My child arrived just the other day; he came to the world in the usual way. But there were planes to catch and bills to pay; he learned to walk while I was away.
– Sandy and Harry Chapin
When I read those words, I felt as if Sandy and Harry were part of the inner conversation that led me to step off the corporate ladder on June 23, 2016, barely 14 weeks to my wedding.
How to exit the rat race in 7 practical steps
In spite of the deep satisfaction that I received from my work, I could not ward off the nagging feeling that something was not quite right.
So I turned in my one-month notice shortly after I was appointed Chief Operating Officer of the company I had served so heartily that most people absolutely believed I was a part-owner.
Without realising it, my job was gradually encroaching on my relationships and other important aspects of my life. As much as I enjoyed the job, I was bothered by the fact that I barely had time for anything else. Yet I couldn’t seem to make ends meet without ‘augmenting’ my income with company loans. After five months of wrestling with myself, I had to admit the truth: I was entangled in the rat race.
Dictionary.com defines “rat race” as “any exhausting, unremitting, and usually competitive activity or routine, especially a pressured urban working life spent trying to get ahead with little time left for leisure, contemplation, etc.” Or maybe you prefer the shorter definition by The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: “Fierce competition to maintain or improve one’s position in the workplace or social life.”
Doesn’t that describe how most of us live today? Like the proverbial frog, we have jumped into the boiling pot of business and career, and without realising it, we are being slowly cooked to death. It’s time to make a drastic change and reorder our priorities or we may wake up at the other side of life and realise we have spent the best part of our lives competing for empty trophies.
The story is told of a businessman who was sitting by the beach in a small Mexican village. As he sat, he saw a fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite a few big fish. The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?”
The fisherman replied, “Oh, just a short while.”
“Then why don’t you stay longer at sea and catch even more?” The businessman was astonished.
“This is enough to feed my whole family,” the fisherman said.
The businessman then asked, “So, what do you do for the rest of the day?”
The fisherman replied, “Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish, then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife, and when evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink — we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night.”
The businessman proceeded to advise the fisherman.
“I am a PhD in business management. I could help you to become a more successful person. From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish.
“Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, set up your own company, your own production plant for canned food and distribution network. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York City where you can set up headquarters to run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But sir, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”
“But what then, sir?”
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”
“Millions, sir? Then what?”
The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends…”
We can glean a lot of wisdom from this story. One that particularly strikes me is that sometimes the success we’re running after is already here with us. We only need to recognise it. The problem is that many of us have bought into the society’s definition of success instead of giving attention to the things that are really important, the things that really matter to us, and the things that will be important long after we are gone. We define success in terms of fame, affluence and personal comfort.
We don’t really take time to think through and determine what matters to us. So we end up being swept away by the currents of societal expectations and popular opinion. Twenty years ago, did you consider a smartphone a necessity? Except when you’re using it for work or business, is it really a necessity even now?
But do you know how many people are dying to get the latest iPhone? When you ask why, you find that it’s probably because they want to do Snapchat and other funny stuff. 😀 Somebody described it as using money you don’t have to buy something you don’t need, to impress people that don’t care.
So is it wrong to want more money? No! It’s not wrong. Is it wrong to want to be famous? No! There’s nothing wrong with it. Is it wrong to want the good life? The answer again is No! We should all strive for the good life. The problem is your underlying motive. And your definition of what you really need. So the way out of the rat race is really not in getting more. It is in redefining what we really need. Think about that.
If you’re tired of relishing the similitude of success while battling the emptiness that gnaws at your soul, you’ll find these principles helpful.
1. Start with a personal vision
What’s your personal calling and what does your vision of a successful life look like? One calling is not superior to another. The important thing is that you pursue yours with strong conviction and absolute commitment.
Do you feel most alive when working with orphans and vulnerable children or do you find fulfilment in cranking heavy machines and watching them roar to life? Will you make your most important contribution as a United Nations chief or as a minister in a rural community that is in dire need of your innovative abilities? Will you do your best work as a management consultant in an imposing edifice or as a development journalist on the field?
What does success mean to you? It’s a terrible thing to let society define success for you. Imagine if the fisherman in our story had listened to the business man. The fisherman was truly enjoying himself and living the life of his dreams. Defining his life by the businessman’s vision would have resulted in pure misery.
So, define success for yourself and let everything you do align with that definition, not the one set by your parents, colleagues or the society. Take time to think through and determine what success means to you. Then let your daily priorities, habits, actions and decisions reflect that definition.
That way you can make meaningful contributions every day instead of running a mindless race that has no finish line.
