Getting off the Hamster Wheel

Oct 14, 2021
 Ricky Kharawala on Unsplash

I coach several ambitious, driven, people and there are certain questions that come round again and again. One of them appears in many guises, but can be summed up as “what is enough?”

It’s something I ask all clients to think about, otherwise they can spend their lives as hamsters on a hamster wheel and never look at what they are doing or, more importantly, why.

The answer to ‘what is enough’ inevitably changes as we progress through our careers.  When you are young you tend not to worry too much, life is full of opportunity and not so full of responsibility. The concept of ‘enough’ is a long way from our imaginations at that stage.  As you get older the answer of what is enough tends to be put in a context around immediate pressures, mortgages, children, schools, keeping the money coming in and doing a balancing act.

But for some people those days are either past or the end of the responsibilities are in sight.

At this point in your career, if you have been reasonably successful, you are perhaps on a senior team, you may be looking at the next promotion, something that takes you onward and upward on the career ladder.

This is the point at which I ask my clients to think very hard about what they really want. One client said to me “when you first asked me I thought it was just about money. Now I realise that it’s about much more than that”.

Now, it is about money to an extent. Do you need more income than you have now? Is your mortgage paid off? Is your house big enough or are the kids gone and you are thinking of downsizing? Are you supporting elderly parents? How much money do you really need?  Find out what that number is – it’s often lower than you originally had in mind.

If that is so you need to have a serious think about why you are chasing more money than the amount you know you need. I am constantly told that “it’s not about money, money is just about keeping score”. If you are saying that then ask yourself if you would do your job for half the salary?

Stephen Hester, former chief executive of RBS, famously admitted that his parents thought he was paid too much, and said he would be ‘content to take whatever is the going rate’. This raised an interesting debate at the time when a some highly paid bosses said that pay was more about peer esteem than the money itself. The view was that it is important to be paid what demonstrates your value to the outside world.  That seemed to have little effect on their pay – so perhaps they didn’t really mean it!

If pay itself is not necessarily your ambition, what about the other things you are striving for?  Once you realise that you have enough material things then are you looking for intellectual challenge, for recognition, for status, or perhaps because you can’t think of anything else to do? 

Are these the things that you really want or is there some other dream that you have buried, in your quest for career progression? For many senior people the prospect of getting off the hamster wheel is frightening – “what would I do?”. And so they go on doing what they are doing and enjoying it less and less. They on climbing the corporate ladder without thinking if that is the right thing to do.  One day you can arrive at the top of that ladder and find that it is not what you really wanted.

Financial security and seniority give you choices. Make sure that you make those choices wisely.