Guppy fish and Greenland sharks

publishedabout 1 year ago
2 min read

Spare a thought for the poor guppy fish, who lives a miserable existence.

Birds eat guppies. Small fish eat guppies. Big fish eat guppies. It’s everyone’s favourite lunch.

How does a species under so much threat avoid extinction?

In short, guppies get busy as soon as they’re born. They can reproduce at seven weeks old, and deliver new offspring every 30 days. By the time the six-month old guppy is eaten by a bird, it might be a great-great grandmother. The family lives on.

But this evolutionary trick has a nasty flip side. Knowing how much danger they’re in, guppies expand almost all their energy on reproducing from the moment they’re born. That leaves little energy to care for themselves.

Now compare the guppy with the Greenland shark, whose life is a mirror image.

The Greenland shark has no natural predator. It rules its habitat like a dictator.

With few threats, it takes its sweet time becoming an adult. It’s one of the slowest-growing creatures we’ve discovered, reaching sexual maturity at - and this isn’t a typo - 150 years old.

In the meantime, it spends more than a century devoting its energy to building itself a perfect body. Slow and methodical, with all of its resources going to cell repair and maintenance, it becomes virtually immune to cancer and infectious disease. As best we can tell a Greenland shark can live for 500 years, maybe more.

The point is that nature is very good at assessing future risk and uncertainty and allocating resources accordingly.

It takes a realistic look at the future and says: “There are so many risks lurking here. Don’t even bother trying to plan for the future.” For others, it says: “Your future is clear and foreseeable - predict away with confidence.”

Fish are masters at this balance.

Birds are masters at this balance.

Insects are masters at this balance.

Humans? Different story.

Sometimes we pretend we’re Greenland sharks, unburdened by threats and able to devote all our resources to a predictable future.

But we’re closer to guppies, constantly facing risks from every direction.

When you see how much effort and energy are devoted to forecasting the next year or two, then compare it to the constant level of threat and surprise we face, it’s astonishing. Mother nature would shake her head.

Investing in your long-term future is of course great, because the odds that you’ll be around and everyone else will become more productive are pretty good.

But trying to predict the exact path we’ll take to get there can be such a waste of resources. When you keep your forecasting simple, you free up time to invest elsewhere.

I like studying human behaviours that never change, and I would never have the time to do that if I spent my day predicting what the world will do next quarter.

It’s less about admitting that we can’t forecast, and more about acknowledging that if your forecast is merely “good enough”, you can invest your time and resources more efficiently elsewhere.

Nature has been honing this truth for hundreds of millions of years - perhaps we should pay attention.


Last week has been hectic for me as I went back to my everyday routines. I’ve started to feel more like a guppy fish who has to chase deadlines and just “get things done”.

But I’m learning a ton for the long-term. Right now, I’m deep-diving into psychometrics, which is the study of tests. We’re learning how to measure psychological constructs - whether it’s anxiety, depression, stress or self-esteem and life satisfaction, or any other phenomena.

Next week, I’ll research resilience. I can’t wait to share more about this fascinating topic as I learn more about it. (Are some people more like “Greenland sharks”?)

What’s going on in your world? Is your life also back to routine? If so, how are you coping with it?

Have a great week!


Olle Lindholm

A Sweden-based author and coach.

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