In ancient Greek mythology, Achilles was the greatest warrior who ever lived, swift-footed and strong, he could slay his enemies with ease. According to the legends that were told around the campfires late at night, when he was a baby, his mother Thetis had heard a prophecy that foretold that her son was going to die young. In order to spare him of this fate, she went to the river Styx, which separated the Earth from the Underworld, and dipped his entire body into the water. The river had magic powers and could render anyone invulnerable.
However, as Thetis was dipping her son into the waters of that magical river, she was holding him on his heel. That spot was the only point on the body of the young Achilles that the water did not touch. The small boy grew up to become a strong man, the greatest fighter of his time, and took part in many battles. Wishing to win eternal glory for himself, he joined the expedition that the Greeks launched against the city of Troy, his great skills proving a great asset to the allied forces. His fame grew larger still when he slayed Hector, the son of the king of Troy and the Trojan’s main commander.
Seemingly invincible, he did have one weakness, and that was his heel, with that part of the body never being touched by the magic waters of the River Styx. Believing himself immortal, Achilles would sometimes launch himself heedlessly into adventures. Yet one day, all that came to pass. As he was scaling the gates of Troy, a poisoned arrow shot by Paris and guided by the invisible hands of god Apollo himself, pierced his heel, killing him on the spot. Thus ended the life of one of the greatest heroes of ancient Greek mythology.
Character flaws are a person’s Achilles’ heel
The term Achilles’s heel in modern language has come to signify the fatal flaw of a person who on the outside appears strong and powerful. It is this weakness, that can cause that person’s eventual downfall. Many a person was brought down from the heights of success by a hidden fault that they had. Often it is a character fault that makes them vulnerable to certain actions, and which certain triggers can unchain.
A person’s Achilles’ heel is that part of their character which is the weakest link in their personal chain. It is a deficiency that is often unacknowledged, or lies deeply hidden beyond a seemingly impenetrable body of outside armor, the person’s strengths. While that person might seem on top of things on first look, when this hidden deficiency is poked, it can make everything come crashing down.
When looking at movies, many of the main characters meet their downfall due to a huge character flaw. In “Back to the Future”, Marty McFly gets triggered by being called a “chicken”. He cannot walk away when someone suggests that he is too afraid to do a certain action, which often lands him in trouble, sometimes significantly derailing his life.
In the first seasons of “The Game of Thrones”, the main hero of the story is Eddard Stark, the head of the Stark family, the ancient rulers of the North. He is pictured as an honest, and honorable man, one who always keeps his word. The problem is that he is too trusting, believing that others will honor their words like he does. This fatal flaw costs him his life.
These fatal flaws are not only in the domain of fiction, but come up again and again in real life. Everyone has weak spots. This can be hubris, honesty, or even things like a tragic childhood which had created demons in your soul, that you cannot get past. These weaknesses can strike at any time, sometimes getting triggered by the most innocent looking situations.
History is full of tragic heroes brought down by their fatal flaws
In history, many powerful leaders were destroyed by their fatal flaws. Julius Caesar is remembered as being a great general and politician of the ancient Roman Republic, but his downfall came because of his faults. One of these was anger. In his work “On Anger”, Seneca described how Caesar would get angry from one instant to the next, and was often not able to control these outbursts:
“Gaius Caesar, who when angry with heaven because it interfered with his ballet-dancers, whom he imitated more carefully than he attended to them when they acted, and because it frightened his revels by its thunders, surely ill-directed, challenged Jove to fight, and that to the death, shouting the Homeric verse: — “Carry me off, or I will carry thee!”
How great was his madness! He must have believed either that he could not be hurt even by Jupiter himself, or that he could hurt even Jupiter itself. I imagine that this saying of his had no small weight in nerving the minds of the conspirators for their task: for it seemed to be the height of endurance to bear one who could not bear Jupiter.”
If you are not aware of these weak spots, and even more importantly, if you cannot control them, then you risk being a tragic hero brought down by their passions. The problem is that the way your brain functions, with its cognitive biases, can make you blind to these vulnerabilities.
How to overcome your fatal character flaws?
If you know that this is true, then what should you do in order to get rid of your fatal flaws or at least diminish their influence? The answer to this question once again comes from ancient times.
Over two thousand years ago, the temple of Apollo at Delphi was known far and wide for its oracle, which could allegedly predict the future. People from all walks of life would go there to see what would happen to them and what they should do.
