Do you hate your job? Do you feel like you have little or no input, are constantly stressed, have no life, a commute from hell, and lack any satisfaction for what you’re doing with your life? If you say yes to any of this, you’re probably living in the rat race and desperately need to get out! Here are the 5 steps to freedom and living the life you actually want for yourself.
What is the Rat Race?
But first, how can we recognize the rat race? The rat race typically means:
- No work-life balance
- No independence
- High stress
- Long commutes
- A general dissatisfaction with life
See my article 5 Signs You’re In the Rat Race & Don’t Know It. The rat race is the daily grind and you’re the one being ground down. In many ways it is the de facto way of life and we’ve all just accepted that’s the way things are, which is pretty depressing if you think about it.
Many people feel that to have a better life they simply need to shuffle around or eliminate one or more of the five aspects of the rat race while remaining in the overall system but this is treating symptoms, not providing a lasting cure.
The rat race thrives on pitting people against each other for jobs that might sound good on paper – higher salary, “better” titles, job “perks” – but which don’t actually live up to the hype. Usually they just come with more stress and responsibilities. After all, that promotion probably entails more hours or more work taken home or more responsibilities you have to cram into the same hours as before. Or it means being on call at all hours and answering emails at night when you should be relaxing with your family or pursuing the hobbies and activities that you enjoy.
We forget that work is a means, not the ends. If the means, i.e. the job, aren’t providing the ends we want – providing meaning, affording a better quality of life that we actually have time to enjoy – then the work is actually a sort of prison or slave system that keeps us distracted and isolated from the life we actually want to live.
If you want meaning, independence, vitality, and happiness, you’re not going to find it in the rat race. You have to get out and not look back.
Here are the 5 steps to escaping the rat race.
Step 1 – Recognize the Prison
What is the purpose of our lives? Were we born to work 9-5 (or longer) in a job we hate just so we can make a set amount of money to provide for ourselves while never having enough money or enough time to enjoy any of the good things in life that we’re actually working for? If that’s what the doctors were to tell us at birth was our purpose and lot in life, we’d scamper back to the womb in a hurry! Why do we accept this lie as adults?
Of course we have to provide for ourselves and money is one of the most convenient means. There are, however, better and more enjoyable ways to take care of ourselves than staring down the barrel of a soul-sucking job day in and day out. If you hate your job or your colleagues, feel like you’re a cog without any real input into the job, come home stressed, feel relief to leave, waste endless time in traffic, and feel generally dissatisfied with the way your life is going, that’s the rat race – and it is a prison. You are literally going to prison every day and if you’re like millions who take work home with you, you stay in that prison even when “off the clock”.
In the rat race you give the prime hours (and years) of your life to a company day in and day out so that they can meet their mission or fulfill the leadership’s goals. You receive a paycheck and maybe a nice sounding title. But you’re working for someone else’s dreams and success, not your own. Somewhere inside you know this and that is why you’re unhappy.
The fact that our society is set up this way – encouraging and demanding that the vast majority of the population work for others for pay that barely covers needs and provides no sense of independence and meaning – is a new form of institutionalized slavery.
The good thing is that you can opt out of this institutionalized slavery. First, though, you have to realize that you are opting in to the system and that other, better paths and systems exist.
I went from working insane hours at a law firm and hating my life to semi-retiring at age 37 to live the life I envisioned for myself and pursing the goals I set for myself rather than giving my time and energy (and life) to soulless firms and their bottom lines. See my article How I Went From Welfare Kid to Financially Independent and Semi-Retired at 37. It took me ten years to unravel the mess I’d gotten into with the rat race, formulate and execute a plan to get out, and start living my life on my terms. I did it by leveraging financial smarts while creating a niche in the legal sector, but many avenues exist and most are faster paths out. Anyone can do it.
Step 2 – Take Responsibility
Many people think there’s only one path in life – work for someone else until you can retire, then pray that you’ll actually be able to retire (more and more people can’t). They put the responsibility for their financial soundness and life purpose into someone else’s hands. This is a recipe for unhappiness and financial dependence.
