Excerpt: The moral of the myth is not—as we’ve been taught—to value Daedalus’s pragmatism over Icarus’s playfulness, but rather that innovation happens when both elements are held in creative tension.
By: Jason “TOGA” Trew
Estimated Reading Time: 15 Mins
In Like Sex with Gods, Bayla Singer’s “unorthodox history of flying,” the historian notes that “human flight is not a simple matter of science and technology [but] a continuing epic of dreams and obsession, of yearning and striving to harness the intellect in the service of the emotions.”
My doctoral research extended this idea onto an intellectual history of the US Air Force (USAF). I wanted to understand the common assertion by writers, including Carl Builder and Briace Harris, that Airmen* have a “technological culture.” What I discovered, however, is useful for anyone interested in innovation.
The Myth, Daedalus as Deity, and What it Means to Rescue Icarus
The myth is at least two millennia old. Daedalus, the greatest craftsman among mortals, is trapped in a labyrinth with his son, Icarus. To escape, the father crafts two sets of artificial wings from bird feathers. Once airborne, the boy—captivated by the exhilaration of flight—ignores Daedalus’s warning to constrain himself. As he recklessly climbs higher and higher, the sun melts the wax holding the wings together. Icarus’s adventure into the realm of gods is quickly over as he plummets to his death.
The myth is commonly referenced by flyers and those who write about them. In fact, according to one scholar, “Of all flying stories of classical antiquity it is this one which has left a lasting impression on future generations and fired the ambition of many imitators; and it is on this point, its moral effect, that the importance of the story rests.”
The conventional interpretation of the myth contrasts Daedalus’s rational calculations and pragmatic motivations with the playfulness and high spirits—literally and metaphorically—that led to Icarus’s downfall. Moreover, the father and son are presented as mutually exclusive examples, and it is clear which one serves as a model among modern Airmen.
The preference for the pragmatic father over the playful son is evident throughout the Air Force. The statute of Daedalus is just one example. Another was how one of its schools—one of the few in which every single officer attended (while Air and Space Basic Course was in operation)—named an exercise after Icarus “to instill a sense of dire consequence if we do not fully understand our role as Airmen.”
The inspiration for using the mythological label came from a 1994 work by RAND Corporation analyst Carl Builder. After analyzing the USAF organizational culture, he concluded that Airmen’s “worship” of aviation technology distracted them from the service’s strategic purpose. He labeled this institutional crisis, and titled his book, The Icarus Syndrome.
The bias against the ill-fated flyer makes complete sense. The father is the paragon of a mature craftsman; his son, a passionate, rebellious, self-destructive artist. Writers have variously attributed Icarus’ disgrace to hubris, ambition, and excessive dreaming. His name has been invoked by psychiatrists as a condition characterized by an imagination that exceeds one’s capabilities, dooming one to failure and mental conflict. Yet, this is not the only interpretation of the myth.
The story of Daedalus and Icarus has undergone multiple iterations, including versions in which the boy actually survives the fall. Some accept the conventional ending but reverse the moral of the allegory, valuing Icarus for his boldness, his creativity, and as one ancient poet put it, his “daring art.” The boy variously symbolizes genius, passion, and even a spiritual savior. Some psychologists treat the Icarian urge to explore as a vital stimulus to human maturation. Studies show how such playfulness is associated with resilience, creativity, adaptability, inquisitiveness. Play turns out to be at the center of both an individual’s quest for self-realization and the collective efforts towards innovation.
To rescue Icarus then, is to reframe the boy’s image to highlight these positive aspects of his character; to treat him—not as a syndrome—but as a solution to the problem of innovation. And innovation is a game everyone can play.
Playing the Innovation Game
“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct…The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” – Psychiatrist Carl Jung
Play is as difficult to define as it is pervasive. Some, in fact, assert that it is the defining characteristic of humanity—homo ludens (“the playing man”)—and offer a wide range of examples, including theater, storytelling, sports, warfare, and even strategy.
The correlation of innovation and play, as either a physical or emotional action or even an attitude, is not itself an innovation. Indeed, illustrations abound in history of science and technology, design thinking, and numerous other fields.
Some fields are quite explicit about the connection. “Play is the highest form of research,” according to one college dean. Though that quote is often misattributed to Einstein, the famous scientist also made similar comments. For instance, he wrote that “the essential feature in productive thought” is to engage in “combinatory play” with various ideas. Play is regularly invoked as an important mindset and method among designers. In 2007, the Journal of Business Strategy published an article, “Strategizing through Playful Design.” Organizational psychologists discuss “playful triggers” to “generate collaborative and creative practices.” A philosopher describes how the “free creative play of psychical activity” can generate intuitive solutions. Historians of technology cite the inherent playfulness in invention, and point to the fact that toys are often an entry point for new technologies (such as the toy helicopter that inspired the Wright brothers). Those concerned with STEM education and future inventions echo the same notion.