2. Redefine what you need
Majority of those caught up in the rat race are doing it to prove a point or to keep up with the Joneses. What they don’t realise is that even the Joneses are broke! 😀
Do you really need a Mercedes Benz or do you simply need a good car? Maybe you can even use Uber or a similar service, effectively cutting out the guilt and pressure of owning an under-utilised high maintenance car. Do you need a bigger television or a gold watch? Do you really need to fly first class or even fly at all?
If you can conveniently afford these luxuries, fine! But if not, why waste your time, energy and resources pursuing what you don’t really need? Most of the time, our sense of what we need is a result of subliminal cues from marketing campaigns that have been carefully designed to influence consumer behaviour at the subconscious level. If you doubt this, read Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception by Nobel Prize winning economists, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller.
Now, you want to start earning or making 100,000 dollars a month. That’s fine. But why? And at what cost? If you don’t have a strong ‘why’ that goes beyond your personal comfort achieving that goal will not mean so much eventually. Your expenses will catch up with your new level faster than you imagined. Once you make the 100k dollars, you want to make 200k dollars and the cycle continues. Regardless of how much you satisfy yourself, you cannot achieve significance if your success does not translate to a better life for others.
3. Break the rules that no longer serve you
Much of what we do is directly or indirectly controlled by how we want society to perceive us. We rush out very early in the morning and return home late at night because ‘man must hustle’. In the process, we lose touch with our friends and family. We leave a trail of broken relationships.
Society celebrates a higher standard of living. But we shouldn’t measure that in material possessions alone. We should also think in terms of the moral, spiritual and relational quotients. It’s easy to miss out on the more important aspects of life while obeying the unwritten laws of business and career success.
4. Understand the law of process
It takes time to build lasting success. You cannot achieve significance in one day but you can live a significant life on a daily basis. Replace the craving for instant gratification with a commitment to continuous improvement. Don’t be so focused on your destination that you miss out on the excitement of the journey.
Buoy yourself up when things are not happening as fast as you expected. That’s the time to develop yourself. Join a mastermind. Explore opportunities for internship, mentorship or apprenticeship with someone who has already achieved what you’re aiming for. Attend trainings. Watch tutorials on YouTube. Practise what you learn and keep yourself productively engaged.
5. Capitalise on your strengths
What do you know that you can do really well? What do people usually commend you for? Take time to reflect on your gifts and talents. Then deliberately refine them. Acquire skills that will make your talent more valuable. Most people have more than one talent. As you begin to examine and refine your talents, you will start to see viable associations.
For instance, I am naturally detailed and perceptive. I’m a gifted teacher and writer, too. Some of my other talents/skills include empathy, resourcefulness and critical thinking. On the surface, this assortment of skills and talents may seem unrelated but I bring all of them to bear in my coaching and consulting practice.
It’s like cooking Jollof rice. Every ingredient is important. You’ll have some in large quantities (e.g. the rice itself) and others in smaller quantities (e.g. salt) but you need all the ingredients to make real Nigerian Jollof rice. 😀
In the same way, by combining your unique blend of talents and gifts, you can meet needs and solve problems with your own distinctive flavour.
6. Take genuine interest in people
You cannot go far if you don’t love people.
As an employee, take genuine interest in your boss, co-workers and the people you serve. The same goes for business people — take genuine interest in your staff, customers and other people within your spheres of influence.
People can tell if you truly love them or if you’re only trying to be nice because of what you can get from them. Nothing great is ever achieved alone. You will always need people. To quit the rat race, you will need people to encourage, equip and empower you.
They may come in form of friends and family, mentors, clients, customers, staff, colleagues, lenders, etc. Treat them well.
7. Face your fears and have realistic expectations
I don’t agree with the basic tenets of the fake gospel that preaches ‘quit your job’ and ‘become your own boss’ so you can run your life anyhow.
But sometimes getting out of the rat race might mean quitting your job and/or starting a business. If you honestly believe that to be the case, face your fears and deal with them realistically.
For instance, how do you intend to pay your bills before the business picks up? That’s one of the questions I asked and answered long before I left my job. I discovered that my major expenses were on house rent and a car that drove me more than I drove it.
So I had to ask myself, “If you’re struggling this hard now that you have a monthly salary, how do you hope to maintain the car and pay house rent when you can’t claim salary anymore?”
So I sold the car and moved to a smaller apartment. Then I asked myself again, “What happens if you’re absolutely broke when the rent expires?” I decided I was going to return to my parents’ house in Edunabon. (Not to be confused with Edinburgh 😀).
Thankfully, I didn’t have to do that but I was prepared to do it if it became necessary. The point is you must be ready to reduce your standard of living, if necessary, so that you can break free. You will be able to raise it later.
In the end, each of us will tread a unique path. But if you start with these basic guidelines, it won’t be long before you break free from the rat race to start living a life of meaning and significance.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!