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The Rat Race

The number one regret most people have on their deathbed is this, “I wish I had not worked so hard”.

Yet the crux of human evolution has been progress; the development towards an improved or more advanced condition. And that does not happen if we just sit still in one place and twiddle our thumbs. It is the desire for progress that has led to the quality of life that we enjoy today, a standard of living that would have been unattainable even for royalty just a couple of hundred years ago.

But does progress mean working 12+ hours a day, seven days a week for a job you do not find fulfilling? Does it involve sacrificing your health when you are younger so that you can afford to relax when you are older? The answer is not clear-cut.

We need to accept that desire is an essential attribute of the human condition. It may be more or it may be less, depending on the individual, but we all desire resources, companionship, belonging and fulfillment. The difference is that what we primarily desire has changed over the past fifty years.

Society has a powerful influence on the individual. In the olden days of the hunter-gatherer tribes, ostracization from the tribe meant certain death. This primal method of thinking has been carried forward to the present day. We are inherently social creatures, and desire to be accepted by the people around us. The desire is to belong to something.

And this in turn puts pressure on us to conform. People crave for others to be like themselves, and we tend to gravitate to those with whom we share common traits, whether it be religion, race, work, language etc. We also tend to be affiliated with people who are in the same economic class as ourselves, and always strive to move up the social ladder, especially by gathering more resources (money) and symbols of those resources, i.e. a more expensive house, car, clothes, vacation etc.

There is nothing wrong with this outlook. There is nothing noble in poverty, and being able to take care of yourself is seen as a rite of passage to adulthood. They say money cannot buy happiness, but you’d rather fall asleep crying on a comfortable bed than on a sheet by the road.

The issue comes when what we have is never enough. It’s not enough to be a Vice President, you have to become the General Manager. It’s not enough to have a 3 BHK Flat, you need a 4BHK in a better locality.

Modern advertising and marketing pushes us to achieve more, to do more, to ‘work hard and play hard’. We can never have enough, be enough. This combined with social media has resulted in a society where we are bombarded with how well our colleagues, friends, celebrities and relatives are doing. Earlier, we would only know about the goings on in their lives when we met up at a family function or a class reunion. Nowadays, we see the vacations people go on, the new cars they buy, the fun they are having, all on our phones. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has taken on a whole new dimension. Earlier the Joneses were those who lived near us, in our neighbourhood. Now they include everyone around the world. The availability of easy credit these days has pushed even the poorest to purchase symbols of affluence, even if they cannot afford it. That is why I see a maid having the latest iPhone, while I carry around my 2 year old Samsung.

And that makes us feel inadequate, that we do not have enough, and strive for more. No one cares anymore about who we are as people. For we all have to wear a mask and conform, biting our tongues if our views go against the majority of those around us. Position and status are paramount. We see people introducing themselves as ‘Dr.’ or ‘Major’ or ‘GM’ and they are treated with far more respect and are given a sort of privilege. The traffic policeman does not stop the person in his Honda City, but stops the poor delivery boy on his two-wheeler. We are chasing the mirage of success and feel inadequate if we do not achieve it.

We do not really have a choice in running this race. There is a pressure to conform. Taking the well-worn career path of being an Engineer, Doctor, Lawyer, Govt. Official, Army Man, Banker etc. and you are put into a group, you are given a rank and are accepted. That is followed by getting married, having children and fulfilling your responsibilities as a parent and spouse.

Try doing something else outside the norm and you are greeted with nods of disapproval and murmurs whenever you pass by. People are not comfortable with things they don’t understand, and you following a different path from what they all did threatens their beliefs. Society does not want thinkers, it wants workers to work, fill the factories and produce more. Look at our education system and entrance exams. We do not encourage creativity. We just want drones who can carry out their tasks. To avoid people realizing that they are unfulfilled, society pushes on them mindless entertainment, controversies and news items.

And that’s fine.

Not everyone is built to make a difference, to try and take risks and trod the unfamiliar path. Society does need workers who will carry out their tasks without questioning or rocking the boat.

Also, not everyone has the luxury or freedom to choose their own path. The need for money is what keeps us locked into our paths, and expenses are rising every day. The cost of raising a child from birth to 21 years of age is around Rs. 37.5 lakhs in today’s money, so people have a responsibility to work and provide for their children. Nothing in life is free, we are always sacrificing something for the compensation we get. It is our time and health for which we are compensated. We can choose not to put in the hours, to try and achieve a work-life balance. But what we have to remember is, if we are unwilling to sacrifice, someone else is.

The sheer amount of labour force and competition means we cannot take our foot off the pedal. For it comes back to the same old thing, status and prestige. We may be happy being an Assistant Vice-President, but if Mr. Sharma next door got promoted to General Manager, we would certainly feel inadequate, or be reminded of it by our spouse, relatives or neighbours. Never mind the fact that he puts in 70 hour workweeks, has diabetes and takes heart medication at 40 years old.

So is there a way out? Of not following the herd and running with the crowd?

Yes, and for that we have to learn to measure success on our own terms. And that will be different for everyone. There are some people who are workaholics. For them, putting in these 70+ hour workweeks are what gives them fulfillment. For others, it is about spending enough time with their hobbies, or giving back to their community by helping with the local NGO.

It is not easy to make this decision, and it does require a lot of introspection. Most of us were not taught to think or select our paths in life. It was influenced and forced upon us by our parents, teachers, relatives etc. We do not know what success, true success and fulfillment means to us. If we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to select a path which is more true to us than what people have said, we should strive towards it.

Like I said earlier, it is not meant for everyone, and comes with a range of sacrifices. People will not understand, and that’s ok. Success is not guaranteed, and you should be willing to fail many times and be prepared for society to mock you when you do. It is a lonely path, away from the traffic, the familiarity of the crowded road. You are changing your definition of success, and asking questions of yourself that you had never thought of. This path, away from the rat race, will be painful, but when you choose your own suffering, you will find reserves of resilience and courage you never knew you had.

As for the question of money? Well, you will have to sacrifice the comfort of a steady paycheck, and will be earning less than your peers initially. But then, you can live a frugal lifestyle since your happiness does not depend on spending money. You have time with you, and more importantly, your health. I have known many people who went beyond the confines of society’s expectations and the well-trodden path, and are now doing well for themselves.

But say it is too late for you to change. You have already selected your path as defined by society, and now have responsibilities and obligations that bind you on this journey. What then?

If you cannot change your path, then don’t run as fast. We cannot undo our past, and to hate the choices made for us is an exercise in futility. Just don’t put the pursuit of work and a bigger lifestyle as the be-all and end-all of your life. Spend less time at work, stop taking all the large assignments. Spend time with your family and friends. Rediscover the old hobbies that you had to let go off, learn new ones, make new friends. Take time to travel and relax. Help your community by serving others. You can find fulfillment in all these things.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot run at full speed all the time, for you will break down and limp the rest of the way. Pace yourself, take regular breaks, take in the views.

They say it's all about the journey and not the destination, and that applies to life. We are all striving for the next big thing, the next achievement, the next big purchase, that we fail to appreciate what we have in front of us. We cannot change society. It will follow its own standards of success. People will never be happy with what you do, so don’t bother about what they tell you. Ultimately, we have to find our own place in this world, and at the end of the day, be answerable to ourselves.


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