Cebo Campbell

5 Ways To Know If You Are Stuck In The Rat Race and 1 Way To Get Out

In2005, I worked the front desk of a hotel on Panama City Beach; a typical, thankless job with long hours and low pay. I toiled daily and believed, foolishly, that the brass would one day “promote” me. I imagined that I would be manager or something like it, where, salaried, I would finally wield the power to tell other people what to do rather than doing so much of the work myself. I thought the promotion would be the first step to making it. My belief was, and is, the very engine of the rat race.

The rat race is defined as an endless, self-defeating or pointless pursuit. It conjures the image of a little white lab rat trying to escape while traversing a maze or spinning a wheel; expending a lot of effort, but ultimately achieving nothing.” The rat has a goal…or at least believes it does. What it does not realize its that its goal is determined by another; a delicious bit of folly, enough to keep the rat going. 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, while I had worked hard and excelled at my job, the job itself neither encouraged nor accepted individuality or sense of self. I had never once tried to figure out what I wanted to do in my life. I had things I enjoyed outside of work. I knew I enjoyed writing and teaching, but never considered those things as an element of my work. To boot, I lived my life surrounded by people who told me my “hobby” interests would never be profitable. Later in life, I realized it was those same people who told me that working a job I did not enjoy (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’re lucky,” they’d say. I learned that the problem with being in the rat race is you’re surrounded by rats. Getting out means you have to accept that your life is your own, discover what you want to do, set your own goals, and not allow the concept of company achievement keep you from doing the work that accomplishes what you want. Getting out isn’t easy and it won’t mean that you suddenly stop working hard. You work just as hard or harder, but work towards realizing your aspirations–getting reward beyond dollars for your efforts. Getting out of the race means acknowledging that you’re in it. Here are a few ways to test.

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. 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.

A clock or a budget cannot restrain their desire. The merit is in perfecting their work and providing optimum service. Greatness is their measure.

When they clock runs out, they continue if they need to because quality means more than the money, the journey as much as the finished product. 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. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, we are literally selling the hours of our lives to the best bid we can get. Question is, is it worth it? 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 anything for which they have great passion. Doing something everyday because the pay is good means you are giving away the things that are actually good–things that have no expiration on the effect they have. Life and one’s lifestyle can be designed and either you become the designer, or the money will.

3. If the end of your work day is dependent upon the arrival of someone else.

Artificial urgency. 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? Every day, every moment in your life is yours. It is the image of my younger self, sitting at a front desk watching the clock tick away, waiting to go and do something else, that inspires me as much as anything else. For me it is a stark reminder, fuel even, to make my own choices and determine my on realities. 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. They make the choice, no one else.

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. It was little web shop in my home town. I thought this job was different because it allowed me to use my creativity unlike my previous jobs, 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 in reality it was a production house, high volume and low quality websites at cheap rates. We were asked to manage the projects, design the projects, and code them as quickly as possible because more waited in the chute. It was a website 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, were some of the best designers and developers in the world told their stories. 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 using tools to actually work 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. If you do not have the room to think through your work, you may be in a rat race of your own making.

1. If you feel as though what you do makes no difference.

I have a close friend who held a job at a shoe store dating back to 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 just 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 he would die with hands in shoes. What he didn’t expect was that another kid, working all through high school and college, would be able to do the same district manager 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 have one. Yet, in the aftermath, 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, “because, I’m free.”

One of the toughest things about being in the rat race is the thanklessness. You go to work everyday, to be rewarded with a paycheck. That’s it. As if money should, somehow, remedy the unrequited loss of your life energy. 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 have done it and I am all for it. But, when someone does those things 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, that this little essay exists. 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?

To get out of the rat race, all one need do is “decide” to get out. That may seem a simple, unsatisfying answer, but it is harder than anything I have ever done in my work life. When I worked 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, deep fears keeping you from going to far. Getting out is hard. Really, really hard. Some of us have kids and families that are supported by that sacrifice, others are paralyzed by not knowing what comes next.

Just know, it is not a noble sacrifice that keeps you in the rat race. It’s fear.

Getting out requires a courage so foreign to you that it will feel wholly unnatural, as though you are letting everyone down. But, from that courage will come the reward of accomplishment and inspiration to those you thought you let down. Deciding to get out means asking yourself what you want to do and who you want to become. You must find your mark and shoot, find your destination and go get it. No two ways around it… it is scary. Knowing what you want to be isn’t a light course. To know this, we are required to study ourselves, acknowledge when we are mistaking fear for truth or excuses for opportunities. 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 would not give up or give in. I have been told I wasn’t good enough, rejected by those I admired, 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 to it. In the 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.

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11 responses on “5 Ways To Know If You Are Stuck In The Rat Race and 1 Way To Get Out

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  • Hello there, You’ve done a fantastic job. I’ll definitely digg it and in my opinion suggest to my friends. I’m confident they will be benefited from this web site.

  • Nice post dude.

  • August 13, 2012 by Jason Woolard

    Somebody has been reading the books that I’ve read and has mirrored life experiences…Energy management is a funny thing. We must get togethor soon. 🙂

  • September 13, 2012 by Josh Steele

    Awesome post Cebo, you couldn’t have put it better.

  • Thanks so much for this, you have no idea…

  • April 4, 2013 by Elanore

    Wow! Thank you. And another “…you have no idea”. So many of us are in the same horrible boat that appears to be sinking anyway.

  • What you wrote did more than help me it made me confident to let go of all my worries. I recently quit the rat race and like an addict going through withdrawals and began to doubt myself. What you said especially about feeling like you are letting people down is so true. Thank you. You are a god send. Glad to know you enjoyed it here in the Philippines. Also your website looks and reads awesome.

  • February 24, 2016 by Elizabeth

    After 16 years in one field and 10 years at the same job I’m completely drained and so done. I actually took the day off to try to find some inspiration and put some words on paper for the first time in 10 years and ended up here- a 4 year old post…. and it’s so relevant. Loved it.

  • Incredible Words

  • June 26, 2018 by Naomi

    I’m in search of inspiration and direction. I have a good job, but I’m so burnt out and I just want more. I feel unfulfilled and drained. While driving into the office this morning, I looked at other folks walking in or around my building. I observed folks standing in or making their way to the smoking section; gulping coffee, looking hurried, and glum. I couldn’t help but say out loud: Is this it? Is this what we’re all here for? This cannot be it…..not for me. And I finally said aloud: I want out. I feel like my growth has been stifled and like there’s so much more for me to do. And I just have this sense or urgency that isn’t shared by the Executives I work for and is further stalled by the bureaucracy of the company. And I’m jut over it. So tonight, I Googled “how to get out of the rat race”. This years old post appeared in the search results and spoke to me directly. Thank you.

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I am an author and a Creative Director.

As a full-time creative (VP of Creative Services at Spherical), I spend most days writing in the nooks and crannies of my available time. I wake up at 5:30am just to get in a few hours putting words on paper. I write on the train. I write on planes. I write waiting in lines. I feel I have to write. The reason is simple: representation.

I often tell the story of Ferris Bueller; a kid who decides to skip school and, on charm alone, steals a car, impersonates a cop, drinks underage, tampers with computers, and at every step exposes his best friends to peril, only to go home and fall asleep with his mother to kiss him into sweet dreams. I asked myself if Ferris were Trayvon Martin, how might that story end? I know the answer. So do you. And this is why representation is so important. I aim to contribute more stories into the world that diversely feature regular (but beautiful) lives made extraordinary. Art, I believe, is the only way to accomplish this. All my creative work is inspired by and aims to add to all the great work in the world.