Note from the editor, Lesley Jane Seymour
How to Get Off the Hamster Wheel
A male friend who is 67 (but looks 50 because of his compulsive exercise routine) told me over dinner last weekend that though he loves his Wall Street job, he’d really like to try something new or wind down. He’s set with money. His kids are launched. He still has his health. “But unlike you,” he said, “I don’t have a wide array of interests. What terrifies me is what would I do with myself on day one and every day after?”
Dozens of Covey members have told me they fear the same thing. You’d really like to find a new job that offers more personal reward, take a well-deserved break, or even start thinking about a second act, but you are terrified of what’s next. You desperately want change but feel like you are standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into the abyss. Instead, you take the path of least resistance and just stay on the corporate hamster wheel. Many of you say it boils down to not knowing what you’d do Monday morning if you didn’t put on your pumps and makeup and sit at a desk the way you have for the past 30 years. Some of you secretly admit that you’re so overwhelmed by inertia, the only way you’re going to make a change is if you’re forced to by the corporation itself.
Humans are change-averse. We are more comfortable with routine — any routine — even a bad one. Avoiding change is why we stay in unfulfilling relationships, let a boss slight us (once again), forgive an old friend for rattling on with her neurotic obsession.
But here’s the thing: not all change is impossible. Some of it is simply about creating new routines that help smooth the way. Routines make us feel soothed and comfortable, and remove a lot of anxiety from our lives. Routines dissolve the daily friction between tasks so we no longer have to spend 20 minutes hunting down our car keys but know in a nanosecond that they are in the bowl by the front door. One of the most unnerving parts of changing jobs is changing the routines around it. I swear, every time I changed a job it took me at least six weeks to figure out the location of the most convenient bathroom, which restaurants I wanted to take clients to or order lunch from, and another month to get all my new tech working properly. It takes mental stamina to nail down a new commute, a new dress code, the new office politics. All these micro-frictions ramp up the stress factor that comes with change and which we humans prefer to avoid. And so we stay on the hamster wheel.
The wheel creates its own endorphin feedback loop, too. Just getting through the multitude of tasks from breakfast to work and back to bed requires all sorts of physical and mental gymnastics and Amazon-type logistics. Add if you are also taking care of a family, children, or an aging parent, you are on serious overload. You drop into bed exhausted every night, too exhausted to consider getting off that wheel.
But let me tell you this. Though I was forced off the wheel (which I loved!) three years ago when they closed More magazine and had every intention of jumping back on it, I can now say — firmly — after three years on my own, never again. I realize I was mesmerized by the wheel, by watching myself put one Louboutin-clad foot in front of the other like a runner in a race. I liked the comfort of knowing what time lunch was (12:30 pm), what time the day finished (6 or 7 pm), and when I’d take a vacation. I loved the give and take and intellectual pull of working with an A+ team. I loved the way the momentum of the workplace pulled me along and into the flow of exciting things each day.
Today I’m forced to create my own routines: Monday is for meetings; Thursday for marketing; Friday is for editing pieces. I dictate my own terms. I work with people I love, and avoid those who seem difficult or sketchy. I’ve tossed out the fancy corporate clothes, and there’s dust gathering on my makeup brushes. I sign up for courses about cheese or how to create entrepreneurial growth, and I hang with decidedly noncorporate new friends. I worry about staying visible, relevant, and in the know. I worry about whether I’m making a big enough contribution.
But I also see that wheel for the trap that it is: a device for making us feel comfortable just to make it through the day. But it’s not the only way to lead a fulfilling life. Every now and then when I see a job posting online that makes my mouth water, I ask myself: do I really want to pull on my Spanx every morning, take an Uber home at midnight in the slippery snow, worry the next morning how my boss will rate my performance at an event? Do I want to fire people who were doing a good job simply because the guys on top need to make their quarterly numbers? Do I want to be meaner and tougher than my normal nature just to get a leg up?
And the answer is no, no, and no. Looking up from the abyss I can firmly say, having a Monday morning with nowhere to go is not easy. But it’s not death. Getting off the hamster wheel leads you to a different place, one which requires a new set of shoes, and a new spot for your car keys. It allows me to communicate with the outside world in a more authentic way. I no longer have to betray my values or sell the people I care about short. The bottom of the abyss is actually a happier, slower-paced, more authentic place. You just can’t see that when you’re peering over the edge.