This post was inspired by a letter that I read in the Observer a couple of weeks ago (just so you I managed to track down the author of the letter and obtained his permission to publish it. I’m sure you don’t care but I wanted to impress you with my cyber stalking abilities!).

Well, how convenient for neoclassical economics: upward mobility and socioeconomic status are not “good for you” (“Why being stuck in the same job is bad for you”, News , last week)? Promotion, higher income and status are already feted as the essential motivators to economic growth, hence justifying vast and increasing income and wealth differentials in the UK. Now those who fail this race also stand accused of being the hapless architects of their own ill health…

…If we perceive ourselves in a race, or feel compelled to join one, then, while winning might save us, we might also die in the process. A society that aspires to promote emotional wellbeing and less ill health needs to off subtle solutions, such as flatter income and status hierarchies, and cultures that genuinely value the contributions of all.

Adrian Barritt

Lancing, West Sussex


Mr Barritt also mentions his father, who died at 46 after moving his family for idyllic Cornwall chasing promotion. This post is a difficult one for me to write actually. I am the type of person who constantly wants more, who regularly feels like there is a better life to be had, and who measures my value in terms of success, not necessarily material success, but certainly career and status. It is a constant source of stress to me that I am the only one of my friends who does not own their own house. And therein lies the rub: would homeownership, or my lack of it, be such a source of stress to me if none of my peers owned their own homes. Highly unlikely. It’s an often quoted fact that despite the trappings of 21st Century life, iPods, laptops, mobile phones etc. we are no happier now than we were 60 years old. I think that the impact of these gadgets, designed to improve our lives, is lessened further by their ubiquity.


It is hard to escape the reality that we measure ourselves and our success against those around us. Things like massive HD TVs, fancy clothes, flashy jewellery make us feel happy and special until everyone around us has the same thing. Even those who think they aren’t affected by what others think, or how they compare against others still do to some extent. Did you have a shower this morning? Put on some make up or shave? Do you think you would still do that if you were on a deserted island with no one else around? We do these things because that’s what society dictates, and not following those norms leaves us feeling like outsiders. I’ve been party to discussions on Mumsnet about things like whether one should shower every day. There are some people who are content to bath or shower every few days, and some who think it is nothing less than disgusting if you don’t shower each day. And others for whom a twice daily shower is regulation. But 100 years ago no-one would have been arguing about this. Even 50 years ago, weekly baths and a quick wipe with a flannel every day satisfied most people’s hygiene desires. Yet as we and technology evolve so do our collective standards. What was acceptable 50 years ago will make you a social pariah today.


Trying to keep up with society’s norms is hard work. Trying to keep up with society’s extremes is even harder. Yet people still want to have the looks and lives of celebrities and other successful people. When we focus on what we haven’t got that someone else has we are always going to be unhappy, there will always be something we don’t have, unless of course Bill Gates is reading my blog. I heard he does you know.


It’s not just about material possessions, that is just a symptom of the wider malaise. Another such symptom, which the letter above references, is the constant aspiration for better jobs, more successful positions. Books like Screw Work Let’s Play, and other motivational tomes are all about shaking off the shackles of banality and living the life we deserve. But for some people run of the mill jobs are all they can or want to aspire to. We should applaud that, revere it. Why is it that rock stars, Hollywood actors, or footballers get to make millions by doing something they love, surely the fact that they get to spend life doing what they enjoy is reward enough. It’s not like they work harder than nurses, or factory workers. It’s not like they are necessarily more intelligent than a supermarket cashier; you only have to listen to what comes out of the mouths of certain footballers or pop stars to realise that. And they are not necessarily morally superior either. Yet they have money, status, and power. They are glorified and celebrated.


What about the checkout person who is still smiling and polite after 8 hours of bleeping groceries through the checkout? What about the family who live in an overcrowded council house on minimum wage yet manage to bring up happy well rounded kids? What about the person going into their minimum wage job each day, their whole lives, working so as not to be a burden on anyone else? These people, who are satisfied and happy with their lives, should be celebrated, and their jobs should be valued and not demonised. I’d like to see a book released called “Stop wasting your time trying to be another entrepreneur and get a real job helping someone”.


