Lessons From Daedalus

The tale of Icarus and his wings of wax is one of the more famous classical myths. It tells of a talented Athenian craftsman named Daedalus who was trapped on the island of Crete with his son Icarus. Daedalus, you see, had built an unsolvable labyrinth to contain a beast called the Minotaur for the King of Crete near the King’s palace in Knossos. When the King imprisoned the great hero Theseus in the Labyrinth to be killed by the Minotaur, Daedalus helped Theseus escape by giving him a special spool of string. For this, Daedalus and his son Icarus were themselves imprisoned within the Labyrinth.

The Athenian, being the intelligent man that he was, fashioned two pairs of wings made from wax and feathers so the two might escape the inevitably gruesome death at the hands of the Minotaur. Daedalus tried his wings first, but before attempting to escape the island, he instructed his son:

My boy, take care

To wing your course along the middleair;

If low, the surges wet your flagging plumes;

If high, the sun the melting wax consumes

Steer between both: nor to the northern skies,

Nor south Orion turn your giddy eyes;

But Follow me: let me before you lay

Rules for the flight, and mark the pathless way.

– Ovid, Metamorphoses

And with those final words from his father, Icarus took flight, where his wax wings would be melted by the sun from him not heeding his father’s wisdom.

Mythological stories served a societal purpose in that the word myth should not be seen as synonymous with fiction. Yes, the Labyrinth, the Minotaur, and the specifics of the narrative are fantasy, but the underlying threads of meaning are some of the most absolute Truths that a person can grow to understand. In other words, did a man die because his wings melted after flying too close to the sun? Probably not. But have men died because of their hubris? You bet they have.

In an age where the self-help aisle of the bookstore is ever expanding, I find the story of Icarus a useful anecdote on how to live well. Specifically, the wisdom of Daedalus is of the utmost importance. His guidance touches on three separate ideas. The first two deal with the disposition of his journey. The last addresses the direction.

1. COMPLACENCY

“If low, the surges wet your flagging plumes…”

Daedalus’ first piece of advice is not to fly too low. Not to allow the feathers to become wet from the sea through inaction. If you own an iPhone, I’d encourage you to go to Settings>Battery and scroll to Battery Usage. Next to Last 24 Hours and Last 7 Days, select the clock icon to display the time spent on each app, and then ask yourself:

How many dreams have I sunk through the hours spent flooding my brain with useless information? How many goals have I not reached because I’m binge watching Netflix, or seeking approval on Instagram? Or droning through my Facebook Newsfeed?

The Battery Usage trick is convicting. With it, you can add up your time on Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever App you waste your time on and objectively see how much of your life in hours and minutes you’ve flushed down the drain. With so much more at our disposal than any other civilization in history, we do far less to capitalize on the opportunities available to us.

Its too easy to become complacent. Many people stop striving when they get out of high school or college. They’ve accomplished everything their parents and society expected of them. The time to coast has arrived. Others find that first job that pays well and aimlessly latch onto it without questioning their own purpose. It doesn’t matter that they drone on for 10 hours a day, or that their mind isn’t stimulated, utilized, or valued, or that their boss could care less if they disappeared… It doesn’t matter because they have found their purgatory; their place between the living and the dead. Between Heaven and Hell.

Daedalus’s advice here can be interpreted something like this: The uncritical satisfaction with one’s life is the slow path to drowning ruin. The bad habits we overlook. The deficiencies we ignore. The mundanity of our lives that we choose to accept. These leave us empty.

2. HUBRIS

“If high, the sun the melting wax consumes…”

You can’t fake it. You have to be about it. You see a lion’s share of this with men who fantasize about their abilities, be it in the gym, the cage, or on the mat… The appearance of competence and proficiency is often times enough. Most storytellers go unchallenged. But the fire of the sun exposes the strong and the weak.

There is always someone better. There is always someone who will expose the lies you tell yourself. There will always be a situation that will cut through the fantasy world you allow yourself to operate in. And it will crush you.

All of us dilute ourselves in one way or another. I dilute myself when I convince myself I can still run an 18 minute 3 mile. Sometimes I convince others of this exaggeration as well. It isn’t until I jump on the treadmill am I reminded that I’m egregiously mistaken. Talking about it is easier than putting in the 4 days a week of sweat and exhaustion to get back to the top of my game.

This cognitive bias can be explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is characterized by people of low ability suffering from an illusory superiority complex. Similar to the symptoms of complacency, it is linked to people ignoring their own ineptitude. This identification is derived from the bias evident in the criminal case of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks with his face covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make him invisible to cameras. Wheeler’s incompetence was based on his misunderstanding the properties of lemon juice as invisible ink. 

The danger of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as Daedalus instructs, is that if you are so diluted to believe in your own superiority, you will be humbled. Authenticity, like gold, is refined by fire. Self-illusion, like wax, is melted by it. Trials expose a Man’s mettle.

3. MENTORSHIP

“Steer between both: nor to the northern skies,

Nor south Orion turn your giddy eyes;

But Follow me: let me before you lay

Rules for the flight, and mark the pathless way.”

As I mentioned earlier, the first two instructions deal with the elevation of the flight. Think of this as the disposition of one’s life journey. The attitudes that one ought to constantly correct for. The third and final piece of advice deals with direction. Our future, in many ways, is that pathless way. We provide structure to it through our personal aspirations, the stories we tell ourselves, and the mentors we choose to follow.

Marcus Aurelius spent the first book of his meditations attributing the virtues that he learned to others that he was able to observe:

Whensoever thou wilt rejoice thyself, think and meditate upon those good parts and especial gifts, which thou hast observed in any of them that live with thee: as industry in one, in another modesty, in another bountifulness, in another some other thing. For nothing can so much rejoice thee, as the resemblances and parallels of several virtues, eminent in the dispositions of them that live with thee, especially when all at once, as it were, they represent themselves unto thee. See therefore, that thou have them always in a readiness

He goes on to attribute his gentle spirit to his grandfather, Verus I. His understanding of true liberty to Apollonius. His understanding of paternal affection to Sextus. And so on…

His hypothesis is that we are made up of the values and virtues learned and synthesized from our mentors. The true way forward towards a meaningful and virtuous life is the acting out of those higher virtues found in those that came before us. Without those before us to light our path, we lose direction.

This is also true about our professional lives: If you are pursuing a career in tech sales, you will find the task almost insurmountable without someone who has done it before to show you the way. The idea that we can make it on our own without mentorship is thoughtless conceit. We need mentors to show us the way and steer us towards our goals and set the example for us to follow.

Good mentors have made the mistakes we have not yet made, moral or professional. They want to accelerate our state of being to that which is equal to theirs, thereby giving us the time to become more than they were able to become. Those who ignore the concept of mentorship are forced to toil in the mistakes that could have been avoided. They are destined to learn lessons painfully. It is a form of self-destructive conceit to dilute yourself into thinking you don’t need someone to light that pathless way.

Icarus’ wings, as most readers vaguely familiar with the Greek myth know, were melted by the Sun, and his body was cast in to the sea. He did not heed the words of his father, and was thus destroyed. Mythological stories, like this one, are a repository of the collective human wisdom from the time they were written. How far have we really come in the existential challenges that we humans face day to day? Are these ideas any less applicable? The answers seem obvious, yet we continue to make the same mistakes as part of our human condition.

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