5. (Building Great Careers) Ants, Wasps and what they can teach us about Careers
“Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans.” — E. O. Wilson
A couple of months ago, I read a book called “Journey to the Ants” written by biologists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson in the 1990s. The book provides a detailed, layperson friendly account of all things “Ants” — their evolution, social structure, their place in the larger natural ecosystem etc. I found the book quite fascinating — it opened my eyes to the indomitability of what seem like lowly, hapless creatures. This post is about how surprisingly relevant ants’ lives could be, for one’s career progress.
Ants don’t live individual lives — they are completely social creatures. They do not really have any identity independent of their contribution to their colony. A colony is one large biological family and acts like an organism itself (referred to as superorganism). Within a colony, ants work along strict divisions of labour. Approximately speaking, all female ants are born with potential to become queen or sterile workers. What they ultimately grow into is influenced by the quantity and quality of food that they receive, ambient temperature during their growth phase and the physical vitality of the existing queen. A very small number of ants are born as males whose only role is to play their part in the genetic propagation of the colony.
A fully developed ant is only concerned with fulfilling its role without particular cognizance of its larger family. The colony-superorganism controls and ensures that appropriate number of its members play various roles required for colony’s survival — e,g foraging, defending, nursing the young etc.
This is in particular contrast with how wasps (ant’s original ancestors) go about their lives. A wasp is a solitary animal. There is no division of labour with wasps — a wasp will have to do it all by itself — right from digging a nest, to preying on smaller insects/caterpillars etc, to dragging the prey into its nest, to laying eggs, to closing the nest. If it misses any of these steps or messes up the order, its gene pool gets eliminated. In contrast, social animals like ants do not suffer such disadvantage. If a particular ant messes up its job, another ant steps in and takes up the slack. As such, ant colony provides for more than adequate redundancy in capacity for all its functions.
Owing to their organizational expediency, ant colonies tend to dominate their natural ecosystem — they are not afraid of being conspicuous and hold monopoly over fertile food sources. In contrast, solitary insects like wasps tend to rely on special evolutionary niches like being fast moving or cleverly camouflaged or being heavily armoured.
What does this have to do with careers?
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Well, people develop careers in varying sizes of organizations. Certain kinds of careers are more suitable in larger organizations and certain others in smaller organizations. Developing a good understanding of what works and what does not in different kinds of organizations can help you either build the right of career in your existing ecosystem or better yet, move to ecosystems that are more suitable for the kind of career that you wish to build.
I find it striking that ant colonies operate very similarly to how larger organizations operate. Various functional roles — right from individual ants playing their assigned roles to “royal” ants that focus on their own longevity by ensuring that “worker” ants are busy working and also that the organization carries the appropriate number of workers.
“People are like ants: Just a few of them give all the orders. And most of them spend their lives getting squashed.” — Lauren Oliver
Very similar to “royal” ants, when senior leaders, including CXOs, overstay their usefulness in their organizations, they get booted out — for various reasons like bad financial results, sloppy governance and compliance, fraud etc. Similar to ant colonies controlling proportions of worker ants in various colony functions, organizations hire and fire workers to maintain appropriate organizational structures.
In many organizations, “workers” remain workers throughout their careers and “senior leaders” either start out directly in the leadership cadre or quickly transition upwards from the “worker” class early on in their careers. One of the most common failures in career journeys is the inability to transition from a “worker” ant mindset to a “queen” mindset. I remember my own protracted struggles when I made this transition — in fact, a part of me never could transition.
“Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” — Jonathan Swift
People who end up having great careers tend to be like wasps but with a deep understanding of ant colony-like structures. That is, they will never become pure hands-off administrators, they will never lose touch with the nuts and bolts of the value chain within their organization — e.g., Bezos, Musk, Nadella, N. Chandra etc.
If you aspire to be or have natural propensity for becoming a senior leader (like “royal” ants), large organizations are suitable. Larger organizations are also suitable for you if you view your job as just a way of making money and not a proxy for self-worth. However, if you derive a sense of identity from your job, you may be better off working in smaller organizations because they rely on more wasp-like personalities — i.e., people with multi-disciplinary mindset and capabilities.
“Every ant knows the formula of its ant-hill, every bee knows the formula of its beehive. They know it in their own way, not in our way. Only humankind does not know its own formula.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
The evolutionary principles that drive ant colonies and wasps are largely the same principles that seem to drive human organizations too. Understanding the characteristics of various roles that ants play and the role that their ancestors-wasps play, can be quite instructive in guiding one’s own career journey. The usefulness of this understanding is equally applicable to other organizational set-ups in one’s life like family and societies.
Thanks for taking time to read this. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.
A bit on my background
I worked in India and the USA with most of my work experience with large global organizations. My last corporate role was the Head of Technology for “Treasury and Trade Management Solutions” for Citigroup South Asia cluster. At Citi, I set up from my Business Unit and grew it from a team size of 1 to over 1900 Citi employees in a span of eight years.
I quit Citi in 2021 to focus exclusively on my interest area of improving decision making. In the last 2 years, I studied this topic closely and developed a training course to systematically improve decision making ability. I’m also an Investment Advisor (RIA) registered with the Securities and the Exchange Board of India (SEBI). As an RIA, I analyze and prepare financial plans to help people achieve their financial goals.
I have done MBA in Strategy and Finance from Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota and B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay.