The Hamster Wheel

Photo: William M. Rittase, courtesy of The Library of Congress
Photo: William M. Rittase, courtesy of The Library of Congress

In spite of how much we put into work, few of us spend much time asking what we want from it. There seem to be a few key modes of employment. I’ve experienced all three, on some level, as well as the benefits and trade-offs of each.

We’ve all held a job at some point. The singularity of a job is rather beautiful: a straight-forward exchange of time for currency. In the ones I’ve worked, I’ve had little latitude, but that changed at day’s end, when I could turn work off and do as I pleased.

Some who work jobs start to ask questions. They wonder what it would be like to have more influence, or purpose, in their work. These people tend to move into careers. Their days are often longer, but in ways more enjoyable, as they become less constrained and more fully engaged. Career-minded people have a blurry division of work and life. (They also check their email obsessively and at inappropriate times.)

A third group seeks greater freedom, control, and involvement. Instead of working hard for someone else, they choose to do so for themselves and reap the associated rewards. What few of them initially realize, is that the cost of pursuing one’s own business/passion may be every evening, weekend, and holiday they used to take for granted.

I’ve noticed that there’s also a fourth state that a very small group of people arrive at. It involves realizing that the whole thing is a kind of hamster wheel, and that although the busy-making can be gratifying, it doesn’t—in the grand scheme of things—lead to all that much.

This state-of-mind leaves things less defined, mostly because there aren’t that many role models to follow. Out of all my friends, I know only one who has sold his stuff and uprooted his family, choosing to live in the tropics rather than a suburban wasteland.

By asking some bigger questions, one might find options more plentiful and diverse than previously imagined. They can live differently, indulge passions, travel and explore, or drop out entirely.

Every once in a while, you meet someone who’s grappling with these points, and their excitement is palpable. Sadly, few stay in this state for very long. Considering these questions is a sufficient challenge; acting upon their findings requires even more bravery and resolve. Meanwhile, the allure of being one-of-many is difficult to resist. This leaves an awfully long line of humans waiting to take their turn at the hamster wheel.

Life is very short if you spend it continually pressing fast-forward, scrambling from conference-calls to board meetings to soccer practice. I ask whether we owe it to ourselves to more carefully consider all that might be out there for us to see, experience, and share.

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