Life Lessons from a 500-million-year-old organism

Here in the United States, most of us have a rather short view of history. The current political structure of our country is only 240 years old. Native Americans arrived 12,000 years ago, a fact which gives the Americas a longer tenure but still doesn’t compare to civilizations on other continents. 

Homo sapiens appeared about 100,000 years ago or so. But as students of science and nature, we can learn a few valuable life lessons from the non-human world. Consider an organism that has been around for 500 million yearscoral.

Have you ever given much thought to what evolution over the course of millennia could teach you? What would it take to stick around on a planet that saw dinosaurs come and go? Strategies for survival that worked that well must have some seriously competitive advantages.

Build on past experience, and find friends who do the same.

Each individual coral polyp is tiny--about 2 millimeters. As they build a calcium carbonate skeleton, they move up and out of the lower layers, slowly but surely constructing a reef. The Great Barrier Reef is the planet's largest structure made by living things.

Successful careers and fulfilling lives are built the same way, slowly but surely building on each experience, surrounding ourselves with people who do likewise. You may have met some of these kindred spirits already; cherish their friendship though the coming years as you build careers and lives together. Keep an open mind and a welcome heart for those who share your passion. They will keep you inspired and help you build a life of authenticity.

Appreciate others’ strengths, and rely on them to help you out.

Surround yourself with a few folks who are NOT like you, as well. Coral reefs couldn't survive without parrotfish, who graze on the outer film of algae which smother the coral if left unchecked.

Everyone has areas of relative weakness, and to be your most authentic self, you must seek out people who are different—those individuals who have strengths that compensate for your weaknesses. Depend on the kindness and skills of others, and you'll discover that your own strengths are appreciated by them as well. 

You are critically important, but insignificant at the same time.

Each polyp plays a role in creating the coral community, and each community of corals combines with others to form a reef. In turn, the reef is part of an ecosystem that includes everything from plankton to clownfish to sharks. Over millions of years, the Great Barrier Reef has become 1,400 miles long—but each polyp is still about 2 millimeters in size.

Each of us is monumentally precious to those we care about—our parents, friends, spouse, and children—but we are also just a small part of a larger whole, with generations before us and generations to follow. You are unique but you are also one small part of a large, complex macrosystem. Keep that perspective in your heart and mind, and it will help you find inspiration for achieving greatness as well as humility and grace.

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