Be Careful, Your Instincts Are Lying to You
"Planning without action is futile, action without planning is fatal" - Japanese Proverb
I spend a lot of time thinking about how things work, how people think and what motivates them. A big mystery that has been on my mind for years is why some achieve success and others do not. Sure many are born with better genes or better environmental situations but you can point to so many successes and failures from both sides of the fence, or tracks if you will. So these traits and factors do not explain all the reasons for success; they only increase or decrease your chances.
Back in college I dated several girls that lived in small Wisconsin towns. Each time I would visit these towns and hang out (mostly in bar settings) I was always struck by the high level of intelligence of some of those individuals. Most of them worked factory jobs, led a good life but didn't have any ambition beyond those jobs. I knew many of these folks were smarter than me and concluded from these experiences that pure intelligence alone does not guarantee a high level of financial or career success. Alternatively, during my 20 years as a "professional", I've met a lot of people that I would deem successful but clearly lacked genetic intelligence, or didn't have the type of mind power you'd normally associate with success. From this experience I concluded that having innate genetic intelligence isn't a requirement for success.
I've read a lot of books that break down human motivation, success methodology, and the various ways people have achieved success. I believe there are many recipes for success (see my article Freelancing Ain't So Free) but all of them miss a very important aspect of how to be successful. Many of the great thinkers I've read, like Steven Covey, Merlin Mann, Michael Gerber, Jim Collins and even Oprah Winfrey all talk about living a proactive conscious or mindful life. Hands down, this is the key to being successful but what should we be conscious of? Mindfulness and proactively don’t just happen with most people, why is this? Why do some people "just do it", and others "just do not"? There must be a barrier holding many of us Homo sapiens back.
Whatever type of success you're trying to achieve, I've got some news for you. If you are being honest with yourself, you probably know how to achieve it, or at least know how to move towards that goal but you just aren't. Here's the thing: it's not your fault, it's your instincts. They are lying to you. I've found that most successful people share one basic thing in common: they are hyper-aware or conscious of things they do, why they do them, and what type of behavior leads to the best results. Many don't break it down to an awareness of instincts but that is much of what they've figured out, they know how to circumvent or trump them.
in stinct (nstngkt): a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason
Don't get me wrong, our instincts are important, they keep us alive but they are mostly concerned with the short term. Besides our opposable thumbs, our sense of reason, logic and intellect are what set us apart from our animal friends. Our instincts are the most powerful driver of our behavior and most often trump our intellect or ability to rationally make decisions. If you've never read Predictably Irrational, you should, it's shocking how we make decisions, much of it on a unconscious or subconscious level. Most people don't realize that instincts are ruling their behavior, but if you learn to overrule those pesky instincts, I promise you'll increase your chance for success.
Animals live by instincts alone
Of course animals live by instincts alone; all their decisions are driven purely by survival instincts. Take the squirrel, they play part of the day but most of their time is spent finding and hiding food, making a home, and watching for predators. Most of their lives are spent preparing for the future, like a cold winter. Now take lions, they are incredible animals, which work together well, protect their young and pride members but are incredibly lazy. They will kill and eat an entire wildebeest, then sleep for two days. The only thing that gets them up is hunger, which requires that they hunt again. They spend almost no time preparing for the future; they kill and eat everything when it's available.
Our instincts are screwing us
Humans on the other hand have logic and reason that help mediate between our instincts and behavior. But we are much more like lions, than squirrels. We are designed to stay alive each day, not each year or each decade. If you start paying attention you'll find that many of the decisions your mind and body make are mostly based on the moment or the day. But when it comes to our long-term well-being, our instincts just don't have our best interests in mind. Let me use three examples to demonstrate my point, three things that most of us want to elevate in our lives and be better: our careers or financial success, saving money and being fit and healthy. In all three examples, our instincts are screwing us.
But there is hope. It starts with an awareness of why we make certain decisions. If you do what your mind tells you to do every day at work, you'll limit your opportunity to advance. If your spending habits are solely based on how you "feel" or what you want, there is a good chance you're in debt or don't have much savings. If you eat only to satisfy your taste buds or body’s immediate needs, there's a good chance you're not maximizing your fitness or health potential.
I go back to my theory that a majority of people knows how to be successful in these three areas but don't act on that knowledge. When you live unconsciously you allow your instincts to rule, which means it doesn't matter that you know how to achieve success, the only way to defeat our instincts is to be aware of them and create systems to thwart them. It's a war and, if you have a plan, you can win. I'm not going to go into depth in this article on the systems I use to achieve success in all three areas. I plan on covering those subjects in the future in more depth. My goal in this article is to introduce, educate and convince you of the destructive role our instincts play in our modern day lives.
Financial or Career Success
I'm curious, is this something you already know? Let's say you want to be promoted two positions higher than your current position. Most companies want to find good people to promote and are always looking for those people. Let's give you four years to get two promotions at work. I can nearly guarantee you'd get promoted if you do the following: increase your education in your respective field by taking night classes, seminars, or reading. This could include an MBA, technical certificates, or general knowledge that leads to making great decisions or innovating in very creative ways. Next, I would spend more time with your superiors; offer to take them to coffee or lunch. During those conversations take a higher-level interest in the job, ask what else can be done or if there is anything extra you can do around the department. Lastly, I would increase your positive interaction with your peers; double your efforts to be congenial, supportive and helpful. Individuals that are liked and supported by their peers are more likely to be promoted. All sound reasonable, doable, and pretty basic right?