No firm, company, business or job you are working for others will ever have your best interests at heart. They’re pursuing their mission and goals, not yours. At best, they will offer enrichment classes or development courses – but these are to retain your services or sharpen your skills to their advantage in pursuing their goals. If you benefit as a result, that’s just a by-product. Your dreams and meaning are not part of their structure. It doesn’t get factored into their quarterly report.
In addition to this, in the rat race, you are usually agreeing to what the boss or company thinks you are worth rather than assessing your own value. They will pay you X amount for your life. And you must realize this is what you are giving them. You are giving hours out of your life for money – hours that you will never get back. Reflect on that. You are exchanging the prime hours of every day out of your life to a job.
Is the pay worth it?
“But I get dental!” some will yell.
Really? That makes it worth it?
If you’re feeling unhappy at work as well as dissatisfied with life, then the job isn’t worth it. The only way you will find meaning, purpose, enjoyment, or satisfaction is by pursuing it yourself.
We have to take responsibility for pursing our own dreams and happiness. Most people plug into the system. I did and I hated it. But I saw that others outside the system found meaning and purpose in their lives – even in their careers and lifestyles. This gave me the courage and conviction that I could do the same. I stopped looking to the boss for a paycheck and starting looking for my own means of satisfaction. Since I had only gone into corporate work because of massive student debt, I started reassessing my own goals and dreams to find ways to return to the path I originally wanted for myself.
I realized that there was no way the dog eat dog, work till you drop, run on a treadmill chasing money system that barely paid for my necessities, let alone anything else, was ever going to fulfill me. Rather than fatalistically accept that as my lot in life, I stood up for my dreams and found a way out.
That’s what we have to do. We have to look around, see that the system isn’t working and isn’t serving our inner needs, and have the courage and conviction to pursue a separate path. It may seem daunting and overwhelming but in the end, that path is the most rewarding and meaningful.
Don’t outsource your happiness and meaning to others. We’re only here a short time. Untangle yourself from your current situation – even if it takes time and effort – and get on a track you’ll find purpose in pursuing.
Step 3 – Self Study
Because we’re trained at an early age to work for others or indoctrinated into believing titles and money are emblems of success, we often pursue paths that lead to stress, anxiety and are devoid of a sense of purpose, freedom or meaning. Usually we work for others at what they’re willing to pay us. We become unhappy wage slaves.
Once we raise our heads from the drone mentality, we usually face a wall of fear and uncertainty over what we can do to escape the system. This is where self study is key. We have to go back to ourselves and learn what it is we’re working for and why. What are we hoping to gain? I’m not talking a house and a nice car, though these can be incentives. I’m talking lifestyle. What is the lifestyle we want for ourselves? Cars, clothes, houses and even vacations are trappings but what are we wanting to experience, do or pursue day to day?
You don’t have to get lost in the labyrinth of “what is my purpose in life?” You were born. Simply existing is what you came here to do. A purpose is something we put on ourselves but it’s just another way of experiencing this world. Some people feel called to help or serve others – doctors, lawyers, nurses, counselors, teachers, etc. They feel most happy and complete giving time and energy to healing, teaching or lifting up others. Some people enjoy the challenge of creating and developing – engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, etc. Still others love problem-solving or connecting with others – programmers, clergy, management types, etc. These are not purposes. These are ways that people enjoy living their lives and expending their energy. Don’t get trapped in the “I have to have a purpose” prison.
Where you fit comes from how you enjoy spending your energy and what you’re passionate about. Equally helpful is knowing what you hate doing and what sucks the energy out of you. But only you can learn that. A good clue if you’re not sure is to start with what you do in your free time. Are you reading about or pursing health and fitness? Maybe you’re tinkering with cars or volunteering somewhere. What is it you love to do when you’re free and have energy? This may guide you to a lifestyle you’d enjoy or find fulfilling.
I don’t know how many of my fellow lawyers quit firm life to became yoga teachers! Others became school teachers, opened their own practices, and much more. All were happier for following their inner calling – me as well. Sometimes that call leads back into the 9-5 world. No path is the same and there are no right or wrong ways. Ultimately it’s about discovering what makes you feel alive and formulating a lifestyle around that. This leads to a better sense of well-being, happiness and even peace.
