Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Growing up, I remember being told that agrarian farmers in the United States around the time of the depression had a very small number of stimuli in their daily lives. I don’t know why I remember it being around the time of the Great Depression or limited to just farmers in the United States, but I had a teacher at one point who compared the number of stimuli in the lives of kids in the 1990s and early 2000s (kids like me) to farmers of the early 1900s. This was in a pre-smartphone age, but I still had a Gameboy, watched too much TV, and even in Reno, NV had plenty of billboards competing for my attention as I was driven to and from sports practices. A farmer of the 1900s had a tractor, some farm equipment, rows of corn, and blue skies with a few clouds here and there. By the time I had played a few minutes of Gameboy, watched a cartoon before school, and ridden the bus, I had experienced more stimuli competing for my attention than a farmer would have experienced their whole life – so my teacher suggested.
The implications of the lack of stimuli for early farmers was that their lives were boring. I had electronic games, interesting TV shows, and thousands of distractions every day to keep my mind occupied. But early farmers had very little to keep their mind engaged throughout the day. This idea is echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in is book Sapiens. He writes, “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.” This seems to have been true about early human agriculturalists and industrialists, and is in many ways still true today.
Ancient hunter-gatherers had a lot of interesting things to do each day. They would move around, travel about the landscape looking for different edible foods, try to stalk an animal to potentially kill for dinner, and look for resources and materials that could be useful for some sort of shelter. Their days were like our treasured weekend hiking and hunting trips, and for many of them, they were likely out with a small group of trusted tribesmen, not off by themselves.
Early farmers had a lot of work to do, but it was routine and dull compared to exploring the land looking for good food. In the end, farming seems to have been able to provide more calories for more people, making it pay off for society as a whole, but the individual farmers had less interesting lives than the foragers. Industry is similar. Humans within industry and factories are viewed as essentially biological machines, and they often have to do the same repetitive tasks for hours on end in industrialized economies. Certainly being a hunter-gatherer who goes on hikes all day and then hangs out with kids, plays games, tell stories, and gossips after a day out exploring would have been much more interesting and enjoyable than waking up early, making the same daily commute, and working the same tedious job 5 or 7 days a week.

What is it that I Want to Accomplish?

Goal setting and prioritization is an incredibly challenging and difficult process. It is hard to know what one really wants to do and what truly motivates someone. We hold a lot of competing values in our head when we try to set our goals, and often we get tripped up and set goals for ourselves that we don’t really want to pursue, but that we think we should. We want to impress other people, live up to the expectations we think our parents have for us, and do something we think we will enjoy and be well compensated for. Often, these things don’t all align, and often goal setting in this way doesn’t actually make us happy or put us on a path toward something we can truly be motivated to pursue.


In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us think through a framework for setting goals. The first step is to be aware of the factors in your decision that are purely ego enhancing. Those things that we do to impress others or to raise our own social status without necessarily doing something meaningful or something that truly interests us. After we can recognize what we do for ego purposes, we can ask ourselves new questions about our goals. Holiday writes, “In this course, its not ‘Who do I want to be in life?’ but ‘What is it that I want to accomplish in life?’ Setting aside selfish interests, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?”


Ego can still cause all of these questions to be derailed and miss the mark, but each question encourages us to think about what we do for ego purposes, and whether we want to pursue the ego or whether we want to do something important that other people are not pursuing. In a recent interview on the Tim Ferris Show, author Jim Collins recommended an approach to making these types of decisions. Building on his “Hedgehog Principle” for businesses in his book Good to Great, Collins suggested that we find something we are coded to do, something we do exceptionally well, something we can be world (or local/community) leading in doing, and something that truly motivates us. Pursuing that will help us do meaningful work. Following his instructions and keeping Holiday’s warning about the ego in mind will ensure we focus on rewarding goals that help bring substantial positivity to the world.


We can follow everyone else and try to increase our status and have a standard career focused on ourselves, or we can step out and try to be intentional about our choices and actions. Collins compared this approach to creating artwork on a blank canvass compared to following a paint-by-numbers board. We can live a meaningful life following everyone else and taking the paint-by-numbers approach, but to truly do something different and have the biggest possible impact on the world, we need to be self-aware, avoid ego boosting decision-making, and try to paint our lives on a new canvass.