When the Means Become The End, or When Work Became a 4-Letter Word

“It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.” by William Faulkner, on the background of a man with a clock for a face...

I was fascinated by the revelation of how good the gatherers/hunters’ lives were when I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. He shares that, if you survived infancy, your life expectancy was likely in the 70s or even 80s! So much for what we thought about 20s being old age in our gathering/hunting days.

And why not? Given that we were nomads in those days, there was no point in gathering or hunting large quantities of food, with exception o f places like Siberia that had natural refrigeration… That meant that in 4 to 5 hours all work was done. ALL work. Not only the gathering and the hunting, but also the cooking, the cleaning, and the laundry. The rest of the time was spent as we wished. Not working.

When the agricultural revolution happened, things changed. Work became a (literally) back-breaking effort from (literally) dawn to dusk. Most plague-like diseases emerged then. There were a lot more mouths to feed than pre-agrarian life, but the ruling class took a large chunk of the produced food away in taxation, leaving the population in perpetual food deficit. And sick. And overworked. People worked as a means to an end.

And then something happened relatively recently if we look at our history since we emerged from Africa about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. The vast majority of our history, we spent “hardly working”, as hunter/gatherers, and then, we spent 8,000 to 10,000 years working as we must to make a living. But in the last recent few centuries—hardly a blip in our history as in the tiny red segment in the illustration above—we changed all of that. The means, the work, became the end. For many of us it is, or was, the focus of our being. It’s one of the first questions that comes up “what do you do?” and if the answer is not something around “hard-at-work”, then your value in society is decreased. Retired? Kindly retire to the corner and make space for the hard working little beavers.

Work, the means to survive for the overwhelming majority of our existence, has became the goal. And we know it’s not healthy for us. But in our society, it is the core, the essence of who we are.

What are your thoughts on this? How did this happen to us? Most importantly, how do we change things back to the way they were for most of our existence?

30 thoughts on “When the Means Become The End, or When Work Became a 4-Letter Word

  1. I have heard many say, I work to live, I do not live to work. As to the job becoming the end, I agree, many are identified by their job and when they retire, they lose that identity and sense of importance. In my retirement speech I said, “this job is what I do, it is not who I am”, making a clean break. It is good being known as Allan, rather than Manager Project Management Prairie. Happy Wednesday. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love how you said that! I’ve heard many say that they want change… but at the end of the day they don’t want to change themselves 🙃 In our society, like you said, many “lose” their identity without work. I think it’s a higher level of enlightenment to be where you were: work is kept as a means. Not the dominant portion of our existence. It’s hard to maintain that balance. I’m glad you did, and I’m glad you’re now sharing the beauty your eyes capture with the rest of us.

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  2. This is very interesting. I have always thought of it as a hard time to live – but my impression comes from books like The Clan of the Cave Bear which are, of course, fiction. And my memory is no clear enough on the story to determine whether they were mostly hunter/gatherers or had become agrarian. Did your reading tell you what they did with the rest of their day if it only took a few hours to accomplish the tasks of living?

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    1. That’s one of the many reasons I found that book so fascinating, too! It dispelled a lot of my previous notions about our history. To be completely fair, life wasn’t all rosy then: if you fell off a cliff, you’d more likely than not die as a result of that (though survival rate of cliff-falling isn’t spectacular nowadays, either 😁). And infancy was hard to survive as a whole.

      The author stresses that in our gatherer/hunter days we had hardly and “things”, and most of our actions weren’t mediated by “things.” Think about how many “things” are involved in our act of cooking/eating: pots, pans, plates, bowls, flatware, serving spoons galore, pantries filled with bagged and boxed stuff, appliances a-plenty, dining tables and chairs, recipe books, the list is immensely long. In the olden days, a few wood/stone/wicker/etc. instruments were all that they used for cooking/eating. Of that, just the stone portion of the artifacts remained (which is why it was mistakenly called the Stone Age). Our ability to extrapolate much from that about eating is limited.
      As is our ability to KNOW what their political, religious, or spare time was like. He talks about cave paintings, rich burial sites, and stone buildings from that era (yes, even Gobleki Tepe) and says that most of the theories are just that: theories with little evidence to prove or disprove them.

