Have you heard the story of Ulysses & the Sirens?
It is a well-known tale from Greek mythology. Yet, there is a pivotal piece of the story that most depictions of the tale miss.
One of the most famous books in Homer's Odyssey is the story of Ulysses & The Sirens.
Upon his return home from the Trojan war, Ulysses (known also as Odysseus) encounters the Sirens- Beautiful creatures of the sea, whose singing bewitches sailors and lures them to their deaths.
Ulysses, curious, but aware of the deadly nature of the Siren's hypnotising voices, instructs his men to plug their ears with beeswax and to tie him to the ship's mast.
He then orders them to, under no circumstances, follow his command while passing the Siren's rocky islands.
As anticipated, upon approaching the Siren's islands, Ulysses becomes enchanted by the deadly sea creatures' singing. He commands (and then begs and cries) that his men untie him.
With their ears full of beeswax, the Ulysses' crew members see the Sirens for exactly what they are - deadly monsters.
With this clear view of the Sirens and Ulysess' original orders in mind, they ignore the desperate cries of their captain, rowing the boat to safety.
This story of Ulysses is often used to demonstrate the limitations of willpower, and why making smart adjustments to one's physical and social environment can be an effective approach in resolving self-control challenges.
Ulysses is depicted as this independent and thoughtful choice architect who, being self-aware of his willpower limits, anticipates an approaching self-control failure, and sets up his environment to prevent such a failure from occurring.
Unfortunately, that isn't quite right...
Reading Homer's tale more closely reveals an important piece of the story, that the above-mentioned and commonly told depiction doesn't capture:
Ulysses did not anticipate the Sirens encounter. Nor did he think to plug his men's ears with beeswax or tie himself to the mast.
According to Homer's story, it was the Greek Goddess, Circe, who warned Ulysses of the Sirens and suggested that if he wanted to listen, he would need to order his crew to plug their ears and bind him to the mast.
Circe even provides Ulysses with beeswax to plug his men's ears.
"First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.
There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece halfway up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray for the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster."
Not only is the inclusion of Circe's role a more accurate representation of Ulysses and his encounter with the Sirens. I think it is also a better model to have in mind when trying to resolve our self-control challenges.
In this tale, Circe represents a supportive ally.
A supportive ally is someone who has our best interests at heart. Someone who can help us see ourselves, our blind spots and any approaching tripwires we've missed.
It is also someone who can help us think through ways to prevent failures and implement those changes properly.
Life can be complex and hard.
A supportive ally or group of allies, that can take on the role of Circe, is one of the best things you can have with you when architecting your physical and social context, to meet your goals.
This doesn't relieve you of any responsibility. Ulysses still had to give his men the beeswax and command them to bind him to the mask.
You still need to execute. Allies just improve the chances that you see the challenge clearly and plan properly.
This is what I am building with Circles in Time.
A community of allies from around the world, who can support one another in setting goals and resolving the self-control challenges that all of us face on a daily basis.
Each of us playing the role of both Circe and Ulysses, simultaneously.
If you're interested, my next programme starts on the 18th of March.
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