The power of the survival instinct

I recently wrote a story in The Economist about the influence of our genes on our political leanings. It turns out that genes do have something to do with them, and not just a little. Sometimes genes take 60% of the blame, more than any other environmental factor.

On some thought, it doesn’t seem all that surprising. Genes play an important role in the most basic of our instincts: survival and procreation. These instincts, then, manifest into some behavioural traits. For example: Immigration concerns threats from out-group members. Welfare issues deal with the question of resource-sharing. Sexual freedom matters to issues of finding mates and raising children.

This behavioural manifestation has important implications to our search for sources of motivation. Consider fear, for example. When our survival is threatened in any shape or form, our first reaction to it is fear. For a man at war, fear is an ally. It helps get his mind and body ready for action (or reaction). It is also an ally to cavemen hunting in jungles. They need to kill their prey and avoid becoming one. Fear helps to keep them on their toes.

For the modern man, though, fear, in many cases, is not just useless but harmful. The fear of failure is the single biggest reason why people fail. And yet, I spot a missed opportunity. The survival instinct is a great source of motivation, if not the greatest. If manipulated, it can be tapped to our advantage.

Simpler said than done, of course. But there is a way. Whenever we put ourselves on the line by making a decision or starting a venture or promising to deliver, it involves going against our natural instinct. Having met the basic need for survival of food, clothing and shelter, doing anything more means doing more than is necessary. At such a point, in essence, we are deciding to take a risk. That is the first step forward. But with that risk comes the fear of failure that causes anxiety. If we give in to the fear and anxiety, we take two steps backward.

If we can separate fear and anxiety from the nominal risk that we are about to take, then we’ve got a way to bend this once-useful manifestation of our survival instinct back in our favour. After taking the plunge, the fear of not being able to deliver could be channeled into a motivation for action. So that separation of risk and fear, once achieved, can mean access to an infinite source of motivation.

The virtues of restlessness

As a kid I was infamous for my mischievousness and the ability to not get tired. More often than not my parents’ visits to friends or family ended with apologies for my pranks. I got told off many times, but it made little difference. There was just so much to do and so little time.

My mum tells me that there was a point where she didn’t know whether her love for me was making her too soft. That she feared that wasn’t doing a good enough job in making sure that I behaved as most kids of my age did. That by then she should have been successful at instilling some civility in my actions. But it hadn’t happened. My restlessness was baffling my parents.

I don’t think I have changed much since then. Of course, I am lot more civil now. But I am still very restless. The only thing that has changed is that I have become aware of what it means to be restless. After realising that I could do little to reduce my restlessness, I started thinking of ways in which I could harness the power in someway. Now I think I’ve managed to do that, at least to a certain extent.

Today my restlessness helps me achieve many things. The simplest one is when I know I should stop doing something. In any activity there comes a point beyond which being involved in it is usually a waste of time. It is a tricky thing to know when that point comes. But somehow, over many years, I have found that when I notice my mind getting restless, it is probably the time to take notice of whether what I am doing is useful or not

Restlessness also forms the very basis of the creative process for me. For instance, when writing an article there are three stages: spark, research, writing. The spark usually occurs when I come across an idea that seems too cool to ignore. Then, if the idea hasn’t already been used by someone else, I spend time researching. It involves reading papers, gaining background knowledge, interviewing relevant people and feeding my brain with more ideas. Now before I start writing, I need to form a plan of how I am going to write that article. This is where my restlessness helps me. In my head I have this primordial soup of ideas, each struggling to make it to the top. This period is a very cumbersome yet enjoyable experience. My restlessness pushes me, and hopefully before I get exhausted I have picked out the relevant ideas and started writing the article.

One other thing that features on this blog quite often is finding sources of motivation. My restlessness, it turns out, is definitely one such source. I am rarely at peace with myself if I don’t have something that I am working on. It could be a long-term project like finding a job, or a short one like understanding a scientific phenomenon. My restlessness makes sure I have something to care for all the time and that helps me wake up every morning to go out and do something I can be proud of.

Vipassana center in Igatpuri

There are limitations too, though. Before I understood how to tame this beast, it has put me in trouble many times. Even today there are times when I can’t do anything about my restlessness and I end up being utterly exhausted. Another thing I’ve had to battle is balancing my restlessness with giving up. In someway it has made me become a lot more determined at finishing things than I remember ever being.

Something that helped me learn how to maneuver my restless mind, and it won’t come as a surprise to many, was learning how to meditate. I went to a ‘vipassana shibir’, Marathi words for meditation camp, when I was about 12 years old. It happened in Igatpuri, one of the most underrated hillstations in Maharashtra, at a beautiful monastery. For three days no one at the camp spoke a single word. No writing or reading either. Everyday we spent hours meditating or thinking. Any form of communication was restricted to gestures, including living in a dorm with many kids of the same age (boys at that age end up fighting quite a lot and these fights had to be without words, too). To me it opened doors to a new world, one where my mind could be made to focus on a single point on the horizon.  (For adults they do a 10-day course of this kind. Whenever I get 10 days of free time to spend in India, this is going to be on the top of my list of things to do.)

Because being restless isn’t always a joyful experience, it forces me to seek moments of peace. For example, one of the best things about writing non-fiction is the time I spend researching. I have this freedom to dive as deep as I like into something and stay there for as long as my curiosity drives me for. I can jump from one pool to the other, and even connect them if that’s what I want to do.

Restlessness gets a bad rap. It is a double-edged sword, and, rather than fearing it, we must learn to wield it in battle. It has done wonders for me, and I am sure I am not alone.

Photo credit: wargecko

On being creative

This week’s Brain Picking’s newsletter brought to my attention this gem of a talk on creativity by John Cleese of the Monty Python fame. Of particular interest to readers of this blog should be a quote from the talk:

Keep your mind gently round the subject you ponder. You can daydream, of course. But keep bringing your mind back [on to it], just like meditation. Because – and this is the extraordinary thing about creativity – if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious self. Probably in the shower later or breakfast the next morning, but suddenly you are rewarded and, out of the blue, a new thought appears mysteriously. If you have put in the pondering time, first.

In short, persistent contemplation is very important to be creative. The importance of creativity in any profession cannot be overstated and such nuggets of gold should not pass through our mental sieves. Thinking about something with purposeful intent requires effort but with practice it becomes a habit.

Cleese says, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” Persistent contemplation is one way to operate to be creative, but that alone may not be enough.

In another fascinating talk that John Cleese gave on creativity, almost two decades later, he reminds us, in a rather funny way, that our ideas come from our unconscious. He calls our unconscious mind a tortoise – one that hides in its shell unless the right conditions are created to allow it to come out. To create those conditions, Cleese asks us to create boundaries of space and time. By space, he means, not just the physical surroundings but also the mental ones which allow the tortoise to come out and play without distractions.

The most profound insight to be gained from the talk comes right at the end when Cleese reveals a profound discover he made about life. He says, “To know how good you are at something requires the same skills as it requires to be good at that thing.” Applying which he finds that those people who have no idea about what they are doing have no idea that they have no idea about what they are doing.”