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   Why We Need to Aim Higher

     by Tony Schwartz  |   7:00 AM October 17, 2012

 

We humans need to make an evolutionary leap. We're in much deeper trouble than we allow ourselves to recognize.Thirty years ago, an ecologist named Garrett Hardin wrote an article in the journal Science titled, "The Tragedy of the Commons." His thesis was that individuals, acting in their rational self-interest, may ultimately destroy a precious and limited resource over time.

To illustrate, Hardin used the metaphor of an open pasture — "the commons" — to which herdsmen bring their cattle to feed. The herdsmen, living at subsistence levels, understandably want to feed as many cattle as possible to maximize their income and improve their lives. As demand rises, however, the effects of overgrazing take a progressive toll on the commons, until ultimately they're destroyed for everyone.

"Therein is the tragedy," Hardin wrote. "Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."

How different are the rest of us in our blithe assumption that we can draw down the resources of the commons — think oil, electricity, water, for starters — regardless of the consequences in the long term?

The same is true of our own internal resources — our energy. Organizations continue to demand ever more without recognizing that sustainable performance requires that we intermittently renew our energy. We're all too willing to keep pushing ourselves, chasing the hope that more, bigger, faster will eventually prove to be better.

The tragedy is that the more we myopically focus on our immediate gratification, the more we hasten our collective demise. Spending without replenishing eventually leads to bankruptcy — in the world, and for ourselves.

How can rational human beings allow this to happen?

The answer lies in the ways our brains work. Much as we may believe we make rational choices by using our prefrontal cortex, the fact is we're often run by the more primitive parts of our brain. And they're concerned solely with our immediate survival.

Two powerful default instincts still guide much of our behavior: the fight or flight instinct to avoid pain, and the pleasure-driven hunger for immediate gratification. These instincts helped alert us to predators thousands of years ago and kept our focus on finding food and passing on our genes. They serve us far less well in today's vastly more complex world.

The modern version of these primitive instincts is the individualistic drive to accumulate more and more. We crave money, possessions, and power, hoping they'll make us feel happier and more secure.

It's a Darwinian dance, which produces a few short-term winners and a lot of losers. Our baser instincts not only override our reflective capacities, but also co-opt them. We use our brains to rationalize and minimize our choices, rather than to question them.

The truth is, we're all in this together and our choices all affect the commons. To the extent that we're not part of the solution, we're unavoidably and increasingly part of the problem.

So how can we aim higher? The evolutionary leap I have in mind — for all of us — is to move from our current focus on "me" and "mine" to a wider and shared commitment to "we" and "ours."

The ultimate scorecard isn't how much value we build for ourselves, but rather how successfully we marshal the advantages we've been given and the skills we've developed to add more value to the world than we have spent down.

Waking up begins with more consciousness and humility. It's about pushing past our infinite capacity for self-deception. It's about catching ourselves when we begin to automatically default to whatever makes us feel better in the moment. It's about widening our lens from narrowly self-serving to truly considering what choice we could make to better serve the commons. It's about having the courage to pause before we act to ask, "How would I behave here at my best?"

The irony is that the willingness to make personal sacrifice and endure some discomfort in the short term, in order to better serve the commons in the long term, is ultimately a form of enlightened self-interest. It's a vote for sustainable survival — especially for our children and grandchildren.

So how, practically, can we resolve to evolve? It's tough to do all it alone, given the power of our more primitive impulses, the force of our habits, and the endless temptations we face. We need others to make these commitments with us — to cheer us on, and hold us accountable. We need communities of practice. 

Here are a few first thoughts for getting started:

  1. Widen your lens. When you're about to undertake an activity, pause first and ask yourself this simple question: "Why am I doing this, and who will it serve? Then follow the Hippocratic oath, "Above all else, do no harm."
  2. Consume less. If you drive, could you leave your car at home one or more days a week and carpool, or take public transportation, or bike to work? Alternatively, could you turn down your home thermostat two or three degrees from its current level throughout the coming winter?