Get ahead. Keep up with the Joneses. Strive for more. Live a rat race life. This represents the majority of human lives.
Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
He’s not wrong. There are exceptions, of course; people who are able to step outside the box, those that buck the system, who take the red pill. They are exceptions, however.
I am no exception. I run in the rat race. What’s even worse, is that I can – at times – recognize I’m in the race and yet remain unable (unwilling) to exit it. This, in turn, is a life of quiet desperation – the rat race life.
Like others, I strive for the finish line, however. To end it. But – of course – the only end to the rat race life is death itself. But let’s back up a moment…
What is a Rat Race?
If we look at Wiki, we have one definition:
A rat race is an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit. The phrase equates humans to rats attempting to earn a reward such as cheese, in vain. It may also refer to a competitive struggle to get ahead financially or routinely.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_race
This definition will work generally, but I think “rat race” could be expanded beyond just the drive for financial gain. To me, a “rat race” is a daily endeavor to get to the next step (whatever that may be), and then the next step after that, and then the next, then the next, and so on with no real end ever achieved.
The Rat Race Life
From here it’s easy to see what a rat race life is like, a continuous striving for something with no end. Day after day after day, and it’s the life most of us live.
We have been raised to live a rat race life, starting in Kindergarten. We enter elementary school and are tasked with completing assignments, learning objectives, and goals. The natural goal to get to the next grade. We move from First Grade to Second, from Second to Third, until we make it to the next big step – middle school.
Welcome to middle school. Middle school, as we all remember, is more of the same, only we’re tasked with more work. We have actual take home work. Expectations grow. School sports begin in earnest. Things begin to get competitive.
Then we hit it – high school. Now things get serious, because the next step is – most likely – college, and if not college trade school, something – anything to delay the inevitable “real world.” We have to get ready in high school. We have to get good grades, get involved, build ourselves up so we have a solid application for college. Step after step we’ll get there.
Aaaaah – college. We fly the home nest. We’ve made it to young adulthood where we can stand (or fall) on our own. College is more getting ready, though. Really, it’s more of the same. Now we need to get ready for the inevitable career that will follow in 4 years, unless grad school is on the horizon, at which point we’ll have more steps to that career. But the path is linear – step after step – grade after grade – success after success – we’ll get there!
Graduation – wow – we made it! We move that tassel on our hats to signify completion. Of course, it’s just completion of the next step. The real work is ahead of us now – work in the “real” world. We have to ready our resume, apply to jobs, begin a career path.
Building a career is much like school. We get in at a lower level, complete assigned tasks, try to impress our new teacher (the boss), and hope for the next grade (that promotion). If we get enough steps – well, now we’re into the money. We’re getting there!
Middle-life. Years into it now, we’ve been climbing step after step, climbing the ladder of school, college, and career. We’ve done it – we’ve arrived – we’re at the top of the ladder and we can look out at the view ahead, which… looks markedly… boring. It’s more of the same.
Mid-life crisis. If anything, the top of the ladder feels less than the same. The moment you’ve been working toward for nearly your entire life is – deflating. “Is this it?” you ask yourself. “This is what I strived for?” You feel let down. You feel cheated. You were promised… something more…
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
The Problem with Trying to Escape
At some point along this path laid out before us, when we see the lie we’ve been led to live, we might seek escape from it. This is our awakening moment! We’re tired of it – we only have one life to live, and damn it – we’re going to live it!
So, we come up with a plan. Maybe we quit our job. Maybe we go back to school for something else. Maybe we start yoga. We figure we have to do something to escape this rat race life. or our life will have been wasted. The past years are gone, and we’re going to seize the ones that are left.
The problem with our plan to escape is that it’s more of the same – more steps. We develop more steps to take on the ladder. Maybe it’s a different ladder, a ladder on a different wall, but the end goal still down the road – that endless road. One foot in front of the other, we only move closer to our grave.
In fact, look at some of the top results on how to escape the rat race. The advice is more of the same – do more not less. Work harder. Build wealth. Learn something new. More and more steps…
Retirement. When we find that we’ve finally arrived, and the destination is not what we expected, we see on the horizon – more of the same. We take the next step, which at this point might be waiting for retirement, that’s when then things will finally get good. We’ll be free from work, free to pursue our passions. We just have to buckle down and get there. If we’re lucky, we stay healthy so we can enjoy it.
If we make it to retirement, and don’t die soon thereafter, then we have hit the goal – presumably, happiness. But by then the vast majority of our lives are over. The entire time we lived waiting for something else – a new now.
In reality, we were only ever in the now. We just didn’t recognize it for what it was.