Life Lessons we can all learn from ants

“Ants are notorious, yet their cerebral ganglia are not so large as the quarter of a small pins’d head. Under this point of view, the brain of an ant is one of the most marvelous atoms of matter in the world.”  

– Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)

Ants are a marvelous species; They are tiny and often go unnoticed, yet their empires span across the world and their population outnumbers the human population by a factor of 1 to 1.000.000. They practice architecture, agriculture, husbandry, military tactics and achieve projects which humans can only dream of.

When I was younger, I often got bullied for my small size compared to my peers. For a long time I was the smallest of the class and often got compared to an ant as a means of insult. It never bothered me; the ant is probably my favorite species to learn about and observe and there are a multitude of lessons that one can learn from these highly intelligent little workers. These are some of the lessons I have compiled for myself for use in personal matters, business or art.

Pursue relentless focus on your goal

“All the best work is done the way that ants do things — by tiny but untiring and regular additions”

– Lafcadio Hearn

I find ants to be fascinating creatures because of the unique combination of their size and their unrelentless focus on a goal. When they gather objects for their colony – whether it’s pieces of food for dinner, twigs and dirt for construction of their empire, or dead relatives to avoid diseases from spreading – their individual efforts seem to matter little, however, during the course of a day, the tiny but numerous efforts amount to a significant accomplishment. They do not lose motivation, they do not stop to smell the roses and they do not switch to a different project before the current is completed – a trap many of us fall into.

Just bashing your soft and unarmoured skull against the wall is not effective though, and neither would an ant do this. A great example of this fact is the Leafcutter ant; This species of ant lives in tropical climates and are not made for battle, in fact, when they leave their nests they run a great risk of being attacked and killed by parasites. Instead of trying to be a great hunter they have evolved into an agricultural species; They gather leafs from the surrounding rainforest and use this biological fuel to grow fungus inside the safety of their underground empire. A smart and effective way to reach their goal.

Optimize your work for best results

“It would seem that the ant works its way tentatively, and, observing where it fails, tries another place and succeeds.”

– Richard Jefferies

Just about every ant species uses pheremones to signal the effectiveness of a given path to a certain source of interest – such as food – and other ants use this information to determine which path they will take to this source. When they return to the colony themselves, they go through the same routine. Over time, this leads to surprisingly accurate path optimization for the colony. In fact, this method of optimization is known as the ‘ant colony optimization’ algorithm and is used as a metaheuristic method for many problems ranging from traffic routing problems to computer network optimization.

The fact that these creatures – with the brain size of a pins head – have figured out a method of optimization critical to their evolution is a worthy lesson to note. If you want to be ahead of the pack, working unrelentlessly towards your goals is not enough, you must optimize your work process to truly reach your potential.

Communism works, just not for humans

“If a worker behaved selfishly, consuming for a good part of her life more resources than she contributed, this weakened the colony far more than if she had the decency to die.”  

– E.O. Wilson

An ant colony is the best example of how communism should work in theory; Although the entire ant colony consists of thousands of individuals, it works unified like a single-minded organism with but one goal in their collective mind. It is folly, however, to compare this well-oiled machine to human behavior. Humans are biologically wired differently, and have evolutionary evolved to compete against each other individually. I would argue that humans – in the end – only care about their own well-being, and that cooperation is pursued because it aids both individuals, not the pack. It does not help that humans also have complex emotional systems that constantly interfere with collective goals.

Always prepare for disaster

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; Consider it’s ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers it’s food at harvest.”  

– Proverbs 6:6-11

Life has a way of throwing a curveball every now and then. Sooner or later, setbacks can and will happen and you need to prepare and be ready for them. Ants know this wisdom inherently through the miracle of evolution. All summer, when food is abundant, they stockpile their goods in enormous larders – sometimes even in their own bellies – so they can thrive during winter, rainfall or flood when they are denied from foraging.

For a mere human, preparing for disaster often means keeping a financial buffer ready to support your basic needs whenever something happens. You might lose your job, a flood hits your house or one of your pets needs expensive surgery; Something will happen. Be ready.

Action always beats inaction, no matter how small

“An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.”

– Lao Tzu

Ants are always busy. Next time when you walk down the street and spot the opening of an anthill, take some time from your day to observe. Not a single ant will be waiting around, thinking carefully about all the things that can go wrong for a given action. They simple do it. There is wisdom in this simplicity. Too often humans are stuck in an analysis paralysis situation, where they are blocked by their perception of risk and ignore the risk of doing nothing. Often, an action might not be the most efficient or effective, but it sure beats endlessly analysing risk and being idle.

Communication is key

“Ants have the most complicated organization on earth next to humans.”

– E.O. Wilson

Ants work well together; they achieve incredible projects that – if compared to human size – would amount to building skyscrapers towards the moon. They work so well in unison because of continuous communication; an ant hive might seem quiet from the perspective of an observer, but for an ant, it is a thriving metropolis full of noise, shouting and smells; Pheremones cover the entire landscape surrounding the entrance to the ant hill and whenever an ant meets another, they briefly touch their antennaes together – as if they are shaking hands – to introduce themselves.

Now imagine a project – and everyone has one – which you personally participated in that failed in the most horrible of ways. Think of how the communication went between all stakeholders in the project; Most likely it failed because it lacked proper communication. It would appear these ants are experts in project management in comparison.

Eliminate waste from your life

“Who may be called a paramahamsa? He who, like an ant, can take the sugar from a mixture of sugar and sand, leaving aside the sand.”

– Ramakrishna

Waste in life is terrible, it clogs up the drains of your productive output and chains an anchor to your potential. Ants know this, and constantly keep their colonies clear of waste; In fact, most ant species dedicate a special location to storing all wasteful materials they can find – just like a garbage drop-off depot – so that the insides of their underground empires stay as clean as possible. Whenever an ant dies, a special undertaker ant will come, lift their body up in the air, and carry them to a cemetery chamber where their bodies lay in peace. For the ants, this achieves an efficient colony, free of bacteria and parasites.

When referring to waste in life, I am not referring to the rotting apple in your garbage can. Waste in life can be so many things, from relatives and/or friends that bring negativity in your life to owning a house that is bigger than you actually need. Every day, with pure conviction, try to eliminate wasteful behavior from your life and your life will be more productive, efficient and happier. If I had to pick one lesson from the list that is the most important, I would pick this one.

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