As we evolve we are changing the world around us. Though history we can see the shifts from being wandering cave people to living in an air conditioned home and working 9-5.
The change has drastically reduced many of the immediate threats to our personal existence. Instead of being eaten by a hungry animal we are more likely to die of cancer or heart disease.
This shift means that many of the characteristics and patterns of thought that became wired into humans through evolution are not aligned with the current world.
For all of us nervous about giving a big speech at school or work we experience this misalignment first hand. Even though we know there is almost no real concern for us losing our life, we are filled with nervous energy that clouds our thinking.
This takes the place of the saber-tooth tiger about to pounce on us. This same emotional reaction helped us survive but now seems to hold us back from our true potential.
Part of the problem is the inability to see the big picture. Peter Senge says in his book The Fifth Discipline that, “If you wanted to design a cave person for survival, ability to contemplate the cosmos would not be a high-ranking design criterion. What is important is the ability to see the saber-tooth tiger over your left shoulder and react quickly.”
This all connects to how we think. We think in events. We think about what happened and then back up to ask why that happened. We think that gives us enough information to understand the world around us.
In man’s early years that was enough. We didn’t need to see the full food chain to know that the hungry tiger meant our demise if we didn’t act quickly.
But today our world is different. Those who are too locked into this event-based thinking are at a disadvantage. They may be making decisions that form patterns and hurt them over time instead of helping them.
Feel the fear associated with a close saber-tooth tiger and the response is to get away from the tiger and the fear as quickly as possible. Doing this means a higher chance of survival.
But avoiding an important speech at work or school is not likely to result in a positive outcome. It might reduce the fear and other negative emotions, but will also reduce our ability to learn and grow.
The very emotions that direct our behavior around threats now lead us astray. They constantly tell us to fight or flight. They reduce our ability to think and give us extra energy to act in a physical manner.
When we are faced with something that feels like that type of threat but requires additional thinking and less physical attention, we can feel those anxious feelings rise up but can’t get rid of them as easily as we want because we are wired to fight or flight and then the threat disappears. But in today’s world that isn’t the case.
Therefore we have to be able to think at higher levels than in the past. We can’t just take an event and make decisions. We have to go deeper to see multiple perspectives and spend our time working through the best approach.
Many times this ends up meaning the opposite reaction than what we would use if we relied on event thinking.
A temper-tantrum-throwing two year old causes a parent to yell and scream back, in effect throwing their own temper-tantrum. But instead if they remain calm and use discipline to calm the toddler down instead of fighting back, they can probably reduce the tantrum quicker.
Or we get news that our company is laying people off so we become so sick with anxiety that we start to act out towards our boss and avoid doing projects that we dislike. But this increases the chances you won’t be at the company long-term, it doesn’t improve your chances of continuing to work there. Instead of helping your career, you hurt it. But with the emotion present and clouded thinking, it can be difficult to think through your approach and not just react.
Evolution has enhanced certain characteristics to help us survive. But this also means that we might not be as prepared for change when it comes. The cure is to step back and use systems thinking to see a higher-level system and then contemplate our response, rather than act as quickly as possible.