When Is Hubris a Good Thing?

Hubris examples abound in Greek tragedies and poems showing the downfall of prideful characters with failed ambitions.

Modern examples of hubris, however, suggest that we’ve taken the wrong lessons from the past.

Modern Examples of Hubris

We’ve been taught since an early age that hubris is wrong, that pride is sinful, and that flying too high leads to a fall.

What if I told you all these hubris examples were wrong?

What if I told you hubris is exactly what we need in today’s rapidly changing world?

What Is Hubris?

There is some dispute as to how the term “hubris” was used in the ancient past, but the hubris definition according to Greek tragedies is “the pride that comes before the fall.”

Hubris in this view is an affront to the gods. It places human judgment above the divine. Hubris is wrong because it upsets the natural order of things.

Today, the meaning of hubris has expanded to encompass any kind of arrogance or pride in general.

Examples of Hubris From Classical Literature

Characters in Greek plays who overstepped their bounds were punished severely for their hubris.

The example of hubris that jumps to mind here is Oedipus, the king who was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus unsuccessfully tried to thwart destiny by never returning to city he believed was his home, Corinth. It’s this bit of subterfuge that causes him to kill his biological father in a roadside argument and marry his mother, the queen of another city, neither of whom he recognizes.

Once he learns the truth, the prideful Oedipus stabs his eyes out in shame (the Greeks were hardcore).

The hubris example continues in Oedipus’s line. His sons, the products of incest, fought over the throne and killed one another. Antigone, his daughter, sought burial rites for the traitorous brother. Creon, Oedipus’s uncle and now king, refused and left the body to rot.

For his hubris and crime against the gods, Creon loses his son and wife.

The moral of both stories? The gods punish the proud and self-righteous.

However we feel about these characters’ actions, the lesson of hubris has stuck with Western society. “Pride comes before the fall” is a staple saying. We worry that our pride will get us in trouble.

But is modern life really comparable to ancient Greek society? Should we be worrying about what angry, vengeful gods will do if we step out of bounds?

Or is this all a shell game that the Herd plays to keep everyone in line?

Hubris Examples Reconsidered


In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin discusses the myth of Icarus.

Icarus is the son of genius artificer Daedalus, who’s trapped on Crete. Daedalus has fashioned a working set of wings(!) from feathers and wax.

He tells Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or too close to the sea, but to follow his path.

Icarus, understandably delighted with the marvel of non-rocket-propelled human flight, climbs higher and higher through the clouds. The heat of the sun eventually melts the wax, and Icarus falls to his death.

The story of Icarus is one of the most famous hubris examples in Greek myth.

Godin wants us to reconsider the myth. As he puts it, “the Icarus Deception” has led us to play it safe, obey authority, and not fly too high.

Godin reminds us of the other part of Daedalus’s warning: Don’t fly too low either.

The truth is the role of hubris has flipped in modern society. You aren’t a character in a Greek poem. We don’t need less hubris, we need more of it.

We need you to stand out of the crowd. We need your outsized ambition. We need you to topple the status quo when it isn’t working.

That requires hubris.

Disagreeableness and Hubris

Hubris is the enemy of this ruling class. Hubris means that you have the voice to challenge authority and the guts to stand up and speak out. It’s not surprising, then, that the only part of the Icarus story we’re left with is the warning about hubris.

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Of the Big Five personality traits, hubris is most closely aligned with Low Agreeableness or disagreeableness.

The world has plenty of humility already. People aiming below their standards, settling for the mediocre, and playing small. We don’t need more humility. We need more hubris.

As George Orwell says, “there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives.” These people stand out of the Herd. They aren’t impressed by authority figures and gatekeepers telling them to pay their dues or climb a ladder.

In short, they’re disagreeable people.

They will propel the human race forward with their uncompromising vision. And they will pull the rest of us with them kicking and screaming if they have to.

Modern Examples of Hubris: Steve Jobs and Richard Branson

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Steve Jobs, in a 1994 interview

The entire world you know is made up of big (and little) acts of hubris. From the architect who thought “why can’t we build it this way?” to the entrepreneur who thought the colossal, monolithic airline industry could be run differently.

Richard Branson was scheduled to be on a plane to the Virgin Islands. The flight—the last of the night—was cancelled due to maintenance. Unfazed, the twentysomething Branson chartered a private plane to the Virgin Islands.

The one catch? He didn’t have the money to pay for the private jet. Not yet, anyway.

Branson had success as a business owner before, but he was a virtual unknown. When he picked up a small blackboard and wrote “Virgin Airlines. $29.” he wasn’t the Richard Branson yet.

The scheme worked. Branson sold all the tickets, and the group landed in the Virgin Islands that night.

That frustration with the legacy airline experience convinced Branson that there was a better way and he formed Virgin Airlines.

Think about all the little (and big) acts of hubris that led to the formation of Virgin Airlines, starting with the bold act of chartering a plane with no money.

The world needs more Bransons. The world needs another Steve Jobs, the visionary leader behind the Mac computer, the iPod, and the iPhone.

Make no mistake, we are talking about hubris examples here. People who are convinced their vision is right. That powerful institutions and industries have gotten it wrong. That the public deserves better and is willing to pay for it.

If that’s not prideful arrogance, I don’t know what the hell is.

The key lies in the Steve Jobs quote above: These folks are no more gifted, intelligent, or lucky than you and I. They simply have a bias towards action and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

4 Takeaway Actions From Positive Hubris Examples

1. Stop aiming so low. Remember the second half of Daedalus’s warning to Icarus: There is also danger in flying too low. The danger is opportunity cost. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

2. Don’t be afraid to disagree. Corporate culture has made us all too sensitive to each other’s egos. Take a stand. The next time someone says something off-the-wall stupid at your next meeting, speak up. Stop worrying so damn much about “group harmony” and other B.S. Be respectful by all means, but remember that shrinking violets don’t change the world.

3. Identify a personal problem you could solve right away if money were not an issue. Recall Richard Branson stuck in the airport with no flight to the Virgin Islands. Instead of trying to create the next viral social media photo-sharing app or whatever, put your considerable brainpower into solving a pain point that you urgently feel now.

4. Figure out how to get the money. Here’s where pre-selling and a little bit of hubris go a long way. Kickstarter has become the de facto way to fund and pre-sell your idea to the public. But why not go directly to a professional or a business? When Dane Maxwell built a real estate app for real estate professionals, he went directly to a realty firm to foot the bill for software development, putting none of his own money at risk. Like the travelers stranded with Richard Branson, is there a group out there willing to pay for your solution?

What “hubristic” action will you take today?

Photo Credit: Iguana Jo via Compfight cc

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