Book review: The Icarus Deception, by Seth Godin

In the connected economy, it's the initiators and rebels who will be the high-flyers. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic applauds a smart and witty challenge to the status quo.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2013

Book: The Icarus Deception: How high will you fly?
Author: Seth Godin
Publisher: Portfolio, £12.99


About a decade ago, I was introduced to Seth Godin's work by one of my students, who noted that our subversive ideas (eg, on marketing, education and culture) overlapped substantially. He was right. What this polite student did not say is that they are expressed so much more compellingly and effectively by Godin. Indeed, the joy of discovering a great new author was quickly offset against the jealousy of discovering this smarter, wittier, and more cynical version of me. You should interpret this as a 'reviewer disclaimer'; it may explain both the positive and negative comments below.

The Icarus Deception is Godin's first full-on intrusion into the management world, combined with a somewhat more ambivalent, albeit not timid (this is Godin, after all) attempt at a self-help book.

The book is named after the Greek myth of the disobedient Icarus, the son of the great craftsman Daedalus. As the story goes, Daedalus and Icarus were sent to prison for sabotaging the work of the king, but Daedalus came up with an escape plan: he furnished himself and Icarus with wings. The wings were made of wax, so Daedalus warned Icarus to avoid flying too close to the sun. Daedalus disobeyed and flew too high; his wings melted and he died, tumbling into the sea. Thou shalt not disobey? Not really...

As Godin points out, the full version of the Icarus myth tells a different story: 'In addition to telling Icarus not to fly too high, Daedalus instructed his son not to fly too close to the sea, because the water would ruin his wings. Society has altered the myth, encouraging us to forget the part about the sea, and created a culture where we constantly remind one another about the dangers of standing up, and making a ruckus.' This conspiracy is the metaphorical starting point for a book that highlights the perils of conformity and the advantages of nonconformity or, in fact, counter-conformity.

From a logical standpoint, the book makes no sense because it is based on the paradoxical 'don't do what I tell you' message (if we do, then we don't; if we don't, then we do). In other words, always going against the rule is a rule, too. But who wants logic when you have Godin?

This book is a wonderful manifesto of 'No's, in the author's characteristic style - pathological honesty, ruthless scepticism and generous intellect - as well as a contemporary manifesto on aesthetics: 'When you were rewarded for obedience, you were obedient. When you were rewarded for compliance, you were compliant. When you were rewarded for competence, you were competent. Now that society finally values art, it's time to make art.' And by 'art', Godin means making something that is new and useful.

In our post-industrial digital times, there is no longer a point in scaling, standardising, or perfecting systems ('It's okay if the person assembling your Domino's pizza or Apple iPhone doesn't care. The system takes care') - the only legitimate goal today is disruption, because it carries the seeds of creativity and innovation.

This is a wonderful book, which will surely empower readers to question the status quo and follow their neglected passions. When Godin talks careers he makes more sense than any specialist: 70% of people are not engaged at work and increasingly dream of working for themselves. In fact, we all do that already: 'Even if you're not self-employed, your boss is you. You manage your career, your day, your responses. You manage how you sell your services and the way you talk to yourself. Odds are, you're doing it poorly.'

The Icarus Deception turns society upside-down in order to awaken the reader's rebellious spirit and encourage him to create: 'The connection economy rewards the leader, the initiator, and the rebel. The internet wasn't built to make it easy for you to watch Lady Gaga videos. The internet is a connection machine, everyone is now connected to just about everyone else. And it turns out that those connections are changing the world.' Are they?

Perhaps not - but there is at least the illusion that social media has brought more 'power to the people' and that it can help disrupt the old order. It is a powerful illusion in that a healthy amount of naivety is needed to be creative. The fact that anybody can publish a book does not make everyone a known author, but it makes more people write books. The ability to upload a video of ourselves does not make us the next YouTube sensation (for every Gangnam Style there are millions of unwatched videos), but it does encourage more people to film and upload videos.

Not everyone has wings, but if we all try to fly we will surely reach new heights - who cares about Icarus when you have Felix Baumgartner?

Dr Chamorro-Premuzic is the founder of and professor of business psychology at University College, London

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