I know for so many people out there, work can sometimes feel a lot like a gerbil wheel, or a rat race, in which you wake up every morning and do the same recurring thing over and over and over again with no real sense of accomplishment or progress. And for years that's done without a second thought until one day—10, 20, 30 years down the line—you wake up one morning and finally realize that all you’ve been doing this entire time is run around in circles and, in so many ways, you're still in the same spot that you were when you first got started.
The Goal of the Rat Race
That's not to say there's no sense of purpose to it all. If you stop to think about it, even the most monotonous of rat races do have a purpose. What purpose is that? I think the universal goal of the rat race is two-fold: First, it’s to find the cheese. That can represent a financial goal, a career advancement goal, a life achievement goal, or any other. Whatever the incentive is, a person is usually racing to find that. Second, assuming they’ve found the cheese they were after, the goal of the rat race is usually to find the nearest exit, whether you want to call that “retirement” or “achieving a certain set of circumstances,” or something else, in order to use whatever remaining time there is in life to enjoy, to share with family, or to generously give to those less fortunate some of the cheese you worked so hard to get.
The Big Trap of the Rat Race
Unfortunately, despite having a general sense of purpose in their work, many lack a real sense of progress. While they can smell and nearly taste the cheese that they're after, and can envision what the exit to the rat race will look like when they reach it, they never seem to be able to find either. There are even some poor rats in the maze who never reach their goals and die before they’ve ever had a chance to live.
The fact of the matter is, especially in the modern world, work and career can become a lot like a rat race maze with its own labyrinth of wrong turns, dead ends, setbacks, and pitfalls. It can be easy to get lost or stuck behind the cubicle walls and go years without making any headway, or discovering what the next step—or the next several steps—needs to be.
Well, if that describes you and you feel stuck in the maze of your work, I want to give you 3 helpful ways you might try navigating the daily twists and turns that all seem to look alike. And, for what it’s worth, these are all principals I’ve adopted over the years that I think have made a real difference in my situation.
#1. Learn from the older, wiser rats.
The first principal I think would serve you as you try to find your way through the maze is to learn as much as you can from the older, wiser rats who have been in the race a lot longer than you have. If there’s one problem that’s common to every new generation, it’s the pride they have in thinking they know more than the generation that came before them.
Folks, if you really want to avoid the wrong turns, dead ends, setbacks, and pitfalls of a maze, how better to do so that than to get advanced warning from those who’ve already discovered where they are and can tell you what turns not to take? Or, assuming there are any secret doors, shortcuts, or fast tracks in the maze, how better to find those then with the help of those who’ve already found them.
My first piece of advice to anyone wanting to make real progress in the rat race is to humble themselves and to find a respected mentor, or a few mentors, who either by their own success or failures can teach you what you need to know. Ideally, you want to find someone who can direct you from both angles. You want to find someone who is willing to reveal their own mistakes on the one hand, but who can also show how they’ve succeeded on the other hand, with the proof of actual cheese in hand, and a clear path of breadcrumbs leading to the exit.
Find a mentor, and humbly and sincerely learn from them. If it’s not a direct relationship with a boss, or a parent, or a grandparent, or a friend, or a pastor, or some other professional, find an author who has written on whatever the subject is and read everything they can about it.
The key is to receive good counsel, that’s the first thing.
#2. Help younger, inexperienced rats.
The second principal I’d recommend you get in the habit of applying is to be about helping the younger, inexperienced rats around you navigate the maze in the same way you’re wanting to be helped yourself. It’s the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
It’s not a dog-eat-dog world. At least, it doesn’t need to be. You should want others to succeed just as much as you want to succeed; and what better way to see them succeed then to help them succeed?
Have you made any mistakes in your career? Have you discovered any important tips that have really helped you succeed? Take the time to pass that knowledge down to the next generation, assuming they’re willing to learn. Again, that’s always the challenge. For learning to happen, someone has to be willing to teach and someone has to be willing to learn. But, assuming you have that combination, it’s a wonderful thing to foster mentorships.
So, find someone eager to learn, and teach them. Find someone not as far along as you are, and show them the tricks of the trade. Show them the best ways to make the bosses happy, or the clients or customers happy. When they mess up, encourage them with stories of how you’ve messed up a whole lot worse and what the best path is to make things right. If they do a good job at something, let them know it so they’ll know to do it again. On that note, if they mess up, assume first the burden is on you to do a better job teaching them. If they do well, assume first that they succeeded in spite of your imperfections as a teacher and praise them.
The goal is to help them progress in work, though it’s worth mentioning that in helping them progress you’re also helping yourself progress as well. How so? Well, as any good teacher knows, in the process of teaching and in the process of preparing to teach, a teacher always learns more and solidifies what they know whenever they find ways of articulating it to others.
As a pastor especially I know I’ve discovered when you’re in the habit of giving advice to others, assuming your advice is good advice, your actually reminding yourself of things you’ve learned every time you share them and you keep yourself on the right path. That goes a long way to helping you get to where you’re going.
#3. Get an elevated perspective.
The third thing I’d say you’ve got to do to navigate the proverbial rat race is to get an elevated perspective as early as possible. If you’ve ever been in a real maze before, whether that’s a corn maze in the farmer’s field or a hall of mirrors at the county fair, it always helps to get a glimpse from above, or to have a pre-charted map of where everything is.
If you can get a big-picture view of where you’re trying to get in life, you exponentially increase your chances of getting there. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get. If you haven’t defined for yourself what the “cheese” is, or what the “exit” looks like, the chances are pretty good you’re going to waste a lot of time going in circles and retracing your steps a few dozen times.
Imagine if you could pause for a moment and find something to climb onto to poke your head above the maze wall to see where you are. Or, imagine finding a piece of paper on the floor with the following direction: “Go straight for 20 steps—then turn left—then right—then right again—then straight—then left—and so forth.” No doubt, that would completely change the game.
Well, you’ve got to do the same thing in life. You’ve got to pause. You’ve got to orient yourself and figure out where you are and where you want to get. If you really want to help yourself, get a pen and paper and start scribbling it all down. Write down your goals. Write down what steps need to happen to get there. Write down what obstacles are in the way preventing you from getting there. Write down if you see any realistic path to get around those obstacles. And then, take it one step at a time.
If you’re still not sure where you trying to get, may I suggest you first figure out where God wants you to get, and for those answers the Bible is a great place to look. What does God want you to accomplish with your life. Have you ever thought about that? What relationships, what projects, what life’s work were you created to give your life to? If you can figure that out, and the steps you should be taking to accomplish that, you’re already half of the way there.
Hopefully something I’ve said here is helpful. If you feel lost in the trenches of our work, and it just seems like your going in circles with every passing week, month, and year that goes by, remember what I’ve said: Find someone who can point you in the right direction. Take the time to point others in the right direction as best as you understand it. And get a glimpse, as early as possible, of the big picture purpose and goals for your life. All those things, in my opinion, will help you navigate the rat race.