Guest Post: Overcoming Our Animal Nature

“Everyone,” as Mike Tyson famously said, “has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s a good quote, but I think it vastly overestimates the majority of the human race. In my experience, most people don’t have a plan. In fact, punch in the mouth or not, most of us don’t even have a consistent direction. No, I’m afraid, the truth is that most of us are winging it all the time.

Planning is a uniquely human skill set and the ability reliably do so was so important to our ancestors that they devoted an immense amount of labor constructing sites like Stonehenge in order to predict the best days for planting or harvesting crops. Their efforts helped humanity to achieve dominance over nature and while it can be argued that animals like wolves can cooperate to spring cunning traps, that certain birds and chimpanzees can make and use primitive tools, and that beavers can work to shape the natural environment, no other animal can plan for the future with the thoroughness of mankind. Why then, do so few of us do it?

Part of it has to do with our brain structure and the way that we have been programmed to survive over many millennia of evolution. Animals, we know, are primarily driven by instinct and use their brains to focus entirely on the present. They go through life encountering various obstacles and overcoming them as they emerge. Given the huge variety of life on Earth, that seems a valid survival strategy. The human animal, too, is hardwired by nature to do exactly the same. We live our lives and await whatever is thrown at us. When it finally arrives, we rise to the challenge and tackle the problem. Once victory has been achieved, we go right back to guard-position and wait for the next challenge. It’s a wonderful skill and without it, it is highly likely that our species would have gone the way of the Dodo long before our kind actually ended that particular bird.

But our ability to plan for the future is an order of magnitude greater than our ability to simply survive. The problem is, however, that it is not hardwired into our brains. It requires a learned, cognitive process to be fully employed. Add to that the fact that the process is not generally taught in schools, at least not to my knowledge, or if it is perhaps it comes at a time when it might not be directly usable and, therefore, atrophies for lack of use. The ultimate result is, I think, is that the bulk of humanity ends up living by their wits while planning gets pushed to those who have both the time and the necessity to learn it.

The process, it turns out, is not especially complicated but it does, as I indicated above, involve a cognitive process. It begins with framing the problem in a way that is nothing more than understanding the way things are – “the current state” – in relation to the way that you want them to be – “the end state.” From there, you look for the obstacles that are impeding progress towards your desired end state – perhaps it is a regiment of German soldiers or perhaps simply poor spending habits – and consider the various ways is which you might overcome those obstacles. Let’s call those your “lines of effort.”

There are often several lines of effort to achieving your goals. Say that your goal is ”a million dollars.” Lines of effort for that might include a high-paying job, savings, investments, spending habits, etc., but the main idea of the planning exercise is for you to list out the many paths that lead where you want to go. Inside each line of effort are different steps or objectives. Your “job” line of effort, for example, may include a series of steps through which you educate yourself and then build the contacts and experience required to get the job that you believe will help you to reach your end state. Tie your lines of effort in with one another, your good job combined with good spending, savings, and investment habits, to build a solid approach to achieving your goal. Keep it realistic! Using the lottery, for example, as the primary line of effort to get your million dollars probably isn’t going to work so don’t even go there.

It sounds easy, right? Conceptually it is, but it’s important to understand that planning cannot predict every outcome and that your plan, no matter how thorough, may not always proceed in the exact way that you envisioned. Fortunately, we still have our lizard brains to guide us through those times when unexpected challenges arise, but the trick is not to give fully into the automatic cycle of action-reaction that the obstacles we face often trigger. As you struggle, you need to keep your eye on the ultimate goal and work to get your plan back on track. Once things are stable, adjust your lines of effort and turn once again to achieving your end state. Don’t give up in disgust. Perseverance and the willingness to pick up and start over every time your plan is smashed into smithereens is a necessity.

For some of you, the information that I am providing in this short, thousand word essay will be old news. You will decry my methods and claim that they are overly simplistic. Perhaps they are, but that’s OK. For each and every one of you, there is someone who has never received this advice and who has wondered with great frustration as to why they aren’t getting where they want to be in life when they are so good at solving problems and overcoming obstacles. Five years ago that person was me. And while I can’t claim that I have suddenly found the key to amazing success, I can tell you that, for the first time in my life, I can actually see where the road I am traversing actually leads. There’s no reason why others shouldn’t get the same view.

29 Replies to “Guest Post: Overcoming Our Animal Nature”

  1. Scout_Number_4

    Thought provoking piece, Thomas. Can’t decide if I’m more of a long-term thinker/planner or lizard brain.

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      That’s indicative of a lizard brain. Planners know what they are doing because they have to force themselves through the process.

