Given that I have been unsuccessful in a lot of job applications recently, it is perhaps no surprise that I’ve been thinking about failure quite a bit. Yet this is not a post in which I gripe and you get bored, because I have been thinking about a particular kind of failure – something I shall call the Icarian Success.
In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of master craftsman Daedalus, who fashioned the labyrinth that held the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son, imprisoned on Crete, attempted to escape with two pairs of wings, fashioned by them out of feathers and wax. Disobeying his father’s orders, Icarus flew too close to the sun, and the wax in the wings melted. He fell into the sea off the island of Samos, and drowned. There are many figures like Icarus in myth – a British example is the legendary King Bladud, father of Lear – and many of them are, like Icarus, associated with hubris and failed ambition.
But the Icarian success is nowhere near so negative. I’ve always thought that if you fall, you should do so having tried to touch a star. I’d rather be a spectacular failure than a mediocre success. So I’ve always tried (though I’ve not always succeeded) to push the boundaries in everything I do. Sometimes, that means burning out, being rejected, or being dissatisfied with something that turns out to be less than I had hoped. But when these plans succeed, oh, do they succeed. And even when they fail, they are often an exercise in understanding what it is currently possible to accomplish.
Icarian successes are not always noticed. In Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the doomed boy is barely visible – just a pair of legs and a splash. It just goes to show that significance depends upon your point of view.
I think that what I am saying is this: don’t be too bound by unspoken ‘rules’ or fashions, or feel obliged to follow precisely, to the letter, what your elders and betters say. Because, after all, writing a paper that might crash and burn is not quite the same as risking death to escape an angry king.