Friday, March 22, 2013

Schoen, Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You

You might think you know where this book is going from its title—Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century (Hudson Street Press, 2013). In reality, the focus of the retraining Marc Schoen, a clinical psychologist, writes about is not so much overcoming fear as transforming the broader category of discomfort into power.

The crux of the matter, Schoen writes, is this: “Discomfort or vulnerability in our present day actually has more survival value than being comfortable once had in prehistoric times. Seeking and settling for comfort and familiarity in the present now leads to rigidity and a constriction of brain resources. Although our ancient wiring strives for familiarity and comfort because it allowed us to survive in the past, today it actually impedes our ability to function in the present world. … [B]ecoming comfortable with being uncomfortable and vulnerable really is the most important tool in the 21st century.” (pp. 209-210)

Schoen sets forth what he calls the Cozy Paradox: “despite the growing ubiquitousness of comfort in our lives, we have become increasingly oversensitive to discomfort in our lives.” (p. 19) Or, put in the form of a question, “Why is it that in the absence of serious threats—famine, war, pestilence, the proverbial saber-toothed tiger—do we wage these wars within us? Why does our internal comfort zone feel cramped when we have wonderful advancements at hand to make life easier and, in a lot of ways, better?” (p. 18)

One of the problems Schoen highlights is the growing need for constant stimulation and, concomitant with it, the rise of boredom. He gives the example of the dissonance people feel when a long period of time goes by without receiving a message of one sort or another, a dissonance that manifests itself as “boredom, anxiety, loneliness, or even depression. … It’s almost as if the increasing need to feel flooded with stimulation has gotten to the point that it’s become an addiction, which makes us feel agitated when we don’t receive it.” (p. 111)

This agitance, he maintains, needs to be curated (or, in clearer English, we need to manage our comfort zone) so as to make more room for discomfort. A few of his fifteen tips: take a technology time out, value and tolerate imperfection, stop procrastinating, and embrace uncertainty.

Schoen offers a range of suggestions for transforming discomfort into power, from breathing exercises to drawing on empathy and love. Personally I was more attracted to the idea of the importance of challenge/resilience. A study that followed 450 Illinois Bell Telephone managers going through the trauma of industry deregulation (from six years before the breakup of the telephone company to six years after) found that “two-thirds of the group fell apart, as they suffered from heart attacks, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and divorce. The other third not only survived but actually thrived. … [T]he successful study subjects shared three qualities now known in the field as the three Cs of hardiness: a commitment to what they were doing, an enthusiasm for challenge, and a sense of control over their lives. … [T]hese were people who struggled to have influence, rather than being passive, and kept learning from their experiences, whether positive or negative.” (pp. 166-67)

Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You is neither tightly written nor cogently argued. Schoen’s meandering style gave rise to a certain “agitance” in this reviewer. But I think his central message may be important; it’s certainly worth pondering.

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