On being a taker

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, is this book where a telepathic gorilla (Ishmael) explains the history of humanity. One crucial point happens around the introduction of agriculture. You’ve got everyone running around, nomadic hunting-gathering, and then some people figure out how to grow and store food, and this split happens. Some people settle down and grow crops; Ishmael calls them “takers.” Some people keep hunting-gathering and nomading, Ishmael calls them “leavers.” The leavers really have better lives: they eat healthier food, live longer, live in the moment and don’t worry so much, don’t have issues of hierarchy or power. But the takers are better able to survive as a society, live through famines, make weapons, so slowly the nomads are forced out of their land and die off, and nowadays 99.9% of people are descendants of the takers.

Importantly, Ishmael means the words “taker” and “leaver” to be value neutral. He could have called them group A and group B, but that implies one is “first.” He’s just trying to say, here are two groups, they differ in this one big way. (Still seems a little loaded to me but I’m going to run with the terms anyway.)

Now, modern day. Obviously we’re not choosing to use agriculture or not. But I feel like we do still have a basic choice in life: to take or leave the deal that’s been handed to us. Taking tends to include some variety of a career, family, “normal American life.” Leaving has all kinds of forms: traveling full time, starting your own business (outside the VC world), becoming a monk, whatever. (Of course, there are degrees to this too, and you can Take in some ways and Leave in others. Plus, it all depends on your upbringing; if you grow up a monk, then staying a monk would be taking, I guess.)

Now I’m 30, and I’ve decided, slowly over ~10 years, that I’m a taker. This isn’t something I necessarily expected; sometimes I thought I’d be a full time traveler or move to Nepal, sometimes I thought I might not ever get married, and I had (still have!) a running understanding with my friend Ram that one of us may one day drop everything and go live in a cave on a mountain. But taking is the best thing for me now.

And it’s not a decision that happens quickly; it’s a series of slow decisions that I’ve all consciously decided. Yeah, I’ll be happiest and most helpful if I join the corporate world, after a stint in the academic one. Definitely married, and with that, gonna have a family. Not going to be a monk. Not even going to be a full time artist.

Respect to the leavers! If anything, I find leavers cooler than takers. If you can make your own separate peace, whether that’s through punk zines or religion or hippie communes whatever else, and you’re not hurting anyone, power to you.

But respect to the takers too. My skills, abilities, and preferences mean I’m probably going to do better taking than leaving. And taking doesn’t mean I’m cool with the world overall; there are many (many!) systemic problems. But for my individual self and life, I’ve got to decide to take it or leave it, and I’m taking it.

(Perhaps the most interesting point in this, to me, is that I felt compelled to write it. Like I’ve got to justify why I’m a taker when I think leavers are cool and the world is full of big problems.)

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