The Bird-Worm Matrix: What’s your quadrant?

You’ve probably heard the old adage: the early bird catches the worm…

And if you’re anything like me (a perpetual procrastinator with a sophistic bent), you probably cannot not help but pose the question: Well what about the early worm?

Let’s lay it out as a matrix.

It clear from this view that the sad fate of the early worm is even worse than that of the late bird, who at worst goes hungry for a while, free to rise early again another day.  It’s game over for the early worm.  Indeed, the worm is much better served by sleeping in and waiting out the morning.

So what’s the lesson here?

Let’s geek out for a second.   As it turns out, the early bird metaphor is more than just an appeal against procrastination and laziness.  It’s a framework for risk/reward decision-making and personality types. The two personality types (Bird and Worm) and two courses action (act Late or act Early) describe the axes in the matrix above.

The Bird is the go-getter — the competent leader who is well-served by taking risks.  By taking the initiative and acting Early, he stands to gain big with a delicious lunch in the form of the Worm.  If he procrastinates, or waits to follow another more adventurous bird, he suffers a setback (no lunch!), but no major harm.

On the other end of the spectrum, befittingly at the bottom of the food chain, there’s the Worm.  He represents the more prudent, lower-achieving type — the natural follower, perhaps.  He is best served by eschewing risks and taking the safe path instead.  His best-case scenario is not one of actual gain, but one of disaster avoidance.  When he over-reaches and ventures out Early but unprepared, he is brutally, irreparably, punished.

So when you think about it, the early bird metaphor is more than a little unpleasant.  It describes a world where the meek and unprepared Worms are crushed if they step outside their boundaries, to be conquered by the go-getter high-achieving Birds.  Some might say it’s a fitting allegory for a competitive, uber-meritocratic society.  Others might say it’s limiting and unfair.

Still, we pose the question: What’s your quadrant?

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