The Old Instinct that Hurts Us Today

Treat Thompson



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I've talked about human's existence as hunter-gatherers before, and how we still have the same "hardware" that kept us alive millions of years ago.

A big piece of that "hardware" is the survival instinct. It uses fear to deter us from danger and promote self-preservation.

But the world is different today. Just by being born in western society, we start life on the third tier of Maslow's Hierarchy.

We have our food, water, safety, and security needs covered. This means our lives are dedicated to pursuing happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.

The issue is that these are all journeys of perceived dangers, risks, and threats; so our most powerful instinct wants to stop us from achieving our ultimate goal.

Reaching your full potential looks different for everyone:

  • Getting fit at the gym
  • Starting a successful business
  • Publishing your writing

But the fear of failure, embarrassment, and being vulnerable is the same.

Overcoming the fear

It's important to understand that these fears aren't real. It's our stone-age survival instinct inaccurately assessing the risk of modern situations.

"We’re more afraid of public speaking than texting on the highway, more afraid of approaching an attractive stranger in a bar than marrying the wrong person, more afraid of not being able to afford the same lifestyle as our friends than spending 50 years in meaningless career—all because embarrassment, rejection, and not fitting in really sucked for hunters and gatherers." - Tim Urban

Needless fears plague us, while useful fears fail to take root.

Here are 2 ways to overcome these futile fears:

Remove the ambiguity

Tim Ferriss explains this technique in his TED Talk and his book, "The 4-Hour Work Week".

  • He takes the thing he's afraid of and describes each and every possible outcome (positives and negatives).
  • Then he measures each potential outcome on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being no impact, 10 being permanently life-changing.

By doing this he realized most of what he feared were temporary 3's and 4's, and all the positive outcomes were 8's and 9's.

Meaning he'd be giving up a life-changing opportunity, because of potential discomfort.

The other way this helps is by removing some of the "unknown" from your fear. You give yourself substance to build solutions off of.

Systematic desensitization

Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University, says that systematic desensitization is one of the best ways to get over misplaced fears.

It's when you consistently expose yourself to the fear enough times that the accumulated neutral experiences override your negative thoughts.

Simply put, you stop being afraid because your brain has more evidence of it being harmless than harmful.

This weeks quote

"We are always preparing to live" - Chinese Proverb

This quote is about how we fool ourselves into thinking we are working towards the life we want.

What actually happens is that we spend our time on redundant busywork, procrastinating, because the road to our ideal life is so full of fear and uncertainty.

This weeks question

Are you choosing unhappiness over uncertainty?

This isn't a self-reflection question, it's a reminder.

Will Smith says "the best things in life are on the other side of terror, on the other side of your maximum fear".

This question reminds me not to settle for unhappiness because nothing good happens when I'm comfortable.