Decoding The Human Rat Race: How Society Kills Your Growth
Tyler Durden, the main character of the movie Fight Club, makes the following remark about modern society:
„We buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like“
That statement sums up the term human rat race astonishingly well. But let’s be more specific: How does the human rat race work? And what’s its hidden purpose?
Put simply, the rat race is our fight for survival within the boundaries of society. This can mean three different things, depending on your position in society:
- If you are poor, it means fighting for basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing.
- If you are middle class, it means having a career, 2.1 kids, paying off your mortgage, and saving for retirement.
- If you are rich, it means protecting your wealth from other people and buying expensive things to impress your rich friends.
But no matter to which class you belong to, the rat race involves a constant battle for money, power, status, and fame. They are the most important currencies in our society.
The Perfect Bait
The interesting thing is that these incentives have no existential value in themselves. They only work in relation to other people. To make it clear:
- You can’t be famous on a deserted island.
- All the money in the world doesn’t help if gold is the only accepted currency.
- Being beautiful isn’t helpful if you stay at home all day (and don’t use social media).
However, within the human rat race, these „artificial incentives“ are constantly promoted as the most valuable aspects of life. On this basis, we start comparing ourselves with other people:
Who has the most expensive car? Who has more social media followers? Who’s the most popular?
Because of questions like these, we constantly feel the pressure to visit places, do things, and achieve goals. After all, who wants to fall behind? Thus, we become „rats“, racing against each other in pursuit of these artificial incentives, neglecting the fact that this race leads nowhere and never ends.
From the moment you came into this world, you’ve got sucked in by society’s expectations to compete, improve, and achieve. You are constantly striving for the next thing, be it more expensive clothes, a bigger house, a more successful career or influential friends. We sacrifice time, energy and money to feel good in the future, never being truly satisfied in the present moment.
Why We’re Addicted To Security
If you have kept reading this article up to this point, I assume you want to break that vicious cycle.
But to achieve this, you need to understand the underlying structure of the rat race and analyze what it’s built of. Because, like matter is built of atoms, the rat race is built of its own small building blocks.
And it all starts with us. Society consists of people – a lot of them. And when people interact with each other, it gets messy, sometimes even violent. That’s what happens when different ideas, beliefs, mentalities, and groups collide.
The question now is how to control this chaos? Nobody wants to live in anarchy, right?
To put things straight, society has done what great emperors and statesmen always have done throughout human history to control large crowds:
Divide et impera
Divide and conquer, probably the oldest control strategy ever.
And indeed, we have kept dividing as if there’s no tomorrow. We started to draw borders and to build walls – small, middle and big ones. As a consequence, countries, cities, religions, political parties, companies, sports clubs, families, hobbies, and music styles have emerged.
But as we kept building these walls, society became more and more fragmented.
What The Rat Race Is Made Of
So yeah, to make it short, at this moment in time, the most fundamental building block of society (and the human rat race) is this:
A container is built of stable material, separated from its surroundings by 4 solid walls, and has stuff inside. In regard to the rat race, however, I’m not referring to physical, but metaphorical containers.
In our context, a container consists of only two components:
- First of all, a container needs people. You can call them members, fans or supporters. They live inside a container or at least visit that container from time to time.
- Besides that, every container has a collective mind, which consists of all rules, expectations, dreams, assumptions, fears, and prejudices of the members.
Let’s have a look at the container of climate activism for example. Here’s how it looks like (ok I admit, more from a child’s perspective):
Why We Need Containers
Containers keep things ordered. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of life, which raises a lot of questions for human beings:
Whom can I trust? What’s important in life? What should be my next career move? Who will help me when I become sick? What’s the best diet? How to improve the environment?
All of these questions are much easier to answer when we live inside of containers who tackle these issues for us. Instead of answering all of these questions on our own, we trust the collective mind and hope that we reduce the chance of failing by using proven container knowledge. So that eventually, the collective mind becomes our new navigation system in life.
The Tetris of Life
If you look at society as a computer game, it behaves a lot like Tetris. Our society offers a predefined set of building blocks to play the game of life. This is the perfect foundation for the human rat race, as you will see in a moment.
From a macro perspective, the biggest containers in your life are its stages: nursery school, school, college, working life, retirement.
On a life timeline, these big blocks look like this (not true to scale):
Additionally to these stages, your life consists of life aspects. Your career, family, friends, hobbies, fitness, and so on. In every life stage, they play a significant part in your life (except fitness in nursery school, maybe 🙂 ). So let’s add them to your timeline:
In the figure above, you can see a lot of containers. More specifically, it shows 29 containers (6 areas * 5 life stages – „fitness in nursery school“)
And it doesn’t stop there: If we drill down further, these containers have sub-containers. For example, schools have subjects like maths, history, physics, or sports and your company has business departments like sales, marketing, and IT. But don’t let us go that deep. Rather, let’s keep an eagle’s eye perspective to understand what’s going on from a high-level perspective.
As long as you stay inside your containers, society promises you to be happy, and you’re promised a container life.
Sure, you can switch containers from time to time: You can move to another city, change your hobbies or your social circle, but containers will always be your foundation when interacting with society.
So, to put it simply, society creates a grid for your life and expects you to play after their rules.
