Sunday Brain Food - Brain Food: The Mindset Gap


No. 470 —May 1, 2022 — Read on FS

Welcome to Sunday Brain Food: a weekly newsletter full of ideas and insights that never expire.


"In July 1968, four pairs of mice were introduced into the habitat. The habitat was a 9-foot (2.7 m) square metal pen with 4.5-foot-high (1.4 m) sides. Each side had four groups of four vertical, wire mesh "tunnels." The "tunnels" gave access to nesting boxes, food hoppers, and water dispensers. There was no shortage of food or water or nesting material. There were no predators. The only adversity was the limit on space.

Initially, the population grew rapidly, doubling every 55 days. The population reached 620 by day 315, after which the population growth dropped markedly, doubling only every 145 days. The last surviving birth was on day 600, bringing the total population to a mere 2200 mice, even though the experiment setup allowed for as many as 3840 mice in terms of nesting space. This period between day 315 and day 600 saw a breakdown in social structure and in normal social behavior. Among the aberrations in behavior were the following: expulsion of young before weaning was complete, wounding of young, increase in homosexual behavior, inability of dominant males to maintain the defense of their territory and females, aggressive behavior of females, passivity of non-dominant males with increased attacks on each other which were not defended against.

After day 600, the social breakdown continued and the population declined toward extinction. During this period females ceased to reproduce. Their male counterparts withdrew completely, never engaging in courtship or fighting and only engaging in tasks that were essential to their health. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed themselves – all solitary pursuits. Sleek, healthy coats and an absence of scars characterized these males. They were dubbed "the beautiful ones." Breeding never resumed and behavior patterns were permanently changed.

The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population."

John B. Calhoun

One of the lessons you can draw from this is that human situations are no different. At our core we are animals. When things are abundant, it's easy to get along. When times become lean, however, our biological tendency towards self-preservation takes over. Scarcity — real or imagined — triggers our unconscious mind to take over and react without reasoning. And when we react without reasoning we are no better than other animals. In fact, in these moments, we're told we are "behaving like an animal."

We've been living in an era of abundance. At least until now.

Tiny Thought

One of the biggest things working in the background over the past two years is the mindset gap.*

At the onset of COVID, one group of people, became paralyzed and waited. They waited for someone else to take the lead and tell them what to do. They waited for schools to go online and figure out how to educate their kids. They waited for the government to tell them what was safe and what wasn't. They waited for clarity. They waited for certainty. And they waited for other people to solve problems so they could continue with life.

Another group of people refused to stop. While they might have slowed down, they kept adapting. Inch by inch they did what they could and moved forward. They hired teachers or turned to Khan academy for their kids. They kept the expectations of themselves and their kids high. They pushed forward at work and home. They solved problems. And they learned new skills.

The difference between these two groups comes down to mindset.

All the energy you put into things you can't control comes at the expense of things you can control. And because they focus on what they can control, the second mindset is far more resilient and adaptable than the first. And that makes all the difference.

When I talk to people about this, they often bring up the wealth gap. I hear things like, "It's easy for the rich to hire tutors and teachers and childcare and keep their kids working hard." Yes ... and that misses the point.

It is easy to overestimate the role of money and underestimate the role of mindset. Often, we convince ourselves that if only we had the resources, we would apply the second mindset. But the second mindset isn't a luxury of the rich, it is a necessity to build wealth in the first place.

When you focus on the money you miss the leverage of mindset hiding in plain sight.

A lot of people without a lot of money figured out ways to focus on what they could control. While they didn't control what the schools did, they did control giving their kids extra work or putting them in Khan academy. I'm using parents as a simple example to make a point, but the same mindset applies to every aspect of life every day.

Your mindset gets applied to life thousands of times a day. It's at work in every interaction and every circumstance. At the end of day one, the difference between the first and second mindset is indistinguishable but at the end of a decade, the gap is too large to catch up.

Sooner or later, you realize everything comes down to mindset.

When you focus on what you can control, there is always an action you can take to put yourself in a better position. When you focus on things you can't control you tend to freeze, unsure of what to do, and you wait.

The world might have paused for two years but people with the second mindset never stopped. Rather than be mastered by circumstances they didn't control, they mastered them.

For the past two years these two mindsets have been invisibly applied in the background. Now that the world is opening, the gap is becoming visible. My son's teacher told me she's never seen so many grade 6 kids so far behind. I can only imagine the education loss in higher grades. At the office, if you stood still for the past two years, you were lapped by the people that didn't stop.

The mindset gap created an outcome gap that will only compound in the next decades.

* I'm oversimplifying to make a point. These two mindsets are opposite ends of a continuum and we're all somewhere between these extremes.

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Explore Your Curiosity

"While (walking) is certainly not the most efficient way to see a city, it is the most pleasant, insightful, and human. I don’t think you can know a place unless you walk it, because it isn’t about distance, but about content."

Why I Walk

"People are more critical of other people's arguments than of their own, without being overly critical: They are better able to tell valid from invalid arguments when the arguments are someone else's rather than their own."

The Selective Laziness of Reasoning

Naval Ravikant on the mistake people make with happiness.


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— Shane

P.S. A collection of Mycenaean weaponry.

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