6 Lessons I’ve Learned from Tony Stark (aka Iron Man)

Iron Man Amigurumi

One of the first posts I wrote after launching Simply Unbound was 6 Lessons I’ve Learned From Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds. When I look back at my early posts now, I’d say that was the first one that I actually felt proud to have written, and to this day it still receives the occasional compliment from Firefly fans.

So, as they say, one good turn deserves another.

With the box office debut of a certain new Marvel Studios release approaching, it’s the perfect time to once again dive into a world of fantasy for a character analysis. This time we’ll look at Tony Stark — genius, billionaire playboy, and owner of Stark Industries.

You may know him better as Iron Man.

Here’s what Iron Man Tony Stark has to teach us.

1. Technology is great, but know how to survive without it

Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!

Early in Iron Man, Tony Stark finds himself stuck in a cave, surrounded by terrorists, and tasked with making his escape using only the limited technology at hand. Despite the unfamiliar environment and the lack of proper tools, he manages to design the first Iron Man suit and blast his way to freedom.

Did I mention that’s after he designs a miniature arc reactor to keep pieces of shrapnel from burrowing into his heart?

Although Tony Stark has basement full of gadgets at his disposal, he’s also perfectly capable of surviving without those tools.

Real Life Application:

I don’t expect you’ll be trapped in a cave with a pile of old Soviet tools anytime soon. That said, there are still practical applications for this idea.

For example, my mom,  math teacher extraordinaire, always made sure her students knew how to perform basic arithmetic operations without calculators. It wasn’t because she didn’t like calculators — rather, it was to make sure that her students truly understood the problems they were solving.

It’s fine if you use gadgets to perform your trade, but you should also know how to function without them. If your smartphone, computer, and GPS disappeared tomorrow, would you be prepared?

2. You can do what people expect you to do, or you can do what’s right

I shouldn’t be alive … unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.

Prior to receiving his life-threatening shrapnel wound, Tony Stark spends most of his life as a drunken, bamboozling, womanizing sleazeball.

When he returns to the “real world”  after his near-death experience, everyone expects him to go back to his old ways. They expect him to go back to drinking, partying, and building weapons, because that’s what Tony Stark does.

But what if that’s no longer what Mr. Stark wants to do?

Instead, he spurns everyone’s expectations and declares he’s shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries. Then he tones down the drinking and tries to recreate himself as a new man.

At first, this makes people uncomfortable, but Tony Stark does it anyway. Wouldn’t you say he’s better for it?

Iron Man Helping HandReal Life Application:

How often do you do what’s right for you?

Not what your friends, your parents, your significant other, or society expect you to do, but what’s truly right for you.

For many of us the answers is, “Not as often as I’d like.”

Now, here’s the thing: I believe that to do right by others, you have to do right by yourself first.

This means staying healthy, fostering strong relationships, and following your heart. (Note that if you think “following your heart” means buying a big house and a luxury car, you probably have a little more soul searching to do. There’s nothing wrong with shiny things, but they should be a byproduct of success, not goals in and of themselves.)

By pursuing these “selfish” goals, you’ll be happier and more productive, and you’ll be able to do more good for others because of it.

3. Sometimes you gotta fly high

Jarvis: Sir, it appears his suit can fly.
Iron Man: Duly noted. Take me to maximum altitude.
Jarvis: With only 19% power, the odds of reaching that altitude…
Iron Man: I know the math! Do it!

Iron Man likes to push himself to the limit.

In the first movie, he soars so high into the stratosphere that his suit ices over and he comes crashing back to earth. In The Avengers, he rockets himself into another universe in order to dispose of a nuclear missile.

In both of these cases he’s putting himself in an unknown, potentially dangerous situation.

And in both cases he survives, no worse for wear.

Real Life Application:

Do you know what your limits are? How high can you fly before you can’t climb any higher?

If you don’t know, perhaps it’s time you find out.

Sounds risky, you say?

We tend to spend too much time looking the risks involved in any individual action. We also tend ignore that by never pushing ourselves, we risk entering elderhood carrying a heart heavy with regret.

If you find yourself consistently avoiding risks, remember that avoiding challenge and adversity comes with its own risks.

Iron Man and Wall-E

4. Heavy machinery and alcohol don’t mix

Pepper Potts: You’re out of control, okay?
Iron Man: [intoxicated] I’m not out of control.
Pepper Potts: Trust me on this, one.
Iron Man: You’re out of control gorgeous.

In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark throws himself a wild birthday party, donning the Iron Man suit and drinking as though there’s no tomorrow.

What starts off as bad becomes even worse when he starts firing repulsor blasts at wine bottles in midair.

Needless to say, this isn’t the smartest move on the part of Mr. Stark, and he’s lucky that he has James Rhodes (aka War Machine) on hand to stop the madness.

Real Life Application:

This one is obvious.

Don’t drink and drive, or drink and do whatever else can harm you and those around you.

(Unless your name is Denzel Washington, in which case when you drink you gain the ability to land airplanes upside down.)

But seriously, be smart when you drink alcohol, if you choose to drink at all.

5. Don’t insulate yourself from the outside world

I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability … I had my eyes opened.

Despite his genius (0r perhaps as a side-effect of it), Tony Stark also has a tendency to become very single-minded in his pursuits. At times, he secludes himself in his underground workshop for days as he focuses on developing the next big thing.

Thanks to this trait, Tony Stark has accomplished many things. However, there are drawbacks as well:

  • He doesn’t realize that terrorists are using his weapons — until those terrorists capture him.
  • He’s unaware that his partner Obadiah Stane is stabbing him in the back until Stane tells him directly.
  • He almost dies of palladium poisoning while fruitlessly looking for a suitable replacement on his own.

Needless to say, it would do Mr. Stark some good to keep a closer on what’s happening in the outside world.

Iron Man suiting upReal Life Application:

Most of us aren’t holing up in our basements and developing powered exoskeletons, but we can still take something away from this.

In short: Don’t get so caught up in the details of what you’re doing that you forget about the big picture, e.g., It doesn’t make sense to work 60-hour weeks to bring home a six-figure salary if you have no time to spend that money and your wife is cheating on you with the UPS delivery man because you’re never home.

(What a mouthful!)

6. Remember who your people are

Pepper Potts: What’s your social security number?
Tony Stark: [pauses] … Five.
Pepper Potts: [smiling] “Five?” You’re missing just a couple of digits.
Tony Stark: Right, the other eight. Well, I have you for the other eight.

In the Iron Man movies, it’s never made clear how long Pepper Potts has been Tony Stark’s personal secretary. However, they’ve obviously been working together for a number of years and Miss Potts is the closest confidant Mr. Stark has.

Despite that, at the outset of the first movie we see that Tony doesn’t even bother to remember when her birthday is.

Yet as his character develops, he sees the error of his ways and begins to appreciate the people around him more — both the people he’s already close to and the new acquaintances that enter his life.

Real Life Application:

It’s hard. Appreciating the people you work with, live with, and spend time with is hard.

Giving meaningful gifts, trying to make others smile, staying in touch with friends … these things can be difficult.

I speak from experience. I’m fairly terrible at all of the above (see #5 here).

But you know what? Whenever I reach out and really go the extra mile to show that I appreciate someone, I feel good and they feel good as well.

It’s not always easy or convenient to do this, and sometimes it’s downright awkward to acknowledge that you appreciate those around you.

But when you do, everyone wins.

Photos: nsdragons — JD Hancock — V&A Steamworks

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.