March 16, 2022

Unpacking The Finite Mindset


Everyday we’re faced with a choice. Well, really hundreds and hundreds of choices. 

In Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness’s The Practice of Groundedness, Brad introduces a simple but important analogy to his readers in the form of a question: If you were hungry, stressed, overwhelmed and/or rushed and two bowls were placed in front of you, one with brown rice and potatoes and another with M&Ms, which one would you choose?

If you instinctively chose the M&Ms, you’re not alone. In fact, most people would choose the candy and that’s by no fault of their own (or lack of willpower). That’s because the candy is literally engineered, with its bright colors, texture and sugary taste, to appeal to your brain far more than a bowl of brown rice and potatoes.

Understanding how we’ve evolved can provide cues into why that decision, even when armed with all the nutritional information and knowledge in the world can be so difficult. 

In ancient times, people never knew when their next meal would be, let alone when they would stumble upon a satiating and delicious handful of berries (the ancient world’s version of M&Ms). The very real lack of environmental inputs that could potentially yield fast, satiating, high-rewards in a world where humans were just trying not to get eaten by tigers, created the conditions for adaptations that affect us today. Over time, these evolutionary processes became psychological mechanisms that have been hardwired within us to help increase our chances for survival, and/or reproductive prospects. 

Those fast rewards represented the good life way back then. However, the problem is, we no longer need those rewards to survive or reproduce. We live in abundant times.

Researchers consider these evolutionary processes to be a mismatch for our modern world. Those adaptations are no longer helpful in a world full of high-reward environmental inputs like M&Ms and they make us predisposed to seek fast acting pleasures at the detriment of slow-reward, higher effort goods. 


The evolutionary hardwiring of our brains provides clues as to why it’s so hard to zoom-out and make long-term investments in ourselves as well as why it’s just so easy to embrace a finite mindset. Choosing proper goals, developing systems for working toward those goals, and making small daily investments in ourselves that don’t pay off until later goes against our basic biology and psychology.


In the context of goal setting, we often see athlete’s adopt what we call a “lilypad” approach to racing. In this scenario, an athlete can’t complete and reflect on the achievement of one finish line before they’ve already scheduled another race for the following month or in some extreme cases, the next week or even day.

In the short term, these athletes might see a lot of success, even some breakthroughs, completing goal after goal. You can race your way toward great fitness, riding high-reward after high-reward. But, almost always, after several months or years of this, that athlete starts to stagnate due to lack of structured training and adequate recovery time. Both important aspects of an infinite approach. They may even start to get less of a high when completing their goals, making it harder to take on the next challenge. Injury and burnout are often the byproducts of this approach as the athlete continues to see out quick rewards to the detriment of their health.


As a coach, athlete and small business owner, I will continue to posit that few things worth doing pay off through high-rewards in the short term. This is especially true with running, where if you do too much too soon, you often end up a victim of the sports inherent impact forces.

The long-term cultivation of our athletic lives is what’s necessary for success, because it’s in the journey where we find positive emotions like joy. And, joy is one of the fuels that helps perpetuate this process. The longer we can perpetuate it, the more opportunity we have to grow and ultimately the more fulfilled we will be.

In life, few things worth doing pay off in the short term. But, learning about and understanding the evolutionary hardwiring of our brains and the reasons we all gravitate toward fast-rewards (all the M&Ms present in the training process and finite mindset) helps give us the awareness and ability to make better choices as we learn and grow through our experiences.

Own your training. Trust the process.

-TJ & The Microcosm Coaching Team