The Hamster on the Wheel

When you are in the company of the bestest and brightest throughout your life you start examining yourself for imposter syndrome every so often and your yardstick of success takes on a whole different dimension. That girl got better grades, that guy knows every single river in the world, she got into an ivy league college, he scored the best internship, she married a great guy, he got the biggest sign-on bonus, she got the promotion, he bought the largest house, she drives the fastest car, he wore the fanciest clothes…there’ll always be someone who – in your eyes – has it better than you do. Before you know it you’ll be stepping on a hamster wheel with an engine that cannot be turned off. You’ll start defining your success by measuring it against other people’s lives. And because you are such an overachieving, focused hamster that put on blinders to not be distracted while running the race you completely forget to notice that

1) you are trying to measure yourself by her promotion, his house, some other her’s jewelry and some other his’s car. You are essentially creating this superhuman in your head who is an amalgamation of all the successes and privileges of the best and brightest around you. And then you start comparing yourself to that wish list of a person and more likely than not you’ll trip on your hamster wheel because this race seems to be unconquerable.

2) the people you are comparing yourself to also have trials and tribulations in their lives that you (conveniently) ignore. Just because they have the biggest house doesn’t mean they have a happy home, just because they have the jewelry with the most bling doesn’t mean they have a sparkle in their eyes, and just because they seem to have the fittest body doesn’t mean something may not be eating them up from the inside.

Some hamsters will go as far as doing things because it is prestigious or it is something that’s associated with a certain class of people, or simply because they need to prove to the world that they belong. Most everything they do craves for external validation. Those are the hamsters I pity most. They are the ones that are truly part of the rat race and will never have the opportunity to experience what it feels like walking on a paved road at your own pace and at your own conditions.

hamster wheel

At my age I dare not say I have seen the world but I have surely come across enough people that are dying every day to live some day. Running behind more money, more prestige, more material things makes them feel like an athlete clad in the sexy looking cloak of ambition. When there is no answer to why you are killing yourself to earn the extra $50K – that by the way you would have no time to spend – the answer is often “ambition”. I would be lying if I said ambition and competitiveness never had a place in my life. They did, and to some extent they may still do, but I am realizing more and more that the yardstick for these behaviors lies within myself. The day I stopped measuring myself by other people’s successes I became a much happier and truly much more successful person in my own eyes. I started seeing all the privileges I have in life and started savoring them to the fullest. All the things that once came as granted had a whole new meaning. I learnt that the treasure trove can’t be found until you step off the wheel and sit down to unpack your little hamster backpack.

Based on average lifespans these days I may have a bunch of decades left to live but the topic of mortality has been fascinating me a lot lately. They say only two things are certain: death & taxes! Many a smart person has found a way to evade taxes but I have yet to meet someone who has evaded death. It’s a universal truth that every human being on earth is going to have to die within a somewhat predictable maximum range of 100-ish years. Why then is it so important to die with $50M in your bank account vs $5M (or whatever non-Silicon Valley number you want to plug in)? People argue with wanting to leave behind a legacy for their kids. Please don’t! Let them build their own. People also argue they will leave the money to charity. Ahem, really? Be honest with yourself. You were haggling with that street vendor for $0.50 all your life and never had a lose dollar for someone in need because you were too busy in “self-realization”. What makes you think you will be endowed with a heart full of compassion on your death bed?

Had anyone told me this in my early 20s I would most likely have challenged them and told them stories about my ambitions and the castles of dreams I have. But today, with more life experiences under my belt, I know what matters most and that I have a shot of living a fuller and happier life by carving my own yardstick of success instead of borrowing anyone else’s.

The British novelist C. S. Lewis once said “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

I haven’t always turned back on the wrong road at the right time but now that I know the difference I hope I stay on the progressive path.


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