There are thought leaders, and there are Thought Leaders.(1) And Seth Godin is the latter. Why? Godin is a Thought Leader not only because he’s smart. It’s not only because he’s prolific and creative.
Godin is an archetypal Thought Leader because he understands the nature of Thought itself. He gets what drives human beings. He understands story and the way story awakens something latent within our unconscious and stirs change.
In short, Godin gets the art and science of captivating creativity.
And if you’re someone writing a nonfiction book or wanting to write a book or eBook that makes a difference to its readers, you can learn something from how Godin’s latest book works.
A change in thought. A change of heart. A changed life. A changed patch of the planet.
Godin’s book The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? aims to change the way many people, trapped by corporate and cultural myths, view themselves and their potential.
The book works on many levels and for many reasons.
1. Godin gets Jung.
Carl Jung flew high with theories he would say later simply passed through him and the unconscious. In his middle years, though, he wrestled with his own waning creativity in his life and work. For several years he intuitively built cottages with stones, followed premonitions, heeded dreams, and deciphered the underlying patterns of more world myths.
From Jung’s own deep, creative work would he feel confident that he was living in his own myth and realize more fully his theories about the unconscious and art.
Those theories would have indelible effects on how we talk about and create stories – be they in books, around fires and kitchen tables, on stage or on screen.
Among Jung’s central theories:
The artist gives form to an image that speaks to a culture’s or group of people’s yearning.
Godin might not have read Jung. But I know he’s read sources who come from Jung.(2)
Take-away: Think in images. Images arouse the intellect, the heart, and the imagination. They catalyze deep change in perception and behavior.
2. Godin seizes the Yearning Image.
Imagine Godin the artist recognizing how many people in businesses feel stifled and uncreative. He wants them to claim their inner artist. But to tap into his audience’s desire to feel free and fulfilled creatively, he has to understand what holds them back without making them feel guilty.
He wants to help them fly. He wants to write a book that will help people soar. That hunch could lead to cliches. So he goes back in his reservoir of references and recalls the classic Greek story of Icarus.
Icarus has a cool dad, an architect. The Architect who had built the Labyrinth for a king to hold and enclose the half-bull, half-man creature the Minotaur. But that’s another story.
The boy wanted to fly. Like Dorothy in Kansas or the man trapped in a cubicle, Icarus yearned to flee Crete where he and his father had been imprisoned in the very Labyrinth he had created. (Sound familiar? Being trapped in a labyrinth of your own making?)
So his dad built Icarus wings out of feathers and wax.
“Don’t fly too close to the sun,” the good papa warns his sun, “or else your wings will melt.”
The classic Greek story of young Icarus and his father Daedalus (“clever worker”) has been embedded in and referenced in centuries of art, literature, and music – from Homer to Bruegel to William Carlos Williams to Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Odysseus.
For centuries, as Godin reminds us, the story has been held up as a cautionary tale.
“Don’t be too full of yourself,” our cultural Fathers say like a small town of small-minded misers who sneer at the boy who’s “getting too big for his britches.”
Godin writes to the Icaruses of the world pining to escape their cubicles and the mental labyrinths of their own making.
Like Elliot in E.T., Godin wants to free the frogs from the jars whose fate, unbeknownst to them, is to be pinned and dissected.
Take-away: Know and define the specific yearning your readers have, whether they know it or not. Find the image, the song lyric, the story, that speaks to that yearning.
3. Godin Zags the Myth.
It’s not enough for a Thought Leader to repeat the moral of a classic myth as the premise and promise of his book.
Marty Neumeir, Director of Transformation at Liquid Agency (love that title), lays out what he calls the “Zag” of game-changing, conversation-changing brands.
What I call the Prevailing Wisdom is what everyone else, including some leaders, say about and perpetuate about a subject. That’s the Zig.
The Provocative Wisdom counters the Prevailing Wisdom. Heroes provoke. Thought Leaders provoke. Artists provoke. (Hell, even Tony Hoagland claims that poets can be mean and offensive.)
But the artists who matter for my mind and money don’t provoke without promise. Otherwise, they’re just being pricks for pricks’ sake.
Godin zags Icarus in two ways:
The Prevailing Wisdom is “Don’t fly too high.”
The first part of the Provocative Wisdom is that our modern-day castles that perpetuate the myths of safety and conformity (drawing from Joseph Campbell’s work) are corporations – potentially the sources of his fief readers’ angst and ire.
