Friday, June 27, 2008

Rat Race or Space Race

“The trouble with the rat-race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” – Lily Tomlin. I somehow stumbled across this quotation when I was in my early teens and have carried it with me every since. It pokes fun at a work-place metaphor that office workers are running around like rats in a maze, scrambling to get a lead on your colleague, and—to mix metaphors—trying to climb the corporate ladder. It gets its power both from being humorous and sourced in truth. The more that I think about this quotation, the more meaning it has for me.

In my previous post on How I Learned to Take a Break From Analyzing and Start Loving Myself, I introduced the layer’s of the human brain as introduced to me in Jon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. There are roughly 3 complex parts to the human brain, at the lowest level the reptilian center leads us to the most basic survival instincts, including highly tuned pattern matching to trigger fight-or-flight response keeping us safe from immediate danger. Around this is the mammalian brain structure which has added in layers of nurturing, parent-child bonds, a mating instinct to find the best possible mate, and a status instinct to help mammals make themselves attractive for mating. In animals with more brain capacity, less all-around development actually occurs pre-birth, and more advanced species’ babies are born without the ability to take care of themselves, making the dependence on parents stronger. Parental drives were needed to raise the children to survive on their own, and the mammalian brain began to select for mates that are both capable of passing on good genes and ones capable or nurturing, again fitting into the status selection game. These layers are deeply entrenched in the human brain, with the sophisticated neocortex added to the top. While capable of language, mathematics, and higher reasoning, it is still pretty much a bolt-on addition to the brain, and it cannot often override the deep-seated reptilian and mammalian instincts.

Underlying all of our impressive brain functioning, us humans have a strong drive for more and more status. And there are biological reasons for that. Higher status often maps to better genes and/or better ability to care for the young. It is pure mammalian instinct to scratch and claw (literally) the way to the top of any social structure. Our neocortex merely gives us more complex and subtle ways to do it. So, when Lily Tomlin referred to the “rat race”, this is pretty accurate. The trouble with this is that we’re wired for status, rather than for happiness. Status only makes us happy in very short bursts, but it fades. Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness digs into this pretty well (and it’s funny!). The human mind is incredibly good at attuning to levels of success and quickly gets bored with it, returning to a baseline level of happiness. This rat-race can’t be all there is, right?

Jon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis which references a work (don’t have it in front of me right now) that people tend to think of their work as either a job, a career, or a calling. The difference in this effects the person’s outlook at work greatly. A job is basically that you’re there from 9-5, collecting the paycheck and punching the clock; in a job, work is just a means to an end. A career is the next step. A person is motivated to work long hours and do well in order to climb the corporate ladder. These are often better employees than the job, because they’re trying to get ahead and will do whatever it takes to get good reviews and more promotions. This is the level of the rat race. People are happy as long as their career is moving forward, but become unhappy when they compare themselves to someone higher in the org or in another org, or if the promotion does not come.

The level above this, and one that can be a source of enjoyment, is the calling. People who look at work as a calling feel that it is their purpose in life. They’re not working for the attention or glamour of the position, and this can be true from everyone including executive, politician, artist, or manual worker. There’s a story about JFK asking a janitor at NASA what he did and the man replied, “helping to put a man on the moon.” That shows a man understanding how the importance of his work translated to a greater vision that he believed in. This way of looking at the world is not dependent on how others perceive you in your job, whether you get that pay raise, or likely not even if there are setbacks in the Apollo missions.

There's nothing wrong with looking at work as a job or a career. If that's where a person is, then that's where a person is. No judgement is necessary. It is possible that your calling is outside of work. Maybe your calling is a child, and you're working in a job to take care of the child. What I am saying, though I also won't discount that there's someone out there really gonzo for janitorial work, is that I suspect that the janitor's feeling of putting a man on the moon is much more satisfying than saying that he mops urine off the restroom floor. (It makes for a better story, too.)

1 comment:

  1. Happiness is just an Americana shibboleth. American's fixate on it because it is supposedly the coveted endgame to the American Dream, but that happiness is just a word. If one drinks 1991 La Mouline every day, I suppose a 1998 Elderton Shiraz is not so happy... so, that's why we should choose to experience supreme joy with every passing moment. It's all good because it's happening now. :)