Chiumento, a “talent management agency”, recently conducted some research into what motivated staff. Using their results they grouped workers into 5 categories  based on what motivated them in their work, with factors ranging from organisational culture to company reputation. The full paper can be found here but there are some pertinent facts relating to this post. 41.3% of staff surveyed were categorised as Socialisers. For them the important factors in their jobs are a warm friendly environment, stability and a good work-life balance. Pay was is one of the least motivating factors for this group, as long as they feel they are being treated fairly. 19% are classed as Protectionists; they crave security and certainty, and while they want to be rewarded, they are willing to make sacrifices to get the security they need. Their career path and development are relatively low in importance. For the last three groups, Achievers, Materialists and True Believers, motivation is more likely to be drawn from the status of the company, the rewards and the need for personal development and advancement. It is both telling and gratifying to see that for about 60% of people just having a job that treats them well is enough. All these books trying to encourage people to chase riches are unnecessary for this 60%, they are happy already, thank you very much.


But despite these interesting figures, I feel we still need to change our society to value more than wealth and the trappings that come with it. Why should we feel a constant need to strive for more, a better job, more money, more stuff. We should be striving for more happiness, more creativity, more compassion. But not more than our neighbour, I’m not talking about swapping one race for another. I’m talking about getting out of the race and using all the free time we have when we aren’t stressing over our position in society.


I blame the Olympics. And Euro 2012, the Oscars and all these other competitions that glamorise winning, with no consolation prize for the runners up and the also rans. It may be that winning the race is a positive experience, and the sense of achievement good for your health, but what are the prospects for the majority of ‘losers’? I don’t doubt that being in a rubbish job is soul destroying and bad for your health, but maybe some of that is just a response to the way society views such jobs. We need to measure success in different ways, both in ourselves and in others.


I mentioned that this post is hard for me to write. I am a naturally ambitious and aspirational person, and put a great store in my own personal success. Unfortunately my dilettante ways and difficulty in seeing projects through to the end means that I rarely meet my own goals. In one of the books that I read on personality it said that people of my personality type often go through life never feeling completely satisfied. Before I would have thought that was a good thing, that it showed ambition and drive. Increasingly I’m finding the feeling rather sad and exhausting. With the finish line nowhere in sight I think it is time for me to think about getting out of the race.

11 thoughts on “The race that isn’t worth winning

  1. I can totally identify with what you’re saying here! I get like this “race thinking” too – about everything. Since I started a blog I went throught a phase of being obsessed with getting “hits” – for no reason other than, well, just to have them. Obviously it’s better to get people who actually read your stuff and talk to you but I still started seeing the numbers as some kind of validation of me (not quite as bad now because I don’t look). In some ways it spoils having a blog if you’re fixated on how it measures you as a person. But it can be really hard to value the thing in itself and not expect some final reward.
    I do, on the other hand, worry about people being told not to aspire to things and just to be happy with their lot (Thomas the Tank Engine “be Really Useful” syndrome) – I want my children to grow up thinking they can be special and make a difference. But how do we measure that? I worry in particular about inequality not being challenged unless aspiration stimulated in our current “losers”. Actually, I just worry about everything!
    Sometimes I think it’s easiest to have fantasy aspirations! I used to have a real obsession with publishing a book, then I did, and it was a bit like “oh. It’s a book”. I mean, I’d had the manuscript on my computer anyhow, and in my head. But I thought it would feel different! Meanwhile, with my blog, my new aspiration is that one of the 80s/90s pop stars I sometimes mention (and fancy) will read it and fall in love with me for my mind. The whole “partner and kids” thing isn’t an issue because this is a fantasy. The pop stars also look like they did in the 80s. I get hours of amusement out of this, and no disappointment because I know it will never happen!
    Well, sorry for such a long comment! Anyhow, that’s my current solution…

    1. I completely agree with encouraging aspiration in life’s “losers”. It’s such a hard balance, you want people to reach their potential, but also to value themselves for whatever their contribution to life is.

      I don’t know what the answer is. And even me writing that post is not enough to get me out of my normal frame of mind. It’s going to be even harder not to project these feelings on to my children.

      I’m also very bad a fantasising. All my fantasies are based in reality. I can’t see past the things that tie me, e.g. Husband and children. Even my fantasies of moving to live by the sea are marred by the worry of “what about my friends, and the kids will have to move school…”. Make of that what you will!

  2. Hear hear! So glad I popped onto Twitter to see your tweet about this post. This is *exactly* where I am headed right now. I see my kids far happier when we’re camping, with very little indoor space and no toys and hardly any stuff at all, than they are in our bigger (although not massive!) House, with lots of toys and gadgets and electronic crap.

