Posted by: patenttranslator | August 3, 2011

Winning The Rat Race May Not Really Be All It’s Cracked Up To Be

The trouble with rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.

Lily Tomlin

A common theme in American movies is the theme of a hero or heroine who finds a lot of money by accident, often drug money, and ends up being chased by really bad guys who are determined to get their money back regardless of how many people they need to kill in the process. The film “No Country for Old Men” would be a good example here. The hero or heroine always takes the money, although the audience knows very well that that from now until the end of the movie, the lucky finder will be human prey to be hunted down and killed. Sometime after the first lucky finder gets killed, some other person who displayed valor, honesty and good judgment throughout the movie becomes the next lucky finder who usually gets to keep the money after just everybody else in the movie has been killed already, including the bad guys. Especially the bad guys.

Just about every person in the audience would take the money too, regardless of the extreme danger, because finding by accident a gym bag filled with a million or two in crisp new bills is probably the only way how regular people like me can escape the rat race of their lives where at the end of the maze, they are rewarded with a somewhat smallish piece of cheese.

But is there really no other way to escape from the maze of the rat race that was designed so that there would be no escape from it by the people in the top one percentile of income earners (which would be in fact a lot of people in US, something like 3 million people)?

I don’t know. The longest I held a job as an employee, and I had quite a few jobs as an employee in several countries on three continents, was when I worked as a Visitor Services Representative for the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau for three years in the early eighties (of the last century). It took me about a year to recover from  the culture shock after I moved from Germany to California and getting used to the change took a lot of my energy.

The second year was a really happy year for me. The rat race slowed down considerably. I knew what was expected from me and I could do it well because it was really simple: talking to tourists in English, Japanese, German and French, sending them to hotels (members of our company), explaining to Japanese honeymooners how to take the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf and where the bad parts of the town were (just a few blocks away from the Information Center, in Western Addition, etc.). This was one of the few times in my life when I did not really feel that I was participating in the rat race at all. I did not make a lot of money, but it was enough for renting an apartment (with a roommate) on Nob Hill back in the eighties and buying a book and a bottle of wine. I could walk back home from the office, or I could hop on a cable car and watch the fog and the wildlife in the streets: the tourists from Midwest and Europe, the fancifully dressed hotel doormen (especially the one at Sir Francis Drake), and the hookers in miniskirts on my way back home from the cable car.

The third year I got really bored with my job and eventually, I got married and moved to Japan, which is how I joined the rat race again. The rat race in Tokyo back in the eighties was really tough on the employees (called “salarymen” in Japan) because the working hours were so brutal, if you count the commute time (and how can you not count the commute time?).

I got up at 6:30 AM, took a bus to the train station and then two trains to be in my office by 9 AM. You had to position yourself close to the exit two stops before getting off to be able to make it through the mass of people packed like sardines in the train car. I even learned how to read a newspaper folded up in small rectangles because there was not enough space to open it up. Sometime I would get back from work after midnight when I went out with my coworkers to “yakitori” restaurants to eat grilled chicken, drink beer or saké and talk about our worthless lives.

When I got back to San Francisco and started my own freelance translation business, I felt like I was finally getting off the rat race maze for good. There was no commute anymore and nobody was telling me how fast to run in the amazing rat race maze. But of course, it was just an illusion. Once you have children and car and mortgage payments for the big house in the suburbs, there really is no escape from the race that was designed so cleverly for rats like you.

Only young people who are still single and childless can afford to boycott the system and not to participate in the race, but usually only for a few years. Perhaps old people too, a few years before they die.

But it would probably depend on the country. And this country is no country for old men.


  1. […] Winning The Rat Race May Not Really Be All It’s Cracked Up To Be ( […]


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