Icarus VS David & Goliath, the constant struggle of an entrepreneur

/ Article by Koen Colmbijn

As a storyteller I continue to be inspired by old stories, captivated by the lessons they teach and the story arcs they provide for new tales. Besides the source of endless inspiration these stories provide, we can learn and explain a lot by using these narratives. As any entrepreneur I always find it difficult to identify when to push the boundaries and when to accept the given framework. Luckily we are neither the first nor the last who encounter this challenge, therefore we can definitely learn something from the past. In this article I would like to discuss two ancient stories that have transcended into commonly used metaphors.

The first one is a tale as old as time, quite literally, as it was published in a book which pretty much marked the beginning of our calendar, The old testament. I am talking about the legend of David and Goliath, which might even be one of the first well known written narratives that uses the ever appealing story arc of an underdog protagonist with improbable chances who, against all odds, defeats the mighty antagonist. The second story is the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus. To those that might have some trouble recalling the exact stories, I would like to freshen up you memories. To those who have them etched into their minds, bare with me for a second.

A depiction of the battle between David and Goliath

David & Goliath
A little over 3000 years ago in the breathtaking valley of Elah the armies of the Israelites and Philistines found themselves in a deadlock position. As neither army was prepared to break this Mexican standoff and potentially lose a substantial amount of their warriors it was the Philistines that offered a solution. They challenged the Israelites to single combat. The Philistines sent Goliath, a six foot nine giant equipped with the most advanced armor and weapons of that era, down into the valley. The Israelites were terrified of him as not a single sole was courageous enough to face the gargantuan opponent. Until a young shepherd boy named David stood up from the crowd and declared he was up for the challenge.

David made his way down into the valley refusing any help in the form of armor, weapons or advice offered by the other Israelites who were already certain of their defeat. Armed with a wooden staff, a leather slingshot and five ordinary stones David faced Goliath. Before the battle could even properly start. He slung a stone right between the eyes of Goliath, knocking him unconscious in one blow, approached the gigantic man and cut of his head with his own sword. The Philistines fled the valley leaving the Israelites victorious. This story has become a well known metaphor for improbable victories and many people or companies aspire to be like David, the underdog that achieves the impossible.

A painting of Icarus and Daedalus in flight

Greek mythology has provided the world with countless of classic legends and story arcs followed even by the newest of best sellers, tv-series and Hollywood movies. One story that i’m particularly fond of, as an entrepreneur, is the story of Icarus. The story begins with Daedalus, the father of Icarus. This extremely skillful craftsman created the labyrinth of Minos in which the infamous Minotaur, a creature our props department would love to recreate, roamed. After enraging King Minos he himself is incarcerated together with his son. To escape their dreadful fate Daedalus crafts wings made of feathers and wax to fly away from the labyrinth on the island. Before taking off he warns Icarus for two things. Firstly, and widely known, he should not fly too high as the sun would melt the wax in his wings. Secondly, and this is a warning that not many recollect when thinking of Icarus, Daedalus advises Icarus that he should also not fly too low as it would clog his wings by the water’s dampness.

As they took off, Icarus did not stay on his father’s trail for long. Overcome by the astonishing feeling of soaring through the skies he ignored his father’s advice. With his adrenaline fueled self confidence he kept rising and rising until, already too late, he finds himself flying too close to the sun. The heat melts the wax in his wings and Icarus plummets down into the sea, drowning in the area that is nowadays known as The Icarian Sea.

At Plugged Liveshows, we are always looking for our next Goliath…

Know your Goliath… And yourself
As an entrepreneur it is difficult to determine which challenge to rise to in shining armor, and when to accept the given boundaries. Determining your ‘Goliath’ can be very helpful and illuminating. I think a Goliath can be any challenge that you might be up against. It can be your biggest competitor trying to increase its market share, it might be the ultimate goal of your company, or maybe it’s the mountain you need to climb to reach this goal. Anyhow, in order to be able to defeat your Goliath, you must know who or what he is, but also understand your own boundaries and protect yourself from adrenaline fueled self confidence.

Never fly too low, or too high.. But dare to fly nonetheless! (picture of one of our shows)

Be a little like Icarus…
I like to think we, either personally or as a company, should be a little like Icarus. When Icarus and Daedalus were locked up in the labyrinth they could have complied with their sentence and lived out their days on the Island of Crete. But they choose not to. Against all odds they found a way of escaping the island by using nothing but the resources at hand and a tremendous amount of creativity. Despite the possible devastating outcome of their creative vision not working, they dare to fly. A lesson everybody should take to heart. Do not fly too low (an equivalent of not trying), as it will get you nowhere. For the ‘do not fly too high’part, there’s a silver lining. You should try to push your boundaries and go further that any other has ever gone. But do it based on knowledge, and as a conscious decision.

A perfect example of someone who learned from the mistakes of Icarus is no other than David. He refuses to fly low by standing out from the crowd, doing something no one even dares to do. Yet he does not fly too high, remains calm and is incredibly conscious about what he is doing, achieving the seemingly impossible. By doing so, you can not fly too high, evidently… But if you choose to fly low and follow the rest, you might never even face your Goliath. So, be a little like Icarus, but not too much…

An interesting viewpoint on the story of Icarus by director Stanley Kubrick

…. And dare to fly!
Let´s be honest, it is terrifying to stand at a cliff and dare to jump trusting totally on your creative vision. But this is what Icarus did, and this is worth mentioning. Stand for what you believe in. It is also terrifying to stand among a crowd of thousands with a giant facing you ready to kill you. However, when taking a closer look at this legend it becomes apparent that David is not the underdog everyone thought him to be. David knows exactly what he is doing. He chooses to stand up from the crowd. This is not because no one else dares to stand up. It is because he knows he would win that fight. He knows he is extremely accurate with his lethal slingshot, he has been defending his herd all his life with it. He refuses any armor or weapons as he knows it would compromise his movement and diminish his chances. Furthermore, he realizes that he possesses the element of surprise as Goliath is expecting hand to hand combat against a formidable foe as opposed to the shabby shepherd that descends into the valley to face him.

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin, an absolute must read!

David is a textbook example of someone who knows extremely well where his strengths and weaknesses lie and is not afraid to act on this knowledge. He is courageous enough to stand up from the crowd and do what no one dares to do. He is confident enough to face Goliath on his own accord instead of with the weapons and armor that were offered to him. And when descending down in the valley of Elah to confront Goliath there is only one person among the two armies that does not see David as the underdog; David himself. So, being aware of your strengths and flaws can get you a long way, certainly when provided with the perfect opportunity to show them. But you must dare to fly to take that opportunity.

The difference between David and Icarus, is that while David acted on his tremendous amount of self knowledge and confidence, Icarus is the one who pushed the boundaries. And although Icarus stretched those boundaries too far we can still learn something from this. It is the ‘not flying to low’part which inspires me to test our limits over and over again. Dare to stand up from that crowd, be a little different and be prepared to take risks. Because when you are not going to jump, you will not learn to fly. So, craft some wings, pick up some rocks, take a leap of fate, fly and find your Goliath!

Want to learn something about Goliath as well? Check out this video of the TED talk by Malcolm X. Gladwell!

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