Thomas L. Friedman wrote a great opinion piece in the New York Times on Tuesday, entitled “How to Defeat Trump and Catch a Frisbee.” In it, he puts forth his opinion that the Democrats can win the day by keeping it simple. Ask simple, common sense questions during the impeachment trial and it will be difficult for our president to stay in office. Lawyers can overthink, overplan, and overanalyze, confusing the issue. But complicated political problems and goals can be somewhat simplified. The most important aspects of such situations can be prioritized and emphasized accordingly. Stay on point and you’ll see the forest despite the distraction of the trees. Friedman glimpses simplification in this article with a discussion of dogs and Frisbees.
Friedman references an elite U.K. economist, Andrew G. Haldane, who weighed in on the economic crash at a conference in 2008. Haldane made the point that dogs catch Frisbees better than humans, because dogs keep it simple. They fix their gaze on the Frisbee, run, and jump. Even a beginner dog, on the first day, does better than most humans. There isn’t a great deal of analysis. What a great metaphor to help the Democrats in the impeachment trials. Keep asking the simple questions. Don’t complicate and overanalyze. Prize common sense. I was struck by the metaphor and saw an opportunity to explain in terms of Sport Psychology. Back to the dogs. Why are they so good at what they do? It’s another case of less being more: simplicity. Dogs are a species well-adapted to what they do, just like we are, but they do what they do with less of what would seem to be an important part: the brain. Dogs don’t let their brain get in the way. Lucky for them it’s just not an option to do so. They are wired differently than we are: the part that gets in the way for humans just isn’t there for dogs. As a result, dogs don’t need Sport Psychologists.
Humans evolved a few special and powerful tools along the way to how we are today. One is the larger brain. This is not “man good, animal bad,” but at the risk of appearing human-centric, our big brain has enabled us to demonstrate capabilities that other animals can’t, e.g. dominate the planet, advance science, manage our emotions, etc. It’s not just that our brain is bigger, but the lobe in the front is newer on the evolutionary timeline and qualitatively different than brains of other animals. The most prominent structure in the brain that distinguishes us from other animals is the prefrontal cortex, which enables, among other things, imagining the future, creating things, and so creating the future. Great, we are really smart, but the IQ comes at a price.
A problem with the prefrontal cortex is that it is such a good tool that we grow to depend on it. We, as a species, judge and analyze just about everything. Unfortunately, we sometimes make simple things complicated. We use this tool when we have better tools to use. When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. You might consider using this great tool when you’re thinking about how you’re going to catch that Frisbee tomorrow, or when you’re analyzing how a dog catches it today. But making these analyses while you’re catching it is actually counterproductive. When people try to do this, and we have a natural tendency to do so, the energy and focus that could be going into relaxing and enjoying is going into thinking and worrying and planning. There are no spreadsheets involved with catching Frisbees. Dogs don’t do spreadsheets. Our furry friends will never build a computer, but they are more likely to catch a Frisbee, with confidence. It’s a package deal: we got imagination and analysis, and these two wonderful attributes come with a big helping of overthinking.
One of the most important lessons of Sport Psychology is to make a plan that includes getting the analysis out of the way during performance. Great golfers, for example, make a simple plan and execute it. They know the process they are going through, it is well planned out and imagined. Once the plan for the shot is fixed, they commit 100% to the plan. Then, when it is time to strike the ball, they focus on impact and relaxation: that’s all. They make it simple and let their body take over in a relaxed fashion. So lawyers and businessmen can learn from Zen masters and elite athletes. They can analyze their situation and make a plan, a simple plan, and commit to it. Then, they can do their best to let the analysis drift away in lieu of simplicity and focus, like great athletes do. But, for the performance part, they might be better off following the lead of dogs, who are even better than humans in ways, and wired to be great mental athletes.
Joseph T. Havlick, MBA, Wharton; Ph.D., Sport Psychology, Temple University