      Much of what historians of that era conclude may come from anthropological studies of recent hunter/gatherers, but those have been studied mostly after they’ve had some interactions with modern societies and are also limited to one’s living in relatively harsh environments, having been kicked out of the “good places.” He doesn’t feel like much can be definitely said.

      TL:DR; they don’t know. Theories vary widely but are more guesses than anchored in evidence. I find the question fascinating as well!

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      1. In a way, that’s what the van life thing that is so popular here is about. Paring down on stuff, working your instagram or youtube account for income to buy the things you really need, and traveling around meeting people and seeing different ways of life. Now, watching some of the van life vloggers once they have a lot of followers and are making quite a bit of money from ads and sponsored videos, there is a shift and they don’t have enough room in their van for all their toys anymore. And they become influencers instead of the people we enjoyed watching travel on a really small budget. It is kind of a modern take on the minimalist hunter gatherer switch to the worker who needs to work to maintain a home and all the stuff they accumulate. I’m not saying that either is really better – I’d be a terrible hunter gatherer. But I find the similarities fascinating. And the history and theories are truly interesting. They didn’t have books but it was a time of oral history and therefore storytelling. We need time travel so we can observe what life was like.

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        1. That is such a fantastic observation! I didn’t see van-life that way before, I really like the analogy! Like you said, it’s fascinating how difficult it is for even those of us (the van-lifers) who have made a conscious decision to pare down, to “stick” with it. The influence of society at large to consume weighs heavily on us?

          You’re also right about the oral knowledge: Harari emphasizes how our gatherer/hunter ancestors had literally an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, of survival. It’s one of the reasons that once agrarian culture was sampled, with all its difficulties and shortened lifespan, it was practically impossible to go back. That enormous corpus of oral knowledge was lost since it wasn’t passed on.

          And, yes, there’s much we can learn by traveling.

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    1. You are absolutely right. We do need a purpose in life. I wonder if the question is then do we get to choose the work we do?

      I have met precious few people who, if they magically gained financial independence, would come to their same job the next day… (Other than to voice their TRUE opinion for an hour or so and then take off into a sunset 🙃) Is the trick finding a job that you love, and otherwise work is “imposed on you”?

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      1. I think every job becomes a “job” after awhile. Ash barty retired from tennis at 25, actors give it up…I think anything, no matter how much you love it, can become a drag


        1. I wake up with a feeling of enormous relief. None of those Office-Space-eque TPS reports and pointy-haired/Catbert managers for me anymore. PHEW. Makes not having to work twice as sweet 😎

          I try not to use the word retirement, though I haven’t been able to find a great one: “retirement” is so overloaded with negative connotations of sitting in a former, past one’s best-by date, waiting for the Grim Reaper to come? 😳

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m going to go with funmongerer. Instead of being retired, I’m funmongered. Now my job is to have as much fun as possible until I croak.


  3. What a fascinating and long-view perspective that you’ve provided here! Wow – I was just thinking about this topic because my inner hustler had been prodding me for not working hard enough. Now you’ve given me a much deeper perspective in which to think about it and I’m so grateful. Thank you, my friend!

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    1. Thank YOU, Wynne. It boggles(d) my mind how much we “let” work dominate our lives: I’ve met people whose relationships were destroyed because of work, whose health was destroyed by work… and I met them at work, still working.

      Did Scarlett O’Hara have it right about tomorrow being another day? Did Pink Floyd in their gripping song Time? What’s the golden path? I wish I knew. You’ve given me a lot to think about…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had to look up the lyrics for Pink Floyd’s song Time. Because I went to a Pink Floyd concert when I was in college but that was a long time ago. 🙂

        I think for me it’s being rooted in my why – if I know my overall purpose, I am way better at prioritizing. Of course that changes over time and I also can get caught up and forget but at least it’s something to come back to.