More often, however, the link between play and innovation is embedded in more familiar concepts such as empathy (playing with perspectives), imagination (playing with possibilities), social intelligence (playing well with others), or prototyping (exploratory play).
I believe there is much more to uncover about play as a counterbalance to the problems of an overly rational, linear, technical mindset, which I have examined in detail elsewhere. And the history of aviation is a particularly apt place to explore this hypothesis.
“Wings to your Mind”: The Flight of Imagination
“Flight became a metaphor for the transformation of consciousness, its liberation from the constraints of normal day-to-day existence, and the redefinition of time and space.” – Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings
The story of how sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air flight was invented, developed, and put to human ends is inseparable from aspirations and fears as old as humanity itself. In other words, flight was more than a matter of technical brilliance. It was a majestic experience: a realization of humanity’s long-standing and deep emotional connection to flight. It is not surprising then, that the earliest decades of flight stimulated a sense of wonder, awe, and, above all, playfulness.
Many people—flyers or not—took inspiration from flight. Historian Michael Sherry characterized these heady times as an “Age of Fantasy”: “a whole new dimension in human activity…uniquely capable of stimulating fantasies of peacetime possibilities for lifting worldly burdens, transforming man’s sense of time and space, transcending geography, knitting together nations and peoples, and releasing humankind from its biological limits.” In the words of one cultural historian, Western society finally achieved “an epic poetry of technological deeds” it had “secretly desired.” Jeffrey T. Schnapp, a professor of literature, expresses a similar conclusion: flight combined “instinct and science…technical progress and the return to primordial forces [to be] humankind’s final frontier: a last remaining source of mystery, miracles, novelty and the unknown…a last place of transcendence in a resolutely secular age.”
This enthusiasm for aviation, which became known as airmindedness, paved the way for aviation to become the “twentieth-century Enlightenment project.” Even some recent scholars still claim flight has altered our capacity to “think, feel, and act,” “is central to the modern imagination,” or that “aerial imagination” is the world’s most transformational force, opening up “new cognitive possibilities.”
Naturally, the cultural founders of the USAF embodied this mindset and sat comfortably at the intersection of two worlds: one of order, engineering, and reason; the other, one of chaos, art, and play. What may surprise some modern Airmen is how much their predecessors embraced the creative tension between the ideas symbolized by Daedalus and Icarus.
“This Flying Game”: Military Aviators and Play
The social playfulness of military aviators was well established from the very beginning. In the view of one Royal Flying Corps officer, “the RFC began by being a party, and continued being a party.” Historian Lee Kennett describes WWI squadron life as Bacchanalia, after the Roman equivalent of Dionysius, “the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy in ancient Greek religion and myth.” Playful, indeed.
Setting that heritage aside for the moment—but not discarding it entirely, for it contains some nuanced implications for innovation that I’ll flesh out another time—this argument focuses on the less controversial aspects of play.
Early Airmen were quite comfortable speaking about their passion for air power, its transformational possibilities—and the centrality of cognitive playfulness in guiding that passion to realize those possibilities.
In 1909, air power pioneer Julio Douhet argued that the idea of flight required fantasy in order to rise to its potential. The following year a US Army officer writing about aviation in a professional journal wrote “one must be prepared to use his imagination largely and even touch on the borders of prophecy.” Air power advocate Alexander de Seversky argued that industrial capacity was “the lesser half of the job for a machine-age nation like the United States.” Instead, “We must outthink and outplan them, in a spirit of creative audacity…All those gifts of mechanical ingenuity, industrial efficiency, and, above all, imaginative daring which have made America the first nation of the industrial era must be given full play in American airpower.”
Furthermore, Airmen have, at times, eagerly embraced Icarus by name. In a 1916 letter expressing his desire to become a military pilot, one person wrote: “I will fly…If I fall, I shall fall mightily. I shall be with Perseus and Icarus, whom I loved…I would happily die in any adventure.” The US Air Force Academy magazine of creative writing is named after the mythological figure. Lastly, General “Hap” Arnold, the premier founding father of the USAF, honored Icarus as a pioneer “test pilot.” Another work, this one with a title revealing ties to play, This Flying Game, begins with “Flying—what dreams it inspires! What ideas and thoughts it excites in boy and man alike!” Later, Arnold and his co-author insisted that the inspiration of myths like Daedalus and Icarus “played no small part” in achieving actual flight.
