Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Using the Wisdom of Ants to Get Through Life


"What should I do with my life?" The question is harder to answer now than ever before. We could really use any advice. Better yet, free advice. Even if it's from a silent, black, typically menacing creature who only weighs 3 milligrams.

The present economy is forcing many to develop new skill sets. It's confusing. Someone is always asking me:

"Should I... [fill in the blank with a long list of creative ideas]?"

I don't know what you should do. But one thing is for sure. You have to try.

The following month, the same person will report that some of the items on the list of creative ideas have been crossed off. And she will report one of three things: "It's the right thing to do," "It's the wrong thing to do," or "I don't know yet, give me some time."

Whether that exploration was the right thing to do is beside the point.  Rather, she has learned that the way forward is clearer than it was before.

I can't help but draw the connection. Do you remember learning about ant pheromones back in high school Science class? Ants communicate with each other by emitting these lightweight chemicals that fellow ants pick up and interpret. The messages are generally very simple, they're basic on/off communications like food/no food, danger/no danger. And we're all familiar with that vibrant, crooked, black dotted line that travels from the patio door to the old grape that fell on the kitchen floor. That line was created when a scout ant, whose duty it was to find a food source, discovered the morsel, started emitting pheromones, then scurried back to the nest, odoriferously screaming "Food!  Food!" all the way home. His molecular exclamations were pumped out as he ran, leaving a long, thin trail of chemical cloud. Back home at the ranch, the other ants received him, and interpretting the message that there was food nearby, they embarked on their journey down the Yellow Brick Pheromone Road.

I've made a simple graphic to illustrate how the ants perceive this road. Ants do not smell with noses.  Rather, they sense pheromones with their antennae. They march forth through this invisible tunnel with their feelers outstretched and the mechanism by which the pheromone tunnel guides them is very simple. If the ant strays too far to the side, one of its antenna will fall outside the pheromone tunnel, and it will move back towards center until both antenna are safely within the cloud:

image: audrey mei

Herein lies the one important lesson that ants can teach us. For ants to reach their goal, they must move. And by staying in the "zone," they get to where they're going. They don't sit home moping about their life situations, feeling victimized by the Raid can, or listlessly dreaming about the heavenly sugar cube on the counter. Simply, they start walking, and by the action of locomotion, they allow themselves to be guided by the path.

I am inspired by the countless stories I hear from people who struck out and did their own thing by doing just that: placing one foot in front of another.

Maybe it began as an internet search, maybe it began with an off-road adventure with a college buddy, a random book, or a weekend seminar. Often they ended up somewhere very different than they expected, but the key was that they one day started moving forward, and with each step, minuscule as it may have been, the way became clearer.

So, go.

And happy trails!

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