As these people would enter the temple, they would pass around a series of maxims inscribed on the walls, giving them advice on how to live life. The foremost of these maxims was one that the great philosopher Socrates dedicated his life to: know thyself.
The only way you will know what your strengths and weaknesses are is if you spend some times studying yourself. This should start with a general study of the human condition, how your brain makes decision, how it falls for cognitive biases, and how these can affect a person’s behavior.
Then you should move onto your own person, and think about what types of values you hold dear, how you behave in certain situations, and what you need to improve. Based on this self-examination, you can then draft a vision for your life, determining what things you need to work on, as well as what potential pitfalls you should always be aware of.
Once again, you can turn to ancient tools to help you in this endeavor. The ancient Pythagoreans were a group who believed in the power of numbers, and engaged in many mystical practices. However, they also left us with some techniques which are quite beneficial, and were later adopted by other groups such as the Stoics.
One of these is a practice of daily self-examination. Early in the morning, they would plan out their day, thinking about what they wanted to achieve that day, and about the actions that they needed to do. The day would end with an evaluation of their actions, and whether they fulfilled their goal or not.
In order to help them with this, they would ask three questions:
“Where did I go wrong? What did I do? What duty is left undone?“
Benjamin Franklin, a great scientist and one of the founders of the United States, also adopted a similar practice in his daily routine. He kept a virtue journal, where he wrote down 13 different virtues (like temperance, industry, sincerity…etc.) that he wanted to practice and kept track of his progress each day.
What you need to keep in mind is that there will be a lot of challenges to overcome and you won’t always do it in a perfect way. You will falter on the journey, but the important thing is to be able to get up. Instead of failures getting you down, you need to re-frame your thinking, and think of them as learning opportunities. Every time you make a mistake, learn from it and use it to grow stronger.
My fatal flaw that has often undermined me on my personal journey through life
Everyone has an Achilles’s heel, which often prevents them from achieving fulfillment and throws logs under their feet in their journey through life. My fatal flaw is depression linked to being sad about things in the world that I cannot control.
For me, my dealings with other people often bring me down and I have trouble controlling my reactions to this. I am often disappointed with people, and with the fact that they don’t hold themselves to the higher standards that I hold myself to. However, this is something that everyone has had to face it. I remind myself of this by going back to this quote from Marcus Aurelius, ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.”
The ancient Stoics said that the event itself doesn’t matter, but it is your reaction to that event that matters. This advice is something that I always try to keep in mind. However, this is harder to implement in practice than thinking about in theory.
My coping strategy has been to try to live more closer to nature, going on strenuous hikes in the mountains, practicing martial arts, and generally learning about the world. My recent health problems have put a dent in that, but I have refocused a bit in order to compensate. Hopefully this way, I can keep my fatal flaw in check, and grow stronger on the way.
One thing that I have implemented is a daily self-examination, just like the ancient Pythagoreans and Stoics. Every day, after I wake up and brush my teeth, I try to reflect a bit on what I need to do that day. This helps me to put the challenges of that day in perspective and if I foresee some challenges to think of some mitigation strategies.
I have tried to make a habit out of it, although my struggles with depression sometimes end up derailing me. Last year, I was going strong, keeping up my routine, hitting my goals and then some.
This year I faltered, circumstances caught up with me. The fact that 2019 was especially hard in terms of health and people problems, made me put my eyes off the ball. I am struggling now to get back on track, but hopefully 2020 will get me there.
The ancients used to say that character is destiny, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I find that circumstances often push you in one way or the other, so luck has a big effect on your life. However, you can’t always blame things on outside factors. I am trying to keep in mind the ancient Stoic mantra to focus on what you can control and forget about the rest.
There are many thing that you can do to get around the circumstances that you find yourself in. One thing that keeps me grounded is keeping a blog, but also now sharing my thoughts on Medium. Putting your ideas on paper, well digital paper, has the amazing effect of helping you to think about things in a different way and to find connections where you didn’t see connections before.
Character does not have to be your destiny, but you need to work hard at it. Know your flaws, and don’t let them keep you down.
What is your Achilles’ heel, the fatal flaw that keeps you down? And more importantly, what do you plan to do about it?
This article was first featured on “The Ascent” publication on “Medium”.