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It can be tempting to blame failure on a lack of willpower or a scarcity of talent, and to attribute success to hard work, effort, and grit.

To be sure, those things matter. What is interesting, however, is that if you examine how human behavior has been shaped over time, you discover that motivation (and even talent) is often overvalued. In many cases, the environment matters more.

Let me share an example that surprised me when I first learned of it.

The Shape of Human Behavior

In his award-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, scientist Jared Diamond points out an obvious fact: different continents have different shapes. At first glance, this seems rather unimportant, but it turns out to have a profound impact on human behavior.

For example, the general shape of the Americas is north-south. That is, the land mass of North and South America tends to be tall and thin in shape rather than wide and fat. The same is true for Africa. The primary axis runs from north to south.

Meanwhile, the land mass that makes up Europe, Asia, and the Middle East is the opposite. This massive stretch of land tends to be more east-west in shape. Interestingly, the shape of each region has played a significant role in driving human behavior throughout the centuries.


The Remarkable Power of Environment

When agriculture began to spread around the globe, farmers had a much easier time expanding along east-west routes than along north-south routes. This is because locations along the same latitude generally share similar climates, amounts of sunlight and rainfall, and comparable changes in seasons. This allowed farmers in Europe and Asia to domesticate a few crops and easily grow them along the entire stretch of land from France to China.

Meanwhile, the climate can vary wildly when you travel from north to south. Just imagine how different the weather is in Florida compared to Canada. Many crops that grow well in warm weather do not grow well in cold weather. In order to spread crops north and south, farmers would need to find and domesticate new plants whenever the climate changed.

As a result of these environmental differences, agriculture spread 2x to 3x faster across Asia and Europe as it did up and down the Americas. Over the span of centuries, this had a very big impact. The increased food production in Europe and Asia allowed for more rapid population growth in those areas. With more people, the cultures in Europe and Asia were able to build stronger armies and develop new technologies and innovations.

The changes started out small—a crop that spread slightly easier, a population that grew slightly faster—but compounded into substantial differences over time. While there were other factors, it is not a stretch to say the shape of the continents was an important reason why Europeans rose to power and conquered the native tribes of North and South America, and not the other way around.

The Invisible Hand

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.