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.