Though his character only truly became a household name in the last decade thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark has stood as an iconic figure in the world of superheroes for more than 50 years.
One of the founding members of the Avengers has resonated with audiences largely because he encapsulates so much of what we all are and ultimately, hope to be. Amidst his many achievements, Tony transformed himself into a superhero overnight. And it wasn’t an accident — his development came as a result of personal hardship, a change in perspective, and the utilization of the gifts already at his disposal. Or, as Tony himself humbly points out in Iron Man 2: “Never has a greater Phoenix metaphor been personified in human history.”
While we all may not be able to relate to Tony’s dynamic mix of confidence, intelligence, and access to incredible technology, the character still provides an excellent guide on how to thrive while conducting yourself as fun and professional, both as a hero and a leader. Here’s nine of the most invincible lessons we’ve picked up from the “Man in a Can”.
1. Learn, Don’t Quit
Though he is aided by his world-renowned intellect and an array of futuristic tools (which can help break down his experiences in quantifiable ways to help him succeed in the future), Tony is, at his core, a scientist. And the core principle of his life’s work is experimentation. After a dangerous build-up of ice almost killed him during his inaugural test flight, he reconfigured the metals used in his suit to ensure he could survive high altitudes. Trial and error saved his life (and gave him an advantage in his battle with Iron Monger).
The best teacher in the world is failure. When you mess up, don’t think of it as wasted time or effort — think of it as sanding down the rough surfaces of your idea. It’s messy and frustrating, but nothing gets smoothed out on its own. Each mistake is another step towards the finish you’re hoping to reach.
Watch it in action: In Iron Man 2, Tony’s suits are repeatedly devastated when wrapped up by Whiplash’s electric whips. In The Avengers two years later, Tony gets hit by one of Thor’s lightning bolts and his suit simply absorbs the blast and immediately converts it into weaponized energy.
2. Know When to Defer and Listen
Even as an impossibly victorious and heroic “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist”, there are situations in which Tony is definitely not the most qualified person to make all the decisions. And despite the fact that he’s dealing with ageless super-soldiers and masters of the mystic arts, Tony’s willingness to listen to others is an invaluable skill from which we can all learn.
For example, despite never really having met or worked with him before The Avengers, Tony took Hawkeye’s advice when it came to effective aerial combat strategies in an urban environment and it paid off immediately.
It’s important to always consider the strengths of those around you, regardless of your confidence in yourself. Countless success stories feature moments in which the primary figure benefited from the input of someone unexpected. Because, as Bill Nye has famously pointed out, “everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don't.” Use everyone’s knowledge to achieve your goals and you’ll be much better off.
Watch it in action: In the climactic battle of The Avengers, Tony knows to defer to Captain America when it comes to taking command of the team’s response to the alien invasion and the team thrives because of it.
3. Channel Your Time and Energy Into Something Positive
As he recovered from the trauma of nearly dying in another galaxy in The Avengers, Tony regularly struggled to sleep. In response, he chose to build over 30 new suits of armor with a wide array of capabilities designed to handle everything from disaster relief to bomb disposal.
While sleep deprivation is obviously not healthy, the ability to transform the stress or anxiety of challenging times into productivity is an invaluable habit to develop—one which will help you get through those times and beyond. And though it may just be a distraction or a hobby in the present, this skill can actually prove to be (as Tony calls it) a cocoon to help you survive the difficult moments and, inevitably, grow.
Watch it in action: Essentially, any time Tony is in his workshop and/or laboratory for an extended period of time, you can see his “I’ll treat this crisis with sustained effort” methodology on display. The design of his first Iron Man suit, the forging of a new element, and (attempts at) creating a benevolent artificial intelligence network all came out of the simple truth that Tony doesn’t run away when things get difficult — he goes to work.
4. Do Your Homework
Homework is rarely fun, but it is crucial in the pursuit of everything from school to your career to battling a super-smart army of robots you may or may not have accidentally created in your workshop. As a man of science, Tony knows that attempting to solve an equation is particularly difficult if you haven’t read up on all the variables.
Whether it’s studying a client before a meeting at work or researching a location before embarking on a weeklong camping trip, establishing a familiarity with a subject is key if you want to understand and ultimately excel at dealing with that subject.
Watch it in action: As the Avengers try to figure out Loki’s plan and track down the mega powerful Tesseract, Tony already knows what their enemy is likely up to and specifically, where they’ll be going next. He figured this out by simply combing over the academic work of a kidnapped scientist. “Am I the only one who did the reading?”
5. You Can Have Fun and Still Accept Responsibility
Tony’s funny asides and sardonic tone make him seem exceedingly cynical and carefree, but the grown-up truth is that Iron Man actually was born out of responsibility. Shutting down his company’s double-dealing weapons manufacturing during a free-wheeling press conference while eating a drive-thru cheeseburger embodies the character’s dichotomy from the beginning. And his time as a superhero has only further amplified those two aspects of his personality.