      I know, I lived for almost 50 years on the strength of my lizard brain’s abilities and did pretty well. But had no real idea what I was doing until the veil was lifted. Once I understood, my first thought was, “Goddammit, where would I be if I had known this 40 years ago?”

      Reply
  2. stingray65

    If your favorite games involve strategy and planning (e.g. Chess, Civilization, Sim City, etc.) you are a planner, if you prefer first person shooter games or games of pure luck (e.g. slot machines) you are a lizard. Planning requires some reserve cognitive capacity, which is a problem for the large portion of the population that have chaotic lives and/or low intelligence. You can see who the person is and their cognitive capabilities by how they react to setbacks in life. Very intelligent people with lots of reserve brain power can have everything taken away from them, and yet within a short time they typically implement a plan that brings them back up (e.g. see the histories of many famous entrepreneurs who have typically failed many times before hitting it big), while those lacking in capacity will panic and make bad decisions even for “good events” such as winning the lottery (i.e. they lose their millions and are broke within a few years).

    The inability to plan for the future is the primary reason that the poor stay poor, and unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest there is anything effective that can fully solve this problem. Something like a Universal Basic Income would kill a lot of poor planning people because it would create chaos in their lives as they blow their monthly (or weekly) check on booze, weed, lottery tickets, $200 sneakers, etc. within hours/days and then have nothing until the next check, which is why a lot of welfare programs place big limitations on how benefits can be used (i.e. food stamps can only be spent on food, housing vouchers can only be spent on housing). A job is probably the best method of helping a lot these people, because the money they receive is directly linked to showing up on time and doing assigned work, which in time can build basic planning abilities by reducing chaos through having a predictable schedule. Yet even a simple “starter” job typically requires a basic amount of intelligence and someone to enforce discipline (i.e. parent, spouse, social worker, caring boss, etc.) until the planning habit develops. This is why minimum wage laws are so destructive, because they price out of a job a lot of non-planning (low productivity) people, who are expensive to employ because they don’t show up on time (at least initially), require lots of supervision, and are slow to learn new tasks. Thus a check without a job means poor planners never develop even basic life skills.

    Reply
    • silentsod

      I have to disagree with your comments of FPS games. If you look at something like CS, R6: Siege, Natural Selection, and even Arena shooters like Quake 3 there are clearly overarching strategy and tactics in place as well as adjustments that have to be made in the case of set backs. The all time great Quake players (Cypher, for instance) aren’t great because of their aim, they’re great because of their ability to plan, predict, and execute as well as making those changes mid-game to adapt to their opponents.

      Turn based strategy or simulation games can be just as thoughtless as an FPS if that’s how the player chooses to approach it. It’s the player, not the game (I play all kinds, even adventure games which is a terrible genre).

      Reply
      • stingray65

        You are obviously a much bigger gamer than I am, but I think your point fits neatly with the discussion further down this thread about fast thinking. In my very limited experience, FPS are more about reaction time and short-term planning and less about longer-term strategic planning (i.e. choosing what resources you need in future time periods, how to get and keep chosen resources over time, what to do with resources for future success, etc.) that Thomas was writing about.

        Reply
        • silentsod

          Depends on what the time scale is. I wouldn’t consider any game worth a truly long term planning game as games, even Civ, typically last under 6 hours for a single play session. Total War, on the other hand, can be something on the order of 60 hours for a single campaign… so maybe grand strategy is a closer fit to than Civ; same with Europa Universalis and some others.

          I would agree that resources are less of a concern in most FPS games and in that manner they are nearer term for resource management (utility in CS; armor, health, weapons in Quake which require knowing when and where they spawn and at what interval). Civ is slightly longer term and still not long enough for me to consider it really requiring that much planning…

          Reply
          • silentsod

            And I really should have gone back and edited that second sentence so it is coherent with the rest of the post. Wah wah.

    • Danio

      “The inability to plan for the future is the primary reason that the poor stay poor, and unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest there is anything effective that can fully solve this problem.”

      Studies show (not necessarily causally) that the two things below are the biggest factors in determining whether someone will be relegated to poverty or not:
      1. Graduating High School
      2. Single Parenthood

      Reply
  3. John C.

    That is a great quote from Tyson. I am not sure that you have to tell people how to plan. The rub comes with the punch in the mouth. I bought a new build home in 2000. In 2012, I sold it for less then I paid for it.

    You have all the aspects of a good plan. A mortgage was qualified for. A twenty percent down payment was parted with. For 12 years, the lawn was mowed, property taxes paid, house payments were made. An average return over time of 4 percent in home value over the 12 years should have seen the equity go up over 400% over those years. This is after the selling agent gets his 6 percent. A rate of return enough to greatly enhance the financial security of the family.

