The rat race. I’ve heard the phrase a hundred times, but never understood how it came to mean our tiresome work life. Turns out it is an analogy to lab rats racing through a maze, expending great effort running around, but ultimately achieving nothing.
I am fortunate to have a career that I love, one that never feels like a rat race. That said, there are times when racing from task to task can feel like a mad, futile dash through a maze. I used to feel like that rat more than I do now, which led me to think about what has changed from then to now.
It really does take a village
Like many achiever types, I used to think that it was important to prove to those around me that I could do it all. I had a hard time delegating because I thought it could be perceived as a sign of weakness, or I feared that the work wouldn’t get done my way.
Once I learned to let go I saw several benefits. First, it obviously improved my life, freeing up time for other tasks that were a better use of my strengths.
Second, and more importantly, it communicated a genuine belief in my colleagues. I realized that an unwillingness to delegate can certainly be interpreted as a vote of no confidence. Who wouldn’t feel like a rat in a maze if they heard that message day after day?
Are we sure we need to do all this stuff?
Let’s start with the obvious: There is work that must be done. Not all of it will be fun and exciting. But if you take the time to stop and examine your practices, with an eye toward discerning what is really adding value and what is done out of organizational habit, you may find that many walls in the maze can simply be removed.
Flexibility — the smart choice
I used to have many colleagues who viewed “face time” and outrageous work hours as a rite of passage. I put in my time because I wanted to prove I could.
When I had children and asked to work part time, we were in precedent-setting territory. My employer ultimately agreed.
I recall some telling me I ought to be grateful for this generous concession. And I was; my part-time schedule made me a more loyal employee. I also recall thinking that the employer was getting a pretty good deal as well. A valued employee in whom they had invested lots of training would stay on and continue to add considerable value, albeit remotely sometimes.
Now I see that it makes sense for every employer to be creative and flexible in accommodating their employees’ natural desire to have a full and enriching life.
It won’t look the same in every setting — flextime, paid volunteer time, the elimination of the 7:30 a.m. meeting. But whatever the workaround, you can know that employees whose humanity is valued will never feel like rats.