Business & Biology

Cavemen and Computers: A Success Story

fireThe reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)

Indeed, if the same mistake is repeated over and over again, what is the point of being persistent?

—Fang Wu & Bernardo Huberman, “Persistence and Success in the Attention Economy” (2009)

If nothing else, humans are two things: (1.) We are tool builders, constantly adapting to new environments by creating new dwellings, clothing, modes of transportation, and societies. And (2.) we are runners (yes, runners). It is our defining ability to run that is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of success. Rather than learning from contemporary masters or fighting through trial and error, perhaps the lessons of success can be best learned from the rise of the most successful species on earth—ourselves.

Excluding the use of man-made vehicles, Homo sapiens are still the fastest animals on earth (over long distances… on land… if it’s hot enough outside). Yes, we are natural born runners, and this extremely specialized skill is the reason we stand on two legs, are relatively hairless, perspire rather than pant, and why our butts look so darn good. But before our brains grew large and humans reigned supreme, our early hominid ancestors used their unique physiology to their advantage over their knuckle walking cousins.

Persistence hunting—chasing prey until sheer exhaustion—is thought to be the primary reason for our running abilities. Our prehistoric relatives (and even some indigenous peoples of modern day) weren’t faster or stronger than other creatures, but they would chase much quicker animals, such as wildebeest, zebra, and deer, for one or two days until the animals simply collapsed from exhaustion. It is even proposed that the rich protein diet afforded by persistence hunting is what allowed for developing larger brains in humans. Therefore, the first lesson in our story is that persistence is the key to success—a lesson as true in the digital age as it was back then.

Microsoft, arguably the most successful company of the 1990s, was such a juggernaut that at the turn of century federal judges felt obligated to break up the monopoly. What made Microsoft so successful? In a word, persistence. Steve Jobs, in a rare 1995 interview, emphasized Microsoft’s persistence, saying:

Microsoft took a big gamble to write for the Mac. And they came out with applications that were terrible. But they kept at it, and they made them better, and eventually they dominated the Macintosh application market, […] they’re like the Japanese; they just keep on coming.

Even Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, acknowledges persistence as the key to his personal and professional success. According to Gates, the best compliment he ever received was when a peer said to a group, “Bill is wrong, but Bill works harder than the rest of us. So even though it’s the wrong solution, he’s likely to succeed.” Just by keeping at it, Gates achieved an elite level of entrepreneurial accomplishment. But while persistence may be the key to success, it is not a panacea to cure all ills. Persistence can be misguided.

Being the best long-distance runners didn’t stop us from inventing the bicycle or the locomotive or the space shuttle. Humans separated themselves from other hominids through our ability to adapt—to build the tools we needed to thrive. At a certain point, our ancestors spread across the globe, adapting to changing environments. Early humans built clothes and dwellings to survive the polar ice; they developed agriculture to create stability where there was scarcity; and they developed civilizations and law and order to manage increasing tribal size. Therefore, the second lesson of our story is that we must adapt to an every-changing environment, in order to succeed. 

The two lessons of human success may seem contradictory—persist but always be changing; however, it’s a matter of balance. Peristence and adaptability are equally important, but persistence is broad; it’s goal-oriented. Adaptability is detailed; it relates to our behavior, the details of how we attain our goals. Finding a balance between the two is extremely difficult to achieve in practice. We often get caught in either the wrong goals or misunderstand right ones.

Warren Buffett once wrote to his shareholders, “When an industry’s underlying economics are crumbling, talented management may slow the rate of decline. Eventually, though, eroding fundamentals will overwhelm managerial brilliance.” He was talking about the newspaper industry back in 2006, and his comments serve as important distinction between productive persistence and blind stubbornness—a distinction that goes beyond newspapers.

Kodak was in the photography business, yet, they lost site of their true goal, confusing it for a film business, and failure followed. The modern world of healthcare is criticized to have the same problem—promoting health care where they should promote health. It is easy to write that we should persist in our goals, but much harder to clearly define them; however, we are all decedents of the most successful creatures in the history of earth. Therefore, perhaps we are all bred to be successful (one persistent, yet adaptable, step at a time).

Asch, David A., and Kevin G. Volpp. “What Business Are We In? The Emergence of Health as the Business of Health Care.” New England Journal of Medicine 367.10 (2012): 888-889. (Source)

Carrier, David R., et al. “The Energetic Paradox of Human Running and Hominid Evolution.” Current Anthropology 25.4 (1984): 483-495. (Source)

Wilson, Edward O. The Social Conquest of Earth. WW Norton & Company, 2012.


Rock-Paper-Scissors: Body, Heart, Mind?

heart-beats-bodyI’m hurt, no doubt about it. I’m not worried about the pain. I don’t care about the pain, don’t even feel it. I’m not even worried about hurting myself anymore than I already have—no, I’m worried about hurting the team.

—Ray Lewis, former NFL linebacker, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory

Rock-paper-scissors is a hand-gesture game played to settle childish disputes (or so I thought until three days ago). As it turns out, the millennia-old game helps explain a lot in the world. Rock-Paper-Scissors is surprisingly well represented in academic literaturealternative male-mating strategies in lizards, antibiotic-mediated antagonism, protecting public goods from the tragedy of the commons, and that’s just getting started. The New York Times even has an online version of the game to play a computer, which pulls from over 200,000 previous rounds (p.s. It will probably beat you). But why is this simple game so ubiquitous?

