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January 23, 2013 at 12:25 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

A Lesson from Ants

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Ants and Airplanes

I recently had the fortune of visiting Kenya, and the landscapes and diversity of wildlife there was breathtaking. While on a hike, I noticed a dark line across the train. As I approached closer, it was apparent that the line was in a fury of movement - an ant highway. Amazingly, there were two lanes of ants in single file, carrying bits of earth or leaves. At the borders, ants were piled, protecting the transporters. Further in the periphery, over the border of the highway, were larger ants with huge pincers - the guardians. My friend, a local, told me that these were Safari Ants, known for their cooperative abilities and defined roles. I couldn't help thinking as I walked away what valuable lessons we could learn from these tiny insects.

Boarding my airplane to come home, the attendant announced that all persons may now board.  In an instant, the tiny portal was jammed with humans piling in, fanned out in chaos tens thick with each individual passenger vying for an open niche or opportunity to gain some advantage. "This isn't working," I thought, taking in the calamity. Everyone did make it to their seat, but the expense of many frustrated persons and much lost time was irksome.

Understanding and Execution

Fortunately, things on the plane went much smoother. I watched the ground crew make their checks. I saw my bag loaded off the cart and onto the conveyor up to the cargo bay. The stewardesses made sure passengers' needs were cared for and that belts were fastened. The pilot and copilot safely and skillfully flew the plane to our intended destination. In short, everyone had and understood their roles. I wondered what would happen if members of the airline team demanded others' roles or refused to perform their intended duties.

In my experience, I've found that well-defined and executed roles enhance the lives and experiences of all involved. I'm not building an anthill, and I don't work for an airline. I am, however, a member of several organized groups which range from my job to my family to my occasional participation in an indoor soccer league. Each of these endeavors in my life run better with cooperation and defined roles. 

When we fail to cooperate and encroach upon the roles of others, chaos ensues. Each member of the team in my office has the ability to impact the lives of each coworker and patient, either positively or negatively. When my daughter says, "You're not the boss of me," I know we need a serious talk about roles in the family. And, if the goalie on my soccer team thinks he can do a better job as a forward, I am confident that we would be well on our way to losing the match.

Build Your Own Anthill

Unlike those ants, for us, we have a choice. Examine your own life. Can better cooperation with those around you enhance your ease in functioning? Are your roles well-defined? Achieving this order can reduce stress and advance you contentment, increasing the size of your "life's anthill."

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