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REVIEW OF BEYOND CIVILIZATION BY DANIEL QUINN

A short, concise book about a whole new paradigm of fulfilling and satisfying work structures, offering information and practical actions you can take.

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn

  • "I visit many clasrooms, and...I ask how many of them are champing at the bit to get out there and start working...The question makes them uneasy, because they know they're supposed to be absolutely thrilled at the prospect of going out there to flip burgers and pump gas and stock shelves in the real world. Everyone's told them they're the luckiest kids on earth - parents, teachers, textbooks - and they feel disloyal not waving their hands at me. But they don't." - Beyond Civilization, page 51.

  • "There's plenty of room in the world for the ten percent who love their work. My passion is to make a little room in the world for the other ninety percent who don't." - Beyond Civilization, page 80.

  • "And something better is what I'm after, and nothing less. Those who are looking for something worse definitely need to consult a different book." - Beyond Civilization, page 90

  • "This is a guidebook for people who want to assert control over their destiny and recover the freedom to live at a scale and in a style of their own choosing - and starting now, today, not in some distant utopian future" - Beyond Civilization, Jacket Flap.
Something's not working at work. So many of us hate our jobs that whole comic strips are devoted to illustrating the widespread workplace malaise. The day you look over your morning cup of coffee and find yourself identifying with the ragged, overworked cartoon character in the paper, you know it's time for a change. Far too many of us trudge into the office each day feeling like we're fighting an uphill battle. We spend nearly one-third of our lives shuffling papers, typing on computers and performing other tasks mostly mandated by bosses and companies that control what we wear, what we can say, even when we can eat lunch.

Not only are we forced to do it, but we're expected to do it with a smile, lest we be labeled "pessimists" or "downers". We're told if we don't like it, we should just find another job. But, when we go elsewhere, we seem to find more of the same. Indeed, many of us are afraid to even speak about our real feelings at work, just going through the motions and wondering if we're the only ones who think something is wrong here. We can all reasonably agree that people should be responsible for making a living, but are we crazy for sensing that something is wrong?

Looking around, there certainly seems to be something wrong. Among adults, we have widespread depression, homelessness, workplace shootings and poverty. Among the "luckiest kids on earth," who are in school working towards having such a job of their own, we have suicide, ritalin and pimple-faced adolescents shooting each other at school. Every year, our leaders promise that more money and harder, tougher laws will clean up these problems and usher us into a utopian society where "no child is left behind" and good, fulfilling jobs will abound for all of us. And every year the shootings, depression, homelessness and drugs stubbornly persist. Still, despite all of these problems, we're told this is as good as it gets. Just keep quiet and go about your job.

Throughout history, there have been times when people, tired of the failing programs and unrewarding work, turned to revolution. But even successful revolutions usually led only to more of the same, if not worse. Meanwhile, cultural revolutions, like that of the 1960's, tried to base a system on love and peace; wonderful sentiments, but lousy providers of food and shelter.

Failing real and practical improvements, many have attempted to justify the drudgery of their working lives ("I'm sure if I play by the rules, I'll be rewarded somehow.") or tried to transcend it ("Maybe in heaven it will be better."). Others of us have simply taken to fantasizing about sunny beaches in the tropics during staff meetings. But, for many of us, justification rings hollow and heaven can wait. And those of us unskilled at picking lotto numbers realize the tropical island strategy may not pan out anytime soon. We know we deserve something better. So why do so many of us keep on doing the same old thing?

Beyond Civilization can be read in one sitting, and uses a series of one-page essays to explain that what keeps us locked into our present job system is our widespread belief that nothing better is truly possible and, in fact, never has been. Our parents, our teachers and even our televisions tell us from almost the day that we're born that the only way through life is to "pull your share of the load" for eight or ten hours a day, then go home, have a beer and watch football or Friends. In fact, we're told we should be grateful to those whose efforts have allowed us the luxury of such a life. And, most importantly, we're told that there is simply no way that we can improve on this system. How on earth did such a message ever become accepted as fact?

To answer that question, Quinn takes us through history to see exactly how we came to believe that a system so many of us hate is as good as it gets. He shows us where these ideas originated and how they spread so successfully that today, we can hardly imagine that the human mind could exist without them. Indeed, we have come to see living and working in the way we do as just "human nature". But, isn't it a bit odd that human nature would compel so many people to live in a way that makes them so unhappy?

Perhaps it isn't human nature after all.

