[This is an excerpt from my book "The 7 Traits You'll Need to Survive In the Digital Age", if you'd like to read the full thing, you can get instant access on this page.]
For most of humanity’s history, we had to work to get our basic needs met. And I don’t mean work like a 9-5 (not that it doesn’t count).
The need for food, a safe place to sleep and not getting killed, put a lot of tasks on our proverbial plate. We had to explore our environment and map it out so we could remember when and where which animals appeared, where the dangers of the territory were and where the most convenient locations for shelter / food gathering were located.
We had to know which plants and spices were healthy and which were poisonous. We had to actually do the work of hunting, gathering and preparing our food. If we wanted a warm place to sleep, we literally had to make the fire ourselves. If we wanted a house, we had to build one. In other words, we were all full-time survivalists, or at least we worked together to do that through our combined skills.
Modern society has made it amazingly easy for us to thrive in life without actually performing a lot of physical labor, or being exposed to any serious risks (like hunting a big animal, trying new food or exploring new land you know nothing about).
If you want to, you can just sit behind a computer all day performing meaningless tasks that other people assign to you over the internet, order pizza online and have it sent to your apartment every day.
The good thing about getting most of our needs met with relatively little effort is that it leaves us with a lot of energy left that we can spend on things like self-expression, making a contribution to society in our own way or thinking about how we can save man-kind and the planet from extinction (or the opposite).
One evident downside is that when we outsource all this work that used to be required from us by nature, we also outsource the responsibility for the choices we used to intelligently make ourselves. We are less aware of what goes on in our environment, because we don’t really need to be aware of it to survive any more.
Because of this, our knowledge of a lot of basic human survival skills has faded. For example, factories can prepare food for our convenience and mess with it until there’s very little nutritious value left and costs a lot less to make, but tastes better for us. Then marketeers can make us believe it’s actually healthy for us until 4 generations later no one questions the idea anymore.
But there’s a much bigger downside that is not as evident:
Humans always choose the path of least resistance. If we can get something done with less work, we’ll do it. That may sound lazy, but it’s not. It’s just being smart. If you expend less energy, you need less fuel to survive. So now that it is no longer necessary for us to go through it, of course we ditch the long and tiresome process that we used to have in favor the efficient 21st century life.
Why would you choose to put yourself in danger all day to find food and then ward off the predators at night, when you can just spend the entire day in your cave with a lock on the door, eating Cheetos and whacking off?
Compared to those primitive times, getting your needs met in the 21st century is a walk in the park. One where you don’t even have to go to the actual park or do any actual walking.
But in reality, we have a lot more needs than we think. It wasn’t just the food and shelter that mattered back in the day. The process was just as important for our health. It kept us in good physical shape. It kept our minds sharp to hunt. Problem solving and our penchant for finding new ways to do things that required less effort trained our creative capacity (and also led to the world we’re in today, for better or worse). Exploring unknown environments and learning to understand them gave us a sense of being able to handle things and made sure we only felt fear when it was important. When we got exposed to certain scary situations on a daily basis, we got a feeling for which things we were able to overcome and which things we needed to be afraid of. This probably gave us a certain sense of confidence and self-worth as well. (And I can imagine your own self-image increased with age as you got better and better at "not dying" every year. It's a jungle out there.)
Living in accordance with the land trained our patience. Time in nature kept us grounded and emotionally stable. It lowered our stress levels unless stress was of vital importance. It made us feel like an integrated part of our environment. An environment challenging enough to maintain a sense of humility and spirituality in us that is often lacking from the modern world.
We were in close contact with 25-50 people every day, fulfilling our desire to bond and connect and teaching us not to be a dickhead (which possibly resulted in becoming a "no-head" if you kept at it too long). We learned to work together because together was our survival strategy. Alone we would just be funny-walking hairless apes with over-sized boobs and penises but very little physical strength.
I’m not trying to romanticize this era or anything, but the fact is that this situation was steady for more than 90% of human history. And even though we live in a highly technological society where the end goals of all the things we used to do as humans (food, shelter, sex) are practically handed to us on a silver plate, we are still biologically wired to feel best when we are doing things that use to be required in order to reach those goals. Because those are the things that used to ensure our survival and kept our minds, bodies and souls healthy.
But because our needs are now easily met without all those efforts, they disappear from our lives unless we consciously choose to integrate them.
How many miles do you walk in a day for example?
How many people do you look in the eyes every day while you’re speaking with them?
When was the last time you had to look at a situation and say: “Alright, judging from the looks of this, what are the most important threats I could face here? What is the quickest route to succesfully handling this and not dying?"
In the past it always puzzled me why when I became homeless, I instantly became a lot happier than I was before (especially during the three months I had a full-time job). I now believe a lot of that has to do with the fact that it forced me to go through this process every day:
Every day, I walked in the sun most of the day and had to work together with a bunch of friends to figure out how were gonna get food and water that day. It was constant problem-solving.
Every night we had to check if our place to sleep still looked safe (had there been any intruders? is there anything not ideal about it that would mean we should move)?
We had to be very aware of our environment, mentally map out where the nice people were, which places at which times had the highest likelihood of providing us with food, what our personal skills were and how we could use these to provide value for people and make some money.
And we had lots of free time to socialize and bond with each other.
We basically did all the things human beings had to do in the past in order to survive. And it felt amazing. Which is interesting, considering that theoretically I was in one of the worst living situations you can get in living in the 1st world.
Now how can you integrate this process in your life right now?
Where will you find your daily movement?
What skills you have that can simultaneously help people and make you feel like an essential part of society?
How can you make working together or having a rich social life an integrated part of your life?
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P.S. If you'd like to read the rest of this chapter, which deals with how to bring those things back without abandoning your modern lifestyle, you can find my book on this page.