    My own new-found wellness has come to me alongside a happy, peaceful withdrawal from the distractions of ‘things’, because that’s what they all are, really – distractions.

    Ambition, acquisition of wealth, keeping up appearances – they’re all distractions from what we ought to be doing, which is looking into and working on ourselves. The Dalai Lama is eternally peaceful, and he has hardly anything!

    One of my favourite quotes is: the grass is always greener where you water it. You find happiness, peace and joy from within, not from outside of you.

    Thank you for writing this – a timely reminder as I was just thinking about buying something new we don’t really need! 😀

    1. Thanks for the comment. I love that quote. I’m glad you are on the path to wellness, look forward to having a catch up and finding out how you got there.

      I need some practical ways of getting out of the race. The problem is, that some of my “wants” are based not just in envy but in practicality. E.g. My fears about the house are less about status and more about “how am I going to live when (if) I retire?”.

  3. It’s funny, I can’t stand feeling like I have to keep up with the Joneses (whoever they are) but find myself stressing over doing just that. I get irrationally wound up when I realise junior colleagues live in an actual house when we live in a flat and don’t get me started on cars and weekly Ocado deliveries. I always thought it was just human nature to be continually striving for more/higher/better/faster but after reading your post I’m not so sure. I don’t want to be continually waiting for the ‘next thing’ to make me content. It’s exhausting!

  4. An interesting post and equally interesting comments. The impression I get is that you all feel trapped by your lives. It’s true, we can all get by on a lot less, but you have to be able to take ownership of that CHOICE to do that, otherwise you continue to compare yourself to others who have more and can’t shake the feeling you’re deprived somehow.

    We live in a capitalist, consumerist society – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you don’t let it take control of you. Next time you find yourself thinking, “I wish I had …. . Everybody else does.” remember that it’s only like this in your corner of the world. Vast swathes of the world’s population live in less luxuriant environments.

    I don’t mean to sound preachy. I was stuck in the rat race too. But then we expatriated on a three-year work visa. We’ve kept our home in the UK but we’re spread very thinly money-wise. We have no phone, bar my husbands work mobile. We don’t have TV and we got by for our first year without a car. At first it was difficult, particularly grocery shopping for a family with three young kids in a country where internet ordering and home delivery don’t exist. You see everyone around you with all the things you don’t have. But after a while, we realised how much fuller our lives were. We didn’t waste evenings comatose before the TV, we spent more time talking and being together as a family. Now we’re all a lot closer and I would be loath to have our old luxuries back.

    We spend a lot of time enjoying nature, swimming in lakes, picnicking and walking in the countryside – and life is bliss. Be brave ladies, take your courage in your hands and dare to be different! You only get one shot at this life, don’t let others dictate how you live it. xxx

  5. Totally getting you in this post! Been thinking about that a lot recently. Talking of wanting what you don’t have, people here in Kenya don’t have much at all, and therefore seem to find it easy to give anything they actually do have away. I find that amazing! I’m sure being around a rich society like we have in the west, really messes with our priorities and what is actually important. It’s really made me think living here. One of the interesting things I’ve noticed is there is a lot less depression and psychological problems like anorexia. Kenyans ive spoken to have never heard of such a thing as people not eating on purpose! Makes me wonder what the cause to all these issues in the UK must be.

    1. Great to hear from you! Good points. I guess the real test will be how you feel when you return to the seductive power of the Western world. I, and lots of people, crave a simple life. But that simple life is probably easier to achieve & maintain in a less materialistic society.

  6. I think part of the problem is that we have been trained from birth to want ever more “stuff”, and have been told that somehow having “stuff” validates us as a person. So if you haven’t got the right “stuff” then somehow you’re not as good as the next person – and these days “stuff” includes a big house, a mortgage, a fulfilling job and loads of disposable income with which to buy more “stuff”. We are bombarded with marketing messages that are designed to keep us feeling that we’re not good enough and never will be until we just get that next bit of “stuff” and so we stumble on, always dissatisfied and believing that we’re failures.

    What I’d like to see, and what I’m on a mission to bring about, is a change in society where each individual’s goal is to reach the point where they know, love and accept themselves for the unique and precious individual they are. Once you have that knowledge you also have inner peace and then the mad race to acquire and win and beat the competition goes away, and happiness and contentment are what’s left.

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