Step 4 – Invest in Yourself
When looking to exit the rat race, we often have to develop ourselves in preparation for the lifestyle we’re hoping to pivot too. This may mean learning new skills or habits, getting experience or discovering the ins and outs of an entirely different industry than where we’ve been working.
At this point a lot of people freak out. Maybe the amount of work to do seems overwhelming. That’s because until now, we’ve put all our time and effort into serving the rat race, not ourselves. That’s the penalty. When you work for others at the expense of yourself, you have to play catch up for the lost time. This usually means sacrificing time and energy on top of your current energy-draining job. I know from personal experience that when I was untangling myself from the law firm life, I felt like I was working two or three jobs. I was studying finance, business, success habits, and learning a second language.
But I was also super happy doing it or at least refreshed by the energy that comes from pursuing my own dreams and meaning.
It took me 10 years to get out of the rat race but each of those years became more and more fulfilling as I worked on myself and my dreams and as the plan fell into place. Then one day I quit the rat race and began living my dream full-time.
How long will it take you to get out? Maybe a day, maybe 10 years like me. It depends on the lifestyle you want and how you go about structuring it. I wanted to be financially independent and manage my investments while traveling, writing and pursuing various hobbies which is very different from wanting to be a yoga instructor like several of my colleagues! They got out much faster.
The point is, you will probably need to invest in yourself. If you’re wanting to open your own business or be an independent contractor, that may mean finding or saving money and learning business management skills. Almost everything you need to know is only a Google away. Don’t feel like you have to go back to school or take pricey coursework. I didn’t, not even for learning Japanese. See my article How I Tripled My Income in 20 Months.
Some avenues will require money and coursework because the shift will likely take time and new skills. If you hate every moment of preparing for the change then that means you’ve probably chosen a path that’s not going to ultimately work for you. When I was changing careers and lifestyles, I loved almost every minute of the extra “work”. I couldn’t read enough about finance or stop finding more Japanese to enjoy. Was it always fun or enjoyable? No. But overall? Yes.
The takeaway: Work more on yourself and for yourself than for your current job. That’s how you’ll get out of the rat race. When you are developing yourself, you’ll find added meaning, well-being, happiness, energy and even peace.
Step 5 – Live For Yourself
The number one regret of the dying is that they lived the life others expected of them rather than the life they wanted for themselves.
Nothing says we must waste our lives in thankless jobs where we are miserable and come home too exhausted to enjoy what we’re working for. The rat race is very good at making us feel like life is passing us by. And it will continue to pass us by until we opt out and start living for ourselves. When we are in the rat race we are not living “our” lives. We are living someone else’s dream at the expense of ourselves.
People are leaving the life of long commutes and poor work-life balance every day to pursue opportunities and lifestyles that hold meaning for them. The walks of life are diverse. I actually had a colleague who upon retiring from the navy at 60 went to law school because he had always wanted to be a lawyer. He was happy at the law firm doing the same job as the one I hated! We are all different and find meaning and fulfillment on different paths. Maybe your passion is rock climbing while your neighbor’s is emergency medicine.
We don’t get do-overs (as far as I know) so we might as well enjoy our lives. When we do that, we engender energy and well-being and become better able to be present in the lives of our friends and family. When we’re not miserable we can be there for them and make contributions to our industries, professions and world because now we are engaged and alive. This is a better way of being and it’s how we should be living our lives.
Get Out, Get a Life
If you feel like life is passing you by, you’re in the rat race or one of its variants. The only way out is by going in – finding your passion and meaning and having the courage to follow the path you set for yourself. This is easier said than done but nothing tastes as sweet!
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.
Meaning, happiness and peace are not handed out. They are discovered, pursued and reclaimed. The world will take and take from you – your life and your energy – until you say no, this is how I prefer to live. The rat race is the default for those who don’t know this truth. Get out of the maze and start living your life.
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