“A man should be a good provider.”
We’ve all heard this phrase before; it remains common even in our modern society. When someone says that a man should be a good provider, what they invariably mean is that he should have a good job that earns a steady income, one which enables him to provide food, shelter, and the nice things in life to his family.
This definition of being a provider is well-ingrained in our society and in the male psyche. In fact, when men lose a job, and thus their identity as a provider, they tend to get very anxious and depressed.
So earning a good income–is that what’s involved in this Switch of Manliness? And if so, is the switch still a viable one in a time where both partners in a marriage are often breadwinners? And what about stay-at-home dads? Are they not providers?
In fact, bringing home the bacon has little to do with the true Provider Switch at all.
Providing in Primitive Times
In the Switches of Manliness series, we’ve been traveling back in time, way back in time, to uncover the original male drives that are still embedded in the modern man’s psyche.
Last time, we mentioned the fact that in very primitive societies, men and women provided about equal resources to their tribes; women gathered nuts and seeds, and men hunted big game. In fact, for much of human history, men and women contributed fairly equally to the family economy. The idea of the stay-at-home wife who lounged around the house while her husband toiled all day outside the home is a relatively modern conception of family life. It wasn’t until the 19th century that we saw this idea take hold in the West and even then, the working husband and stay-at-home wife dynamic was typically only available to the wealthy and middle-class. In most families, both men and women had to work in some capacity in order to keep the family afloat financially.
So is there a broader definition of providing, one that better fits the historical record?
To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to look at the etymology of the word “provide.” The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us:
early 15c., from L. providere “look ahead, prepare, supply,” from pro- “ahead” + videre “to see” (see vision)
To which the Etymological Dictionary of the English Language adds:
“Lat. to act with foresight, lit. to foresee”
I like that idea of providing. Instead of making a man’s identity and worth based on his paycheck, his ability to provide hinges on whether he has a vision for his life, leads his family with that vision, and is able to look ahead and prepare for the storms of life.
Man as Scout
In primitive times, looking ahead took the form of scouting for the tribe. Men were the lookouts. As scouts, they navigated the terrain and traveled ahead (and behind) the women and children, scanning the horizon for dangers to avoid.
This male role continues in modern primitive tribes, and has even been observed in chimps:
“When Bushmen travel, they walk in a single file, with a man in the lead who watches out for fresh predator tracks, snakes, and other dangers. Women and children occupy safer positions. This, too, is reminiscent of chimpanzees, who at dangerous moments–such as when they cross a human dirt road–have adult males in the lead and rear, with females and juveniles in-between. Sometimes the alpha male stands guard at the road until everyone has crossed it.” -Frans De Waal, The Age of Empathy
I think we all intuitively understand this behavior. Males tend to be physically stronger than females, so it makes sense that males were the ones doing the protecting. But it wasn’t a man’s brute strength alone that qualified him for this role. The male brain is actually uniquely suited for this scouting (or vision providing) task in several ways.
The Scouting Brain
When we were hanging out in our mothers’ wombs, our bodies were flooded with a bunch of different hormones. According to The Male Brain, two of these substances–specifically anti-Mullerian hormones and testosterone–primed the circuits of our tiny male brains for certain functions like “exploratory behavior, muscular and motor control, spatial skills, and rough play.”
The male brain is particularly adept at visual-spatial skills. Men tend to be better than women at rotating objects in their minds to gain a 3-D view and are better able to track moving objects, gauge how fast they’re going, and determine the objects’ proportions and location. Men also have keener long range vision than women, are more sensitive to objects entering their field of vision, and are better at noticing the small movements of those objects. In fact, there is a correlation between higher testosterone levels and visual-processing speeds.
Men’s visual and spatial abilities give them a leg up when it comes to geography, orientation, and navigation–skills that come in handy when out on the hunt or engaging in battle.
The male brain is also built with a larger dorsal premammillary nucleus, also called the “defend-your-turf” part of the brain. The circuity of this part of the brain is designed to detect territorial challenges by other males. Men’s brains also include a larger amygdala than women, which can be thought of as an alarm system for possible danger. Thus men are especially alert to potential threats to themselves and their loved ones.
