The Icarus Paradox
By Stephen Doherty
October 29th, 2023
“I’ll just say one word: Icarus. If you get it, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But you should probably read more. ” -Tony Wilson
One of the most fascinating axioms of life is known as the Icarus Paradox. If you recall, Icarus was the restless mythological figure who watched birds in flight and desperately wanted to join them. His lifelong, overwhelming desire to fly gave rise to incredible ingenuity and invention on his part and, indeed, he was able to design and build the means to fly.
By combining feathers and wax – Icarus fashioned a beautiful set of wings! He donned them, ran off a cliff, and was exhilarated beyond words (and relieved) when his wings caught the wind and he rose in flight like a giant eagle! His heart was full as he soared the heavens. The first part of his adventure underscores all kinds of great inspirational and motivational tropes like motivation, commitment, pursuing dreams, etc. Throughout history, we have witnessed incredible inventions and feats of courage born of necessity and desire wed to the pursuit of a dream.
The second half of the Icarus adventure was as tragic as the first half was spectacular. As he soared higher and higher and higher – his successful adventure had brought him too close to the sun, melting the wax that held the wings that kept him aloft. With his wings dissolved and now useless, Icarus hurtled back to earth and died upon his violent impact with the ocean. Again, metaphors abound around the notion of life’s highs and lows and how quickly bliss can morph into calamity. In this case both extremes were experienced almost simultaneously as terrific success and massive failure sprung from the exact same origin.
The Icarus Paradox is a neologism coined by Danny Miller in his 1990 book by the same name. The term refers to the phenomenon of businesses failing abruptly after a period of apparent success, where this failure is brought about by the very elements that led to their initial success. It alludes to the aforementioned Icarus of Greek mythology, who crashed and drowned after flying too close to the Sun and seeing his wings dissolve and become useless. The failure of the very wings that allowed him to escape imprisonment and soar through the skies was what ultimately led to his demise, hence the paradox. In simpler terms – “a strength or advantage – when over-extended – can lead to demise and failure. ”
There are countless business and cultural examples of strong starts followed by epic collapses born of arrogance and over-confidence coupled with an almost bewildering lack of self-awareness. The Roman Empire collapsed spectacularly. Chrysler and Apple barely recovered form their own incompetence. IBM – whose CEO once dismissed desk top computers as a passing fad. UPS, who ridiculed the arrival of Federal Express – until they were crushed by them. The fact that we have more knowledge than any generation in history, and yet we continue to set new records for suicides, obesity, and mental health declines. The examples of initial upward trajectory followed by “crash-and-burn” descents are too plentiful to recount here but are all born of the same fact pattern – and all emblematic of the Icarus Paradox.
In closing, I would suggest that social media is following the same trajectory that Icarus did. Never has mankind been so connected – and simultaneously so dis-connected. Never have we had access to so many people and yet never have we been more alone and isolated. Never has so much convenience been coupled with so many insatiable appetites. Perhaps worst of all, never has society and culture ever drank from a river of news and information so dishonest and faulty, that it seems like we often live and exist in an alternative reality. When the marriage of AI and digital manipulation is fully consummated – it will be the beginning of the end for mankind.
So, don your wings and enjoy the flight – but try to limit your soaring to cloudy days …
“Meaningful connection is formed when we bravely share our truth.” -Michelle Maros