We often think of win-lose games in terms of two teams battling head to head; however, nature (including human nature) rarely works in such a direct way. An action in one area often has unintended consequences in another. Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game of checks and balances. And with only three variables, it is the simplest version. If the goal is, for example, to reduce the amount of Scissors in the world, then Rock should be thrown time and time again. Throw a lot of Rocks and we’ll get rid of the Scissors, but with less Scissors, more Papers survive—leading to trouble for all those Rocks we threw. This is the basic premise for what scholars call “circular dominance,” otherwise known as Rock-Paper-Scissor dynamics. And this concept helps explain much of the human experience.

While we all have different personal motivations, there’s a universal internal tug-o-war—a motivation triad—that can either get in the way of or optimize our goals. The balance between our physiologic needs (Body), our emotions/feelings (Heart), and our logical reasoning and processing (Mind) are what create the diverse range of behavior we see everyday. Being human may not be simple, but let’s take a closer look at a simple game to see if we can improve our performance:

  1. Body—like Rock, it’s solid, dependable, strong, and can be used like a weapon.
  2. Heart—like Paper, it can be written on, read, shared, crumpled, or torn.
  3. Mind—like Scissors, it’s sharp, precise, specialized, but can be dangerous.

Heart beats Body. What motivates a person to push through the pain, in order to run one more lap in practice? What about staying awake all night to finish a project with an impending deadline? What possesses a person tstart a fight despite obvious physical danger? Or to charge into enemy territory, bayonets at the ready? Human emotions can push our bodies beyond comfort. They transcend our normal physiology, creating adrenaline rushes to push through the pain, get passed the tired, or forget the hunger. Depending on the circumstance, this can be an advantage or disadvantage. Professional athletes, like Ray Lewis (quoted above), use their “pumped up” emotional state to achieve a high level of physical performance. But there are instances when emotions can put our bodies in jeopardy—like fighting for pride, love, or anger. And we can all relate to those sleepless nights, tossing and turning over emotional stresses at work, arguments with a significant other, or any number of other feelings.

Mind beats Heart. When we’re up at night, working ourselves up into a sleepless, emotional frenzy, only a calm mind can put our anxiety into perspective. Emotions can cloud our understanding of the big picture, making us feel like the emotion we are experiencing at that moment is the most important thing in the world. By adding context and perspective, our Minds can neutralize our irrational side. This concept of primitive and evolved brain is represented in different ways throughout the literature; the  Heart/Mind dichotomy goes by different names—Think vs. Blink, System 2 vs. System 1, Analytical vs. Intuitive—but essentially it’s this: We all have an immediate reaction brain (Heart) that is fueled by basic emotional needs (ex. love and respect), and when we feel those needs are in conflict or under attack, we tend to react. Only our level-headed Mind can defeat the negative side of emotions.

Body beats Mind. Obviously, the Mind does not always beat the Heart, but perhaps it’s because the Mind has already been defeated. Graduate education is rife with unhealthy study behavior—caffeine binges, all-nighters, a diet consisting of power bars and skittles. But the lie of this type of behavior is thinking that the Body doesn’t matter—that if a student can cram for one more hour at 3 A.M. then he will perform better on an exam. There is an eventual breaking point, a point where our minds starts to get cloudy, our work starts to slip, we begin to forget things, and have trouble sayings words. That point is when the body is forcing a shutdown. Being chronically fatigued, having insufficient nutrients in one’s diet, even physiologic sexual frustration can all play a role in how clearly our thinking is. Being deprived of physiological needs wears down our willpower and pushes us from a mind-deciding person to an emotion-deciding one. And taken to the extreme—extreme hunger, extreme thirst, extreme sickness—we become physiological-driven creatures.

It is helpful to recognize the interrelationship between the three parts of ourselves—Body, Heart, Mind. Knowing how they interact, we can buffer known problems. For example, after starting a business, launching a product, or quitting a job, there are a lot of unknowns; the task at hand has just begun. That reality can be an emotional time, but it’s a known emotional time. To get through challenges like the stress of not yet finding a new job, we require clear thinking about the big picture, and doing so requires our bodies to be well fed, well rested, and somewhat active. And that’s just one example.

Body-Heart-Mind dynamics are as important for interpersonal relationships as they are for self-improvement. Often, we are not able to see our crazy while we’re in the crazy. That’s why it’s important to recognize it in others—friends, family, spouse, colleagues, etc. Reacting emotionally when faced with someone that’s emotional is rarely the right course of action—”Don’t fight fire with fire.” Instead, helping an emotional friend see the rationale side of a situation, a different perspective, and adding some context to an emotional and confusing time is what will help. Knowing ourselves and others—having an awareness of what’s going on—that’s the first step. What we do with that information is up to us.

Semmann, Dirk, Hans-Jürgen Krambeck, and Manfred Milinski. “Volunteering leads to rock–paper–scissors dynamics in a public goods game.” Nature425.6956 (2003): 390-393. (Source)