Stop running the rat race. Stop chasing external validation. Stop thinking that one more accolade or accomplishment will finally make you happy.
Take it from me — it’s not worth it.
I was 23 years old and depressed. I lived in a beautiful apartment in Chicago surrounded by my closest friends. I worked at a well-paying company with an enviable brand name. I was one year removed from graduating from a top American university.
So why was I so unhappy?
I didn’t understand it. Up until that point, I had achieved everything that I sought out to do: go to a good school, get a good job, make meaningful relationships.
But I was tired — working 70-hour weeks and traveling every week took a toll on my mental and physical health. I was constantly tired from only sleeping 5 hours a night during the workweek, and didn’t have much energy on the weekends to build and maintain meaningful relationships.
I was out of shape — traveling and working so much meant that I couldn’t get into healthy habits and maintain an active lifestyle. I ate poorly and was either too busy or too tired to work out.
I was unfulfilled — I helped large corporations make more money, usually by restructuring orgs and laying off employees. I felt alienated from the work I actually wanted to do, which was making other people happy.
I missed my family — I lived far away from Southern California, and I wanted to see my parents and my relatives more. I wanted to keep building those relationships because they mean a lot to me.
I missed the outdoors — I missed hiking and camping. I was over having late nights in clubs, Sunday brunches, and bunkering down inside during the brutal Midwest winters.
And the saddest part was that there was no end in sight, no point where I could be confidently say “I’ve made it”. There were only more promotions to chase (manager to partner) and more accolades to gain (highest performer). Even if I left my job, there only “acceptable” options I had were ladened with the same issues (Private Equity, MBAs, Venture Capital).
I was stuck running the rat race.
Wikipedia defines the rat race as “an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit… [commonly referring] to a competitive struggle to get ahead financially”.
It’s easy to look at that definition, scoff, and say that that would never be you: your life isn’t pointless, you’re not overly competitive, and you don’t really care about money.
Trust me — I’ve had that train of thought many times.
But you may care about having a prestigious university name in your resume. You may care about the perception of having money, or having many followers on Instagram. And you maybe competitive about building a better image of yourself than those of other people.
And, like me, you may realize that there’s no “good enough” point in living life this way. You’ll be chasing the dragon forever.
And the saddest part was that there was no end in sight, no point where I could be confidently say “I’ve made it”.
So I came up with another definition for the rat race: it’s living your life for other people.
And what do other people value? Non-exhaustively:
- Prestige. Harvard, McKinsey, Sigma Chi, Bain Capital, Google. Any label that gives people the immediate impression that you are “smart” and “successful”.
- Wealth. Summering in the Hamptons, owning a condo in Manhattan, eating at Michelin-starred restaurants, wearing Balenciaga shoes. Any activity or possession that shows people your “enviable lifestyle”.
- Culture. Having an opinion on every Broadway show, reading every Sartre essay, knowing every kind of mezcal. Anything that makes you appear “sophisticated” and “knowledgeable”.
This not inherently bad to have any of the aforementioned traits. However, it’s imperative that we’re mindful of doing things because we love them, not because it builds a better image of who we want to appear as.
When we run the rat race, we solve for appealing to other people, and we alienate ourselves from who we really want to be, and from doing activities that we actually want to do.
We solve for praise, and give up happiness.
So how do we get out of the rat race?
The first step is self-awareness. We are aware that we are running the rat race, and we set the intention of getting out. The next step is to identify who you really want to be, and what you really want to do.
For me, what I wanted to do was clear:
- I wanted to help others. And I wanted to dedicate my whole self to it. So this was more than volunteering in my spare time, and I wanted to work at a company that was making the world a better place (as an American, I also assigned a lot of my identity to my work, so I needed to align my job with my mission).
- I wanted more free time. More time to sleep, eat healthy, and stay active. More negative space to reflect. More opportunities to build friendships and make more connections.
- I wanted to be close to my family.
- I wanted to be outside. To connect to nature, to explore to my passion of hiking, camping, and landscape photography.
It’s imperative that we’re mindful of doing things because we love them, not because it builds a better image of who we want to appear as.
So what was my next step?
- I quit my job. I let go of the prestige, the accolades, and the potential promotions.
- I moved to San Francisco. Where I get to be close to my family (<1 hour flight away) and surrounded by nature.
- I found a new job at Ripple, where we make sending money internationally easy, affordable, and accessible to those in developing countries.
I made that decision over 1 year ago, and I haven’t looked back. Every day since has been a blessing.
I hope that this ramble is an inspiration for others, and I’d love to connect to anyone who is struggling with being stuck in the rat race. I won’t claim to know all the answers, but I want to help!