We must find a congruence between living, learning and livelihood

Livelihood is about securing life essentials; living is organizing life around these essentials; and learning mostly is a consequence of living.
Livelihood is about securing life essentials; living is organizing life around these essentials; and learning mostly is a consequence of living.


  • Our living is mostly insular, learning happens elsewhere and livelihood spaces are far removed from the other two spheres, while what we need is harmony among all three.

Mental models are algorithms of the mind. They are thinking constructs that govern how we make meaning and choices. How did separating work from life become a mental model? It goes back to early 18th century. The Industrial Revolution introduced the factory system, which required large number of workers to travel from their homes to a central work location every day. This has long been the norm, one that we take for granted. So much so that the stress of a frustrating pursuit of a work-life balance feels normal too.

Time to challenge the ‘work-life balance’ mental model?: The factory system sure must have taken our forebears some getting used to, but the issue of balance was much simpler back then. Think of quadrants with our personal and professional lives mapped against time and space. The first, Q1, is personal on both dimensions; Q2 is professional time in our personal space; Q3 is time given to work in our work space; and Q4 is personal time in our professional space.

For long, Q2 and Q4 were virtually non-existent. Balance was embedded in the system by design: you clocked in and clocked out of a work-space at fixed times.

Stress arrived with productivity metrics, like the input-output ratio. The factory system began extracting more out of each factor of production. Q1 was the obvious victim of this squeeze, making workers prioritise work over life. This imbalance reached unhealthy levels once human resources were manipulated to become consumers and work harder to afford better lifestyles.

In the midst of this, some worker-friendly organizations arose that were liberal about Q2 and Q4. And then covid demonstrated to cynical employers and anxious employees that Q2 could be a possible new normal. While remote working from home (or elsewhere), workers saw something they just couldn’t unsee: that they had been blinkered all these years; and that a work-life balance is a futile pursuit. This brought back the old question: What’s the best way to organize our lives?

The answer might lie in understanding how human beings have historically organized life all through the ages.

Across the three distinct phases in our evolution, from hunter-gatherers to rural crop cultivators and then urban industrial job-holders, we see a pattern. Humans organize life around life-essentials: water, food, energy and habitation. Once these are secured, other aspects of living are organized around them. As the system matures, it learns. Feedback loops raise efficiency and efficacy, new synergies emerge and the system acquires a wondrous complexity. The core human life-system is a nested system with three inter-related subsystems: livelihood, living and learning. Livelihood is about securing life essentials; living is organizing life around these essentials; and learning mostly is a consequence of living.

How did we end up with a system break-down, with sub-par outcomes on all three? Life makes us naively look at these as three partitioned worlds within our world. We find our own ways to participate in each, often feeling torn between them.

The standard template of modern life has a fragmented life-system as its default setting. Living is mostly insular, in houses cut off from the larger community, with family members in their own separate spaces. Learning happens elsewhere, in educational institutions. And livelihood spaces are far removed from the other two spaces. Each of the three subsystems follows its own structure, order and values, and these are often incongruent with one another.

An unintended consequence of artificial partitions has been that we don’t see synergy among the three subsystems. We are neither in touch with the whole, nor the cyclicity of specific processes that run across them. “Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two elephants", says author Peter Senge. If you try artificially separating livelihood, living and learning, you will have a broken-down system with three subpar fragments.

Forget balance, find congruence: General incongruence between who we are within and how we are required to be in the constructed world we live in produces a lot of the stress we go through. This might also be the cause of an inexplicable sense of alienation that many of us experience.

The solution to this problem might be surprisingly simple: just mimic the principles that natural systems follow, and re-tune the current life-system.

If livelihood, living and learning are all in tune with each other, and also with nature, life will probably just flow. The way it does for our fellow beings in the web-of-life.

If everyday living can nourish us enough physically, mentally and socially, we would not need artificial supplementary processes like, say, a gym routine to keep us fit; our life processes would take care of it.

A truly congruent life-system does not need to be driven. It is self-driven, self-directing and constantly evolving.

If we find ourselves doing living, doing learning and doing livelihood, we might not be living a congruent life. After all, we don’t do life, we live life.

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