Monday, June 1, 2015

Opting out of the rat race

I had read or heard somewhere, "Life is a rat race." but I also heard that "Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat."

Being born in a typical urban indian middle class, rat race is all I have ever known. Getting the first rank in the class. Winning an inter school debate competition. Clearing the IIT JEE, getting a campus placement offer or even becoming an IAS officer, are all manifestations of completing a rat race. Recently the results of board exams for 10th and 12th were declared and I started getting calls from friends and relatives who were worried about a boy or girl who did not do so well in this results. The parents were worried that their kid won't be able to make a good career, or become an IITian or stand on their feet. Though I listened patiently to most of them, to some I retorted, "Are you happy with what you have achieved in your life? Do you want your kid to follow your footsteps or deep within you are too scared that your kid might turn out exactly like you?" The question disturbed a few. Yet all they wanted was that their kid should be able to win one or the other rat race. No one wants to be a parent of a loser. No one wants to lose the rat race of parents.

Now in my early thirties and seeing many of my friends few years older or younger at various junctures of their life, I get confused. I see some who performed way better than I did. Got into a better department at IIT, went to some great University in US, earning money somewhere in Europe and holidaying in Australia and yet when I talk to them, they are worried about money, or family or parents or kids. I also see some of my friends who never made it to any great institution or achieved anything remarkable and yet appears as totally relaxed and full of joy when playing with his/her few months old baby.

Through out our childhood, we were told that success will make you happy. I topped my boards exam and my parents distributed sweets inthe entire neighbourhood. I was happy. I cleared JEE and the same thing happened. I worked in an MNC and earned good money. But my parents couldn't appreciate my job as they wanted me to become an IAS. Few years later I cleared the Civil Services exam and my parents were happy. I was happy too. And I was convinced that success has brought that happiness. I never realized how my parents happiness was related to mine. Then one day, my father had a stroke and when he was in ICU, he failed to recognize those newspaper clippings which featured my IAS story. The doctors said that he might take a while to recall everything. In a moment, my success seemed futile to me. I was no longer happy for my achievements. Months later, my father gained back most of his memories though he never spoke again. But when he showed signs that he remembers my success, I was happy again.

Trauma teaches us the value of having something. It also taught me that the happiness did not come from the success. It came from watching my parents happy. As social beings all our happiness is derived via a reference group. Either we want to be like our reference group or persons or we want to achieve standards set by the reference group. For my bihari parents, becoming an IAS was an achievement for they are from Bihar but working in US would not have made any sense for them. For my friends in the MNC, buying a Honda CRV or a Skoda was achievement, but being a small town boy, I had no clue which is a better car and hence no car gave me a sense of achievement.

All of us spend most of our lifetime running one or the other rat race and trying to win it. We don't realize that our choice of the rat race depends on our choice of the reference group. And after winning one rat race, we gear up for the next, not realizing that even if you win a rat race, youare still a rat. The solution is not in winning a rat race, but in opting out of it.