        But thinking about the perspective you’ve presented here, I need to think about whether I’ve thought about my purpose in the broader scope of possibility or just the narrow thinking of this time and age!

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        1. Maybe it’s telling about myself that those words are etched in my memory: am I letting the minutes that make up a day tick away? Am I frittering and wasting the hours in an offhand way? 😳

          I love the way you anchor the questions around “why”, and I think it’s the right thing to do, though the “why” may be extremely illusive.

          Yuval Noah Harari mentions that during much of our history our purpose came extrinsically: if you were the son of a Duke, society dictated your purpose. The son of the Duke didn’t explore why that’s his purpose, but simply lived by those rules. Nowadays, it see,s like we look for our purpose not from outside, but from inside. It’s a real freedom, but a great challenge, no?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve got to check out Harari’s book. Sounds fascinating! I think you are right that finding our internal why is a great challenge. Perhaps Sapiens need to earn that freedom. Thanks for getting me thinking – as always!

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I love how you said that: that that’s something to be attained, not something to be taken for granted.
            The discussions with you influence more of my posts than you imagine: thank you!

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  4. You’ve touched on something I wondered about over the years. I’ve kind of thought that many of our ancestors might not have been working every waking hour, especially if the idea was to survive and thrive, not accumulate and impress. I figure farmers tilled and sowed and reaped their own fields in their own ways, some days lots of work, other days take a nap. And the same for the hunter/gatherers before them. Somehow the advent of clocks seemed to herald the advent of work, work, work. I like clocks, but they do seem like the harbingers of hustle.

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    1. You’re right: As nomadic gatherers/hunters there was little point in gathering a lot of anything, since everything had to be moved around relatively frequently. If we had to move homes every 4 weeks, I doubt we’d have as much stuff as we do today 😁

      You bring up an intriguing point: was it the invention of the clock, and the meticulous chasing of minutes that made us turn a means to an end?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been lucky to have had several jobs throughout my career that I LOVED. In fact, the last position I had before I retired was challenging, fun, and full of co-workers who I adored. That being said, I am happy that I was able to walk away one day about eight years ago. Although I miss the easy social network I found at work (although I keep in touch with many of my work friends), I am embracing this retirement life of mine. I love hunting for adventures and gathering memories. .

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    1. Lucky, indeed! And the social aspects are one of the few things I miss. A friend moved a few years out of state to retire, and even though he didn’t have to, financially speaking, work, he worked for the first couple of years just to establish a social network in the new location… That is still a means to an end.

      And I am delighted that you loved several of your jobs. From the way you describe them you were wise and well balanced to not make them your essence, the reason for being. You enjoyed them, but they didn’t become your end-all be-all. Not everyone can maintain that balance. In fact, for many, their identity is almost exclusively derived from their occupation and once that’s gone what remains is a void?

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  6. I wonder if the pandemic will alter work/life balance? My farmer grandparents sort of worked, played, goofed off, slept, during each 24 period. That is kind of what I did when I worked remotely. The big benefit I got that they didn’t was health insurance, and vacation. My grandparents got neither. But I have been blessed. I enjoyed my work most of the time and worked with playful colleagues. And now I enjoy my not-working and hang out with playful friends. And can go on vacation! (Unless this pandemic gets in the way.) You post presents food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up fantastic questions! Of course I’m now curious about medical care in the past: was there a local physician who took care of folks’ ailments? I know that hospitals are a relatively new invention (last couple hundred years) and before that care was administered almost exclusively at patients’ home. And until the last 100 or so years, it was primarily so. If they had the benefit of hygiene, antibiotics, and vaccines, would care have been better that way?

      And you’re making me wonder about the origin of “vacation”, too. I wonder what it was…

      Certainly, there’s no better period to live in than today, even with declining life expectancy we’re experiencing recently. And I love your positive attitude, and will try to spend the rest of the week remembering your words and being grateful for my many blessings. Thank you for such a thought-provoking and upbeat message! ❤


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