The character of Icarus in Greek mythology is fascinating.
The basic story is that of an imprisoned father and his son. The father builds a set of wings so that his son can fly away from the prison tower. But the wings are made of wood with bird feathers glued to the wooden frame with wax.
The father tells his son not to fly too low so the salt from the sea doesn’t damage the fragile wings. And he also warns him not to fly too high so the heat from the sun doesn’t melt the wax.
Icarus takes off. The wings work perfectly. But Icarus is taken with his newfound power. He flies higher and higher until the sun burns too hot and the wax on his wings melt. He plummets to Earth.
In business, there is a temptation to grow as fast as possible. The temptation is obviously especially high when things are going well and opportunity is everywhere. We see it every year when the new Inc. 500 list comes out. Companies grow at incredible rates. Other business owners see those growth rates and strive to do it themselves with their own companies.
But when it comes to business growth, you have to be careful. Grow too fast and you start hiring fast in order to keep up with demand. Training often suffers. Support suffers. Service suffers. Production suffers. The product quality suffers.
There is a famous story about Southwest airlines in The Good To Great book series about how the airline disciplined itself to only grow at a certain rate each year. How many other companies would do that?
Seth Godin pointed out also that the Icarus story also involves the warning of flying too low. Had Icarus played it too safe he would have been too close to the salty sea air and likely would have suffered the same fate. And we see many businesses also failing due to lack of ambition and risk.
It’s not always easy to define the middle. It’s not easy to discipline yourself from flying too high. It’s not easy to force yourself into uncomfortable positions so you’re not flying too low.
But in business and in life, the middle is often the best. It’s a lesson that Icarus taught us, but that we still struggle to implement in our lives today.