Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
— Origin unclear
In American slang, the rat race is a term used to describe the exhausting, never-ending pursuit of getting ahead financially that leaves no time for relaxation or enjoyment. By saddling ourselves with heavy debts, we are forced to continue working at a time-consuming job we don’t enjoy. A rat race is an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit.
The term conjures up the image of lab rats desperately racing through a maze trying to find cheese which always seems to be out of reach. Like the rat in the maze, most people who are in a financial rat race don’t even realize it. What’s more, they would likely deny it if someone pointed out the situation to them.
In an HBR article provocatively entitled “Why You Won’t Quit Your Job”, venture capitalist Daniel Gulati suggests the term ‘rat race’ might have scientific validity. He reminds us of the classic BF Skinner experiments on conditioning which showed that the best way to train people is with variable interval reinforcement. In the experiments, one group of rats earned a food pellet (the reward) by pressing a lever a fixed number of times while another group got the pellet at random intervals. When the rewards stopped, the rats with the fixed schedule stopped pressing the lever almost immediately while those with the variable schedule kept trying to get the reward for a long time.
What does this have to do with workers at companies? Gulati explains:
If you look closely enough, you’ll find that the corporate world is littered with hundreds of these variable reinforcement schedules. Spontaneous recognition from our bosses, an unexpected bonus or promotion, and landing a big new client are all professional “pellets” subconsciously conditioning us to keep working that lever.
In other words, we stay in our jobs because unpredictable rewards in the past have trained us to believe that they will show up again in the future. Whether we want to admit it or not, that sounds like corporate life for many people.
Since we’re not actually rats in a maze, we can untrain ourselves by focusing on the nature of the work itself rather than just the rewards. Do work you’re passionate about, not just work that pays you well. That’s a race worth running.