“Wax. That was his problem. Not hubris. Wax.”
— Mark Harmon as Lucas Davenport
A recent discussion with someone brought back some thoughts on the Icarus myth.
We all know the basics of the story. Icarus and Daedalus escaped from a tower with wings of feathers and wax. Daedalus warned Icarus that if he flew too close to the ocean, the wings would get wet and fail, or that if he flew too high the sun would melt the wax and the wings would fail.
Caught up in the thrill of flying, Icarus soared high in the sky. (I’ve heard that there are some versions that say he wanted to visit the gods on Olympus, but a, too lazy to research this.) He got too close to the sun, the wax melted, his wings fall apart, and he plummeted to his demise.
This is held up as an illustration of hubris. Icarus thought he could do more than he could, and failed. He did not take his limitations seriously, and they killed him.
And this is true. But it ignores one thing.
The story is not about Icarus. It is about Daedalus. He conceived if the wings. He created them. He aspired to fly as much as Icarus.
He operated the wings according to specs. And he made the trip.
What I’m getting at is this: knowing your limitations works both ways.
Most people see “knowing your limitations” as a caution about exceeding them. But it is also about knowing how far you can go. The two are related, but subtly different. It is one thing to know that you shouldn’t fly too high. It is something else to be confident that you are capable of successful flight if you stick to certain parameters. One is about knowing your failure point. The other is about knowing how your skills can bring you great success.
Icarus’ problem wasn’t his ambition: it was that his ambition ignored the limitations of the technology he was using. Had he not gotten away and attempted more than was recommended, he would have been successful.
The problem was the wax. And Icarus knew it was a problem, and ignored that fact. And he died because of it.
But Daedalus heeded those limitations and escaped.
Knowing your limits isn’t about keeping yourself back. It is about knowing how far you can go.