success is not a straight line



off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

— William Carlos Williams

In his new book THE ICARUS DECEPTION, Seth Godin takes on the Icarus myth. You know the one: there’s this kid, his dad invents some wings made out of wax, the kid straps them on and flies high. Very high.

The sun melts the wings and the kid plunges down, down, down into the sea.

Not a feel-good Disney kind of ending.

Every culture uses stories to transmit the lessons teaching people to obey – and to encourage others to obey – the status quo. (If you want to understand a culture, get inside the stories of that culture. If you want to change a culture, find a way to change those stories.)

Godin writes:

“The lesson of this myth: Don’t disobey the king. Don’t disobey your dad. Don’t imagine that you’re better than you are, and most of all, don’t ever believe that you have the ability to do what a god might do.

But then Godin adds:

“The part of the myth you weren’t told: In addition to telling Icarus not to fly too high, Daedalus instructed his son not to fly too low, too close to the sea, because the water would ruin the lift in 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, standing out, and making a ruckus.”

It reminds me of advice that Cheryl Strayed, writing as Dear Sugar, gave to a young wannabe writer who couldn’t write because she thought she was crud because she hadn’t achieved a certain writerly stature by her mid twenties:

“The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all that anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes that you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace – a genius, a master of the craft – while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.”

Strayed advises the young writer to, as she calls it, Surrender.

Which might be another way of telling her to Accept.

Find the humility to accept this moment simply for what it is; accept the reality you are in; accept the process of creation and through accepting it, give yourself over to it, and then accept what results from that process and let go and begin again.

When we’re grandiose, we won’t create because we don’t want to destroy our illusions about ourselves; when we’re depressed and despairing, we won’t create because we don’t see the point. Too close to the sun or too close to the water; too high or too low; neither is the place where we get any work done.

Recently I was at a yoga/hiking cleansing retreat in the hills of San Diego where I found myself the slowest, most inexperienced hiker in the group. This did not sit well with my ego. I knew I was in trouble the first day at our “small, introductory hike” which was, the guide explained, “forty-five minutes straight up.”

I took the hill by trying to take the hill; which is to say, I charged it. I didn’t last long. Soon, I was beyond winded. Soon, I wanted to cry, or at least seriously ask myself, WTF, WTF, WTF am I doing here?

The guide hung back from the others, by now so far ahead they had climbed out of sight, and taught me what I so obviously needed to know. He advised me not to take such big steps. Take baby steps. And don’t go straight up the hill. Instead, do a constant zig-zag, weaving your way up by tracing diagonal lines across the path. “People tend not to like doing this because it means extra steps,” the guide told me. “But you can climb any hill this way. And anybody can do it.”

It was a revelation. Instead of thinking of the hill as a whole, I chunked it down to tiny goals: I would zig over to this branch, then zag up to that rock, then zig over to this pile of dirt, and so on and so on, baby stepping all the way, until I could look behind me and marvel at how far I had come. I was still the slowest hiker in the group, but I began to realize that that hardly mattered. It just was what it was. (Also, it allowed me to bond with the cute dark-eyed hiking guide.)

I could Accept. I could Surrender to the process and let it carry me up that hill, and every hill that week (there were a lot of hills).

Now, thinking about Icarus, I suspect he got in trouble not because he dared to fly high.

He got in trouble when he went straight at the sun.

He should have zig-zagged.

Jan 9, 2013

17 comments · Add Yours

Always zig, then zag! Baby steps, acceptance and surrender. I got this. Great post x


Loved that. Zig-zagging! I hope you continue hiking. 15 years ago I never hiked, and on the first couple of hikes, I was so far behind and so much in pain that I needed to use a stick. Too much too fast. I didn’t go hiking again for several years. I thought I couldn’t do it. I thought I had “bad knees”. Then I did started up again, just for fun, going easy. I found I enjoyed it. Later I even took up the challenge of doing the 35-mile Rachel Carson Trail Challenge in a day. Didn’t “enjoy” it per se, but felt good that I could actually do it. Three years in a row. Then I stopped. Now I hike just for fun. It really meant something making it to the sun, and then deciding I didn’t need to always be there, but that if I wanted, I could always go back.


I love the notion of zig-zagging–useful in so many situations! Here’s a little hiking music for next time. (Not for everyone, but by someone close to me.)


I am reading the book right now and, like always, you have a great perspective. I love reading your work as you always make me think and see things differently. thanks for putting your voice out there to share with us.


Wow. Love this. All of it. Breaking things down into meaningful chunks is such great advice.


Just the post I needed. I feel so much better about being a zig-zagger and taking my time with the climb. (Sometimes I panic when I think about how late I always seem to bloom.) This was a good reminder that it’s amazing what you can discover when you stop charging up the hill and slow down enough to enjoy the journey. Besides, you go blind pretty quickly if all you do is stare at the sun. (Not that it isn’t so, so tempting.)


