James Carville and Paul Begala tell a story about the choice a lion faces in deciding to hunt for a mouse or an antelope. “A lion is fully capable of capturing, killing, and eating a field mouse,” they explain. “But it turns out that the energy required to do so exceeds the caloric content of the mouse itself.” Antelopes, in contrast, are much bigger animals, so “they take more speed and strength to capture.” But once captured, an antelope can provide days of food for the lion.
The story, as you may have guessed, is a microcosm for life. Most of us go after the mice, instead of the antelopes. We perceive the mouse as a sure thing, and the antelope as more risky. Mice are everywhere; antelopes are few and far between. What’s more, everyone around us is busy hunting mice. We assume that, if we decide to go for antelopes, we might fail and make a fool out of ourselves.
This is also the moral of the Icarus myth. His father, the craftsman Daedalus, built wings out of wax for himself and his son to escape the island of Crete. Daedalus warned his son to follow his flight path and not fly too close to the Sun.
You probably know what happened next: Icarus ignored his father’s warnings and soared near the Sun. His wings melted, sending Icarus on a plunge into the sea, where he tragically drowned.
The lessons of the myth are clear: Those who soar melt their wings and die. Those who stay the course and obey instructions escape the island and survive.
There was a guy in the 1970s who rode his way to the top by rejecting this myth. He initially became famous by lifting some weights. He then made some movies. He then governed a state that has the world’s fifth largest economy. In his surprisingly good autobiography, Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger writes: “When every aspiring actor was trying to land bit parts in movies, I held out to be a leading man. When every politician tries to work his or her way up from local office, I went straight for the governorship.”
We assume that we’re not cut out to aim straight for the top. We believe that the kind of people who can fly high have better wings immune to melting.
Michelle Obama dispelled this myth in a recent interview. “Here is the secret,” she said. “I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the UN: They are not that smart.”
Let me repeat that: They are not that smart.
They just know what most of us never learned: There’s far less competition at the top. Everyone else is busy flying low, chasing mice, assuming they can’t be the governor, the manager, or the leading actor.
There’s a second half to the Icarus myth—one that you probably haven’t heard. In addition to telling Icarus to not to fly too high, Daedalus also told him not to fly too low because the water would ruin his wings.
Yet the second half of the myth doesn’t make the cut. Society seduced us into believing that flying lower is safer than flying higher, that coasting is better than soaring, and that small dreams are preferable to big ones.
Altitude, as any pilot will tell you, is your friend. If your engine quits when you’re flying high, you’ve got options for gliding your plane to safety. But at low altitudes, the possibilities in flight—like the possibilities in life—are more limited (the Hudson River might be your only bet).
So, next time, aim a little higher. Instead of going for a master’s, apply for a PhD. Don’t look for a job comfortably within your reach; aim for one seemingly above your resume.
Take comfort in knowing that Daedalus had his physics all wrong. Air gets cooler, not hotter, as you ascend.
Your wings won’t melt. You’ll grow the ones you need on the way up. And even if you don’t reach the Sun, you’ll soar higher than you would have before.
[Inspiration: Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception].