I love Greek mythology. I’ve always been fascinated by everything and everyone from the gods on Olympus down to the heroes and their feats on earth. I used to devour episodes of Xena Warrior Princess, and one of my favourite school projects (other than the infamous one on Helen Keller) was my summer project on Hercules. The plight of Sisyphus – the king whose punishment in death for his extreme deceitfulness in life was to roll a boulder up to the top of a hill, only for it to roll back down again just as he made it to the top, in an eternity of useless effort – is often sadly relevant to the way in which we work on things in modern times. Another pertinent myth comes in the form of Icarus and the flight with his father that ended in tragedy.
We all know the story of Icarus and the moral of the tale: don’t fly too high, don’t think you’re a god or that you’re better than anyone else. But there’s another lesson to this story, another instruction given to Icarus by his father: don’t fly too low, or you’ll get weighed down by the water and drown. This lesson has somehow disappeared from the mythology of today’s society. The omission forms the basis of Seth Godin’s book The Icarus Deception, which I read during my travels in South America.
The issue, Godin argues, is that our expectations are too low, we settle for too little, and in so doing we are shortchanging not just ourselves but others who might have benefited from what we have to offer. At the risk of making too sweeping a statement, I have the impression that this dilemma applies less to Americans, who are taught that they can fulfil the American Dream and be AWESOME. As a self-deprecating Brit with the ‘everyone must be equal’ mentality of the Swedes thrown in for good measure, I’ve grown up with a double dose of this deception. Teased at school, gradually abandoning the crazy dreams of childhood, and I can’t help but bring up the story again of how I happily skipped up to the nursery leader at the end-of-year ceremony only to be told sharply to “go back and walk properly Anna”. Over the years, I learned not to raise my hand, not to speak up, not to ask the question.
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“We’ve been trained to prefer being right to learning something, to prefer passing the test to making a difference, and most of all, to prefer fitting in with the right people.”
– Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception
It’s so easy to look at that one person who does ‘dare’ to speak up, and to judge them: Who does she think she is?! Talk about stating the obvious. He just likes the sound of his own voice… Or what about all those people who are quitting their well-paid jobs to start their own companies, networking to nurture their contacts, jetting around the world and charging highly for their services? Wow, he’s cocky. She wasn’t even that good before. I could do that…
THEN WHY DON’T YOU?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”
– Marianne Williamson
There’s the famous Apple ad, “Here’s to the crazy ones…” that talks about the mythical ‘other people’ who are leaders, idols, icons. But, as Godin correctly points out, these people were never ‘ordained’ or ‘preapproved’. They must have been scared. They must have made mistakes. They must have thought many times about turning back. But they had the courage, the conviction, the ‘craziness’, and maybe most of all the tenacity to stick it out.
“No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.”
– Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception
Godin actually refers to a study that found that the likelihood that entrepreneurs have dyslexia is triple that of the general public, while ADHD is another common trait that some claim have helped them rather than hindered them. It’s not that these conditions make entrepreneurism easier for them, rather perhaps that “their outlier tendencies made it clear to them early on that they would be less likely to be picked. Less likely to be at the top of their class or chosen by the fancy college or recruited by P&G*. Precisely because they didn’t fit in, they had little choice but to pick themselves.”
*Ouch. It’s like he’s reading my CV.
And it feels good to win the award, to get the pat on the back, to get the gold star. Most of all, it feels SAFE. And safe can be confused with right.
“It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going if you’re heading in the wrong direction.”
– Stephen Covey
So how do we know which is the ‘right’ direction? The truth is that we often look to our friends and family, our colleagues, our peer group. We look for outside reassurance and acceptance, we want others to nod in agreement before we do something. We turn around to make sure they’re following. Ask the audience, call a friend. My singing teacher, Shauna, often refers to “the fear of all fears: that of looking foolish”. And isn’t that the biggest barrier to going our own way? The fear that standing out from the crowd, daring to do something a bit different, will make people notice us and potentially, gasp, laugh at us? It’s that worst of all nightmares, realising you’re naked with everyone pointing at you and whispering behind your back.
But often that fear disappears once we dare to take the first little step. Godin tells a story of children jumping from the top diving board at a nearby lake, and it reminds me of a video we have from my own childhood. At maybe three or four years old, I’m sitting at the top of the slide frozen in horror at the sight of the precipice beneath me and the prospect of drowning in the lake. It’s not enough to have my sister and another boy standing at the bottom, “I want an adult to help me!”, but eventually I let my mum’s friend ease me down as I grip onto the sides of the slide for dear life. But what happens next? As soon as I’m in the (extremely shallow) water at the base of the slide, I squeal in glee and run back around to climb up to the top and to go again. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. In fact, it was amazing. Although the initial drop is scary, the thrill of the ride and the achievement of overcoming the initial fear are unbeatable.
All this is not to say that it’s easy, or that it’s painless. There are risks. You may need to take a leap of faith. Things will inevitably go wrong. But, in the end, we come back to the famous rocking chair scenario: do you really want to be sitting there with your arthritis and false teeth wondering, “What if?” Surely the risk of getting it wrong is less than the risk of not even trying?
“It’s entirely possible that there won’t be a standing ovation at the end of your journey.
At least you lived.”
– Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception