interesting new kind of store. The idea was you can pick a price, whether it’s four dollars got you a four-day preview to read my book, then it would disappear online, all the way up to a thousand bucks, where you would get an LP and eight copies of the book and an illustrated thing, and a signed thing, and a poster thing, et cetera, et cetera.
Most of the successful things on Kickstarter have been people shopping for prizes, funding various levels of stuff, and then, if enough people come through with the funding, the maker is obligated to make and ship it to everyone. And so my friend Amanda Palmer did her record this way. She raised $1.2 million. She broke even on it because she’s basically gave away a year of her life. One of the prizes was that she would come to your house and perform a concert with her band for as many of your friends as you want to invite. Well, you could imagine that if, one day you’re in Munich and then next day you’re in Brazil, that’s a lot of traveling.
With mine, every one of my levels was limited, meaning I wasn’t trying to maximize the revenue from this project. What I was trying to do was maximize the connection. I set out to say, “Can I find 4,000 or 5,000 people who want to come with me on this journey so that I can go about—now this is key—making books for my readers instead of finding readers for my books?” So, once I knew that there were people like you and others who were waiting for me to make something for them, it changes the way you write, and it changes what you build.
I committed from the day we finished it. We basically sold out everything in about six days. My job through the summer was going to be to spend as much money as I could and as much time as I could to make the most delightful package of stuff for my backers that I could, the theory being that, if you’ve got 4,000 or 5,000 people who are delighted, connected, trusting, and in alignment, then the revenue will take care of itself, right? Yes, this project will make money because someone is going to go to a bookstore and buy something. It will make money because my publisher will be delighted. But, I didn’t set out to make a profit from John Wall. I set out to make delight for John Wall.
JOHN: Yes, and you definitely have. Like I said, it was just amazing to see this thing arrive and dig it through. In fact, there’s another book in there, a tome of basically everything, a bunch of stuff rolled up from your blog. I mean, literally, this thing is almost 15 pounds. It’s bigger than a baby. That’s gigantic. And one thing — it’s actually a flipbook, and one side is “this might work,” and then the other side is “this might not work.” That was the one thing that I love. You have a bunch of stories in there about things you’ve done that have failed to spectacular explosions. If you could talk about one or two of those, I think that’s kind of the exciting stuff.
SETH: The book is 850 pages long. We maxed out on the width of the bindery. I would’ve put in more things that failed dismally, but I ran out of space.
Some of the stories I tell in there, I don’t know if actually I put all of these in. I invented the first aquarium that ran on your VHS so that the fish would swim back and forth on your TV, and persuaded the American Airlines to let me run a full-page ad in a magazine. This was when I was 25 years old. They let me run the ad for free, but I had to pay them a commission on every one I sold. I made a deal with myself that if I sold 30 of them at 19.95, I would go ahead and make the video, because I hadn’t filmed that yet. I sold 24, so a deal is a deal. So I sent everyone back their money with a nice note telling them I couldn’t do the project, sorry. And then a month after that, I got 20 more, and then the month — and so I kept sending back the money and disappointing everyone, including American Airlines, because I didn’t have enough gumption to keep going.
I also told a story of — our biggest client was AOL when I had my first Internet company. I will skip most of the details, but the punch line is that in the last conversation I had with the vice president there, when I called to apologize for how completely badly we had screwed up everything and offered to get down on the next plane and fly to Vienna, Virginia to apologize to her face, she said, “If you step foot on this campus, I will have you arrested.” That’s the last time I’ve heard from Audrey.
There’s a long history of funny things in the world, whether they’re blog posts that don’t resonate or books that people don’t want to share. I treasure every one of them, because there is no way I would have been able to touch people the way I’ve touched them if I hadn’t had all these failures along the way.
JOHN: And then a few other books too, one was a project you’ve done with Hugh MacLeod, the V for Vulnerable, formatted like a kid’s book but more for adults.