I came here by way of a friend’s share on FB and this is the first time I’ve been to your blog. Forgive me if I repeat anything you have said numerous times already.

I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying — it’s similar to Ira Glass’s comments on creativity. But I don’t believe that young author Strayed referred to was as arrogant as she was seduced by the TV and movie timelines where every problem is solved and every hidden talent discovered in 98 minutes or over the course of the season. We never see the hard work and all the mistakes in the making of anything great. Then on the other side we have the instant feedback of forums and comments and thousands of idiots eager to tell us how much we suck in those interim trials. From the audience there is also no pity or patience. Can we be blamed if we are afraid to be mediocre before we are good? The myth of instant brilliance is everywhere in our society. I am not saying that that’s an excuse to remain mediocre by not trying, but it seems to become more and more difficult to break out of that pattern. Your advice to zig-zag is a good one.


Really good points, TK, thank you.


I love this analogy! I do hate the zigging and zagging when I’m hiking though.


I love this post. I haven’t yet read Godin’s book and wasn’t aware of his interpretation of Icarus. It’s not at all what I was taught. Icarus was the son taking his father’s legacy, knowing nothing of flight or the components of the wings or the dangers of the sun. He took what he had not built or earned and ran with it in pursuit of the ultimate glory. The results weren’t that great. I suppose that’s the beauty of timeless stories, we can take from them what we need, and we all learn from different scholars and interpretations of an ancient language. For almost 20 years I had mistaken a drawing of Icarus for Phoenix placed it at the foot of my staircase. I wanted it as the first thing I saw in the morning to remind me there would be ashes and I would rise out of them. Oops. But I still got what I needed from it.

I’m so glad you took on a challenge that was beyond your abilities and hung in there, glad you didn’t let ego get in your way of being instructed and taught new truths. My husband and I have learned new limits hiking these Ozarks where there are not many options of zigging and zagging. At times I’ve had to sit down and slide, surrender and hope a boulder big enough would appear and keep me from going over a ledge. My husband would *not* surrender at first and ended up screaming past me with arms windmilling as he headed for a 500 ft. cliff drop. Luckily, he slammed into a tree, nearly knocking himself out. He ended up with a bruised ego and body, but he learned. Both of us have learned when facing new terrains in life we have to let go of what we thought we had mastered and become humble students of the landscape. The lesson varies from time to time, but it is never a straight line.


Yeah, that’s Godin’s point — that cultures take from the myths the lessons that serve them while downgrading or amputating the parts of the myths that make those lessons more complicated.

If Icarus had zig-zagged! — he could have gathered information, learned and adapted as he needed to, made necessary adjustments, revisions, etc. He could have built on his father’s work and improved it. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, after all. What killed Icarus maybe wasn’t hubris, like we’re all taught (….you haven’t earned it! you haven’t paid your dues! who do you think you are?….) but basic immaturity.


As always, an awesome post. I think what struck me most though is the advice from Cheryl Strayed – that infact self-loathing thoughts derive from arrogance. In her answer to the twenty-something that thought she should be a master of her craft at only 20ish. I just came out of my twenties, and spent the good last 2 years of it lamenting that I wasn’t an accomplished/well known/making money off it artist. I wonder if this is a symptom of youth that you assume that if you don’t take over the world by 29 you’re some how doomed.


@justine I’ve got to read the book, not consider it a done deal because I bought it :-) It seems that immaturity keeps coming around again and again. This post came back to me this morning on a hike as I faced a steep descent I felt I couldn’t handle because I’d *lost* or “de-earned” some rights and abilities with age. Then I remembered–zig and zag. Made it down a hill I’ve avoided for over a year. Thanks for yet another post that haunts and gives a new perspective.


I had to sigh hugely over the person in their 20s lamenting that they haven’t made it. At 55, I do the same but feel more justified. : ) but I still keep writing. I read George Saunders interview this morning and loved this quote, “I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”


Great post, Justine, and we do tend to forget about the risks of flying too low, don’t we? Good enough can be quite a struggle for many of us in all kinds of ways, not just in writing, but especially confusing in those areas where we need to accept ourselves as we are before we can improve. Something I’m planning to write about on my own neonatal blog in the near future so will be linking to this post.


Great admonition from Strayed, which apparently was taken to heart and worked! So many inventive and exploratory paths are zig-zag. Both as a pilot and a back-country skier, I’ve learned that climbing too steep forces a stall. Many of us learned as kids on bicycles that this was how to climb a steep street, but we didn’t generalize the lesson. I believe I crashed my academic career and my first startup business from this same mistake and arrogance. Been zig-zagging now for last dozen years!


@TK — It’s not a “myth of instant brilliance”, I believe, but those real examples of instant brilliance out there in the world that may beleaguer many of the rest of us who had built big expectations for ourselves (often based on some very young successes). Our ability to now discover and be faced with so many more of such examples from around the world, through the many forms of media that now converge onto our screen, makes it so much harder to be satisfied (and patient) with being only a bit above average.


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