    Instead the punch in the mouth. The last few years had seen the neighborhood decline. It took almost a year to sell the house. There were three houses on the street trying to sell and we were all matching each other with price cuts in some sort of equity death march. Finally a lower price was hit where all three houses sold the same week. At a price lower than a similar foreclosed house the year before. The home equity ended up going up less than the rate of inflation for those years.

    The thing to do of course is to chalk it up and move on and I have done that. The problem is when people work hard and do the responsible thing and then get rewarded with the punch in the mouth. Bad for the person, bad for the family, bad for the country.

    Reply
    • stingray65

      Sorry to hear about your poor real estate return, but unfortunately a lot of people will be joining you with such experiences (or much worse) in the future with the wildly inflated housing markets in so many places around the world. Historically housing has seldom done better than track the inflation rate, so buying a home was more about having a roof over your head rather than expecting a big capital gain. Big bubbles in lots of desirable areas has been helped along by zoning/development restrictions, home buyer incentives in the tax code, creativity in the mortgage industry, immigration/money laundering, and even buy and flip tv programs. Yet the underlying rationale justifying the payment of crazy money for housing remains the bigger fool theory, and a lot of recent buyers people are going to painfully find out they are the ultimate fools. As we found out in 2008, however, even if you don’t have a crazy mortgage or live in a bubble area, the decline in consumer spending that occurs when people no longer feel “property rich” cascades throughout the economy and can ruin or substantially change the financial plans for virtually everyone.

      Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      I’m really sorry that happened, John, but I don’t think it necessarily happened because your plan failed, I think it happened because a lot of us were lied to about the way the housing market worked and/or we were operating from a position of hope rather than having a solid plan. We were sold a bill of goods by banks and mortgage brokers and thought the housing market worked according to solid set of inviolate rules. Our baseline assumptions were wrong and we were used.

      Not to tear you down, I can tell from so many your comments that you are someone who is smart and worthy of my respect, but I think the problem is that home equity shouldn’t have been your ultimate goal. That goal should have been “financial security” and home equity should have been a single a line of effort towards it. Sometimes, lines of effort get stymied.

      But this is the part where resiliency becomes important. If you want to reach that goal, you have to regroup, readjust and then start going forward again. If you just go back to acting and reacting, sitting and waiting for events to roll in and over you, you’re like a canoe on the ocean. If you want to get somewhere, you have to paddle

      Reply
  4. Paul M.

    The thing is some people are fast thinkers. Some people take their time and process and plan.

    Think of car salesmen. The best are quick thinkers. Adjusting to every trick in the book thrown at them by enemy (customer). There is no rule. Only what works for the moment.

    Now obviously to accomplish large endeavors in human history (pyramids, Eiffel Tower, Hoover damn) it takes planning. But on individual basis, there are quick thinkers and then there are planners.

    We need both in this life. A lot has to do with your DNA. If you are methodical stick to planning. If you are snap snap, then stay snap snap.

    Reply
    • stingray65

      Fast thinkers can just see and evaluate plans before everyone else does – speed in cognitive processing is in fact a key element in defining intelligence.

      Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      The point is, though, that a lot of fast thinkers don’t understand the intellectual process of planning. I know, I was one. I thought I had plans, of course, but what I really had was desire – a vision of a certain outcome, if you will.

      The problem was that I had no real idea of how to get from here to there. Fortunately, I was a fast thinker and could adjust on the fly. Sometimes, I had extra money to throw at a problem, too, which always helps move a project along. I was winging it and succeeding more-or-less by luck. I was stumbling around, often in the general direction of where I wanted to go, and when I ended up there almost by accident after a lot of work, I felt like my “plan” had succeeded. The vast majority of Americans, I think, are in the same boat.

      The problem is that my process was exactly wrong. The real trick is the assessment of the present in relation to the the desired end state and then finding realistic lines of effort to get your intended result. That is an actual process and unless you step through it right you can waste a lot of time, effort and energy. Sometimes, by the way, you find that the road ahead is too difficult or that you can’t get there from here and that’s OK too. If you know that going in, you can adjust your goals and aim for something else.

      Car salesmen, by the way, are good not necessarily because they plan better. They are good at what they do because the do it often and because the dealer trains them how to do what they do. They don’t get it right every time, by the way. So many of Mark B’s articles about what car dealerships are doing wrong, how they fail to move cars and get wrapped up in sunk costs, and he gives good examples of organizations that don’t develop a real plan, lay down rules and then stick to them. It takes foresight and discipline to develop and stick with a plan, but knowing the process is an important skill that I think more people should know.

      Reply
      • stingray65

        I agree Thomas that fast thinkers don’t necessarily plan as you describe planning, but most of them are capable of doing it with training because they have necessary cognitive capacity (as you prove with your personal example). Smart people are also more likely to see the error of their ways and make adjustments to get better outcomes. As Einstein supposedly said – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” – but the word stupidity can be substituted for insanity and the result is the same.

