The story of Icarus is pretty well-known: boy goes out, gets caught up in what he’s doing, doesn’t listen to parent’s warning, and gets in hot water (well, hot wax and cold water, but let’s not be nit-picky), the typical teenage mishap. It’s so classic, in fact, that even the ancient Greeks thought it deserved a page in the metaphorical book of life. Lesson learned from this tragic tale? Heed your parents’ advice, especially if your parent is a genius Athenian inventor, lest you perish.
However, let’s not focus on the wonderful moral treasures of Greek mythology right now, and just quickly recap what happened. Daedalus warns Icarus of not flying too close to the sun, which would melt the wax off of the makeshift wings Daedalus had crafted, in addition to not flying too close to the water, which would make the feathers heavy and impair the wings’ ability to function properly. Icarus, probably used to his dad’s endless lectures and rants about various doodads and contraptions, zones out and just nods his head as if he was actually listening. He then takes off into the air and flies towards the sun, not really heading towards the sun, but just higher in the sky in general, of which a natural consequence is getting closer to the sun. Then, the usual series of unfortunate events follow: Icarus doesn’t realize his mistake until it is too late and he plunges to his untimely death in the sea some distance outside of his prison on the island of Crete.
Instead of using this story to segue into a spiel about the concerning, poor decision-making skills of the adolescent population, Seth Godin, on Krista Tippett’s radio show, “On Being,” compares Icarus’ plight to the state of society, saying that society is currently “flying too low”, skimming the water and letting its wings be weighed down by the mist. What he means is that we have become inundated by cheap entertainment: reality shows, rumor-mongering, gossip magazines and such trash. Godin also contrasts the progression of mankind’s thought during the Industrial Revolution period to that of today. Previously, value as a worker was determined by how much work had been accomplished and how well one followed directions. However, we now notice that we have evolved from that mindset and that to survive in modern times, we sell ideas rather than pure labor. I feel it acutely in my schoolwork and standardized testing; I don’t receive grades based solely on what I know, but I receive points based on my ability to analyze given information, draw conclusions and apply what I learn. Math problems aren’t just about Jerry and Laura and how many apples Jane has left after giving 1/3 to one and 1/5 to the other anymore. Now the worksheet demands to know how I knew how many apples Jane had left or what Jane did wrong in determining how many apples she had left. A perfectly logical conclusion is that perhaps Calculus really isn’t Jane’s thing and that she should really look into alternative courses such as underwater basket-weaving, but all jokes aside, Seth Godin’s podcast made me think about how I’ve been coping with the public’s new-found, intense interest in Jane’s apples.
The general art of “noticing and then creating” isn’t a challenge for me; I feel that everything around me is intriguing in its own way and that it’s only a matter of time until I give some thing its time of day. Since I’ve had such little life experience, I’ve been good about noticing the life experience of others and taking tid-bits of their information, that is, I like to read. Even now I still read a lot, albeit not as many novels as I used to read, but reading isn’t just plunking down on a comfy, coffee-bean leather couch. Reading is scrolling through articles friends have liked on Facebook and taking out the Sunday news and scanning the articles, skimming over colored advertisements for fancy garages and totally skipping the “Sports”, “Classified”, and “Business” sections. Even unwritten texts are not spared a glance: music, selfies, mannerisms, speech patterns, faces. As for creating things based on what I learn, I think I do well: I write blog posts every so often to indulge my whims and get out my spin on a topic and can hold my own in class discussions. I enjoy what I do and I like to share my work, as many of you would know, since a majority of my readers are directed to my posts via Twitter and Facebook. Creating work, as Godin advocates, is a feasible task.
Battling the unknown is another story. As every other teenager, I still struggle with finding out what I really want to do with life; I’m not really sure where I want to take myself. It’s hard not to take the road most taken and just follow what I’ve been given and told to do. It’s hard come up with and do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s hard to do something knowing I could potentially be heading nowhere and that I might not have the right answer. It’s sometimes hard for me to think up of what to contribute to my project (see comedowntherabbithole.wordpress.com for more on the project) because I don’t like to write things unless they feel “right”, and that feeling of “right” is really hard to come by. Most feelings just come and go, and “right” is no different; I end up spending more time than I’d like waiting around for inspiration to smack me in the face. It’s uncomfortable to write things I don’t feel express me perfectly. To me, having a right answer is important, like a safety blanket or teddy bear is to a child. I guess it’s better to define this need in terms of what I hate, gaping holes, holes in the dam that I desperately try to plug with all my fingers and toes. I know that I’ll never really able to cover all the holes of what I don’t know. I suppose it all started with high school science; it gave and still gives me chills to think that humans don’t know everything about the Earth, the planets and life. What do you mean we don’t know everything possibly known about activity of telomerase or how chromosomes align in mitosis? Maybe I’m a funny girl to think that way, but I think it’s scary to think about how much we don’t know. It’s like reaching the end of the sidewalk, after which is a deep chasm of presumed nothingness. How would anyone know what’s really down there? No one sane would jump down and no one who jumped down would come back to say what was really down there. I find it hard to give things a try, as much as I try to. A fear of failure is not so easily overcome.
Therefore, I’m always intrigued by people who do manage to jump the hurdles life has set up for them. Godin pushes the point that adversity is the foundation of success and emphasizes the fact that our response to setbacks are what make us who we are. I can’t help but be reminded of Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon. Though it has been a while, I still remember the idea Pausch had presented clearly in his “Really Achieving Childhood Dreams” speech: when faced with “brick walls” (setbacks), one should find a way around them. Sometimes, he advised, the brick walls were not as substantial as they seemed. Pausch wanted to experience zero gravity, and it seemed as if he had the chance to do so when some of his students won a virtual reality contest and were invited to try NASA’s Vomit Comet, which simulated weightlessness. He discovered that he wasn’t allowed on as a faculty member, so he presented himself instead as a journalist, and was allowed on the Vomit Comet. What amazes me is the resolve he had and how did not give up on his childhood dream. It seems silly to give up then, when he was so close, but I couldn’t see what more Pausch could do about it; Pausch evidently found an alternative way to complete his goal. I want to improve my own problem-solving skill, to find ways around brick walls.
Brick walls can be leveled by all sorts of things: hammers, bombs, cranes, you name it. Sometimes we forget that we can dig a hole under the wall, go around the wall or even jump over the wall. Similarly, innovation isn’t doing something no one else has done before. I believe that novel inventions also include things that have been vastly expanded on and evolved from its conception. It’s as the saying goes: see a need, fill a need. We don’t need superfluous doohickeys that fill small needs; while searching for answers to the world’s queries, we can’t abandon things that are hard to figure out. Instead of coming up with a brand new idea, the best route may be to refine a previous solution. Godin states that failures are not “impossibilities”, but pointers as to figure out the solution. Through failure, we learn what doesn’t work, so we can modify our ideas or inventions accordingly.
It’s easy for us to scoff and say that Icarus was a complete doofus and surely, we would never make the grave error of flying too close to the sun. I can’t help but wonder, though, is it better to hover too low or to reach too high? Of course maintaining a distance in the middle of the sky is ideal, but of the two extremes, I think it’s better to burn out as Icarus did. There is something to be had in trying to fulfill your curiosities and go down known that you tried rather than dying by being swallowed by the waves.