Resurrecting the image of Icarus also accounts for an oft-overlooked theme in the myth. Icarus died, yes, but what happens next is the true tragedy. Daedalus survives, but the father became unwilling, unable even, to wield his skills any further. Ideally, the two could have continued to use their divergent perspectives to fuel creativity. Instead, the result is what we face today: a focus on artifacts without honoring the artistic playfulness that goes into invention and development. In other words, the symbiotic confluence of playfulness and pragmatism is a key to innovation. It is a key we will continue to ignore unless we learn how to encourage heroic innovators.
The Heroic Quest to Innovate
“Heroes are heroes because they are heroic in behavior, not because they won or lost.”
– Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness
Any type of innovation, almost by definition, is difficult. Innovating an organization’s culture in order to create a more innovative ecosystem is doubly so.
For one, there is semantic confusion. Perhaps we should refer to the first task, changing cultural norms, as “meta-innovation” or, playing on James Carse’s work, “infinite innovation.” Regardless, we need a way to distinguish innovation that plays with the rules of the game from the second task of developing new products or processes within a semi-bounded setting.
Second, culture is amorphous, rich in depth, and subject to multiple dynamic influences, not all of which are vulnerable to direct manipulation. To invoke another example of playfulness, Gareth Morgan’s suggestion to engage with metaphors, culture is like an elephant wading through a shallow river. Leaders may ride atop the beast, and even have a sense of authority as they attempt to steer the course. But the elephant ultimately has the most influence on where to go, including navigating all of the obstacles below the water surface that the rider cannot perceive.
So, given that innovation is difficult, those that take on the challenge accept a risk. There is a chance of failing to find the right ideas. Or, an aspiring “intrapreneur” may fail to even persuade the organization to prototype the ideas long enough to see if the changes are effective. Therefore, those who even attempt to innovate are, like Icarus, heroes. They have “skin in the game” and are willing to bear the risk so that others may gain from their efforts (either because their efforts increased performance or because they have demonstrated, through their failures, what did not work).
Playing the heroic character in this choose-your-own-adventure narrative, innovators follow a well-known path captured in stories shared throughout the human experience. It is so universal, it is known as the monomyth. According to the scholar who developed this idea, mythologist Joseph Campbell, the hero proceeds through three stages. First, there is a call to adventure. Having accepted the challenge, there are a series of trials. Transformed by the journey, the hero finally returns and faces a new obstacle: how to import her new-found knowledge to be a catalyst for the community that still sees the world through the old paradigm.
At each of the stages, a key factor is encouragement—in both meanings of the word. To “encourage,” can involve stimulation or support. The first is about ennobling the endeavor. The second is about equipping or educating the hero.
For all innovators, part of that education is understanding the symbiotic relationship between the metaphors of Daedalus and Icarus—and then boldly holding the “two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” For most of us, that requires a rebalance and hence “rescuing” the boy as an equal partner to his pragmatic counterpoint.
Thankfully, there was a time when this came natural to Airmen. Likewise, linking innovation to a worthy cause is something that is also part of their heritage. Arnold again offers a fitting example. He presented flight—“this new and thrilling game”—as the last frontier for adventure and romance. In giving career advice, he highlighted themes of awe, enhanced cognition, novelty, and perspective, claiming that air power professionals, of all types, are skilled at playing the innovation game. In fact, these special skills conferred special responsibilities. Becoming heroic innovators, being someone who “rescues Icarus,” is part of fulfilling that duty.
With Icarus and Daedalus viewed as creative partners, and not mutually exclusive ideals, Airmen can be technical, practical, and political as well as inspirational, creative, and playful. The former strengthens the latter just as the son inspired the father. No longer a syndrome to avoid, Icarus becomes a solution to embrace.
I hope this brief summary accomplishes three objectives. The first is to reintroduce an older concept—the value of play—into the latest discourse on creativity, adaptability, and design thinking—both within the USAF and out.
The second is to start the process of reclaiming “airmindedness.” The doctrinal term is overly narrow. Expertise in airpower operations is just one dimension of it. The Airman’s perspective is truly something deeper, more transformational, and open to all (not just flyers, operators… or even air force personnel).
The third is to generate constructive criticism, as I develop these ideas for students in Professional Military Education courses. I’m currently preparing a “TED Talk” style presentation for Squadron Officer School (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL). I hope to further develop this into practical workshops as well as more in-depth publication. Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment here, or connect with me on LinkedIn. Finally, please share this with other critical thinkers and use #RescueIcarus to highlight playful innovations.
Jason “TOGA” Trew, PhD, is a senior pilot and a graduate of the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). His doctoral dissertation, “‘No One Comes Close’: The Technological Paradigm of US Airmen” offers an original analysis of USAF culture through the History of Technology field.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University.