But your instincts aren't telling you to do these things. They would have you disregard the future, and only do what seems important in the moment or day. If you arrive to work each day, and jump into the pile you left from the day before, answer emails, attend meetings, socialize without regard for what is most important or follow a plan for the highest level of success, you're instincts are winning and limiting your chance at success. If you follow a plan created by your logical mind and use it to trump moment-driven instinctual decisions, you'll increase your chance at career success dramatically. The best book you'll ever read on this subject is, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Saving Money & being Healthy and Fit.
Two more examples that really tell the story are being more healthy or physically fit and saving money for the future. Both perennially end up on most peoples’ New Year resolutions to do better. Again, accomplishing both of these should be pretty easy. We know how to do both well, they are both simple math equations. We know we should eat better, get more exercise and spend less than we make. Seriously, it's really a simple equation but why are they so difficult and how do our instincts influence these decisions?
Other than large and unlikely financial windfalls, the only way to save or accumulate real wealth is to save money each month over a period of time. This requires we don't spend as much as we make. But, when it comes to these decisions each day we buy stuff because we want it, we eat out because we're hungry, we get the new car or go on the expensive vacation because we feel we need or deserve it. All of these decisions can be traced to our instincts, which only care about the moment. The only way to win against them is to have a logical plan that overrules our short term wants. Those that are able to do this get rich and rule the world. The logical mind, or the squirrel lobe, understands that having some money saved for emergencies and for retiring one day is a good thing. But those who make day-to-day or in the moment decisions on money, don't save. Score one, instincts. I encourage you to read, Rich Dad, Poor Dad on the subject, you'll never think about money the same way again.
To be physically fit and healthy, we need to eat more vegetables, exercise regularly and reduce the amount of bad food we eat. But you know this; in my experience 9 out of 10 people you ask know this. I've spent years studying how digestion works, I find it interesting, but mainly I was interested in hacking the system and finding the easiest way to maintain my health and the health of my family. When discussing instincts, there is no greater way they influence our behavior than eating. Each day our instincts are on high alert to ensure we get enough food to survive. Unfortunately they don't have our long-term health's best interest in mind. They are designed to keep us alive each day, or really each three days because that is how long we can survive without food.
Instincts have two main influences towards eating: the type of food we eat and how much we eat. Our instincts want the most sugary foods, which are the most immediate form of energy. This is why we crave them so much. And our instincts are trained to eat as much as possible because our bodies worry about where the next meal comes from. Imagine a group of lions fighting over a carcass trying to eat as much as they can. These two forces combine to make us extremely fat as a society; we eat sugar foods often, and eat as much as we can.
Back to digestion, I'll give you a crash course on how it works. We eat food, which is broken down into small parts to be consumed by various parts of the body; the parts are vitamins and minerals, proteins or amino acids and sugars. Our bodies need all this stuff to survive and maintain optimal health. If we just eat a variety of whole food, and not too much of it, we'd all be healthy. But if you haven't noticed, our bodies crave sugar, breads, and pasta type foods the most. The best things we can eat are dark green veggies, bright colored fruits, thick grainy stuff, and grass fed meats. I don't know about you, but I don't wake up craving this stuff. Here's the deal: because our instincts are just trying to keep us alive in the moment and they know sugar is the fastest way to get energy into the body, that is what they tell you to eat. And not a little bit, but as much as you can shove down your pie hole. And as a matter of fact, if you didn't know it, breads, white potatoes, pasta and anything else made with flour are also sugar. The body converts them into sugar so quickly, that minutes after you eat them your blood is flushed with glucose, so, practically speaking the body thinks of them as sugar.
Making good choices about what you eat every day starts with understanding that you can't trust your instincts, then figure out what type of foods are better for you. If you do a little research about how digestion works, what foods digest slowly, what our brain, organs and muscles really need each day, you'll know what you should eat. Maintaining optimal health is not hard, it's more about what you eat, not how much you eat. It's about using your logical brain, or your squirrel lobe, making a plan and using it to trump your instincts. My favorite source of information is mercola.com and here is an overview of how digestion works (Mercola.com)
Making good food choices isn't easy at first, but you'll find two things. First, it's worth it. You'll have more energy, more endurance, your brain will work better, and you'll look better. And, second, you’ll find many of the foods you should be eating but are not very fond of are better than you think and extremely satisfying.
I've always felt everyone can have anything they want in life, and it only takes two things to achieve it all: a plan and time and we all have one of them. We all have time but many don't have a plan. I've learned that, with a plan, you can achieve an audacious amount of anything you want. Our instincts are a gift, but much of what they do is outdated. à This sentence is a bit obscure – maybe take out the last 100 years? Since the industrial revolution, with the abundance of food and the prosperity the world has experienced over the last 100 years, our instincts are much less useful for every day, month and year decisions. The next time you get really hungry, think about what your body wants to eat, I'll guarantee it's not a good thing. Being succesful in all three areas is doable and it only takes a little research, a little planning and an awareness of your instinct's dark side.