Container life is simple and doesn’t involve a lot of risks: If everything works out fine, you smoothly walk from one big container to the next. Just stay in these containers, and everything will be fine.
And it works, we love our containers. They give us a sense of security. They are warm, cozy, and full of people who have the same opinions and interests as we do.
So it’s no wonder we stay in them almost all the time. Who wants to be outside anyway? It’s lonely out there, it’s cold, it’s dark and there’s no electricity.
Containers Are Comfortable, But …
Containers, however, have one strange characteristic. The moment you become one of their members, you will start to make compromises. Not intentionally, but it’s just the price you have to pay to be part of something bigger than yourself.
Slowly but steadily, your personal dreams, ambitions, and opinions will be replaced by the collective mind of the container, becoming the new navigation system in your life. It’s a simple exchange: More safety and stability for less individuality and creativity.
Your thinking and actions will inevitably change because you’re adapting to the collective mind – without you even noticing it. Maybe you give up your musical ambitions in favor of your stressful career. Or you buy a bigger car to impress your colleagues – but you need to get a second job to afford that car. The possibilities of the rat race are endless.
Not only that, the more you interact within a certain container, the more you crave approval from other container members. You start to compare yourself with other members, based on artificial incentives which have mentioned at the beginning of this text (money, status, power, fame).
And once you do that, you’re already a runner inside the rat race.
Does Herd Mentality Control You?
As we’ve seen, containers have their justification to exist. It gets, however, dangerous when you trust your containers too much. Because when you don’t question the collective mind from time to time, you get sucked in by the rat race and your growth as a human being stagnates:
- Too much container thinking leads to herd mentality.
- Too much safety in your containers leads to risk-aversion and complacency.
- Too much community in your containers means loss of your individuality.
Container life limits your thinking and can easily lead to dangerous thought patterns like oversimplified reasoning or prejudices.
This is especially the case with big containers with hundreds, thousands or even millions of members. Because the bigger a container gets, the more its collective mind gets infiltrated by mainstream opinions: simple and generalized black-white thinking. As soon as you start to question these mainstream opinions, container members will start to attack you.
Let’s take the previous container example of climate activism, where simple thought patterns like these buzz around:
- If (s)he uses plastic, (s)he’s a bad person.
- If (s)he doesn’t like Greta Thunberg, (s)he’s not one of us.
- If (s)he drives an SUV, (s)he is a squanderer.
This may be true or not, but it doesn’t reflect the whole personality of a human being. We evaluate people based on superficial assumptions, supported by the containers we live in.
So if you live inside containers all the time, independent thinking won’t come easy to you. You will always look for solutions outside of yourself and eventually loose your inner compass. Not only that, you will always be in a state of constant fear, worrying about what other members might think about your actions. Out of this fear, you will always play it safe, be it in your job, in your social life, or when being faced with important life decisions.
Fragmented Meaning Of Life
Once we have started to divide our life into containers, we have fragmented the meaning of life and have fueled the human rat race.
Because, centuries ago, life was pretty simple: We believed (had to believe) in God, provided for our families, and worked in a simple job. This simplicity may be limited, but makes life easier with regard to meaning.
In modern times, however, things have changed drastically. Every aspect of life fulfills a specific purpose, resulting in artificial complexity:
- We socialize to have fun
- We go on vacation to relax
- We do Yoga to find inner peace
- We watch entertainment to experience adventure
- We browse the internet to get informed
- We work out to get healthy
- We eat organic food to detox
While we may be better informed, have more fun, better health and more comfort, the meaning of life has suffered dramatically.
We got lost in the details. We’re no longer able to derive real value from all of these isolated containers. Or to put it metaphorically: the puzzle of life gets constantly harder to solve.
A great example is our modern medicine, which has been busy with researching human parts (containers) like the lungs, heart, or the brain. There’s an expert for every tiny detail of the human body, while the soul-mind-body connection gets almost entirely ignored.
Consequently, if you go to an orthopedist because of your back pain, he will focus on your back alone, not paying attention to your overall physical and emotional situation. Because of this one-way thinking (container thinking), modern medicine is focused on treating symptoms instead of achieving holistic health.
Why We’re Becoming Aliens
Due to that fragmented meaning, we are no longer able to integrate our life aspects into a holistic framework which should give us a sense of direction and purpose. Consequently, attaining wisdom and universal knowledge has become harder than ever.
In our rigid container lives, we have to play different roles to fulfill different expectations. Therefore, we have lost ourselves. The great philosopher Karl Marx described this phenomenon as „alienation“. In his view, we have become alienated from nature, people, work and, consequently, even from ourselves. 1
In our endless quest for meaning, we have become prone to external stimulation, be it in the form of buying products, consuming media, gaining status, or unhealthy comparison with other people. We have fallen into a state of endless search, always looking for a solution to fix our lack of meaning. True to the motto „who stands for nothing falls for everything“.
Now is it any wonder that we have become the perfect victims for the rat race of life?
Overcoming The Human Rat Race
The formula of this essay is simple:
Too much container life fuels the human rat race.
But how to escape?
In one of my next essays, I will break down how to quit the container life once and for all. As a byproduct, you will learn how to boost your creativity and happiness along the way.
If you are interested, subscribe to my newsletter, and I will let you know as soon as I’m finished. Talk to you soon!