Opting Out of the Rat Race: How to Stop Running and Start Living

Sooner or later everyone wonders what it would be like to opt out of the rat race: no more traffic; no more commute on a Monday morning; no more tedious, stressful technology; no more nosy, competitive neighbors. Of course, making wine on some picturesque little farm in Italy usually remains nothing more than a fantasy to indulge in as you sit at your desk. Some, however, really do turn these dreams into reality.

The Race

The phrase “rat race” means different things to different people. The great American novelist David Foster Wallace, for example, defined it as a form of unconsciousness. Above all, it suggests a mindless and repetitive existence: rats in a maze scurrying about without purpose or meaning.

Most would begin with work. To be stuck in the rat race often means to be stuck in a boring job you feel has no value. Along with dull, repetitive work, it also suggests competition (after all, jam too many rats into a confined space and they will struggle with one another). People work in order to pay the bills and put food on the table, but that isn’t the only reason. For many, their job is a source of pride. They battle through the rush hour and tolerate an odious boss so they have something to boast about at dinner parties or over the garden fence. Then of course there is the wish to boost up the ego with expensive status symbols: a shiny car, a detached house, vacations to Paris and London etc.

Signs You Need to Quit

For many, the urge to drop out of the race coincides with some sort of midlife crisis. They hit their early 40s and, while time seems to speed up, they feel trapped or stuck. They visit a therapist and find themselves saying things like “what’s it all for? I feel like I don’t know any more. I don’t know what I want or where I’m going.” Often, people long to recover a sense of excitement and hope. Suddenly, life seems to be slipping away from them. Instead of something ahead, they realize this is it, life is here and now. And mixed up with this desire to quit the race is the yearning for novelty and fresh adventure – a yearning to feel intensely alive once again.

Are you struggling for something you no longer care about or believe in? Drinking too much is another bad sign. Those two glasses of wine on the train, the half a bottle to help you sleep, etc, soon add up. Often, people will feel as if they’ve suddenly woken up. They think back to their old college self, to that idealistic young student who idolized rebels and outsiders, who read Kerouac’s On the Road and the poetry of William Blake, who grew his hair long, despised shallow consumerism, and sat up all night talking about art and philosophy. How did he turn into this pompous bore? When did he begin caring about next month’s sales figures or his neighbor’s new Mercedes?! Maybe you have given up on the things you used to believe in (or still do believe in). Have you also given up things that used to give you pleasure, like writing songs and playing the guitar?

Money, Housing, and Facing Up to Reality

Obviously, money is a primary concern. Plenty of people would like to quit the race but cannot for financial reasons. So, unless you are very wealthy, consider this carefully. Work out your budget to the last cent. And allow for emergencies and unforeseen expenses. This is especially important when people depend on you, such as ageing parents or young children.

Most important of all, where will you live? Do you plan to move? This also requires careful thought. Many people who quit the rat race decide to downsize, moving to a smaller house or to a less expensive neighborhood. But think this through. If you have always lived in a large house or a pleasant area, the move could be a bigger shock than you realize. And if you have always lived in a city, you may find life in the countryside or a provincial town very different.

When you consider things like money and housing, be wary of fantasy. People trapped in an exhausting, high pressured job, surrounded by shallow, materialistic neighbors, may be so desperate to leave that they idealize alternative lifestyles. Their imagination then goes to work and they build it up into a sort of utopian fantasy. But every community and every lifestyle has its downside and its problems. OK, so life on a small farm in Iowa, or running a yoga retreat in the Australian outback, is more peaceful and healthy than working in a publishing company in New York or London. And, yes, it may be less stressful. But it may also be boring. And never forget: there are rude, selfish, greedy people everywhere. Just because you move to a small, rural community, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be sweet and kind (or welcoming). Even a beautiful Pacific island is full of biting insects and is subject to heatwaves and storms!

Parents and Children

In reality, few of us are free. Most people have someone who depends on them, someone whose life will be affected by the decisions we make. In particular, you must consider your parents and your children.

For example, if your children are now in their teens and have never known any other life, how will they cope? Might they blame you if things suddenly become harder? If you are moving away, they will lose their friends. And walking into a new school in your teens can be a scary and intimidating experience. How will they cope with the change in material circumstances? A child used to life in a peaceful, wealthy neighborhood is unlikely to thank you for taking them away. And remember, children and teenagers experience the world very differently to a middle-aged adult. They have not yet become jaded. They may like the lights and noise and rush of city life. Helping you run a health food shop deep in the countryside is unlikely to thrill the average 15-year-old girl!

And how about ageing parents? If this new life means moving away, they are likely to miss you and their grandchildren and may even be angry with you for abandoning them. If they are vulnerable in some way (if, for example, your father recently died and your mother is now alone, or if one of them has been battling cancer), they may be disturbed by this sudden, radical change in their life. And it may worry and upset them to see you throwing away a good career or embarking on a risky new venture.

Loss of Status and Friends

And what impact will change have on your friendships? For many people, their social life hinges on their career and income. If you are a highly paid attorney, for example, whose friends all play golf and host expensive dinner parties, will you still fit in after you drop out to write a novel or breed chickens? And how will you feel about the loss of status? People may claim that any friend who doesn’t understand isn’t worth knowing anyway. Or they may claim that it’s what’s inside that counts and that anyone who thinks less of you for exchanging a smart suit for a dirty old sweater is shallow and pathetic. These are fine words, but are they really how you feel? Shallow, petty friends can still be fun. Be sure you can leave such people behind if necessary. And be sure you can live without nice clothes and expensive vacations. Many can, but some realize they cannot and regret their decision.

Alternative Ways of Living

So what could you actually do once you quit the race? What else is there? If you have made your decision, and if a new life seems plausible, let your imagination run free. It may sound a little mawkish, but it is best to follow your heart. In other words, do what you love (“follow your bliss,” as the American writer Joseph Campbell used to advise his students). If you do not, you will simply be exchanging one unfulfilling lifestyle for another. You are also likely to make a better job of something that thrills and inspires you.

Obviously, what you do will still be dictated by circumstances. If you inherit or have saved enough money to live on, or if you are single and childless, you can be more daring. How about a life of creativity and travel? You could backpack around Europe, staying in hostels, washing up in kitchens, and working on a novel or trying to paint. Or you could move somewhere warm and full of tourists. Many northern Europeans, for example, move to the Spanish or Portuguese coast and exchange their house back home for a one bedroom apartment or even a caravan, earning money behind a bar or as tour guides etc.

If you still need to earn a reasonable income, however, the most obvious route would be something freelance. This can be tough at first, and in general it is probably best to set up a business of your own. Again, be careful, and be wary of fantasizing. How much do you stand to lose if the business falters? Finally, you could try what is known as “intensive saving.” Again, this works best if you are relatively comfortable and have no one dependent on you. You decide a certain period of time – five years, eight years, whatever it may be – during which you live on 30% of your income, saving every cent and living as if on the breadline. Then, with the money you gain downsizing, try to live out the rest of your life on a combination of your savings and what you earn from making jewellery or selling homemade furniture etc.

Be under no illusions, dropping out of the rat race isn’t easy. If it was, far more people would be doing it. And reality often fails to live up to the fantasy.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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