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Flying too close to the sun: how idioms originate

This week while sipping on a warm Coke Zero at lunch with a friend, we began to discuss the wonders of Greece. She reminded me of the fable of Icarus.

Icarus had wings fashioned out of feathers and wax to assist his escape from the prison where he and his father were captive.

The part-bull, part-man creature was warned not to fly too close to the sun lest his wings should melt and not too close to  the see as these wings were driven by the interaction of sun and water.

As fable has it, he did not heed his father’s warning and came in close proximity to the sun. Naturally his wings melted and he plunged into the sea and drowned.

From this wonderful fable comes the idiom ‘flying too close to the sun’ and there are different views on what it means.

For some it pertains particularly to the ‘recklessness’ of youth and their tendency to take risks without thinking. Others say it’s about humanity in general and being overconfident. For example, this statement would be used to comment on someone who has tried for something ‘out of reach’ and fallen short.

Another view is that it’s about being aware of our limitations. Seth Godin in his book, The Icarus Deception’ says this is simply bad advice.

He prefers ‘fly closer to the sun’.

Various book reviews comment on how the other part of the instruction ‘don’t fly too low or you’ll get weighed down by the water  and drown’ say this lesson has disappeared from modern interpretations.

Godin argues that we settle for too little by having low expectations of ourselves. In the book, it’s clear that Godin applauds Icarus – ultimately he made a huge impression in mythical ancient Greece – and here we are, thousands of years later, writing about his demise.

But Godin is definitely all for pushing your limits  – and the sentiment ‘you won’t know what they are if you don’t at least attempt to push them’.

It’s entirely possible that there won’t be a standing ovation at the end of you journey. That’s okay. At least you lived – Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception.

In my view, this is the most fitting statement for new businesses that grow too quickly and then cease to exist due to lack of planning.

So, I’ll stick to what the ancient Greeks believed and caution – know the risks before – flying too close to the sun.

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