Notes on Visionaries, Icarus, and Conor McGregor

An installation of the “Notes” series. Formalisms in technology, business, and philosophy

Recently, I watched a movie about Steve Jobs and got to thinking about visionaries and what makes one. The Fassbender rendition gives him a portrayal that outlines him as a socially indecorous outlier — borderline psychopath. Personally, I find this account the most plausible, which explains why I enjoyed it so much. His masochistic attention to detail, emotional detachment, and generally radical behaviors are not at all surprising. To be honest, I would be more shocked if he wasn’t this way.

While I don’t necessarily believe this sentiment to be generally applicable, it seems to be a common thread among visionaries. Jobs was a visionary because he succeeded in building Apple into the most important hardware company in modern history (on his second attempt). Had he failed, Jobs would have been buried in the history books with all of the other flopped tech startup CEOs. The defining difference between Steve Jobs and other tech failures is that his vision of the future came true, partially because he could see it clearer than anyone else, and entirely because he shaped it.

Many people claim that “visionaries like Steve Jobs/Musk/Bezos get too much credit”. Jobs is notorious for having placed his names on many of Apple’s patents during his tenure(s), despite not contributing to the technical content. Additionally, it is not as if Jobs woke up one day with a vision to build the iPhone, Apple’s defining work, and set his best teams on the job. The reason Jobs can be accurately described as a visionary is because he created a culture, brand, and strategy the would enable and empower the organization to tactically deliver the vision. He created a tech cult.

Jobs inspired a cult-like movement around the world and in the Apple offices. The ideology was to progress humanity by democratizing technology. These people that believed technology was the ultimate and purest form of progress and they pursued it relentlessly. Our progress to a mobile-first world is a result of the conviction of Jobs, among many others, refusing to accept any other alternative than the future he saw. A vision is a belief that inspires relentless execution to transmute the belief into reality. A visionary sees the future with such great conviction that their visions shape reality. With or without Steve Jobs we would have experienced the mobile revolution, but his vision fundamentally shaped our current reality in a way that mobile devices would likely have converged differently without him.

Departing from the discussion of Steve Jobs, as his personal and professional legacy are not the purpose of this piece, let’s consider how the story of Icarus fits into discussion of visionaries. The legend/myth/whatever of Icarus is widely popularized to give a lesson to “not fly too close to the sun, else you crash”. It is a valuable life lesson on arrogance, overstepping boundaries, greed, among many others things. However, I’d like to reference professional UFC fighter Conor McGregor as an Icarus in his own right to further drive home a point.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the role arrogance, ego, and self-confidence play in general life performance. He was arguing that there is a possible balance where one can be radically confident and humble simultaneously. He cited McGregor as an example of this duality. During his meteoric rise, his boastful and arrogant displays were frequent, but this seemingly unbridled self-confidence was not unwarranted as he continued to crush opponents match after match. Eventually, he was defeated by Nate Diaz and a switch flipped. The arrogance was replaced with a commensurably significant display of humility. McGregor was quoted saying that Diaz had bested him and was the better man. This came as a shock to many people, who thought he would not be able to let go of the arrogance he had carried for the past few years. My friend argued this was actually simple, McGregor had truly believed he was the best fighter in the world and he had no evidence to suggest he should be defeated given his skills, as well as the training and hard work he had put in. When the information changed to suggest otherwise, he took on a radically humble perspective and sought to change the facts and shape his own reality to fit his vision of the future. Five months later, Diaz and McGregor fought a rematch and McGregor emerged as the victor.

Icarus, McGregor, and Jobs are similar in the regard that they flew too close to the sun. Thankfully, a less than perfect understanding of the future is not often fatal in the world of technology and sports. McGregor and Jobs both crashed and burned, but used the experience of failure to inform and hone their visions in a way Icarus did not have the leisure to. Would he have flown too close to the sun again?

A visionary works to shape current reality to fit their understanding of the future. This requires almost absolutely radical, yet informed, confidence.

My understanding of the future is more accurate and profound than yours, it is mine that world wants and I will take the necessary steps to make it so.

When these visions fall flat, a true visionary is defined by absolute humility and the steps they take to refine their vision and execution. While this may seem an overly complex way of stating the obvious, I hope that an attempt at more rigorous formalism of the term visionary would help remove illogical points of contention in discussions about past and present leaders in technology and business.

Wiley Jones