Human brains are capable of huge numbers of things. Putting up with the ramblings of politicians. Reciting the entire theme song from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air whilst drunk. Trumping all past experience and logic and eating an entire pizza in one sitting in spite of the inevitability of indigestion later.
We’re good at stuff. It’s probably why there are now seven billion of us. Our brains are able to put together complex patterns and suss out danger. We have intuition and a combination of hormones and synapses that spend a lot of time keeping us alive when without them we might continue to stick our fingers in light sockets or poke at red hot electric burners.
One of the things the human brain does is predict outcomes. When we encounter a situation, our brains like to break it down into its parts and store it away for future use. It’s how we know to avoid cars that are swerving around the road — or that neighbor when he starts walking toward you and you know you’re in for a twenty minute one-sided conversation about termites. Part of this builds on past experience. Some ties in stories we’ve heard, both fictional and not. Our brains generally want what’s best for us, which may or may not extend to the retention of the Macarena.
(Hey, you never know when you might need that. Or all the lyrics of Mmm-Bop.)
There’s a fine line, though, between predicting that the group of people coming toward you at dusk might want to eat you and knowing where you’ll be a year from now.
None of us really know the future. We can approach different situations if we’ve faced them or heard about them before, but we can’t pull a crystal ball out of nowhere and pre-emptively buy a time share in Orlando based on maybe winning the lottery next year. The problem with our brain’s desire to make predictions is that as much as it tries to be helpful, there are certain times where it really knows about as much about your future as an ant in Guatemala does.
Nevertheless, it still tries.
One of the first proverbs I ever remember hearing was, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” We used to have chickens, but as we weren’t trying to raise baby ones, that proverb always perplexed me a bit. I was fine not counting pre-hatched chickens because all I really wanted was an omelette.
As an adult, trying to cultivate the life that I want feels a bit like laying clutches of eggs. Before you get your head too stuck in that imagery (you’re welcome), think about all the things we do to achieve our goals. Go to university. Work internships. Write several manuscripts. Go to conventions. Go to conferences. Network. Build websites. Insert Applicable Egg-Like Life Tidbits Here.
Back in the 80s and 90s, a degree was almost inevitably an egg that would immediately hatch into a full-fledged career — a career that would lay its own eggs. A 401K. Health insurance. Sick leave. Vacation days.
These days, a degree is just another egg in a basket. It may hatch. It may not even be fertilized. What’s vacation again?
My brain likes to take a gander at all the eggs I’ve laid and start making predictions. It might point at a connection I made at a conference and say, “See, that person knows this person, and this person could make all these eggs hatch at once!”
One little chicken.
It might point at my degree and say, “Surely history majors are necessary for something. Just wait. It’ll hatch.”
Two little chickens.
It might wave a hand at all my completed manuscripts and crow with delight. “Books! You’ve written lots of books! WAIT TILL THEY SELL LIKE HOTCAKES!”
Three little chickens.
One little, two little, three little chickens.
The thing is, none of those eggs have actually hatched. You can fill in those slots with anything applicable to you. Maybe your brain points to your company loyalty and says, “Surely you’ll be up for a promotion soon!” Perhaps your brain waggles its fingers at your new acquaintance who said they might have an in with someone who could place the first big order for your start-up company. “They’re bound to love your products! And with that kind of endorsement, you’ll take off in no time!”
It’s all counting chickens.
Our brains have this overwhelming desire to be helpful. They want us to succeed because of nature and natural selection and because we don’t really like the smell of unfulfilled potential. We don’t like staring at eggs in a basket. We like to prance about on egg shells and crowdsurf on newly-hatched chicks.
Oh, wait, am I alone in that?
The only way to ensure that our eggs will hatch is to keep on laying more. If there’s anything certain in this post-economic boom of an age we live in, it’s uncertainty. More and more, we can’t depend on just one hatching egg to be That One Nest Egg. We can no longer count on one egg to hatch into a chicken that will lay all the other eggs we need forever. But if we have enough, some of them just might hatch.
For all the amazing things they do, our poor little brains just can’t predict which ones.
Which is fine. Go sit on your nest.
And just for funsies…
*Featured image “Take Five” by HerbertT via WikiCommons. Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike. Edit by Waugsberg.