how to balance ego

How Ants Survive Rush Hour (and why putting your ego in check will change your life)

It’s everyone’s nightmare.  Rush hour.  Inching along interminably as too many cars navigate too few lanes, with too many merging in and too few turning off.

Who would have imagined that King Solomon already anticipated the chaos of our highways when he declared, Go, sluggard, and learn from the ant?

As it turns out, ants are better drivers than we are.  And the lessons of their highway habits offer some valuable lessons that extend far beyond the way we drive.

According to NPR, Apoorva Nagar discovered the connection in a study by German and Indian researchers.  Apparently, traveling ants are able to maintain a constant speed regardless of the number of ants on the path.  In other words, even at rush hour, ant traffic carries on unimpeded.

Professor Nagar, a physicist at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, suggests three reasons why ants don’t bottleneck as traffic flow increases.  First, ants don’t have egos.  They don’t need to be first, don’t need to show off, and don’t take it personally when another ant cuts in front of them.

Second, they don’t mind fender-benders.  Sure, a multi-ant pile will slow them down.  But a few minor bumps and scrapes have little impact on their progress.  Even with incidental bumping and knocking, the ants just keep on moving forward.  Needless to say, humans would never tolerate the most glancing or superficial collisions, even if the law permitted it.

And third, says Professor Nagar, ants get more disciplined as the crowd thickens:  they hold their speed steadier and make fewer twists and turns.  In contrast to human drivers who cut in and out while breaking and accelerating, ant discipline creates a road culture of greater predictability and, consequently, greater safety and consistency.

Granted that ant behavior may have limited practical application to human driving habits and traffic patterns, the observations offered by Professor Nagar suggest other benefits to improve the quality of daily life.

NO EGO

Have you ever watched someone else hopelessly caught up in his own ego-gratification?  Sometimes it’s the driver trapped behind a slow-moving car, desperately looking for a chance to break out and around.  And what happens when he gets his chance?  More often than not, you catch up to him stuck behind the next car or idling at the next stoplight.

Or what about the person who has to be the center of attention or the life of the party?  He thinks he’s the darling of the crowd, but the dismayed expressions among his captive audience frequently tell a different story.

When we stop worrying about where we rank compared to others and stop needing others to validate our existence, we become a lot more comfortable with where we are and end up making progress with far greater efficiency.

It’s actually pretty easy when we start asking ourselves the right questions:

  • What do I gain by trying to be first?
  • Are the people I’m trying to impress going to be impressed?
  • Are the people who are going to be impressed worth impressing?
  • Didn’t I read a story once about a tortoise and a hare?

IS IT WORTH IT?

We’ve heard it before:

Don’t sweat the small stuff.  And so much of it really is small stuff.

Sure, I enjoy the frequent fantasy of trading in my ‘98 Camry for a new… anything.  But until I do, I’ll never have to worry about the latest scratch, dent, or interior stain the way I would if I were driving a Mercedes… or even a new Subaru.

The truth is, the shinier our toys are, the more we notice when the shine starts to fade, and our mood fades just as quickly.  That’s only natural, since those scrapes and blemishes are all tied up with our first problem… ego.

That scuffed bumper is a reflection on me, isn’t it?  It reflects either my own driving or my slothfulness repairing damage inflicted on me by someone else.  Of course, it might reflect the sanity of my priorities, that I don’t want to take hours away from my family and friends and community and personal growth so that my car can be pristine (while waiting for the next minor accident to send me back to the repair shop).

And it’s not just our cars.  The human eye and mind seek out every imperfection on which to fixate, whether it’s a loose thread or a tilted picture, a sore toe or a pesky hangnail.  If anything is 99% perfect, that last one percent becomes all the more intolerable, invalidating everything that is as it should be.

Which is the perfect time for another list of questions:

  • Overall, are things good or bad?
  • By how much does the good outweigh the bad?
  • Is it reasonable to let so little that’s not quite right cancel out so much that is?
  • Is anything every perfect?

TIME TO PAY ATTENTION

As tension builds, we start looking for a way out.  Maybe what we should be looking for is a way in.  Like the ants who become more focused as traffic increases.

The truth is, stress and tension are products of our bodies preparing us to enter into survival mode.  When we respond by heightening our awareness of the challenges that face us and steeling ourselves to meet them, we can propel our productivity and success to unprecedented levels.  Not only do we manage the job at hand, but we increase our ability to overcome greater obstacles that lie ahead.

It’s a win-win.

But it demands that we reframe, that we stop looking at obstacles as impediments to progress and start seeing them as opportunities for development and self-improvement.  And that outlook starts with more questions:

  • Why do we think no pain, no gain applies only at the gym?
  • Haven’t our most satisfying moments come through struggle?
  • If we can’t change where we are, isn’t changing how we deal with it is our only option?
  • If I handle a difficult situation better, might others follow my example and help the situation improve on its own?

After all, what’s the point of an obstacle course?  We could traverse the course much faster without all those obstacles, no?  But then what would we have accomplished?

And isn’t life the greatest obstacle course of all?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives in St. Louis, MO, where he teaches, writes, and lectures.  His new book Proverbial Beauty:  Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages is due out in July.  Visit him at http://yonasongoldson.com.