Monday, March 12, 2012

Icarus and the Wrentit

Maybe it's an American thing. We always tell our kids to dream big and go for all the gusto, but we also want to protect them from the pain of failure. We say that we respect people who are driven to achieve the best, but we're less than enthusiastic when someone actually tries it and succeeds. That guy who won $10 million in the lottery can't possibly be happy, can he?

We speak of the "audacity of hope" and the "soft bigotry of low expectations" but we poke fun at the geeks and nerds who dare to make good grades in school and plunge on ahead to get graduate degrees. We hold romantic notions of bold actions in pursuit of our dreams, but we sneer at those who overextended themselves in the real estate bubble and are now losing their homes. We tell ourselves that we're smarter than they are because we tempered our expectations and went for something smaller and more "realistic".

It's the same push-pull between "follow your bliss" and "just be glad you have a job". There seems to be an assumption that growing up requires putting aside your passions and dreams (or at least saving them for the weekend) and subjecting yourself to the daily soul suck so you can have money to pursue your dreams at some unspecified date in the future. Oh sure, a few lucky souls are wildly successful at work that they love, but the assumption seems to be that You're Not One Of Those People. Why not?

Every time you go flying into the sky, you risk crashing to the ground. You could also soar higher than you've ever been before. If you just stay in the nest, you are guaranteed the same view every day, and sooner or later, the momma bird is going to get tired of bringing you food. Even if we stay the same, the world changes around us, and the birdies that fly out of the nest are the ones who adapt and thrive. Or crash. But at least they tried.

Oh, yes. The "Icarus and the Wrentit" bit. Icarus is a character from Greek mythology whose father fashioned a set of wings for him from feathers and wax. Despite his father's warnings, Icarus became enraptured with the sensation of flight. He flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and Icarus crashed into the sea. The wrentit is a small gray bird that lives on the west coast of North America. It never travels more than about 400 m (1300 feet) from its birthplace over the course of its life. That worked just fine in the past, but now, urban sprawl is isolating small pockets of these tiny birds, decreasing their breeding pools, and putting them at more danger of extinction.

My point is that being too adventurous or playing it too safe both put you at risk of failure, but venturing out and keeping your wits about you might just might open up some new options that you didn't see while you were hugging your nest. Maybe you will be a majestic osprey, a bird that can live near just about any body of water in the world. Maybe you will be an urban pigeon that has learned to nest on concrete ledges and snack on bread crumbs from the local bistro. Either way, you make your way in the world and learn to thrive while doing what you do best.

US Geological Survey photo.

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