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In 2003, I worked the front desk of a hotel on Panama City Beach. It was your typical thankless job with long hours and low pay. I worked it as hard as I could because I believed one day the brass would “promote” me to manager. My aspiration was so strong that I honestly saw becoming manager as some ultimate end: I would become salaried and wield the power to tell other people what to do. I thought the promotion would be the first step to “making it”. That belief, I learned, was and is the heart of being in the rat race.
“The rat race” is a term used for an endless, self-defeating or pointless pursuit. It conjures up the image of the futile efforts of a lab rat trying to escape while running around a maze or in a wheel, expending a lot of effort, but ultimately achieving nothing.”
The rat has a goal…or at least he believes he does. Either way, he does not realize that his goal is determined by another. In the same manner with which my bosses dangled “manager” in front of me, some scientist dangles cheese or escape in front of the mouse. What the mouse loses in the race, as I did, is choice.
In my case, I had never once tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I enjoyed writing and teaching, but lived my life surrounded by people who told me those pursuits would never be profitable. Those same people told me that working a job I hated, for 8 hours or more a day, for 5 days a week until I retired with no pension, was the best possible situation for me. You see, the problem with being in the rat race is, you’re surrounded by rats. Getting out means you have to discover what you want to do, set your own goals and not allow the concept of company achievement keep you from doing your work and accomplishing what you want. It isn’t easy and getting out won’t mean that you suddenly stop working hard. You work just as hard or harder, but work hard doing exactly what you want–getting reward beyond dollars for your efforts. Imagine if you loved painting and someone told you that you could paint everyday for a living? If you are imagining that, you should also be realizing that the only person stopping you is you. So, how to you know if you are in it?
5. If Dollar-For-Hour is the only measure with which you quantify your work.
This is the most obvious indicator of a rat racer, but there is more to dollar-per-hour than punching a clock. At first glance, one may think dollar-per-hour means having an hourly wage job or having an hourly rate. But dollar-for-hour has less to do with wages and more to do with productivity. If you turn everything off once the clock stops…close it down and ask for more money…you are, in essence, saying that the money determines what you accomplish. While there are people who live by this, for some, it is not the determining factor on the production. People outside the rat race simply do their work and their greatest reward is in the doing and the finishing, not the money. They are not constantly looking at the clock, or the budget, but spend their time perfecting their work and providing optimum service. When they clock runs out, they continue if they need to because quality means more than the money, the finished product as much as the journey. This luxury is a difficult one to acquire because since you were a child trading chores for candy, you’ve been indoctrinated in the mentality of dollar-per-hour. And even now, there are entrepreneurs reading this and thinking, “the client gets what they pay for” or “they aren’t paying me to do more.” Don’t shortchange yourself. We choose our clients and we choose the value of our service/product. It is not a bold statement to charge what you’re worth and do your very best. Master your work, don’t let the clock master you.
4. If you have ever said the words, “Yeah, but the pay is good.”
This is the ultimate rat-race phrase. It implies both that one doesn’t particularly like what they do and that a fixed amount of money can muzzle their aspirations. In one of my favorite books, the author talks about deferred value: if one man makes $100,000 a year and works 70 hours a week and another makes $50,000 a year and works 20 hours a week, who makes more? This concept, for me, is less about the money and hours, and more about the design of your lifestyle. The person who takes on less hours has the ability to pursue the things they want, whether that be traveling, writing a book, building a car or pursuing something for which they have great passion. Doing anything everyday because the pay is good means you are giving away the things that are actually good. Life and one’s lifestyle can be designed. Question is, who is the designer, you or the money?
3. If the end of your work day is dependent upon the arrival of someone else.
Here is where the artificial urgency in the rat race is created. You have to be tagged out. Where else, in all your life and in all the things you do, do you require being tagged out before you can go do something else? It is that image of a person watching the clock tick away as they sit in a cubicle or at a counter waiting to go and do something else, something they actually WANT to do. How many facebook status updates are “I can’t wait to get off” or “I wish so&so would hurry up so I can leave”. While rat racers are waiting on someone else, anti-rat racers begin when its right and stop when they need to.
