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Why we fight imaginary enemies (and what to do about it)

Posted in the following categories: Personal Development, Productivity

The same thing happens every time the doorbell rings.

My office is on the second floor of our house. Our dog Einstein usually sleeps in his bed next to my desk while I’m busy typing away. The moment he hears the doorbell, he instantly goes from deep sleep to fully awake and books it down the stairs—rounding corners, spinning out, and bumping against various pieces of furniture with zero concern for his little body. He then starts barking at the door while jumping to unimaginable heights.

Even his favorite treat isn’t enough to lure him away from the imaginary enemy at the door. He appears to think his actions averted the threat and that if he hadn’t barked at the door, the house would have been stormed by ill-meaning strangers.

For the longest time, I ascribed my dog’s Pavlovian beat of stimulus-response, stimulus-response to his canine genes.

But then it dawned on me: I’m much more like Einstein than I assume. Yes, my operating system is slightly more advanced. But I also find myself setting up walls and constructing defenses against enemies that are nowhere to be found.

I assume, for example, that horrible things will ensue after a mistake in a blog post or a botched podcast episode. My perfectionism kicks into high gear when I assume the enemy—whatever form the enemy might take—will remain at bay as long as I get the article, the blog post, the book chapter perfect.

This, of course, is an illusion. I’m a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at digital windmills. Even if there was an enemy—and that’s a big if—no amount of perfect can prevent digital criticism.

I know I’m not alone here. Consider your relationship with email. When I used to practice law, I would constantly check my inbox, meticulously responding to questions and problems as they poured in. This would eat away at my attention span and obliterate my ability to focus. But I kept doing it. Because the problem in the email would disappear after I intervened, I assumed—much like my dog Einstein—that it was my barking that resolved the problem.

One day, out of frustration, I tried something new. I began waiting a few hours to respond to some emails.

What happened? Nothing.

In many cases, the “problem” in the email would magically disappear on its own without my intervention. Either someone else copied on the email would answer the question or the sender would solve the problem on their own like a self-cleaning oven.

Our tendency to attack imaginary problems isn’t just an innocuous exercise. Our interference can actually make things worse. Consider one compelling study on changing traffic lanes. If you’re anything like me, you always assume you’re driving in the wrong lane and the cars in the other lanes are going much faster.

This turns out to be an illusion. “Every driver on average thinks he’s in the wrong lane,” one of the researchers behind the study said. “You think more cars are passing you when you’re actually passing them just as quickly. Still, you make a lane change where the benefits are illusory and not real.” And by changing your lane in an imaginary attempt to shave off a minute or two from your commute, you end up increasing the risk of a collision by threefold.

There’s another downside to fighting illusory problems. While we’re busy averting imaginary threats, we neglect the real ones. We focus on the seemingly urgent—instead of the important. We forget we’re here to cross the swamp—not to fight the alligators. Rather than being proactive, we spend most of our days—and our lives—playing defense against enemies that don’t exist.

In some cases, these defense mechanisms developed in response to real problems. But the immune response remains long after the enemy leaves.

Think about it: What are you needlessly barking at in your own life? Where are you afraid of getting attacked by an enemy that doesn’t exist?

I’ll end the article with the last line of A Separate Peace, a book I loved as a teenager. Speaking of the characters in the book, the author writes: They “constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way – if ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.”

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