12 min

Farm What You Forage Love Your Work

    • Self-Improvement

Many people think our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived short and miserable lives. In fact, that’s what most anthropologists thought. Until the 1960s, when they looked more closely at how foragers got by.
The way foragers “worked” can tell us a lot about the way we, as creators, work.
Farming gets a lot of output with little effort No one can be exactly sure when a human first planted a seed to grow food, but this one act was one of the most revolutionary in human history – up there with the invention of fire, or the internet. The agricultural revolution meant humans no longer needed to roam around, searching for food.
But, with the innovation of agriculture came some trade-offs. We had to wait for our crops to grow, so we had to stay in one place. But staying in one place didn’t work out-of-the-box everywhere. As anthropologist James Suzman points out in his book, Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, the first successful cities sprouted up in floodplains. These areas flooded regularly, and that refreshed the nutrients in the soil, which was a must for successful farming, as crop-rotation hadn’t yet been invented.
Which brings us to another drawback of farming. Yes, farming gets you a lot of food with little effort, but eventually your once-fertile soil runs out of nutrients.
Creative “farming” grows ideas into finished products As creatives, it’s useful for us to “farm.” Plant seeds of ideas. Give them water, sunlight, and fertile soil, and eventually you’ll have a crop of creative products to harvest.
I talked in my book, Mind Management, Not Time Management, about “creative systems.” Cultivating ideas takes time. By working with the cycles of your energy to do short bursts of work, and letting incubation do the rest, you can always have creative products to ship. (I talked specifically about my creative system for Love Mondays newsletters on episode 260.)
Creative farming is a great way to consistently turn ideas into finished products. But foraging is where you get the ideas in the first place.
Foraging is more effective than you think In the 1960s, anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee lived with a hunter-gatherer tribe in the Kalahari desert. He carefully tracked what they spent time on, and what they got out of it. Lee found these tribes met all their needs for food in just fifteen hours work a week. They consumed well over the daily recommended intake of 2,000 calories, and they did it all without farming. They did it by foraging.
Fifteen hours a week to get everything you need. That sounds appealing to many of us. Fifteen hours a week is ironically the number of hours economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted we in the industrial world would work. In 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, Keynes had the guts to predict that by 2030, we would at least quadruple our productivity. As a result, he said, we would work only fifteen hours a week.
But foraging doesn’t lead to progress We reached that quadruple-productivity mark way back in 1980. But we still work way more than fifteen hours a week. Why? We can make philosophical arguments about the hedonic treadmill, and how we buy too much junk. But one thing is for sure: We want to see “progress.”
These hunter gatherer tribes, who have sadly been all but completely driven off their foraging land by the industrial world, did lead rich lives. They worked for what they needed, they had plenty of leisure time, and everything they did was deeply integrated with their families and communities. But they didn’t have running water, electricity, or modern medicine. Many lived as long as anyone in the civilized world – if they reached adulthood. But they had a high infant-mortality rate, which pushed down the average lifespan.
They didn’t have what we consider “progress.” They didn’t wonder if their children would live in a world with human flight, space exploration, or the internet. Each genera

Many people think our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived short and miserable lives. In fact, that’s what most anthropologists thought. Until the 1960s, when they looked more closely at how foragers got by.
The way foragers “worked” can tell us a lot about the way we, as creators, work.
Farming gets a lot of output with little effort No one can be exactly sure when a human first planted a seed to grow food, but this one act was one of the most revolutionary in human history – up there with the invention of fire, or the internet. The agricultural revolution meant humans no longer needed to roam around, searching for food.
But, with the innovation of agriculture came some trade-offs. We had to wait for our crops to grow, so we had to stay in one place. But staying in one place didn’t work out-of-the-box everywhere. As anthropologist James Suzman points out in his book, Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, the first successful cities sprouted up in floodplains. These areas flooded regularly, and that refreshed the nutrients in the soil, which was a must for successful farming, as crop-rotation hadn’t yet been invented.
Which brings us to another drawback of farming. Yes, farming gets you a lot of food with little effort, but eventually your once-fertile soil runs out of nutrients.
Creative “farming” grows ideas into finished products As creatives, it’s useful for us to “farm.” Plant seeds of ideas. Give them water, sunlight, and fertile soil, and eventually you’ll have a crop of creative products to harvest.
I talked in my book, Mind Management, Not Time Management, about “creative systems.” Cultivating ideas takes time. By working with the cycles of your energy to do short bursts of work, and letting incubation do the rest, you can always have creative products to ship. (I talked specifically about my creative system for Love Mondays newsletters on episode 260.)
Creative farming is a great way to consistently turn ideas into finished products. But foraging is where you get the ideas in the first place.
Foraging is more effective than you think In the 1960s, anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee lived with a hunter-gatherer tribe in the Kalahari desert. He carefully tracked what they spent time on, and what they got out of it. Lee found these tribes met all their needs for food in just fifteen hours work a week. They consumed well over the daily recommended intake of 2,000 calories, and they did it all without farming. They did it by foraging.
Fifteen hours a week to get everything you need. That sounds appealing to many of us. Fifteen hours a week is ironically the number of hours economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted we in the industrial world would work. In 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, Keynes had the guts to predict that by 2030, we would at least quadruple our productivity. As a result, he said, we would work only fifteen hours a week.
But foraging doesn’t lead to progress We reached that quadruple-productivity mark way back in 1980. But we still work way more than fifteen hours a week. Why? We can make philosophical arguments about the hedonic treadmill, and how we buy too much junk. But one thing is for sure: We want to see “progress.”
These hunter gatherer tribes, who have sadly been all but completely driven off their foraging land by the industrial world, did lead rich lives. They worked for what they needed, they had plenty of leisure time, and everything they did was deeply integrated with their families and communities. But they didn’t have running water, electricity, or modern medicine. Many lived as long as anyone in the civilized world – if they reached adulthood. But they had a high infant-mortality rate, which pushed down the average lifespan.
They didn’t have what we consider “progress.” They didn’t wonder if their children would live in a world with human flight, space exploration, or the internet. Each genera

12 min