Saturday, July 11, 2009

Escaping the Rat Race

You've probably heard the saying a thousand times. “Choose the job you love and you never have to work a single day of your life.” It is a simple quote, but inevitably weakened by clichés as one grows to realise the harsh facts of life. How many people really do love their jobs and intend on doing it forever?

While it is a thought provoking question which requires some self reflection, many Singaporeans tend to lean towards the practicality of life's imposed needs and demands. Since birth, we have been surrounded by systems, made up of rules and regulations bounded by either authority, or by mental models shaped by our family values, culture, and perception. These very systems eventually govern our way of life, and ultimately dictate the career paths we choose. We grow up believing that having the best education is the only way to succeed in life, and become obsessed with results, rankings, and stature. Students, from the pre-school level to university under graduates, have been put under tremendous stress from parents and peers, in a bid to out do one another in the race towards better achievement. The same can be said when one reaches the work force. For the majority not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, work will initially be the source of income for materialistic and comfort items, eventually becoming a routine effort to pay off debts that have increased, due to added commitments such as having a car or starting a family.

And as a result, the majority of Singaporeans have their lives charted out and plotted on an arguably typical pre-determined route without even knowing it. The plan goes like this: To complete the highest level of education possible, find a well paying job to save up, apply for a HDB flat, get married and have kids, and even go for that annual overseas holiday while waiting for retirement. Sure, it does not apply to everyone, but many if not most would see through this Singaporean life cycle. Job satisfaction becomes non-existent, and is measured by the how high the salary and year end bonuses add up to.

On the other hand, there are the lucky ones who manage to land the job of their dreams. These people absolutely adore what they do for a living, and would not mind working extra hours or putting in more effort to meet their levels of expectation. Passion is the main driving force, and unsurprisingly they tend to succeed in their respective fields of work. The reasons are really quite simple. If you like your job, chances are that the motivational factors will be triggered internally rather than set by superiors or governing policies. Your working hours extend beyond your time in the office, as ideas and concepts can still inspire you no matter where you go. And most importantly, if you find meaning in your work, satisfaction comes naturally and it sustains you, especially in the long run. Indeed, the meaning of job satisfaction differs from person to person based on his own needs. To some, job satisfaction simply refers to how high up the corporate ladder you reach. The power and authority that accompanies the job might also serve as a form of fulfilment for people with more responsibilities. Others may find pride in having their work recognised, or having their efforts acknowledged by others. And lastly, it is heartening for some to know that they are contributing back to society, the less fortunate or the needy.

So, what is stopping people from looking for their dream job? Why are most people still unhappy about their jobs and are constantly complaining about their careers? Less than ideal work environments and bad bosses aside, there are two main reasons. Firstly, people are not getting the job satisfaction that they seek. The rewards do not justify the amount of effort invested, and hence the unhappiness or disappointment. It is not merely about dollars and cents here, but also the intangible value and worth of the work generated. Second and more importantly, we tend to be bounded by our own mental models and cannot accept taking risks beyond our self imposed limits. We are programmed to choose stability over adventure, and we tend to measure options by the return of investment, and how lucrative they are.

In short, we set our own limits and many a time, our wings can only take us so high before we hit the ceiling of the cage. Whenever our visionary self think about making change for the better, our realist selves slap us back into reality with negative thoughts of failure and the consequences of unsuccessful gambles. Acceptance of “fate” results in resigning to the fact that this is how life is meant to be, and that there is nothing you can do about it. For the majority of the working population, this is their biggest mental block preventing them from venturing into the unknown. To quote Neo from the Matrix trilogy, he did not believe in fate because it gave him the idea that he was not in control of his own life. And he's right. There is always a choice in whatever we do. We just need to convince ourselves that it is the right one.

If you find yourself unhappy about your job and hence the lack of passion in work, reflect on what you really want from it at the end of the day. Is it for the job satisfaction, the experience, the rewards, or for the status? Are you living up to your full potential, and is there room for more growth? The answers to these questions ultimately determines your passion and love for your job. From here, the choices are yours to make. Setting a personal vision statement and short term goals might help to re-discover your passion. Having new relevant skill sets through upgrading may provide a necessary burst of inspiration. On the other extreme end, career transitions usually ignites fear of uncertainty, but it is better to fail than not trying at all. Remember, the choice belongs to you.

Life is too short for regrets, and the last thing you would ever want is to ponder about the infinite career possibilities or wasted chances when you are too frail and old. The best inspiration for change comes from within, so be the change that you want to see. These changes can be as little as personal goal setting, or starting up a new business. As the saying goes, “The difference between a entrepreneur and a dreamer is action.” We make our own fate, and no one is there to say the sky isn't the limit.

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