Hunter. Gatherer. Now those were careers.
Sure, the working conditions were awful: no national holidays, zero room for advancement, and incompetence or laziness meant starvation. And yeah, prehistoric roles were unglamorous. (Although a hunter who returned to his village carrying a deer carcass probably enjoyed rock-star attention from the “gatherers.”) And okay, a hunter on the prowl or a gatherer picking fruit could always be eaten by a bear. But these primitive jobs had something that our pampered, professional class of “strategic planners” and “knowledge engineers” might never find in their work: Meaning.
When a man became a “hunter,” he certainly had a clear job description: Protect family from lions. Find deer. Kill deer. Return to village. Let all village women see deer carcass in hand. Cook deer carcass. Carry wife into tent. Impregnate wife. Leave tent and resume protecting family from lions.
He might not have been developing a cutting-edge application that’ll revolutionize the way small businesses manage their back-office operations, but “Hunter” knew his role in life. If he put in a solid day’s work, he had the satisfaction of watching his family enjoy a nourishing meal that night. “Gatherer,” too, knew if she returned with a basketful of fresh fruit, she’d get to watch her offspring enjoy a delicious dessert. (This is where we get the phrase “enjoying the fruits of our labor.” Probably. Makes sense.)
Despite all the comforts of modern life, all the advances of the technological age and all the opportunities for career personalization and fulfillment, today’s professional is miserable. Why? Too much choice, too much comfort, too much personalization is not good for the human psyche.
“You can be anything you want in this world,” we’re told as children. What a curse. In hunter-gatherer societies, your choices were: 1. hunter; 2. gatherer. How about today? Entrepreneur, graphic designer, graphic designer with a specialty in print ads, graphic designer with a specialty in web ads, motivational speaker, sports agent, sports manager, sports promoter, motivational-speaker promoter, grifter, personal trainer, personal fitness instructor….
Ever notice how much the word “choice” sounds like the word “nightmare?” Eerie, isn’t it?
Our hunter-gatherer friends didn’t have these anxieties. Here’s how the typical prehistoric career-counseling session went:
Prehistoric Career Counselor: Timmy, thank you for taking a few minutes from your studies to discuss your professional future.
Timmy: I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. But it’s got to be something fulfill…
Prehistoric Career Counselor: You’ll be a hunter.
Timmy: But what if I don’t want to be a hunter?
Prehistoric Career Counselor: Then you’ll die. Get back to class.
Sure, little Timmy might have been sad for a brief moment that he wouldn’t go on to invent the job of supervisor of carcass removal or executive vice president of tent repair or regional manager of firewood gathering. But chances are he likely went on to an important career as a hunter, provider for his family, and protector of the next generation. Unless a bear ate him.
Even later societies—right up until modern times, in fact—have understood the dangers of burdening their young with unlimited career choice. So they cleverly placed a clue as to what society expected of them right in their name: Weaver, Miller, Taylor, Wright, Cook, Porter, Cooper, Savage. People knew their roles in life, and they lived those roles with honor.
Purpose. It’s what we all crave, and we cannot be happy or fulfilled without it, no matter how many comforts we invent to insulate ourselves from life’s unpleasantness. No advancement or luxury will ever supplant our need to find purpose in our lives. How ironic that prehistoric man and woman had it all figured out thousands of years ago. And couldn’t they have taken a break from the cave-wall drawings for just a minute to leave us future generations us a message to explain all this?
But, wait a minute. We’ve made progress, haven’t we? We have women in the workforce. That’s new, right? Sorry. Prehistoric humans had the two-income family, too: hunter and gatherer. But we have professionals to help us find the right career. Isn’t that an innovation? Not so fast. Little Timmy had an adult give him his professional choices: 1. hunter; 2. Death.
Okay, but you’ve got to admit that in modern life, we each have the opportunity to do something that will make a real contribution to society.
Do you think today’s typical professional enjoys a real sense of purpose? Ask a “distribution manager” or “public relations account executive” if they have any idea what they’ve contributed to their community at the end of a typical workday. Or better yet, find a “branding strategist” or “corporate evangelist,” and ask them if they even fully understand what the hell they do.
Ever notice how much the word “progress” sounds like the phrase “losing sight of the things that really matter?” Strange, huh?
Sadly, the classified ads in modern times are no longer cover-to-cover “hunter” jobs, and you won’t even find many openings anymore for “weaver” or “savage.” No, unfortunately, we’ve made progress. So we can expect long, unfulfilling professional lives as “risk-assessment specialists” and “associate managers of business development,” where we’ll attend brainstorming sessions, complete action items, implement our companies’ strategic visions, and then go home each night and contemplate a life of crime.