Why Your Brain Is Built For Focus, Deliberate Practice and Slow Progress

“Humans are remarkably weak and vulnerable creatures.”  - Robert Greene

As the top of the food chain, it is hard for us to imagine that for millions of years humans were weak and vulnerable. We were less than 5 feet tall, slow, and our muscles were exceptionally weak compared to our predators. [1]

Under these circumstances, many species would have simply hoped to survive, let alone establish themselves as the top of the food chain. So what happened? What did our ancestors do that allowed them to evolve into the most dominant species on the planet? 

The answer is powerful. It explains why trying to take shortcuts to success will leave you forever floundering, and why some people are able to perform on an extremely high level. 


Have you ever wondered why some animals have eyes on the front of the heads and others on the side? They serve two very different purposes, and that played a significant role in the evolution of the species.

Frontal eye placement (like we have) has a narrow line of vision, but allows an animal to see more detail on objects up close and also see far off distances. Whereas placement of eyes on the side of the head allows an animal panoramic view of it’s environment, giving them the ability to scan the entire area for predators. With these differences in field of vision, the brains of the animals evolved very differently. [2]

Because they didn’t have a full scan of the environment at all times, front-sighted animals learned to find clues within their field of vision that indicated whether other animals were around. This caused them to develop their brains, as they began to think abstractly about their environment. Side-sighted animals, on the other hand, had a view of their surroundings at all times and didn’t need to develop such abstract thinking. 

Over time, this evolution began to move the front sighted animals further up the food chain. With more evolved brains, front-sighted animals became the predators, and side-sighted animals the prey. Take a look at any predators in today’s world and you will see they are all front-sighted (bears, lions, eagles, etc.) You can see an example of this with this eagle and robin.


The difference between us and these other predators, though, is that we had no other means of survival but our brains. Bears have claws, lions have teeth and eagles have talons. We have… nothing. So we needed to be extremely good at looking at our environment, finding clues, and planning our next move in order to survive. This helped us develop a deep analytical focus.


This focus, however, was not enough for our earliest ancestors to survive. There was another component necessary for survival on the Great Plains – cooperation. We realized that we had a much better chance of defending against predators and gathering food if we worked together. 

In order to survive, we not only had to work together to hunt and defend ourselves, but we also had to “play nice”. No stabbing anyone in the back, no taking someone else’s food and no stealing someone else’s mate. Otherwise, you were banished from the tribe and left to fend for yourself.

So we had to learn “right from wrong”. We had to think about how others would perceive our actions. We had to ask ourselves, "how would I feel if someone else stole my mate?" So we began anticipating how others would react in certain situations. This led to the development of “mirror neurons” and a whole new level of thinking. [3]

Mirror neurons allow us to see things from another person’s perspective. They allow us to feel empathy for others and anticipate how they will react. As we developed this part of our brains, we also began to use those skills to anticipate the behaviors of animals as well. To avoid lions, we should probably avoid setting up camp where the antelopes roam.

As we continued to get better at these skills, we soon learned to perceive the functions of plants and objects as well. This led to our ability to create tools. The tree is made of wood, wood is strong yet easier to carve than rocks. Maybe we can make it into a spear!

And once we understood what wood could be used for in one tool, we were able to think about other tools we could make with it as well. Continually building connections as we increased our understanding. 


So now we have ancestors with a sense of focus and intuition that is so strong that they are counting on it for survival. Now comes the third difference between us and the animals – our relation to time.

For our ancestors, the more time we spent working on something the deeper we understood it. Hunters continued to get better at hunting over the course of their lifetimes. They continued to make more connections about what tools were best to hunt with and how animals would react to sound and movement. 

The more we worked with wood, stones, or fire, the more we learned how we could use them in different situations. These connections that we built took years of persistent skill development, building one idea on top of the other. This skill development fundamentally altered the way our brains work in mastering a domain. Leading our brains to require 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice to become a master. [4]


Unfortunately most of us go against this natural learning process. In school, we slack off for most of the semester, then try to cram everything in at the last minute. We try a new skill like playing the piano but give up quickly if we feel we have no “natural gift for it.” And we try to multi-task in our work environments, going completely against our natural abilities of deep focus.

This short attention-span style not only works against our brain's natural abilities, but it actually begins to shape them like a side-sighted animal. The side-sighted animals are naturally inclined to multi-task and think short-term. Because of their panoramic view, they don’t focus on any one thing for very long, constantly being distracted by changes in their overall environment. 

When we multi-task, or don't persist with anything, we begin to devolve our brain’s structure to that of these primitive animals. We become more easily distracted, more focused on short-term pleasures and lose our ability to stick with our long-term goals. So by consistently multi-tasking or trying to take short cuts, you are setting yourself up for failure now and in the future. 


We have been given a tool that has been sharpened over millions of years to help us focus, innovate and make consistent progress over time. We need to work with this tool to continually increase our ability to focus. Doing short intervals of deep concentrated work will produce far better results than prolonged multi-tasking.

When you give yourself this time to focus, you will begin to make connections that never seemed clear to you before. With each hour of focused effort, your brain will begin to think more deeply and creatively, helping you innovate within your domain just like our ancestors did millions of years ago.

Then use time to your advantage. Do not get lost in jumping from one thing to the next like the side-sighted animals. Understand that your brain has evolved to require a long journey of persistent effort in order to attain anything great. But with each day you will make progress. This progress will give you more confidence and make the process more enjoyable. 


Our ancestors were weak, vulnerable creatures with few advantages – except their front-sighted eyes and social skills. Their eyes helped them develop focus, which led to a deeper understanding of the world around them. Their social skills led to the development of mirror neurons, which gave them the intuition to understand the capabilities of objects, animals and each other. 

The evolution of focus and intuition saved our species millions of years ago. And a recommitment to them will save our species once again. We have become obsessed with the ideas of multi-tasking and quick-fixes which are completely contrary to how we have evolved. Regardless of new ideas or new technology, our brains have evolved to require long, focused and persistent effort to create great outcomes. You can decide to work with this marvelous tool of innovation, or continue to wait for the quick-fix that never comes.


  1. Greene, Robert. Mastery. New York: Viking, 2012. Print.

  2. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

  3. Humphrey, Nicholas. The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

  4. Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance." Psychological Review 100.3 (1993): 363-406.