We are drowning in a sea of opportunity. Every day, every one of us in the Western world is presented with an array of choices unimaginable by anyone in any time before. It’s staggering. Want a new pair of shoes? Just buy them. Hungry? Pick up the phone. You can have Mexican food, Indian food, Thai food, Chinese, Japanese, Southwest, Southwest/Japanese fusion, whatever you want. How tall is Lebron James? When did A Charlie Brown Christmas first air? How many atoms are there in a drop of water? Anything, anything you want to know is just a few clicks away. The last twenty years of the twentieth century brought about change on a level that humanity has yet to comprehend. Like a surfer caught in a breaking wave, we’re too busy going with the flow to fully assess exactly what is going on.

But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Many of the behaviors and instincts that brought our species through the first 99% of our evolution are no longer valid in our modern ecosystem. Specifically, the drive toward acquisition, which was so important to the survival and progress of the species, no longer serves us. Instead, in this age of abundance, another skill is emerging to draw the line between the fit and the failed: Self-regulation.

We are designed to thrive in times of scarcity. The most obvious example is diet. We seek out high calorie foods full of fat and carbohydrates. We crave that marbled piece of steak, the buttery baked potato, the cookie, the chocolate cake. Our brains evolved to flood our system with dopamine when we consume these foods because they will keep us alive. They’ve got the calories necessary to carry us through several days of hunting in a rough winter. And that system has served us well. However, we don’t live in that time of scarcity anymore. You can find 15 kinds of chocolate cake at the grocery store. Many Americans eat meat at every meal of every day. The problem is no longer the acquisition of those calorie-rich foods, but rather the ability to deny their consumption in order to avoid diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases of abundance.

The curse of abundance goes beyond diet. In fact, it may actually be far worse when it comes to information. Take, for instance, education. Much of the American educational system is focused on the acquisition of information. The system was designed in a time where access to information was scarce. If you wanted to learn something, you had to acquire it from a somewhat expensive and hard to find book, or you had to learn it from someone who already knew it. And so our educational system was designed around these two troves of information: The Teacher, and The Book. Since you were going to have limited access to these two items, you’d better do everything you could to memorize all of the data they provided. However, that’s not the reality we live in today. How many phone numbers do you know by heart? What is your grandmother’s birthday? What’s her address? Don’t know? It’s OK. You don’t have to. You can simply look it up in your phone.

Access to information is still a problem, but not in the way that it once was. Instead of having to hunt and peck for the little nuggets of information we find in the world around us, we are faced with the dilemma of parsing the the unstoppable fire hose of data blasting us at every second of every day. Left unchecked, the drive to acquire more information leads to a sort of digital diabetes, whereby constant exposure to new information leads to an inability to fully process anything. Bombardment of data destroys meaning, destroys significance.

The solution is better filters. The ability to resist the urge to check your email, to read your tweets, to google that tidbit of trivia in the middle of dinner – these will increasingly be what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. When you have access to everything all the time, the key survival mechanism ceases to be the ability to acquire information, but instead the ability to ignore the information that doesn’t matter. Even more importantly, the ability to suppress your natural urge to satisfy that need for the dopamine hit. Learning feels good; our brains reward us for it. That reward contributed to our dominance of as a species. So it’s ironic that we now find ourselves in an environment where the capacity to resist the temptation of our reward may be the primary factor that moves us forward.

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