        Reply
  5. hank chinaski

    “I remind myself that just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.”

    Reply
  6. Rick T.

    One of my favorite quotes along with “Hope is NOT a plan.”

    I do a lot of project work. I always start out by telling the client that you have to make a lot of decisions and some of those decisions will be wrong. The rocket that launched men to the moon had several million parts. Even if 99.9% of the parts worked properly, that meant that several thousand did not. The key is to get the big decisions right and limit the mistakes to the smaller ones as best you can.

    Reply
  7. -Nate

    Good post as usual Thom ;

    I think this one will generate a _lot_ of replies .

    I’m always amazed at people who buy houses thinking of making $ instead of living there .

    If you want to make $ in real estate, look at units, rentals, commercial properties etc. .

    My family did that long ago and did pretty well .

    I hated being a landlord .

    Many I know walked away from pretty nice houses they were living in and paying right around $1,300.00 / month for, why ? . “because it lost it’s value” even though they could afford the monthly payments .

    So then, you’re better off now living in a crappier and smaller smaller place in a worse area with further commute to work for _MORE_ $ monthly ??! .

    My mind (such as it is) boggles .

    Back to the subject at hand : failure to plan means planning to fail .

    ‘and use their brains to focus entirely on the present. ‘ ~ this is why some will never get any better in life . that’s O.K. as long as they’re contented .

    -Nate

    Reply
  8. DougD

    Thanks Thomas. I’d heard that quote before but didn’t realize it came from Tyson.

    Being born to immigrants who went through the Depression and WW2 in Europe the save & plan mantra really rubbed off on me. I’m definately not rich, but definately not poor and education & conservative long term investment have done acceptably well so far.

    I think your road has been a bit more winding / interesting than mine in some ways, but glad you can see where it leads at the moment. Cheers!

    Reply
  9. Martin

    This is a thoughtful post, and a real credit to this blog.

    Two things that come to my mind, since they have been on my mind lately and seem to dovetail with what you are considering here: First, Jordan Peterson makes an interesting point that sacrifice (to the Gods) is the first evidence we have in the historical record of people anticipating the future. He says it is when man “invented” the future. You give up something of value now, for hopeful rewards in the future. I have found personally that Lent is an excellent time to gain perspective through sacrifice. How much do I really need that thing that gives me temporary immediate gratification? Maybe the practice of sacrifice can help someone get out of their reactive mental space.

    The second is that how you plan and make decisions is explored in surprising ways by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. I cannot recommend this enough. As an exploration of making decisions and behaving ethically in a world with maximum uncertainty, there are ways to evaluate your potential plans for likelihood of effectiveness. I’d really like to write a review of this book, since it contains so many eye-opening insights that a simple summary cannot do them justice.

    Reply
  10. Rock36

    If you’re going to tag ADRP 5-0, you might as well throw a nod out to the Army Design Methodology too 😉

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      There are some things I like to hint at, but it making them too obvious would ruin all the fun…

      Reply
      • -Nate

        Out driving most of to – day with the radio kaput this thread ran through my mind .

        Good thoughts here Tom, I think you did pretty well even before your epiphany .

        -Nate

        Reply
        • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

          There was a lot of luck involved in that, Nate. I had a lot of drive, too, and while I can’t complain about the life I’ve built, I’m left to wonder what it would have been like if I had known how to direct my energies early on.

          My Japanese language abilities are a good example. When I was a kid and still so excited about learning kanji, I dumped a huge amount and time and effort into the process. But, because I lacked a mentor and the ability to plan the right approach, I found myself starting over a half dozen times. It was fine at the time because it was all so exciting but, by the time I got direction and reach the point where I could make real progress, that excitement had faded. It turned into an unpleasant slog and even though I got pretty far, I know now that I won’t get much farther. I can get by pretty well as it is and I just don’t care about it enough to take it to the next level.

          But, as they say, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and that is what’s behind this article. What I wrote isn’t a great secret but, for whatever reason, working class me never got the message. That sucks. Hopefully, this little essay helps some of the smart driven people out there get the message sooner. Far as I got, I hope they get farther.

          Reply
          • -Nate

            Just so Tom ;

            I realized I wasn’t going to ever be a super star and just slogged on, my childhood gave me the drive to make it, others turned to drugs and didn’t make it out alive, far too many of my peers _died_ .

            I’m *extremely* lucky that I’m an above average Mechanic and was so during a time that’s gone now .

            I try to teach my Foster boys the same lessons you’re trying to impart here .

            As they used to say : it takes the whole village to raise a child .

            -Nate

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