Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

What Is the Rat Race?

When you’re undecided about something, you are not literally “up in the air.” When you’re “over the moon,” you’re still on earth, and when something hits you like “a ton of bricks,” you’ve not been hit by a single brick, much less 2,000 pounds of them. Idioms like these and their cousins, metaphors, are implied comparisons and are not literally applicable. They are colorful descriptions and comparisons with other things, such as “hot as a firecracker” and “mad as a wet hen.” When someone says they’re tired of “the rat race,” they are tired of pursuing a desired end state to the detriment of their own physical and mental health.

The rat race is the endless and pointless pursuit of rewards

Always competing for money and power is an unpleasant and stressful way of living. Being a part of the rat race is an exhausting activity that alternates between the hectic and the same tedious thing, day after day.

Lots of people get caught up in the rat race, but no one wins it

It starts with wanting more money, a better job, a bigger house, and a nicer car. Factor in the willingness to sacrifice your personal life by putting in long hours in the pursuit of more and more material things and your rat race has become a hamster wheel. Perhaps the best example of the rat race is the situation in the top consultancies and law firms. The competition among new junior hires is fierce to the point of putting in 100-hour weeks in the hope of earning a partnership.

The rat race is a lifestyle

It emphasizes the pursuit of material wealth and possessions at the cost of constantly competing and never having enough time to do the things you want to do. When you hear people talking about quitting the rat race, they have decided to get off the treadmill and live a more fulfilled life.

Wikipedia says Rat Race is a 2001 American comedy film

Directed by Jerry Zucker, it features an ensemble cast of six teams of people who race 563 miles to a Las Vegas casino for a $2 million prize. Zucker’s film was inspired by Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Kramer’s film starts when a bank robber runs his car off a cliff on a mountain road

Several cars stopped and four men climbed down the hill to see if they could help, while two women waited up on the road. The accident victim was a bank robber. He told the ensemble cast the money he stole was buried in the Santa Rosita State Park, then kicked the bucket noisily. The witnesses who first agreed to cooperate and share the money soon got greedy and began racing across the desert to try and find the money hidden under the big W before the others.  

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like

Thorsten Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe wasteful actions that spend more money on goods than those goods are worth. He used the related term invidious consumption to describe the consumption of goods in a way that provokes the envy of others. 

Keeping up with the Joneses

For status seekers, one purpose of conspicuous consumption is to keep up with the neighbors (the Joneses) by attaching disproportionate importance to acquiring material possessions that they believe will impress others. The related term conspicuous compassion is the act of ostentatiously supporting charities to enhance the donor’s social prestige, especially important to the nouveau riche.

A close relative of being in a rat race is the endlessness of being on a treadmill 

The Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimates more than 50 million people get on treadmills every year. Treadmills are so endlessly boring that wags call them dreadmills. The exercise industry responded to the boredom by introducing virtual workouts and adding video screens to give people something to watch, listen to, and participate in as part of a group. 

You never get anywhere 

Being on a treadmill has become idiomatic for being a part of an endless, pointless, tiresome, and self-defeating activity. In the social media world, keeping up with the Joneses’ ever-increasing feeds, alerts, and accounts means less time for sleeping,  eating, and showering. Sounds more like the behavior of addicts than tech sophisticates, doesn’t it?

In case some of this sounds stuffy to you, remember Veblen formulated his theories 100 years ago, long before private jets, $20,000 bottles of Champagne, $400,000 handbags, and million-dollar sneakers.

Before they became a staple of fitness centers everywhere, these simple machines were designed for work

They converted animal and human motion into power to drive other machinery that did useful things like pumped air and/or water. “Walking” up the moving stairs (a trescalator?) is like walking up the down escalator.

The earliest treadmills were called treadwheels

Not the conveyor belts we see today, the first treadmills looked like the paddles on a riverboat. Early treadwheels were used to keep prisoners tired and presumably easier to manage.

The treadwheel evolved into an unending staircase where prisoners’ constant step-by-step climbing generated power to pump water and grind grains. Oscar Wilde paid for his crime of “gross indecency with male persons” with two years on the prison treadmill.


As a yachtie once told me, “What’s the point of buying bigger and bigger boats? There will always be someone with a taller mast.”

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Today marks the seventh anniversary of LetsTakeACloser Look: 366 articles covering too many topics to mention. If you’d like to look at any or all them, click here.


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