The Tracking Brain
These inborn proclivities not only helped men in their roles as searchers and scouts, they may have been used in ways that then strengthened their ability to envision the future. In Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall recounts an insight a modern-day man, Louis Lisenberg, received when he spent time learning how to track and hunt in the primitive style with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert:
“Even after you learn to read dirt, you ain’t learned nothing; the next level is tracking without tracks, a higher state of reasoning known in the lit as ‘speculative hunting.’ The only way you can pull it off, Louis discovered, was by projecting yourself out of the present and into the future, transporting yourself into the mind of the animal you’re tracking…’When tracking an animal, one attempts to think like an animal in order to predict where it is going,’ Louis says. ‘Looking at its tracks one visualizes the motion of the animal and feels that motion in one’s own body. You go into a trancelike state, the concentration is so intense. It’s actually quite dangerous, because you become numb to your own body and can keep pushing yourself until you collapse.’
Visualization…empathy…abstract thinking and forward projection: aside from the keeling-over part, isn’t that exactly the mental engineering we now use for science, medicine, the creative arts? ‘When you track, you’ve created causal connections in your mind, because you didn’t actually see what the animal did,’ Louis realized.”
The Systemizing Brain
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the disparity in the reproductive odds for men and women in primitive times (women had double the chance of passing on their genes than men did), led men to take on big challenges in order to gain alpha male status and up their odds of reproducing. For this and other reasons, men took part in big game hunts, battles, and adventures and expeditions of other sorts. These types of endeavors often happened in large groups, and created a social system for men very different than the one for women. Women, who stayed close to home and nurtured their families, had fewer but closer and more intimate relationships. Men had a greater number of relationships, but they were shallower and more impersonal in nature.
Men thus thought and worked in large systems, and their brains developed accordingly. There are a bunch of interesting implications of this—again I recommend onto you Dr. Baumeister’s Is There Anything Good About Men?—but for the purposes of this post, the most important thing is that men’s brains developed to be motivated towards systemizing, women’s brains for empathizing.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (not the Borat guy), who proposed the “systematizing-empathizing theory” after studying autism (which he believes is simply the manifestation of the extreme male brain—all systemizing, little empathizing)—believes this spectrum constitutes the fundamental difference between the sexes.
Dr. Baron-Cohen defines a system as anything in which certain input translates into certain output, according to a rule. It’s all about if-then logical reasoning—if I do this, I’ll get this. According to Baron-Cohen, systemizing helped our caveman ancestors to understand natural systems like weather, astrological movement, and animal migration–skills valuable in feeding and protecting the tribe. Systemizing would also come in handy in battles of social rank in the hierarchy of a tribe. Remember, in our distant past, if a man wanted to increase his chances of passing on his genes, he needed to stand out from the crowd. The systemizing male brain may have helped our ancestors strategize how to make it to the top of the pecking order.
The Provider Switch
The scouting brain. The tracking brain. The systemizing brain. What do they all add up to? The Provider Switch, of course. Men have an innate need to look ahead, to plan, to prepare, to strategize. Or in other words, men have an innate need for vision, for providing.
While we’re no longer hunting antelopes, our brains are still primed to engage in searching, scanning, recognition, and long-term planning. These activities are carried out in the left side of the brain and are fueled by dopamine, the neurotransmitter which neuroscientists have shown motivates the male brain to a greater extent than the female brain.
While the Switches of Manliness we’ve talked about so far–legacy, challenge, physicality–aren’t activated very often in our modern world, this isn’t the case with this switch. It is often activated, just not in a very productive way. And how is it activated? By things like technology and video games.
Studies have shown that video games activate reward regions of the brain  more in men than in women, giving us nice hits of dopamine, which probably explains why more men play, and report feeling addicted to, video games than women. Video games activate all the unique attributes of the male brain. Success at video games requires high visual processing speeds, the ability to navigate and create large mental maps in your head, recognition skills, and the ability to systematize and strategize. Of course it’s not just video games that light up these parts of the male brain–analog games like Risk and chess, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and fantasy sports leagues all require systematizing to succeed and draw the interest of more men than women.
Now whenever I say anything about video games, people get the idea that I’m totally against them. Not so. I’ve played them since I was a wee lad, and after a long time away, I just bought a used Xbox so I could play LA Noire (what a cool game!). But I’ve played the game less than an hour a week since I’ve gotten it because I have too many other, more important, things to do. So that’s how I feel about video games–there’s nothing wrong with them per se, they should just be low on a man’s priorities list. They’re dessert–to be enjoyed in moderation. And that’s why they cannot turn on this Switch of Manliness. It’s like eating a Twinkie when you’re really hungry; you’re satiated for a minute, but then ravenous soon again. Instead, you need something that’s really going to satisfy that hunger and build your body.
