Does your life seem off balance, overwhelming, draining and unfulfilling? Chances are, you’re caught up in the rat race and don’t know it (though you may suspect it). Most people today are stuck in the rat race but live under the illusion that they’re not. Let’s pop a few perception bubbles so we can get out, get a life and start being happy.
What is the Rat Race?
We’ve all probably heard the term rat race. We think of a hamster on a wheel – working hard and getting nowhere. Or we think of the rat trapped in a maze, hunting for the illusive cheese before other rats grab it. In both cases, the rodent is harried, upset, stressed and has little chance of getting the prize it so desperately seeks.
One definition of the rat race is a way of life in which people are caught up in a fiercely competitive struggle for wealth or power. But it can be as simple as an exhausting, usually competitive routine. The rat race typically means no work-life balance, no independence, high stress, long commutes, and a general dissatisfaction with life.
Let’s break down the 5 key signs you’re trapped in the rat race and what to do about it.
Sign #1 – No Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance is a popular phrase these days. Work-life balance refers to a proportionate way of life. Generally people feel like they’re all work and no play. They’re working for the weekend and usually find that the weekend isn’t enough to recharge them. We’re tired, exhausted and really just want to come home, sit in front of the television and zone out. This is a terrible state to find oneself.
A while ago I wrote an article on life hours – the amount of time you get each day to live as you want. You know, that time you get to actually be you and do what makes you smile and laugh and feel like you’re alive and fulfilled. In any given day, how often do you feel that? Do you ever feel like that? No or only sometimes? Then your work-life balance is off or non-existent.
Sign #2 – No Independence
Do you feel like you don’t have a say at work, that decisions are made for you? Maybe you feel dictated to or that you get little opportunity to make a contribution or input. Does your ever action feel controlled, your every action monitored? Maybe you even have to ask to go to the bathroom or take a food break. That’s not a job or existence. That’s slavery or a prison.
Let’s call a spade a spade.
Think about it: what other species on this earth has to ask permission to take a leak or eat?
If you don’t feel in control of your own life, you’re squarely in the rat race. We were born with free will, to live our lives in independence. Remember that whole “pursuit of happiness” line laid out in US Declaration of Independence?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We need to remember and start living this profound declaration about our human existence.
Sign #3 – High Stress
These days you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t stressed. Even people who claim not to be stressed are juggling a dozen plates. Between work, family, finances, health problems, taxes, chores and other day to day problems we are inundated with stress that shows up in increasing rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, neuroses, addiction problems and so much more.
If you come home exhausted and just want to veg out on the couch in front of the television to switch off, you’re under high stress even if you think you aren’t. Otherwise you’d have energy and drive to do those things you love to do.
Sign #4 – High Commutes
If you live in a city – and global populations are increasingly living in highly concentrated cities – you likely have a long commute. Why is it taking us over 30 minutes to get from home to work and work to home? Why on earth would it take 2 hours one way? It’s ridiculous and a symptom of the rat race. We’re spending more time on the road than we are at home awake doing what we love to do. If that doesn’t sound like a hamster running on a useless, endless wheel, I don’t know what does.
Sign #5 – A General Dissatisfaction with Life
Do you hate your life? Do you wake up every day dreading getting out of bed? If you find your work meaningless, monotonous, mind-numbingly boring, soul-sucking, or thankless you are definitely in the rat race. In these instances, we often wonder what’s even the point.
This can and often does bleed over into the rest of our life, raising concerns about the value and meaning of our lives and purpose. We shuffle from our boxy home via a boxy vehicle to work in a boxy building. Living in a box is not the natural habitat of homo sapiens. Is it no wonder we feel dissatisfied?
Escaping the Rat Race
These are the five major symptoms of being in the rat race: no work-life balance, no independence, high stress, long commutes, and a general dissatisfaction with life. But the rat race is itself a symptom of something far more insidious.
We were not born to be drudge-like workers being paid by someone else, chasing after the carrot of salary or title. While every creature has to eat to survive, the modern workplace is a uniquely human enterprise that has turned us into wage-slaves living from paycheck to paycheck. The term “work-life balance” is actually a red herring. When did work become the reason for our existence that we needed to balance against living our lives to the fullest? Why are we supposed to pay for necessities like water which no other animal pays for? We have to pay our taxes, pay our rent or mortgage, pay for our education, pay for our utilities, pay for healthcare, and so much more. And there’s never enough money left over to live the lives we envision for ourselves.
What next, paying for air?
In order to escape the rat race, we have to see it for what it is – a thankless prison that makes slaves of us for the benefit of someone else. This may seem harsh but what else would you call an existence spent mostly on the way to, at and from work, with no independence, full of stress, and lacking in any sense of life satisfaction?
Those people who are happy and fulfilled do not live in the rat race. Instead, they are pursuing their own dreams, creating an enjoyable lifestyle rather than having a job, and either working for themselves or doing what they love. It is possible to love your life, to reach a point where work becomes mostly play and a form of self-expression. This is also called doing what you enjoy. That’s when you come alive. It doesn’t happen by running in the maze of someone else’s game and trying to play by rules you didn’t formulate and had no say in.
When I graduated from law school, I landed squarely in the rat race. After a year of busting my butt in 60+ hour work weeks, trying to pay down my loans and get ahead, I ended my first year going from over six figures in debt to over six figures in debt but less a measly $1000. This was the hard slap by life that set me to learning everything I could about finance, being my own boss and finding my own purpose. Ten years later I said bye-bye rat race and semi-retired to live the life of my dreams. If I can do it, you can too. Read about my journey (How I Went From Welfare Kid to Financially Independent and Semi-Retired at 37).
Escaping the rat race breaks down into 5 steps:
- Realizing the rat race is a deceptive form of slavery or prison sentence
- Taking responsibility for your own happiness and purpose instead of looking to others to provide it, let alone allowing them to assess your value
- Putting in the time to study yourself and that which makes you feel alive
- Investing in your talents, well-being, happiness and peace
- Living the life you want for yourself, not the life others expect of you
There is so much to this but essentially it’s a manifesto about our lives and how we choose to live them. We were not born to be drones in someone else’s game or success dream. We were meant to find our own happiness and purpose. We were meant to live our lives to the fullest, in liberty from the control of others, in the pursuit of our highest happiness. Never forget that. The rat race and all its trappings will keep you enslaved if you fall asleep and forget you are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But like the US Declaration of Independence says: you have to pursue happiness. And it starts within yourself, not by looking to someone else for it.
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