Are we, the working professionals, in a rat race? Recently, someone I met mentioned about being in a rat race. As a non-native English speaker, I didn’t quite understand what being in a rat race means. So, I looked up the phrase “rat race” on dictionary.com (Dictionary.com, 2015). 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.” Wow! This is unsettling for me. According to a Forbes article published on June 20th 2014, 52.3 percent of American are unhappy at work. (Adams, 2014) Another research by the Gallup Poll indicates only 57% of US Workers are completely satisfied with their work. (McCarthy, 2015). The research results are interesting; nearly half of the American workers are not satisfied with their jobs. Do they also consider themselves being in a rat race?
As I thought more about the rat race and job satisfaction, several images come to mind. Confucius, an ancient Chinese philosopher, said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Thomas Edison, a famous American inventor, said: “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun”. Two of his famous inventions are the electric light bulb and motion picture. He held more than 1000 patents. Legend has it that he loved his work so much that he returned to his laboratory on his wedding day and forgot about the wedding party. Marie Curie was the first woman who won the Nobel prize, and the first person who ever won the Nobel prize twice. Her research was in radium’s radioactivity. As famous as she was at the time, Marie was known to live a life of poverty. Whatever money she had, she invested into her research, purchasing laboratory equipment and chemical materials. So devoted in her work that she and her husband even turned down the invitation to travel to Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize in person. The stories about Thomas Edison and Marie Curie gave me a conviction that they surely didn’t think of their work as a rat race. Their work was their passion, their joy and their lives.
Can we, the average American workers, experience the same passion about our work like Confucius, Thomas Edison, and Marie Curie? Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who is very well-known in the management field for his Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describe five stages of motivational factors: Physiological, Safety, Social, Esteem, Self-Actualization. As people fulfil one stage, they venture to the next stage. The final stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Self-Actualization. Self-actualization is when one realizes and pursues personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. Note that there are distinct actions in this final stage: “realizes” and “pursues”.
To reach this ultimate level of self-actualization, one must first realize his purpose in life. Viktor Frank, author and psychologist, suggested: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” (Frankl, 2006) There are three questions that a person can ask himself to find his purpose in life. First question is “what makes you cry?” Look at your life experience, and find specific examples of situations that make your heart aches, that sadden you, that move you to take actions. Look at the times when something happens that compels you to take action. Write those experiences down. Second question is “what makes you sing?” or what gives you joy? When is the time that you genuinely laugh about something? When is it that you experience pure blissful joy? These could be experiences as close as the Eureka moment that Archimedes observed. In the ancient story about the Greek mathematician Archimedes, he discovered the method to measure the volume of an object while taking a bath. In pure joy, he jumped out of the bathtub and ran outside, screaming “eureka” (I found it), all the way home. The third question is “what makes you dream?” Great achievements were built upon a dream. Our founding fathers dreamed of equality for all, hence the declaration of independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Wright brothers dreamed of flying in the air, hence the birth of the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane in human history. If you could do one thing that could add value to this world, what would that be? Answering these three questions: “what makes you cry?” “what makes you sing?” and “what makes you dream?” will help us discover our purpose in life, our “why”.
Realizing our “why” gets us closer to achieve that last level of Maslow’s hierarchy, but it is not enough. Once we know our purpose in life, we must have the courage to pursue it. This is not easy. People don’t normally stop to evaluate their lives and make changes of directions when everything is going well. People make significant changes when life circumstances force them to make those decisions. “The death of a loved one, a severe illness, a financial setback, or extreme adversity can cause us to stand back, look at our lives, and ask ourselves some hard questions: “What’s really important? Why am I doing what I’m doing?” (Covey, 2004) However, if a person is proactive, he/she can take step toward the direction of his/her dream. A vision and a dream without action is just wishful thinking. Does action have to be big action? Does that first step have to be big step to be successful? Steve Jobs started his first company in a garage. The founder of a very successful company (one of the best in its industry) started his business from the basement of his home. I believe you don’t have to start big, but you have to start. Start where you are. Look around you for opportunities. Put together resources that are available, look for opportunities that are within your reach, stretch your boundaries, your circle of influences, put one foot forward, get one foot wet, and be persistent. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” – Confucius.
Life is too short to be in a rat race. Invest in finding your passion, and take steps making your dream happen.
In the end, I want to leave you with a saying from the Dalai Lama: “We are but visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find true goal, the true meaning of life”. – Dalai Lama XIV
Do something now – for you, for the people in your life, and to better the world we are in.
Adams, S. (2014, June 20th). Most Americans Are Unhappy At Work. Retrieved from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/06/20/most-americans-are-unhappy-at-work/
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Free Press.
Dictionary.com. (2015, December 20). Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rat–race?s=t
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search For Meaning. Beacon Press.
McCarthy, J. (2015, August 28). Americans’ Satisfaction With Job Aspects Up From 2005. Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/184952/americans-satisfaction-job-aspects-2005.aspx