We’re taught from a young age that being a responsible adult means you’re not allowed to have fun. But the truth is, these two things can very easily coexist — the key is simply having discipline and knowing where to draw the line. Everyone’s situation is different, but a good tip for navigating the two moods is to just remember that Tony Stark only made jokes about getting shawarma after the battle in New York was over. Work first, then quip.
Watch it in action: In between attending parties in India and eventually inviting him to become an Avenger, Tony maintains a very clear paternal role with young Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming by checking in on him, restricting his movements, and even taking away his suit.
6. Always Have a Contingency Plan
Captain America once admonished Tony for “always [having] a way out” but it’s actually very pragmatic to think outside the box and prepare for the possibility that conditions will change and a winning scenario may need to be engineered. And Tony embodies this mantra countless times, like when he calls in the Iron Legion to help in battle, or builds a quick-enter/exit function into his suits, and when he operates his suit remotely while saving dozens of lives aboard Air Force One. There’s nothing wrong with having a Plan B…and C, D, and E.
When faced with a problem, consider options beyond the traditional and obvious. Not only will this preparation help in the future (if your contingency becomes necessary) but thorough planning can also help ease feelings of fear and anxiety in the present by alleviating concerns that you may not be sufficiently prepared.
Watch it in action: The Hulk became a reliable ally for Tony and the rest of the Avengers, but Tony still constructed his special “Hulkbuster” armor and put it into orbit (complete with spare parts), available to deploy in the unlikely event that Hulk raged out of control. Naturally, this came to pass in Age of Ultron and Tony’s backup plan prevented a bad day from getting worse.
7. Don’t Hesitate (Especially in a Crisis)
A famous piece of advice for survival situations comes from mountain climber Joe Simpson in his book Touching the Void: “You gotta make decisions. You gotta keep making decisions, even if they’re wrong decisions. If you don’t make decisions, you’re stuffed.” Say what you want about him, but: Tony Stark makes decisions.
Your willingness to be decisive in a tense situation may not always guarantee a perfect ending, but the price of inaction is far higher. On top of that: if you’ve done your homework and have contingency plans in place (as suggested above), your decisions will be well-informed and likely, the best possible ones to make.
Watch it in action: At the end of the first Avengers film, a portal to space opens up right above Stark Tower and in an instant, a sea of alien ships starts pouring out and blasting away at New York City. Tony doesn’t wait for the rest of the team to show up, he doesn’t call on anyone or anyone else to help, he just flips a switch in his helmet and starts fighting an entire army.
8. You Have Value, No Matter What
It’s easy to write off Tony Stark as one of those superheroes who wouldn’t be able to contribute any heroics without their special technology and/or magic. But in both the comics and films, that’s never truly been the case with the person inside the Iron Man suit.
After his time as a prisoner in an Afghan cave, being isolated in Tennessee, and being presumed dead in outer space, Tony knows that his destiny is not dictated by his resources or the people around him. The common denominator of his repeated triumphs is him.
It’s not your stuff that gives you power, it’s you. You can lose your apartment, your relationship, or your car, but the reason you had those things in the first place is because of you. Don’t get caught up in changes of circumstances — as long as you’re still around, you have value.
Watch it in action: Iron Man 3 is a story about what makes Tony Stark super, separate from his fancy technology. One of the most famous examples of this is when he breaks into a heavily fortified terrorist compound using only improvised devices and weapons he assembled himself using ingredients from a hardware store.
9. Always Remember Your Long-term goal(s)
After glimpsing deep space and the Gods and aliens that went with it, Tony’s fixation on protecting Earth from a looming galactic threat which he deems “imminent” leads to the unfortunate creation of Ultron. But this near-paranoia also motivates his imagination and tinkering spirit to develop ideas that help save lives, later on.
It’s very easy to get complacent and/or overconfident after crossing finish lines (be they personal or professional) but there will inevitably be something else on the horizon which deserves your attention. This can apply to many aspects of your life; perhaps it’s most familiar when it comes to health and fitness. Anyone who’s trained for a marathon or is working towards a weightlifting goal knows that the process never truly ends — achievements only lead to new and greater goals.
Watch it in action: Though it doesn’t end in total victory, Tony’s only able to stand toe-to-toe with the impossibly powerful Thanos in Infinity War because of his new nanotech-based armor. And that armor only exists due to Tony’s constant innovation and iteration over the prior 6 years, during which he was constantly worried about an eventual showdown with a foe he couldn’t match.
The next time you’re trading blows with a trickster God or just trying to beat out Kevin for that promotion, try thinking like Tony. Suit up and bring the party to them.