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Work summary

James Suzman

A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots

4.2 (87 ratings)
14 mins

Brief summary

Work by James Suzman explores the history of human labour and questions our modern work ethic. He advocates for a more balanced approach to work, where time off and leisure are valued as much as productivity.

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    Life on earth increases entropy by capturing and expending energy, often in confounding ways.

    If you’ve ever felt that your life is chaotic, you’re both right and wrong. From a physics perspective, life is orderly, but it was born from the chaos of entropy in the universe. Everything from the trees outside to your finger tracking on a screen is a hugely unlikely physical alignment of atoms that formed by chance.

    The energy, or work, your body expends by just existing contributes to the universe’s chaos. Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger, of Schrödinger’s Cat fame, looked to the second law of thermodynamics to explain this. Entropy was the universe’s normal state, and the particular order that is life was very abnormal. But life couldn’t exist in violation of the second law of thermodynamics, so it must be contributing to the overall entropy of the universe – it captures energy, uses it, and then chaotically releases it. 

    The key message here is: Life on earth increases entropy by capturing and expending energy, often in confounding ways.

    Around 3.5 billion years ago, single-celled bacteria were the first living organisms on earth. They did work by transmuting energy from water and rock into chemical bonds, which were then broken down to release energy. They worked largely in the dark. Around 2.7 billion years ago, some species evolved to photosynthesize, deriving energy from sunlight and producing oxygen. These cyanobacteria provided fuel for oxygen-breathing organisms to do work. 

    The first creatures with tissue and nervous systems evolved in the oceans around 700 million years ago. The most successful of these aquatic organisms transformed work by harvesting energy from other living things. When creatures began to live on land, the nature of work continued to transform, and eventually became what we see today.

    But early life forms weren’t just preoccupied with capturing energy. They also needed to expend it. A good example of this basic need can be seen in the male black-masked weaver bird of southern Africa. He’ll spend weeks painstakingly building a nest in hopes of impressing a female, only to start over a few days later when she doesn’t come along. He’ll do this incessantly: one bird in Zimbabwe was recorded destroying 158 of 160 nests. Scientists now believe males engage in this seemingly arbitrary behavior to expend surplus energy.

    It’s not just black-masked weaver birds who exhibit hard-to-explain behaviors. Have you ever wondered why anyone would run an ultra-marathon? Or why the city was tearing down a perfectly good skyscraper to build a bigger one? An overabundance of energy may be a clue to these behaviors, too.

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    What is Work about?

    Work (2020) is an anthropological history of the human relationship with work. From the first single-celled bacteria in the oceans billions of years ago to the unprecedented wealth inequality we experience today, Work is a sweeping history of what motivates our species. 

    Work Review

    Work (2020) by James Suzman is a thought-provoking exploration of the history, importance, and future of work. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Through meticulous research and compelling storytelling, it sheds light on the role of work in human societies, challenging conventional beliefs.
    • Suzman offers insightful perspectives on the impact of modern capitalism, automation, and the changing nature of work in our interconnected world.
    • This book provides a fascinating examination of the relationship between work, meaning, and fulfillment, leaving readers with a renewed understanding of its significance.

    Who should read Work?

    • All those wondering whether they have a “bullshit job”
    • Deep-divers who love human history and how we got here
    • People who worry about how they spend their time

    About the Author

    James Suzman is a South African-born anthropologist and writer. He has published widely on the San people as well as the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of the Kalahari. In 2017, he published Affluence Without Abundance, based on 25 years working with the Ju/’hoansi in the field. 

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    Work FAQs 

    What is the main message of Work?

    Work challenges our understanding of productivity and offers a more holistic view of human existence.

    How long does it take to read Work?

    The reading time for Work varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Work a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Work is a thought-provoking book that sheds light on the history and future of work. It's definitely worth a read!

    Who is the author of Work?

    James Suzman is the author of Work.

    What to read after Work?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Work, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • In Pursuit of the Unknown by Ian Stewart
    • The Best Place to Work by Ron Friedman
    • Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill
    • Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud
    • The Art of War by Sun Tzu
    • The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
    • 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do by Amy Morin
    • The WikiLeaks Files by Julian Assange (introduction)