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Productive OR Counter-productive?

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: sk8geek

The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail.

— Napoleon Hill

I am constantly amazed at how bad my memory is.  Not in the sense of being unable to remember names or phone numbers, but rather in the sense of quickly forgetting important lessons that I’ve learned.

One of the best examples I can give you is my inability to remember good ideas I’ve gotten from the books I’ve read or listened to.  With my two hour commute – one hour in each direction – I’m spending a fair amount of time listening to good books and classes.  I will be driving along listening to a Zig Ziglar, or Daniel Pink, or John Ortberg and hear an absolutely tremendous idea, great for a post, and by the time I get to my destination, I’ve forgotten it.

Survival Behaviors Aren’t Always Productive – in the Short Term

Maybe that’s the reason for our sphexishness.  I bet you think I made that up.  It’s the name scientists have given to the tendency of all species to hang on to behavior that doesn’t serve them.  It’s called sphexishness after the wasp that helped scientists discover the behavior.

It seems that prior to the female sphex laying her eggs, she stings and paralyzes a cricket and puts it in a hole in a tree.  Then she lays her eggs on top of the cricket.  When the eggs hatch, the baby sphexes have a wonderful meal to start off their lives. (This is not the counterproductive behavior.)

Being a good mommy sphex, the wasp goes off to find another cricket.  Once she has it, she returns to her nest, puts the cricket down and goes into the nest to check on the babies.  Being the tricky people that they are, the scientists move the cricket to a new spot where she can get it.  After the mom decides that all is well, she comes out of the nest, sees that the cricket has moved, retrieves it and brings it back to the nest.  She then puts it down again and goes back into the nest to make sure all is well.  When she comes back out, the scientist has moved the dang cricket again, and the cycle repeats.  This will continue until the scientist gets tired of the game and lets the wasp take the cricket into the nest.

Whining About Wine

As the “superior” being, we can see right away that the wasp is doing something that is counterproductive.  (Although I’m not so sure that anyone who would torture the poor wasp like that is a superior being.)  This is similar to our ability to see when someone else is doing something counterproductive, but we often have a hard time seeing it in ourselves.  At least the wasp has the excuse of genetic programming.

For me, one of my counterproductive behaviors has to do with wine.  No, I don’t drink lots and lots of wine.  I can’t.  I’m allergic to the sulfites in most good wines.  So, to avoid that problem, I drink Two Buck Chuck – probably about as close as you can get to wine in a box, but with a cork.

I like to come home after work and have a glass of wine while reading a good book and unwinding.  Unfortunately, these days my allergies are soooo bad, that I’d almost prefer to stop breathing (and therefore not inhale all those pollens and dusts, etc.), if it wouldn’t kill me.  Why I would think that I can have a glass of wine after spending the day fighting to breathe, I haven’t a clue.  I know better.  This is clearly counterproductive – and yet, I debate with myself about whether I can get away with it… and then I try, and then I’m really, really sorry.

This is not a new issue.  I’ve been fighting this particular fight for over 20 years, and yet I try anyway.  And then I curse because I feel soooo yucky.

We all have counterproductive things that we do regularly.  Some of mine include:

  • Staying up late finishing the book ’cuz I just have to know how it ends
  • Not picking out my outfit for tomorrow, tonight
  • Running the gas tank down to the big E

The thing is, we choose to continue our counterproductive behavior.  With us, it isn’t instinct, it’s choice.  The wasp is doing what she’s programmed to do.  She has no control.  Not so with us.

You would think with our bigger brain that we would be smarter about quickly identifying our counterproductive behavior and changing it.  Well, we are smarter.  We can notice and name it.  Change it – well, we do better than the wasp when we choose to.

There’s actually a good side to sphexishness.  Another name for sphexishness could be persistence or obstinacy or stubbornness.  You see, the only way that great achievements have been made is through continuing “counterproductive” behavior in pursuit of a worthy goal.  It is how:

  • We will find a cure for cancer – one cancer at a time.
  • Doctors invented the skin gun and spray-on skin. (If you haven’t seen this, please take the time to watch.  Some of it’s hard to look at but the results are phenomenal.)
  • Early man figured out that cooked chicken was really, really good.

Much of what we value in life was discovered by someone doing something that looked counterproductive but in the end wasn’t.  Yes, it’s counterproductive for me to drink wine when my allergies are really bad.  But it was wonderfully productive for Edison to keep working on the light bulb and the Wright brothers to keep trying to fly.  The difference between us and the sphex is that we can think about what we’re doing, figure out what’s working and what isn’t and improve our efforts.  In the end, it’s only by continuing to be temporarily counterproductive that we eventually become productive.  It’s in our genes.

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