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Doomed to live in a Sisyphean purgatory between insatiable desires and limited means

I’m reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It’s an eye-opening book in many ways, and upends notions of how we see the way that people used to live.

This article suggests that 15-hour working weeks are the norm in egalitarian cultures. While working hours are steadily declining, we’re still a long way off — primarily because our desires and means are out of kilter.

Charts from various countries showing working hours declining since 1870 for non-agricultural workers

New genomic and archeological data now suggest that Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago. But it is a challenge to infer how they lived from this data alone. To reanimate the fragmented bones and broken stones that are the only evidence of how our ancestors lived, beginning in the 1960s anthropologists began to work with remnant populations of ancient foraging peoples: the closest living analogues to how our ancestors lived during the first 290,000 years of Homo sapiens’ history.

The most famous of these studies dealt with the Ju/’hoansi, a society descended from a continuous line of hunter-gatherers who have been living largely isolated in southern Africa since the dawn of our species. And it turned established ideas of social evolution on their head by showing that our hunter-gatherer ancestors almost certainly did not endure “nasty, brutish and short” lives. The Ju/’hoansi were revealed to be well fed, content and longer-lived than people in many agricultural societies, and by rarely having to work more than 15 hours per week had plenty of time and energy to devote to leisure.

Subsequent research produced a picture of how differently Ju/’hoansi and other small-scale forager societies organised themselves economically. It revealed, for instance, the extent to which their economy sustained societies that were at once highly individualistic and fiercely egalitarian and in which the principal redistributive mechanism was “demand sharing” — a system that gave everyone the absolute right to effectively tax anyone else of any surpluses they had. It also showed how in these societies individual attempts to either accumulate or monopolise resources or power were met with derision and ridicule.

Most importantly, though, it raised startling questions about how we organise our own economies, not least because it showed that, contrary to the assumptions about human nature that underwrite our economic institutions, foragers were neither perennially preoccupied with scarcity nor engaged in a perpetual competition for resources.

For while the problem of scarcity assumes that we are doomed to live in a Sisyphean purgatory, always working to bridge the gap between our insatiable desires and our limited means, foragers worked so little because they had few wants, which they could almost always easily satisfy. Rather than being preoccupied with scarcity, they had faith in the providence of their desert environment and in their ability to exploit this.

Source: The 300,000-year case for the 15-hour week | Financial Times

Finish what you start

This article uses the analogy of a burger chef to show how software teams can be more productive by focusing on a small number of features at a time.

I think this is more widely applicable. The factory production line was designed to make already-designed things with the fewest mistakes. It does not make people happy, nor does it foster creativity.

Figuring out problems is hard. It’s kind of what I do for a living. Having lots of different things on the go at the same time does not improve things, it makes each one worse.

Now that we understand the burger and the software variations of the problem, we can make a recommendation to both cooks and software engineers alike:

Reducing transaction costs enables small batches. Small batches, in turn, reduce average cycle times, diminish risk, and enhance reliability.

You should only start without having finished when transaction costs are high, and it wouldn’t make economic sense to spend time decreasing them, either because you have agreed to a particular delivery date or because you don’t have the capital to invest.

That said, I’d be careful to avoid falling into a situation where “you’re too busy draining the flood to be able to fix the leak”. The earlier you decrease transaction costs, the earlier you’ll be reaping the benefits from having done it.

Source: How finishing what you start makes teams more productive and predictable | Lucas F. Costa

You don’t need a personal trainer

On Saturday, my Garmin smartwatch told me that my ‘fitness age’ is now 33.5. This is eight years younger than my chronological age, and apparently as low as I can get it using the Garmin app.

This is not a surprise to me. Covid absolutely battered my lungs from January to March. So I decided to do something about it, and built up to running every single day.

Willpower is necessary to form habits, but then willpower is necessary in life in general. So yes, get a personal trainer as this guy has done. But someone shouting at you to try harder is an extrinsic motivator. What you need to do is to develop intrinsic motivation to go harder and be better.

We all know the benefits of regular exercise, from living longer to better mental clarity. However, it is notoriously difficult advice to digest, especially for someone in their early 20s who hasn’t even experienced a real hangover. The gist of the advice being that money and career success will come if you work at it. But prioritise your mental and physical health and your day-to-day work will improve. It’s much easier to stay in shape than it is to stagnate and rebuild your fitness. Your 40 year-old self will thank you.

For a long time I’ve know this to be true. During periods of consistent exercise I’ve had more energy and mental clarity throughout the day. My personal outlook on life is generally better as well. Not to mention that outdoor activities with friends are more accessible and less daunting. Despite this, it has still always been a struggle to stay consistent.

A wave of “habit fetishism” has swept through the West in recent years with books like Atomic Habits regularly topping the best seller lists. It’s a tantalising concept as it sells an easy way to “live the life you’ve always wanted”.

It may work for some, but very few people who try these techniques actually “live the life of their dreams”. What keeps fit people going to the gym on a regular basis isn’t wearing their running shoes to bed at night. It’s discipline and accountability.

This brings me to the best investment I’ve ever made: A personal trainer.

Source: The best investment | ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ Herman’s blog