So how are you doing with that New Year’s resolution? What’s that you say? You can’t even remember your resolution? If you’re like me, the rat race of life has taken over and you’ve been focused on other things. We aren’t alone. Surveys show that a few days into a new year 22% of people have already broken their resolution, 11% have abandoned them altogether, and only 8% will keep their resolution all year.
It seems as though the rat race wins every time, yet we keep coming back for more. In fact, we seem addicted to the constant pursuit of self-optimization. Notice I didn’t say self-improvement. Our culture has moved beyond the old-school simplicity of improving ourselves through ways like reading a book, taking a class, or developing self-awareness. Instead, we opt for the high-tech version of self-optimization of hacking our way to improved productivity, the monitoring of every possible biochemical process in our bodies to achieve peak performance, and having apps to remind us of how woefully short we’re falling from achieving our goals. We are literally trying to improve ourselves to death.
Ready to Opt Out of the Rat Race?
It’s easy to forget that we are human beings, not human doings. We get so focused on what we’re doing that we forget to just be. We wear our busyness like a badge of honor, when in reality it’s a scarlet letter that shows our priorities are all jacked up. When was the last time you just sat in quiet reflection for any amount of time? No, we tend to eschew self-reflection because it’s easier to stay busy with checking our phone for incoming email, new posts on social media, current news headlines, or the latest celebrity gossip.
But we have a choice. We can choose to focus on being, rather than doing, and I would argue it’s necessary to have a healthy balance of both if we want to live joyful, fulfilling, and contented lives. The rat race isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As Lily Tomlin wisely said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. ~ Lily Tomlin
So how can we opt out of the rat race? I have three suggestions:
- Live for something bigger than yourself. Blaise Pascal had this to say about mankind’s search for ultimate meaning: “This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there, the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Living for something bigger than yourself means you are clear on your purpose and priorities. If you don’t have a clear sense of living for something bigger that drives your actions, then other people will determine your course for you.
- Focus on others, not yourself. It’s a paradoxical truth in life that the more you focus on serving other people, the happier you are with yourself. Serving others brings joy, gratitude, and contentment. Focusing on yourself ultimately brings anxiety, discontent, and loneliness. Life is better lived in community and service with others.
- Learn to be content with your limitations. What?! Isn’t that anathema to the current thinking of self-optimization! Yes, it is, but it’s crucial in breaking free from the chains of the rat race. We all like to think we can do anything we set our mind to, and it’s counter-cultural to suggest otherwise. The reality is that we can’t do it all. Those who are happiest in life are those that have learned to accept their strengths and weaknesses for what they are, and to focus their time and energy in areas where they perform best. There’s a tremendous amount of relief that comes from being able to say “You know, I’m not the best at doing that. Why don’t you give someone else the opportunity?”
If you’re disappointed because you abandoned your resolution before January was over, or if you feel the stress and anxiety of trying to keep all the plates spinning, consider these three suggestions. Life is better when we remember we are human beings, not human doings.