The Rat Race, Reconsidered.


The disconnect between our working lives and our real or inner lives, (defined by many as the core of all discontent), has been raised and answered by everyone from theologians like Trappist monk Thomas Merton to civil rights leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, from authors like Tolstoy to physicians like Albert Schweitzer. On this very platform there are thousands of articles about how to balance work and life, how to maximize productivity and even how to be happier--as if any of these things were that easy. The problem is much more complex, and won't be solved by another top-ten listicle. 

In 1957, the German psychologist Erich Fromm asked:

"If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered by (an illusory) ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?"

What constitutes an actually meaningful life--relationships and intimacy, rich, rewarding love, the pursuit of economic wealth seem ultimately incompatible. The intellectual debate on this topic has not really changed all that much since the time of Jesus-who memorably and reportedly cautioned that it is easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle that it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. The excess of those who carry a bible in one hand and the keys to a yacht in the other is sickening in this regard.  Making matter worse, popular new age authors like Anthony Robbins or Deepak Chopra, (and the thousands of life coaches everywhere that email you daily), would have us believe that one can and should  have everything, a loving marriage, a 4,000 square foot mansion with a red Ferrari in the driveway, a private jet and vacations in the Caribbean. Herein lies human folly at it's very best. That the self-sacrifice associated with spiritual atavism often strips the individual of their personal agency and power, ("I'd like to be a good Christian or a social reformer but I'd starve."), and that massive wealth accumulation is simply not realistic for the vast majority of working people. Neither of these extremes is palatable or preferable to the other. Indeed--there appears to be great wisdom in "the Middle Way". 

I am indebted to remind the reader (once again) that currently, wage inequity is at an all-time high, and an unprecedented amount of wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the mega-rich. Never before has there been such a massive imbalance in relative earning potential of the middle class as compared to the actual assets of the world's most wealthy.

We need look no further than this gaping chasm to realize that there  is indeed a disconnect between love, defined as a natural and emphatic concern for others, existential meaning, a personally derived sense of purpose, and the self-centered and egoistic pursuit of money for money's sake. I can think of no greater problem on this planet in fact. 

As a writer, (and sometimes a decent thinker) I am equally indebted to the reader to point out that simplifications like this won't do much good either. Modern life is comprised of layers of complex socio-cultural phenomena such that the thinking person is challenged to derive meaning from this miasma on the basis of his or her inquiry alone. A person that seeks outside of themselves for answers--by buying wholesale into cultural propaganda or religious indoctrination, or some other mode of brainwashing cannot say they derive their answers autonomously. One cannot consider one's self an individual if they are endlessly responding to external cues. 

With a little prompting, we realize that most people are conflicted on the role of love, money and meaning in their lives. The media is saturated with conflicting images of this dichotomy. Some actually regard the very act of questioning the value of "money culture" as treasonous, ignoring the deleterious effect of wealth, while still others preach a stilted, disempowering view of Capitalism as the "Great Satan."

Where does one find balance?

My point is not that "rich people are bad" and "non-conformists are good." As Fromm points out, both the counter-culture radical and the corporate automaton tend to be equally deluded. The reclusive monk, nut-job jihadist or anti-capitalist protester may recognize the historical necessity of his or her own resistance, but these individuals are almost always disenfranchised by their displacement of responsibility onto the system. In the same way, the Internet millionaire or hedge fund impresario with an endless stream of unrealistic capital, wild nights out, gadgets and shallow relationships has blocked himself from the depth of humanity and true meaning. I would submit that both are blocked from actual happiness. As unrealistic as it might be to expect the system to change on its own, it is foolhardy to think that the egotistic, “wealth for wealth's sake” model ought not to be questioned, or that it can continue indefinitely. Simply put, this mentality is the scourge that puts both planet and population at risk.

The question at hand is whether or not the principles underlying capitalist society and the principles of love and pursuit of meaning are incompatible.

Many people I have met when I lived in Europe cannot relate at all to the definitions of "success" that we in the U.S. are bombarded with. For instance, there is a man I know in Italy who frequents the same cafe every day. He is always dressed neatly, if a little shabbily. I interacted with him when I lived outside of Rome from time to time and learned slowly that he speaks several European languages and knows the markets better than average. He shares my interest in thinkers, ideas, and the classics. He has his coffee, reads his paper and then out the door he goes, getting into what appears to be a late 80's model Fiat, and putt-putts off into another day. When I inquired about who he is with the owners of that café, I learned that he is the son of the largest wine producer in the region—literally the scion of one of the wealthiest wine-makers in Europe. I would never have thought this by virtue of his appearance or his demeanor, for that matter.

The Latin word cluere, to “be famous”, is the root of the English word "loud." I find this amusing, because to "live loudly", or ostentatiously, is a distinctly American phenomena. As my Italian friend's humble example shows, it's not necessary to show off one's wealth to be truly wealthy. Success, were it a concrete thing, would be easy to define. One would think this is the case when the media endlessly depicts success as being directly related to having HUGE wealth, cars, houses, power, and fame. Success means different things for different people, and wealth is amorphous. Success can be modest, small, and unassuming. 

Either way, "success", true wealth, true richness in life—material or otherwise—is borne of integrity, meaning and relationship, and can have powerful agency in economic reality as well. How? Through individuals who derive the value of their own self-worth through the extension of their values to others and the creation of meaning.

When love and meaning are considered marginal to common standards of success and wealth, people actually capable of love and of seeing something bigger than financial gain, are exceptions to the paradigm by necessity. These rare individuals, who can address all three areas of human need, are the real innovator—the ones who will change society. In some sense, a loving attitude and healthy sense of non-conformity is necessary to pivot society away from a production-centered, commodity-greedy point of view. I am not espousing some form of hippy neo-communism, either. Isn't it a matter of fact that the things we love most in life tend to be the things for which we find it easiest to realize their fullness? If one loves to play tennis, one will assuredly become a good or even great tennis player. Likewise, if one comes to realize and love the notions of democracy upon which this Republic was founded, and not the ancillary benefit of unbridled economic freedom, then changing society, one individual at a time is actually possible.

Individual agency, the very root of democratic freedom, is being squandered on the wrong objects of attention daily.

When one focuses solely on the benefit of economic freedom and not on the meaning of it, the results are disastrous for society as a whole. These effects are largely ignored by a majority of the people on the planet and at their own peril.

If a person is able to love and find meaning in their work, then one can regain the fundamental meaning of freedom: that of personal liberty and responsibility. The economic system can serve their needs rather than necessitate that one give up their own virtue and ethos to serve it. By thinking in this way—by endeavoring to greater meaning in our lives as a whole, including meaningful work, meaningful relationships with others—we can come to realize that love and meaning are not "side benefits" to freedom, but rather the very mechanisms through which economic freedom can be practiced as a mode of betterment for society. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because this was the basic idea behind Adam Smith’s "Wealth of Nations.” I highly suggest reading it if you have not already.

To have success and evolution in capitalist society and corporate life today, it is necessary that one have the courage to pursue love and meaning simultaneously and according to one's own economic trajectory. Thus, the possibility of social change as a function of individual agency becomes a matter of reasonable and rational consideration. Love and meaning are not just exceptional individual phenomena, but the core mechanism for the vital change in attitude most needed in today's world. Though paramount to "wealth-building" for its own sake, they are not exclusive of the economic experience; indeed they can enrich and deepen it.


* I am indebted to the vast writings of humanitarian Erich Fromm, in particular "The Art of Loving", 1957 Mandala Books.


Your readership is enormously important to me, and as such, I am always open to your correspondence and eager for continued dialogue.

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