SETH: Right. It’s actually, the last chapter of The Icarus Deception, which — just to clarify, all these books come out on December 31st. The last chapter of The Icarus Deception, and I looked at it, it was an Abecedary, an ABC book. And I said, “Wow! Why don’t I make this into an illustrated kids’ book?” because I loved Dr. Seuss. I loved Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. The Jungian connection we have with the books that our mom read us is really important. So I’m going to try to undo what we learned at our mom’s knee. Maybe I could use the same tactic and the same tool that started all the propaganda. And so I wrote it and did a sketch of every letter, and then sent it off to Hugh for him to make it magical. What I love about this book is that every person I have handed it to has read the entire book while I was sitting there. It has never happened to me before.
JOHN: Wow! Yes, yes. You’re talking about making it accessible and easy to get into. That’s a great point. Okay. The Icarus Deception is the book, available at Amazon.com. Seth had mentioned earlier to me before we got on that there is a deal at 800 CEO Read. You can get a four-pack of that. Another thing, too, of course, you have the Squidoo project. It’s still going on. I notice you had some kind of view, some holiday picks up there. I wanted to ask: one of the things you show is a DAC, Digital Audio Controller… basically a sound card. My question is: are you an audiophile? Are you into sound to that degree?
SETH: Yes. Today is Squidoo’s 7th anniversary, so thank you for mentioning. It’s been a great ride. As I am talking to you, I’m looking over my shoulder. In my office, I have two of Bob Carver’s new all-tube made in the United States, amplifiers hooked up to a coincident phono preamp, meaning Canada hooked up to a VPI turntable which has Ella and Lewis on it. All of that chain connects to these speakers handmade by a 74-year-old guy in California that are about two feet tall. So, yes, I’m an audiophile, analog in the office, digital at home.
JOHN: Oh, yes. You’re a five star then. I mean, I would presume that you’d be way into it, but yes, you’re goingwhole hog.On that note, then we have to… just a quick remembrance for Dave Brubeck, who passed away just a few days ago.
SETH: Yes. I was listening to Dave last night. I almost missed a conference call because I was listening to it in such volume. The thing that I would say about anyone who’s thinking about being an audiophile is there’s a website called Audiogon, A-U-D-I-O-G-O-N, no E at the end. It’s filled with people who have more money than sense. What they do is they buy the latest stereo stuff. And then, six months later, when they want the new stuff, they have to get rid of the old stuff. They sell it at two-thirds less than it costs. So it’s like an eBay for high-end stuff. If you’re careful and good, you can buy stuff one day and sell it for the same price nine months later. And so you can have a stereo habit for free.
JOHN: Oh, that’s a wonderful tip. Yes, I will definitely take you up on that. I have to check that out. There’s a few other audiophile blogs, I’ll throw in a couple of links when we throw the show notes up there.
Okay. And then one thing, I did notice on Amazon, you also have another book coming out, Watcha Gonna Do with That Duck? Now, I get the impression that there’s a smaller version of this behemoth that’s been dropped on me.
SETH: Yes, smaller is an interesting relative term. It’s still the biggest book I’ve ever sold in a bookstore. It’s 650 pages, but it’s 17 pounds lighter than the book I sent you. It doesn’t have colored illustrations, but it has in it hundreds and hundreds of past blog posts.
The reason that it’s worth mentioning is because of the title blog post, “Watcha Gonna Do With that Duck?” It’s one of my favorites. The post is very short. Basically, it says that you probably know lots of people who spend their day getting all their ducks in a row, which is fine, but what I’m really interested in is what are you going to do with that duck? The thing about your work and the work of other people who have been shining a light online for free about what’s going and what’s happening is many of our readers and listeners are waiting to get all their ducks in a row. We’re only, as we record this, a week or two away from New Year, and I guess it’s time to stop collecting ducks and start shipping art. The thing that I most want from my readers is not for them to go buy a lot of books but for them to go make a ruckus. This is the moment. It’s not going to get any easier. It’s not going to get any more leveraged than it is right now. We need to not have another meeting and not to have another planning committee. We need to actually connect and ship.
JOHN: All right. That’s a great message for folks to kick off for the New Year. Seth Godin, we appreciate you coming to take time to talk us today. Thanks for being on the show.
SETH: Thank you, John. It’s always a pleasure.