I had a serious ant problem last year. My wife and I were living in a 90-year-old home that seemed to have a few extra critters here and there. But in eight years, there was nothing like last spring. This time they came in thick black droves.
It started without much notice. Just one single ant scurrying along the kitchen floor.
“No big deal,” I thought. It was a time of year when nature wakes up, and some bugs were bound to make their way indoors. I had no idea what horror would come.
Within weeks, our house was crawling with carpenter ants. On the floor, in the sink, on the walls and above the medicine cabinet. You couldn’t look in any direction without spotting at least a few invaders. And you couldn’t sit in one place for long without feeling something crawling on your foot.
Worst of all, though, was the kitchen cupboards. Especially those with food. I cringed each time I had to open a door, knowing a small black mass of ants was about to greet me.
Thankfully, it was a short-lived problem; lasting only a few weeks. And now that I can look back on it without feeling itchy, I’ll use it to illustrate an lesson.
1) Life is full of traps.
We’re all in a constant state of motion. And just like the ants, we hustle from one thing to the next, trying to live life and get the right stuff done.
Unfortunately for us (but especially for the ants), traps are set all around us.
A trap, put simply, is a little opportunity to get caught up in big problems; often before you even notice what’s going on. It’s a land mine just waiting to mess you up.
- You misunderstand a comment made by a loved one, overreact to it, and say something hurtful. You have fallen into the OFFENSE TRAP.
- You find yourself in a difficult situation at work and don’t want to look bad. Your boss asks for an update and a lie seems to rush through your lips before you can think twice about it. This is the EGO TRAP.
- You’re going about your day when a sudden urge sneaks up and sends you to the nearby bakery in a donut-devouring frenzy. Welcome to the CRAVING TRAP.
We don’t wake up in the morning and plan what mistakes to make. We genuinely want to do well in life, but fall into traps along the way. These errors in judgement and unhealthy habits happen in the blink of an eye.
But once we’re able to spot a trap, it loses almost all of its power.
2) The obvious traps don’t catch you. (Most of the time).
After finding my first little army of food-thieving ants, I went straight to the store. I bought the good stuff: liquid bait.
Shortly after arriving home, I saw (yet another) arrogant little ant, wandering around the kitchen floor like he owned the place. Out of frustration and spite, I got down on hands and knees, tracked his direction and placed a drop of bait in his path.
And what did he do?
He stopped and stared at the strange wet mound that dropped from the sky in front of him. He walked up to it, gave it a good sniff (as I encouraged him to have his fill), and then he slowly backed away and ventured off.
The little genius saw right through my evil plan and didn’t take the bait.
An old proverb says, “It is useless to spread the baited net in the sight of any bird.” And it would seem that even ants get spooked by obvious traps.
Humans are just the same.
Even though life is mostly automatic, we’re pretty good at spotting big problems and clear breaks in normal patterns. When something seems unusual or unsafe, we notice. And if we decide it’s a clear danger, we’re likely to play it safe.
- You’re driving to work when you see a car swerving between lanes ahead of you. You snap out of your daydream and decide to keep a safe distance.
- You’re walking through the grocery store and see a big red puddle half way down the aisle. You plan a new path and avoid any danger of wet feet.
- Your boss asks a tough question and you have to admit a big mistake. You heard through the grapevine that she already knows the truth, so you spot the dangerous trap and choose to stick with honesty.
Clarity is key to avoiding any trap.
If you can see the danger coming and feel the intensity of what a bad decision will do to you, you’re likely to avoid the trap.
3) The dangerous traps are hidden in your blind spots.
The real secret to ant bait is to plant it where they instinctively go to eat.
Ants are pretty clever. When one finds a decent food supply, it fills its stomach and heads home, leaving behind a long pheromone trail for itself and others to follow back to the source. That’s how they, along with a hundred friends, keep returning to their favourite spots.
They’ve learned to find food in certain places and their own pheromone trails keep leading them back. So when they stumble upon a dangerous trap in the midst of a comfortable feeding zone, they assume it’s a new tasty treat.
