Months back I wrote about an important, overlooked dynamic in evolution called Redundancy and Relaxation*. When you have two ways to do something, performance pressure is relaxed, which brings about either innovation or flakiness.

It’s like R&R: The boss says, “We’ve got someone to take your place for a couple of weeks, so for now, you’re redundant. Go relax. It will do you good. Maybe, with the pressure off, you’ll come up with some new stuff for us.”

Or, maybe with the pressure off, you’ll fall apart, like going on vacation and coming back addicted to booze.

Take this biological example of the pattern: A long time ago primates, like all other mammals today, had a physiological mechanism for producing their own Vitamin C. Like cats and dogs, they didn’t need fruit. Now we depend on fruit for our Vitamin C. Why?

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


When our primate ancestors climbed into trees and found a ready supply of fruit, they gradually lost their ability to produce their own Vitamin C. Redundancy: two ways to get Vitamin C. Relaxation: natural selection’s pressure to produce Vitamin C was relaxed. Internal Vitamin C-producing mechanisms could fall apart, yet thanks to fruit, we would still survive. Thousands of years with ready access to fruit left our inner Vitamin C production in a broken- down condition, addicting us to external sources of Vitamin C.

But the boss is right. Sometimes R&R does engender innovation. Take our early ancestors’ first upright steps. Redundancy: two ways to get around. Relaxation: upright walking took the pressure off our hands (literally). Hands were freed up to innovate, which is why I can type today.

Redundant Realities

The greatest experiment in hominoid R&R, however, is the human mind. Redundancy: We humans have two ways to view the world—with our eyes open and our eyes closed. We can see what is in front of us, or see visions in our mind’s eye. We can observe and we can dream. We can live in the real world or the fantasy world.

Relaxation: Having two worlds to live in can relax the pressure to live by either world’s rules. If things aren’t going well in one, we can shift to the other.

Sometimes in the dark, nightmarish fantasies fill our minds**. When they do, we can turn on the light and get a calming reality check. Conversely, in the light of day, sometimes things go badly for us. When they do, we can close our eyes and enjoy a relaxing fantasy about things going well for us.

While our senses can fool us, our minds can fool us better. In our minds, everything is possible. The mind’s eye is the ultimate relaxation tool, giving us an ever-ready sanctuary from real-world nightmares.

The Thin Line Between Vision and Delusion

We use our fantasy world both to motivate and demotivate ourselves. We can dream up fantastic outcomes and then go make them real, or we can dream up fantastic outcomes and pretend we’ve already made them real. Sometimes a breakaway visit to fantasy land reinvigorates us or gives us a new idea about how to make things go well in the real world. Sometimes we break away and stay away. As usual, the R&R can make us innovative or flakey. An idle mind is the creator’s workshop or the devil’s plaything.

Naturally therefore we’re ambivalent about closing our eyes to picture the world as the world is not. We call it imagination (good), kidding ourselves (bad), envisioning (good), living in our own little fantasy world (bad), aspiring (good), being out of touch with reality (bad), dreaming (good), being delusional (very bad).

It’s a question of balance, what I’ve called “optimal illusion,” knowing where in the service of self- governance to lighten up on your reality checks so you can keep hope alive, and where (in the service of self-governance) to take painful reality checks so you can keep effort alive.

In our larger organizations, the cynical say, “That’s close enough for government work.” When we enter our internal fantasy world, thereby loosening our grip on reality, we could just as well say, “Close enough for self-government work,” and mean it either constructively or cynically. We can mean that self- government requires the ability to overlook disappointing reality checks, keeping fresh our moments of high resolve so we can persist to success. We can also mean that as with government work, the rules to live by are just too hard to follow so we might as well cut corners and cut ourselves some slack, taking extended vacations in our own private la-la land.

Some say keep a firm grip on reality. Others say hold on to your dreams. I say bet carefully about when to do which. When you respect the dilemma, you tend to find a better balance.

* It is more often called redundancy and masking, though I think relaxation is clearer and so have chosen this alternative name for simplicity here.

**My favorite poet Philip Larkin captures the extremes of delusion in this poem:

Neurotics

No one gives you a thought, as day by day/ You drag your feet, clay- thick with misery./ None think how stalemate in you grinds away,/ Holding your spinning wheels an inch too high/ To bite the earth. The mind, it’s said, is free:/ But not your minds. They, rusted stiff, admit/ Only what will accuse or horrify, Like slot-machines only bent pennies fit.

So year by year your tense unfinished faces/ Sink further from the light. No one pretends/ To want to help you now. For interest passes/ Always towards the young and more insistent,/ And skirts locked rooms where a hired darkeness ends/ Your long defence against the non-existent.