2. If you have no time to think about your tasks.
When I finally decided to quit my job at the hotel, I, in my own rat-race-withdrawal, went to work for another company. I thought this job was different because it allowed me to use my creativity unlike my jobs before. But, it wasn’t long before I realized that I was back in the wheel, spinning like mad. The company called itself a web shop, but is reality it was a production house, high volume and low quality at cheap rates. We were asked to manage the project, design the project and build it as quickly as possible because more waited for us in the chute. What I was doing was no different than what someone does in an assembly line, no different than a clerk at a grocery store. I was working that clock just like everyone else, disguised as something I enjoyed. Thankfully, while I worked at this production house, a good friend gave me an opportunity to attend a conference and speaking were some of the best designers and developers in the world. When I asked them about their workflow, they all had different ways of expressing their creativity, but what was unanimous among them was that they spent more time thinking about their projects than with tools working on them. They had the freedom to work out the kinks in their heads, to think through the possible problems and really, deeply, submerge themselves in what they were doing. To them, their job, their work, was art. That, in turn, helped produce the best they had.
1. If you feel as though what you do makes no difference.
I have a close friend who worked the same job at a shoe store since we were in high school. He began at the wall, grabbing shoes and helping people try them on. After a few years he made assistant manager, then manager and eventually he became the district manager over a few stores. He had dreams of being rich, but was making enough money to keep his wife happy and his hobbies going. He didn’t love his job, but it was a comfortable enough sacrifice for him. He told me that he’d, subconsciously, decided that he would work that job for his whole life and that he would die with hands in shoes. What he didn’t expect is that another kid, working all through high school and college, would be able to do the same job, for less pay. My friend was fired. Overnight, he was without a job for the first time since the day he was eligible to get a job. And I had never seen him happier. When I asked him why he thought they fired him, he said simply, “because I didn’t make a difference”. When I asked him why he was so happy, he said, “I am free.”
One of the toughest things about being in the rat race is that often times your job is thankless. You go to work everyday, work your tail off and your reward is a paycheck. That’s it. Occasionally, some good Samaritan will be grateful for your work, but at the end of the day, you believe what you do is nothing special and can be easily replaced. This is what makes me, personally, the saddest. I totally understand we all need people to work these jobs, to do things they hate, to do the hard stuff. I am actually all for that. But, when someone does those things and without believing for a second that it offers any importance, or aid or makes a difference, I find it heartbreaking. It is for that person who loses sight of their aspirations, keeping their heads down while churning out minutes of their lives for pennies in a paycheck, for that person I am even writing this piece. A good man told me once, “I believe that when we work, we are trading life energy. I give you my life energy (doing some task), so you don’t have to spend yours (attempting to do the same task). So I try to make sure that what I decide to do is worth it.”
So how do you get out?
All you have to do to get out of the rat race is “decide” to get out. Now, I am sure you are unsatisfied with that answer, but, although it sounds simple, it is actually incredibly hard. When I worked those jobs I hated, deciding to leave them was as hard as letting go of the edge of the pool when you don’t know how to swim. And even when you do let go, you keep that edge in close sight, never straying too far away because of your fears. Getting out is hard. Really, really hard. But it is also one of the most rewarding things you will do in your lifetime.
If you have a hobby you love, make it your business. If you have a dream, an aspiration, do you everything you can to make it happen and do not let others or even your own “lizard brain” keep you from achieving it.
I eventually quit both those jobs and started my own business. It was difficult and I had no idea what I was doing. It took several failures for me to learn the right lessons. But I did not and will not give up or give in. I have been told I wasn’t good enough, rejected by those I admire, sued by those I befriended and even totally broke with no prospects. But I kept my feet moving, kept making decisions and never let the thoughts of going back to the race draw me back in. In end, I made a plan, stuck to it, gave it my all and broke free.
You can too…all you have to do is decide; stop running in place and start running in the direction of your aspirations. You only live once. Don’t hold back.