Icarus was just trying to do a great job…and look where it got him!

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When children are young and are asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” their answers tend towards the exciting, romanticized careers:

“I want to be an astronaut!”
“I want to be a fire fighter!”
“I want to be a ballerina!”
“I want to be a baseball player!”

As they become teens, they begin to think of the careers that sound the most prestigious and/or offer the highest salary:

“I want to be a doctor!”
“I want to be a lawyer!”

I don’t think a single child, growing up, has ever thought about what s/he would like his/her quality of life to be as an adult.  And certainly no child has looked to the future and hoped for an average life.

Still, I wonder: what is really wrong with being average?  Most people, by definition, will be average.  While career choice is important in supporting oneself, and later on, one’s family, shouldn’t we be focusing on teaching our youth that a balanced life is best, no matter what the career or salary?

We live in a society that is fueled by the need to do things BETTER: drive a better car, earn a better salary, purchase a better house…But in the end, something has got to give.  Sometimes it is spending enough time with one’s family, other times it is not having enough personal time to oneself for fun (a word that has become just as dirty in professional circles as another prevalent, four-letter word).  What we really should be teaching our students are priorities.

In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns, M.D. dedicates an entire chapter, “Dare to Be Average!” to mediocrity.  His book has sold more than four million copies, and professionals consistently rate it as the top self-help book for people suffering with depression.  Various media outlets report that depression is on the rise on college campuses, which leads to some very important questions: Would teaching our students that doing a good job and not a great one is sufficient or even better for them psychologically?  Do our seemingly harmless prompts of “I know you can do better!” on B papers have a negative effect on our students?

Tim Ferriss’s bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek lauds the teachings of the Pareto Principle, as Ferriss recommends focusing one’s attention on the 20% of the clients that contribute to 80% of a business’s income.  Can it follow, then, that by only exerting 20% of one’s work capacity, one will achieve 80% of the results one is looking for?  This sounds like the old adage “Work smarter, not harder,” not to mention my high school U.S. History teacher’s favorite saying, “Keep it simple, stupid!”  (His other favorite, “whatever floats your boat,” doesn’t work so well here.)

If the doomed youth Icarus had not felt the need to rise above and beyond (literally and metaphorically), would he have ended up at the bottom of the sea?  Obviously this is a rhetorical question, as the answer is, of course, no.  What’s scary is what actually happens when Icarus takes his fateful plunge.  The scene is depicted in Bruegel’s famous painting De Val Van Icarus (The Fall of Icarus), in which Icarus’s fall is a minute detail at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, while life goes on as usual for the townsfolk who are the central characters of the piece.

The lesson learned?  If we slip up from time to time, it is okay.  If we are good at something and not great at something, that is okay too.  In the end…no one will notice.

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