The other part of the Provocative is that these Corporate Lords never repeat the other part of Dad’s advice:
Don’t fly too low to the sea.
In other words, we rarely if ever hear, “Don’t be too humble. Don’t be too quiet. Don’t be too submissive.”
Hence, the title: The Icarus Deception.
We haven’t heard the other part of the myth, that is, until now, because that’s exactly what Godin implores:
Godin’s promise is that hubris with artistic sensibilities will set you free.(3)
4. Godin Calls Upon His Inner Percy Shelley.
At 27, Percy Shelley’s daughter had died while he tried to write a lyrical play based on the classic myth of Prometheus, the figure bound and tied for his rebellion against the gods.
But Shelley prevailed and penned the triumphant play that inverts the classic “Prometheus Bound” tale with his own version, “Prometheus Unbound” that ends with this verse:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
What Shelley hoped his play would do for his times Godin must hope his book does for ours: Free more people from the oppressive empires for which they work and in which they think.
Take-away: Immerse yourself in the cultural lineage of the story you need to tell.
5. Godin Gets Story & Calls Upon His Inner Daedalus.
Like Daniel Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and other page-changers in the genre of thought leadership books, Godin has studied story structure and archetypes.
The real heroic source working behind the scenes in Godin’s book is not Icarus but Deadalus.
Every captivating author tells a captivating story.
Every captivating story has an elegant architecture.
And every captivating author learns to play the artisan role of an experience architect.
GoldRun app designer Vivian Rosenthal calls herself an architect and asks in a recent Fast Company interview, “What is architecture? It’s about designing experiences.”
Which I adapt as, “What is authorship? It’s about designing experiences.”
Godin, as do I, champions the engagement economy. In our times, we create to engage in radically new, changing, and profound ways. And a book is one vehicle, one art form, for that engagement.
Take-away: Draft to discover. Craft to design. That is, revision to design experiences for them – their understanding, their assumptions, their surprises, their revelations and self-recognitions.
I.e., Drafting might be for you. But authoring and publishing a book isn’t about you. As a Thought Leader, know the difference (especially if you’re self-publishing).
6. Godin Thinks Off the Page.
Prediction: Godin’s next book will be an ambient reality hologram book. (Or mine will be!)
Godin doesn’t dabble in gimmicks. He knows what he’s about – engagement to stoke people to make art that in turn engages and adds value to the world.
So he thinks how he can extend the book’s message in live situations. He conceives the Icarus Sessions – meet-ups in which people yearning to be artistically free speak up and say who they are as artists and what they’re working on. In 140 seconds. 140, as in the number of characters Twitter allows.
Icarus Sessions are now self-organized around the world.
Take-away: Imagine ways to let your book’s message live off the page.
7. Godin has Heart.
I’ve never met Godin, but some colleagues know him. They know he’s the real deal in terms of what he cares about – people. Behind the smart books and clever packaging is a human being who genuinely wants to help other people.
Take-away: Being a thought leader is not about building a list. It’s about building up people.
What do you think makes for captivating nonfiction books? If you’re writing a book or aspiring to write a book, what issues do you aspire for your book to do for your readers? What issues do you struggle with?
Thanks for running with me,
Note: This blog post originally appeared at The Creativity Post in 2013.
Shameless, geeky footnotes:
(1) Some of my peers grimace at the phrase “Thought Leader” because it sounds pretentious, abstract, boring. But the phrase fits for people who understand a prevailing conversation and who can lead it with intelligent discourse. No need to create a “original” tag if the existing one fits and is clear.
(2) Godin draws explicitly and thoughtfully from the work of Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell whose ground-breaking work in mythology led the way for numerous writers, screenwriters, and storytellers to understand the power of archetypal stories on the page, on the screen, and on the streets.
(3) I’ll add my own “caution” here: Hubris without apprenticeship or without a pursuit of excellence or mastery within a field often leads at best to junk art that doesn’t land the way a creator wants it to and at worst to someone deeply frustrated and isolated in her creative endeavors because she doesn’t understand what she doesn’t know about the inherent yet delightful challenges within an artistic field. The Greeks like Aristotle called this pursuit of excellence “arete,” the virtue of bringing out every last drop of your human potential in whatever endeavors you pursue.