Believe it or not, there was a way of making a living that worked for thousands of years, without leading to the widespread depression, suicide and malaise that characterizes our communities today. It was a way that allowed people to make a living with a minimum of stress, year after year. This approach, described in detail in the book, offered security, support, and a more fulfilling way of life. It wasn't perfect. No way ever was. But it worked for people in a manner that our current jobs simply do not. So what happened to it?

Through an examination of history, Quinn explains the steps that lead any society from a structure that fulfills most people to one that requires them to spend their days working for others in order to have the privilege of eating. But this is no usual discussion of Communism vs. Capitalism, Eastern ideas vs. Western ideas or even Liberal vs. Conservative. Daniel Quinn's trademark is the ability to throw out such dichotomies altogether and show you the world in a way that goes beyond such concepts. In doing so, he changes the lens through which you look at these types of issues forever and exposes many of the historical roots of today's discontent with our work environment.

Which brings us to the present, where we are stuck in a system of work that most of us despise. But, unlike other groups that experimented with our work system in the past, only to return to the previous, more fulfilling approach, we can't go back. The world is too different now. With a population of 6 billion, incredible advances in technology and a world that is increasingly connected by transportation, communications and trade, there is no way that we can simply "go back". What we can do, however, is learn the principles behind past successes, invent a new way to apply them and move ahead...Beyond Civilization.

Quinn is never one who claims to have all the answers - any writer who did would be a liar. But, he offers us his own vision for how we can use these lessons of the past to create a fulfilling work environment. However, a vision does not mean a fantasy. We need something real and solid and you need only look at the book's original title, The Manual of Change, to know that this is what Quinn is attempting to offer. Unlike other books which brashly claim to offer a "new vision" while providing little substantive evidence, this is a vision based on proven, workable principles. This is not just more of the "New Age" pie-in-the-sky so prevalent these days, but the beginnings of a real solution based on history, biology, sociology and tested ways of life.

Can we actually manage to escape from a system that holds us so tightly? We are used to waiting for a sweeping global change, a heroic leader, or for positive thinking to just magically fix things. But these are as surely fantasies as the tropical island getaway. Luckily, they are also unnecessary. Beyond Civilization explores the barriers to change and reveals quite convincingly that it is only our own minds and beliefs that stand in our way. But, what we need is not a world of happy-go-lucky optimists, nor a set of new laws and programs to institute. Rather, we must think in a new way, with what Quinn calls "New Minds". While this sounds daunting, the fact is that the difference between jobs of drudgery and jobs of fulfillment lies in just a few fundamental ideas, much as the genetic difference between a chimp and a man lies in just a tiny percentage of our genes. We only need to change a very small, though very fundamental, part of our mindsets to make a huge difference in the quality of our lives.

Furthermore, what Quinn is proposing isn't a remnant of the past, inapplicable in modern times. In fact, in writing the book, he realized that he had himself spent a period involved in just such an endeavor and made plans to do so again. He also gives examples of other people living today who have already made a fundamental shift in their thinking and in their occupations. Indeed, people ranging from small business owners to the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company are already working in a way captured eloquently by one page's title: "Here you're a part of something".

The "something" that these folks have become a part of brings incredibly powerful benefits that seem nearly lost in the work-a-day world to which most of us are tied. They include the security of knowing you will be cared for from cradle to grave and the fulfillment that comes from work that leaves you feeling inspired at the end of the day. Compare this to our customary work environment, which sends us home exhausted and drained, treating us like replaceable cogs in a machine, while dismissing far too many of our families, our friends, and our elderly as utterly disposable.

Though it may be comforting to think otherwise, it is pretty unlikely that our social and occupational problems are going to just disappear anytime soon. They have grown so large, yet our leaders seem unwilling to make any real changes. But, Daniel Quinn's empowering message is that we don't have to wait for our leaders. With a small shift in some key beliefs, we can create something new for ourselves: work that works. Beyond Civilization is offering us something better. It isn't a perfect system that will have you living on easy street and it won't create miracles, but it is a way that has proven itself countless times over to be workable.

All this in a book you can read in one sitting. Rarely has an author said so much using so little.

Resources Related to Beyond Civilization

  • Books by Daniel Quinn

  • Emergent Associates, LLC - My company, through which I coach, consult and educate using principles based heavily on ideas featured in Beyond Civilization, including the "New Mind" concept and the idea of working for change at fundamental leverage points.

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