The Icarus Deception

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Think for a moment about the nature of employment over the past few generations. Time was when you looked for a company you could work for, confident (or at least hopeful) in the fact that you would spend your life there. After World War 2 that was as true of those entering IBM and advertising agencies as it was of those entering coal mines or steel mills. You had one employer, and probably one career for that employer.

The following generation, however – and we are generalizing to be sure – did not spend their lives at one company, though they very likely spent their lives in one career. They would move among a few companies, maybe even using the transition from one employer to another to move up the ladder, just as the nameplates on the cars in their garages changed from Chevy to Pontiac to Buick and beyond.

This mobility accelerated with a subsequent generation, who not only experienced a succession of employers, but of careers – starting in one industry, watching it evolve in to something else altogether, and ending in a place they never would have imagined when they were 21. Who among us who joined Apple to invent personal computers could foresee spending their dotage fighting with Barnes and Noble about e-books on telephones?

The point is that the nature of employment in Western Civilization is not a static thing. It is constantly shifting and changing. And yet we have in our heads a template for process and success that probably hasn’t been accurate in decades, and that hasn’t been really functional this century.

And this is where Seth Godin’s “The Icarus Deception” steps in.

Mr. Godin’s simple thesis is that we are living in an essentially post-industrial age and that the repercussions of that affect far more than our economy; they literally effect how we think, interact, and dream.

Godin posits (and even he will admit that he is not the first) that everything we’ve done up to this point – economically, educationally, culturally, whatever – has been predicated on the idea of creating better factory workers – whether those “factories” were mechanical assembly lines, universities, or white collar offices. But, Mr. Godin points out, we don’t need people like this anymore because we don’t have factories like this any more – the recession and the rise of social media saw to that – and so we should stop manufacturing them and instead start manufacturing something else.

Like what?

Like artists.

What?

“When the world changes,” Godin writes “industrialists get stressed. That’s because the industrial system is optimized and polished and stretched to be good at maximizing profit. Artists can’t afford to be fragile. The work is a series of projects and problems to be solved, not a pristine, predictable environment where refined inputs lead to ever-more refined outputs.”

Artists, according to Godin, are instead in the connection business and the new economy that has emerged from the wreckage of the last few years is fundamentally one of connections. Artists are willing to try and fail. Are willing to try and succeed. Are willing to thrive in a world where success is not measured by efficiency or cost or even approval. “The dangerous addiction” Godin writes on p. 141, “is to keep expanding the audience until we find people who hate our work.”

All of this begs the question, however, just who exactly did Mr. Godin write this book for? For business people, waist-deep in exactly the kinds of businesses that he suggests are dinosaurs? Because what business person is going to get to the end of “The Icarus Deception”, rush into his CEO’s office and say, “Boss! We need to blow up this corporation and start over with artists”? To quote Nigel Tufnel, none. Businesses want ways to achieve success, preferably with the tools they have at hand.

And that in turn raises the interesting possibility that in this new economy the measure of true wealth – of true success – is not ostentation and conspicuous consumption, but rather the ability to try and fail in pursuit of greater success. That it is only the rare few companies who can really be “artists”, because they’re the only ones who can risk failure without jeopardizing fundamental survival. That the measure of the truly wealthy in this economy will not be the uninterrupted quarters of shareholder returns, but instead the number of risks you are capable of taking.

Or said another way, of how closely to the sun you can fly.

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin was published by Portfolio/Penguin on 12/31/12 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

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