The Icarus Deception: Don’t believe the story you’ve been told

Think you know the story of Icarus? Yeah, I thought I did too, until I read Seth Godin’s fantastic and most recent book, “The Icarus Deception.” I’ve only recently discovered Seth’s wisdom and I love that he can’t really be categorized. In a recent interview he even said that Barnes & Noble doesn’t know what to do with his books, because they don’t fit into a nice, neat box.

He’s part businessman, part motivational speaker, part artist, part self-help guru. He’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog. In “Lynchpin” he talked a lot about “shipping” (no, not that kind of shipping) — getting your art out into the world to your audience, and once you’re done, working on the next thing to ship.

Most of the viewers and fans of Legend of Korra will probably agree that the show doesn’t ship to them fast enough. Producing an animated show requires 10-12 months per episode, so it’s difficult to get our show out as quickly as people would like. In animation, we play the long game. It requires a lot of patience and perseverance. But in the end, an animated show or movie can become magical in a way no other media can.

So I wanted an outlet where I was shipping my art more quickly and regularly. Seth’s other piece of advice: write something everyday. Get it out to your audience. And do it all over again the next day. In doing so, your writing and your clarity of ideas will improve. Which is what I’m aiming for with this blog.

Which brings us to the true story of Icarus and his wings.

In order to escape the labyrinth, Daedalus created some sweet-looking wax wings for his son. But he warned his son not to fly too close to the sun because they would melt. Icarus got cocky and ignored his dad’s warning. He zoomed straight up to the sun and his wings melted. Icarus plunged into the ocean, he died, and we all learned a valuable lesson: don’t fly too close to the sun, kids.

That’s the story I always knew. Don’t shoot too high or you’ll get burned.

But that’s only half the story.

What Daedalus actually told his son was: “Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them.”

The sun isn’t even mentioned first.  Daedalus tells his kid not to fly too low OR too high. This blew my mind. As Seth says in his book, (and I’m paraphrasing here) this myth, which society has  ingrained in us as a cautionary tale about not standing out, is also a story about not settling for low expectations and small dreams.

This is what is fascinating about story. Leave out one important detail, and the story takes on a completely different meaning. I like this new interpretation of the Icarus myth a lot more than the one I thought I knew. I never want to fly too low and play it safe. I don’t want to be afraid of the sun. Besides, it’s really, really high up. I don’t really think I’m in danger of hitting it.

Seth writes, “The path that’s available to each of us is neither reckless stupidity nor mindless compliance. No, the path that’s available to us is to be human, to do art, and to fly higher than we’ve been taught is possible.”

How high will you fly?

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31 thoughts on “The Icarus Deception: Don’t believe the story you’ve been told

  1. It’s amazing how much wisdom is encoded in fables and myths–and how much of that wisdom is now misunderstood, too.

    Try reading a good translation (from ancient Greek) of the original Aesop’s fables. You’ll find much more nuance that you’d expect, given the versions of the fables we all heard as kids (translators from the Middle Ages on down feel compelled to revise the fables to preach the values of the times).

    Great post!

  2. xkcd just had a very good quote on this one: “I’ve never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.”

  3. “As Seth says in his book, (and I’m paraphrasing here) this myth, which society has ingrained in us as a cautionary tale about not standing out, is also a story about not settling for low expectations and small dreams.”

    Not really. He says to fly in moderation and avoid extremes. It’s pretty much exactly about not pushing boundaries. The allegorical association of flying too low with low expectations…yeah, I’m guessing that’s more’n likely a modern deal the Greeks had nothing to do with. Sorry.

  4. Another thought provoking post! I’m gonna share this with my team – I want them to aim for their fullest potential & this story is a great motivation for not only them but myself & in all We/I do :D.

    Ps I’d rather wait longer & enjoy a great high quality LOK – than you guys rush it any day – it’s just frustrating that Nickelodeon doesn’t understand global shipping >_< perhaps give them a copy of Seth Godin’s works ;)

  5. I know I’m no expert, but are you sure one EPISODE takes 10-12 MONTHS? Or do you work on all of them at the same time and finish a season in 10-12 months?

    1. Yes, we do work on several episodes at the same time, but it still takes 10-12 months per episode from coming up with the story to final picture and sound. Book 2 (which is 14 episodes) will end up taking close to 2 years by the time everything is completed.

      1. Wow! You replied! Thank you so much! I didn’t mean to be disrespectful or anything, I was just shocked that the process was long, but I guess that’s what it takes to make such an excellent show!

        Again thank you for clearing it up! :)

  6. Wow. First of all, thank you for setting me straight on the story of Icarus. I consider myself a bit of an amateur expert of myths and legends, but we self-proclaimed “experts” occasionally need to be reminded that we don’t know everything.

    Secondly, i appreciate how that one added detail offers a slightly altered perspective on ambitions and achievements. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or how talented you are if you spend your whole life in “play-it-safe” mode. It’s a reminder that you and your ideas will never make it off the ground if you’re not willing to embrace the risk and fear of falling.

    Thanks for this fun little piece of food-for-thought to go with my morning coffee.

  7. Two days ago I saw Seth speak about his new book. It was a great experience. I’m not sure how much of his talk was in the book but his explanation of the industrial age and breaking out of the “industrial mold” was eye-opening.

    I think Seth does a great job of putting his finger on and explaining what many of us are already thinking and doing, feels like a form of validation.

    Plus, he told the purple cow story and it was badass.

    Great blog post, Mike. Have a great day.

  8. Clarity. That’s what you’ve brought me. For several months now, I’ve been struggling with procrastination, which really shouldn’t be as big of a roadblock as it has been. It just seems that every time I sit down to write, I become distracted or I get frustrated over details that aren’t working out or I just get bored.
    But you’ve made me realize that I’m settling. I’ve been running into walls with my story, and I’ve been too lazy to go at it with a wrecking ball.
    No more! It’s time to strap on my wings and fly. I’m going to go write.

  9. Interesting!
    Do you think that including a homesexual relationship in a story is not being afraid of the sun? because society doesn’t accept things like that, even if there is nothing wrong with that.

  10. I actually translated (a part of) the Icarus story from Latin to Dutch at school some years ago. I had forgotten this important difference with respect to the usual storytelling, so thanks for the reminder and deeper message :-)

  11. Of course the notion that flying too high will cause the wax to melt is completely wrong. X) But seriously, unrealistic aspirations can be chilling and suffocating, but the worst thing that could happen after climbing too high is that you end up back where you started. I don’t think there’s any real fear of utter desolation unless you’re talking character.

  12. we tend to hear stories, see pictures, and each of us take something different from these. The PART of “flying too high” has been used as analogy so much, that the name is now too strongly associated with the idea of epic failure. We may have heard the original story, but have forgotten most of it. Thanks for reminding us…me…that details can be important and make a whole world of difference.

  13. I interpret the lessons of Icarus differently now than I did as a kid.

    When I was 11, it was a cool story about flying.

    When I as 21, it was a cautionary tale to not let your emotions cloud your judgement.

    At 41, I finally get it. A hardworking father built something really cool while his son sat around doing nothing. Said kid got simple, explicit instructions on how to save his own life, but the jackass did exactly what he was told not to do, and now he’s frigging dead.

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