In a similar way, our brains lay down pathways (like the pheromone trails) when we get what we want. It wants to bring us back to that same person, place or behaviour as often as possible.
It creates a habitual comfort zone where we let down our guards and stop seeing the details. These blind spots in our vision mean we must walk through life’s minefield without any knowledge of its dangers.
Let’s look at three common causes of these danger zones.
Blind Spot #1: IGNORANCE
We often don’t see a perfectly clear picture of how our choices affect us. Sometimes we don’t know any better; and other times we simply turn a blind eye to the truth. But whatever the cause of our ignorance, it creates a real problem.
When ignorance is at play, your brain says things like, “Don’t ask any questions—you’ve always done it this way” and “Don’t look at the facts, they’ll just upset you!”
The problem is, ignorance hides the traps in your path.
- You stock your fridge with food and drinks without reading the labels, just leaving it all to chance. Now those secretly unhealthy foods are holding you back from achieving great health.
- You spend money freely without tracking your budget. You just hope it will all work out.
- You spend too much time with people who influence you to go back to your old bad habits. You thought you had changed for good, and assumed it was no big deal.
Blind Spot #2: SELF-DECEPTION
One major source of ignorance is self-deception. We lie to ourselves so we don’t have to feel so badly about our choices. It’s human nature to avoid the truth when it’s unhappy news or it won’t get us what we want.
Whatever the motivation, self-deception happens so we can escape from bad feelings and keep doing what we want.
Here are a few everyday examples.
- You keep buying things on credit thinking, “My income will be higher next year.” You’re looking to the future and assuming today’s problem won’t be there.
- You go to a party when you’re trying to quit drinking. You tell yourself you’ll be fine, even though you gave in and got drunk the last time you went.
- You keep meaning to lose weight, but your brother is much heavier than you, so you’re really not in that much trouble. You’ve given in to minimizing your problem by comparing yourself to others.
- You quit trying to improve your performance at work because you think you’ve got it mastered. However, others are getting ahead and you don’t even know it.
Blind Spot #3: UNCOMFORTABLE FEELINGS
Imagine you’ve just spent the last hour walking through your dream home. Each beautiful room seemed bigger, brighter and more elaborate than the one before it. And now you’re approaching the final door.
In pure anticipation for what you’re about to find, you open the door, step inside the pitch-black room and close the door behind you. You reach to your left, flip on the light switch and discover…the room is full of spiders.
Hundreds—no—thousands of them!
In a panic, you spin around to leave the same door you came in, but discover it’s locked. Your only option is to turn back around and run.
Now stop. How were you running? Was it a slow, peaceful jog as you looked around at all the details of the room.
You likely had your head down as you sprinted with every ounce of strength you could muster. Anything could have jumped out from around a corner and caught you completely off-guard.
Why? Because your focus narrowed in to one single thing—escaping a horrible threat.
Intense negative emotions like fear, guilt and shame have power over us. They make us run through life with our heads down, arms up and eyes half-closed.
We miss important details and make poor decisions because we’re in self-preservation mode. In our attempts to escape the pain, we fall into invisible traps.
- You sabotage a relationship before your partner can discover the truth of how unlovable you are. Feelings of shame, combined with the fear of rejection, has laid a trap for you.
- You receive a promotion at work, but can’t seem to make any decisions because you don’t think you’re up for the task. Imposter syndrome has gotten the better of you.
- You tell a lie to get out of a tough spot with your spouse. But because you’re so anxious, you don’t stop to think how easy it will be for him or her to find out the truth.
- You try drugs for the first time (even though you thought you never would), because of peer pressure and the fear of rejection.
What to Do?
Life is full of traps. Some are obvious and others are hidden.
Unfortunately, we can’t avoid them all. Our brains are designed to skip over details, so there will always be things we miss. But if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s more we can do to uncover these blind spots.
Here are two quick suggestions:
- Ask your friends, family, spouse, boss or coworkers, “What’s my blind spot?” Someone will certainly have an answer, so be sure you want to hear it!
- With each new decision you make (especially the big ones), ask yourself, “Am I setting a trap for my future?”
Even the ants avoid the obvious traps. Surely we can do better.