Turning the Provider Switch means using the abilities of the male brain towards bettering yourself, fulfilling your life’s potential, and leading those you’re responsible for.
The Importance of Vision
Native American tribes would send young men off on vision quests, so that for the rest of their lives they would know exactly what direction they were supposed to take.
There was great wisdom in this. Having a vision for one’s life is essential. Without one, you end up drifting along in life instead of being driven by purpose towards the fulfillment of your goals. Men without vision feel as if unfortunate events absolutely blindside them–Why did I get fired? Why is my wife leaving? Why am I 30 and still living at home? How did I get in so much debt? How did this happen to me!?! Men without vision live only in the present, much like the grasshopper in the old Aesop’s fable. When winter comes, they are caught unawares and left dazed and shivering in the cold.
On the other hand, a man with vision looks ahead. He plans. He knows where he wants to be in 5, 10, 50 years. And he gathers and systemizes the “data” of his life to gain an understanding of what he must do and how he must act to get where he wants to go. He can analyze what’s working in his life and what’s not, and jettison the latter. He scans the horizon to see what is coming down the pike, and he knows just how he will react if X, Y, or Z happens. He cultivates a healthy self-awareness. He knows what flaws, temptations, and pitfalls are his personal Achilles’ heels, the “predators” that can derail his life and poison his relationships. When these threats approach, the alarms in his mind go off, and he walks away.
Flipping the Provider Switch
If you’re a single man, you need to have a vision for your own life. If you’re a married man, you need to have a vision for your own life and for your family. Women don’t want a man who’s a domineering oaf, but they also don’t want to feel like they’re always pulling, and dragging their husband along. They want a man who’s personally motivated, takes initiative, makes decisions, and has a discernible sense of direction and purpose. A man who is always scouting the way to take care of his family and lead them through the storms of life. I’ve sometimes had that conversation with my wife where I tell her that I feel unhappy, and she asks me what I want out of life and what would make me happy, and all I can answer is, “I don’t know.” That’s a failure of vision. And a failure in being a provider.
Having a vision involves growing in self-awareness and awareness of the world around you. The man of vision understands his own strengths and weaknesses, how the world works, and what makes people tick. He looks out from a high point in the landscape, takes in the lay of the land, fixes his sights on where he wants to go, and figures out how to get there. And then he leads and navigates, watching for and surmounting obstacles, until the destination is reached.
Here are some suggestions for harnessing your inner-Scout and flipping the Provider Switch:
- Find your core values 
- Create a blueprint for your life. 
- Keep a journal.
- Spend some time in solitude. Hike, camp overnight or even rent a hotel room.
- Find your vocation. 
- Create a daily schedule.
- Work on becoming fully present in your life. 
- Meditate or pray.
- Write down your goals each night.
- Unplug and take periodic technology “fasts” to recharge and clear your mind.
- Read biographies–by taking in the sweep of another man’s life you can really gain perspective on your own life, what a man is capable of accomplishing, and insight on the paths other men took.
- Create a morning routine that pumps you up for the coming day.
- Turn off the radio on the way to work and think about what you want to accomplish that day.
- Carry a pocket notebook so you can capture your ideas and make to-do lists to keep track of what needs to get done.
- Practice memorization–memorize a poem  or work on remembering names. 
- Keep track of data in your life–when you work out, record how much weight you’re lifting. Write down what you eat. Keep track of your goals or new habits with something like Joe’s Goals. 
- Read up on human psychology, relationships, body language, etc.
- Educate yourself on things like health insurance  and retirement plans (stay-tuned for a post on this).
- Create a budget and understand exactly what’s going on with your finances.
- Start an emergency fund. 
- Be prepared for disaster and learn survival skills–like how to handle a weapon , pack a bug-out bag,  and forage for food. 
- If you have a family, hold a regular family council. We’ll do a post on this in the future.
- Talk with your kids one on one to find out what is going on in their lives. Make it casual–like when you’re driving around together.
- Stay up on politics, news, and current events.
Switches of Manliness Series:
The Cure for the Modern Male Malaise 
Switch #1: Physicality 
Switch #2: Challenge 
Switch #3: Legacy 
Switch #4: Provide 
Switch #5: Nature 
The Male Brain  by Louann Brizendine
The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism  by Simon Baron-Cohen
Is There Anything Good About Men?  by Roy F. Baumeister
Dopamine, the Left Brain, Women, and Men  by Emily Deans