Aboard The Treadmill

I realise that I have worked my whole life to build and craft my career, and I always thought that I was the architect of my own ambition. However, the more time that passes, the more I question how many of the decisions I have taken have even really been mine. In fact, I wonder if the idea of them being decisions at all is and was fictional from the start.

I recall at the age of 10 my secondary school was dictated partly by my parents’ preference of sixth form college. It seems remarkable to me now that they had thought this far ahead, and, despite my average academic abilities, it was already expected that I would complete A-levels. But life turned out as they had predicted: I went to secondary school – completed GCSEs; I went to sixth form college – completed A-levels; I went to university – completed a degree; I began work, and when the opportunities presented themselves, I took steps up – and down again.  Because somewhere in amongst it all I realised that I had somehow lost sight of what I wanted from my life.

We run our rattish race through life, endlessly chasing a goal which always seems beyond our reach, lost in the rush and stress of our daily lives. Of course, there are some of us lucky enough to feel the occasional sense of accomplishment as we achieve the things we think we want. But this is fleeting. There is always another target to be set, another race to run, another pointless thing to pursue. Another reason to miss out on the things that matter.

And what for? How many of us really want to be where we are? How many of our life choices were chosen for us? How many of us are trapped by the trappings of modern life?

I always thought that the term ‘treadmill’ came from the instrument of torture found in the average gym. A metaphorical reference to the constantly rotated conveyer belt turned and churned beneath our feet: run. Or fall gracelessly to the floor, left behind and crumpled and stepped over by the fitter specimens who can keep up with the pace. We race and, despite our efforts, we go nowhere.

But, on reflection, I realise that it is more Victorian than that.

Our modern treadmill steals its name from the instrument of punishment used in nineteenth century prisons: the supposedly lazy and stubborn poor imprisoned within the gaol’s walls would be forced to take step after step on a giant, old-style-step-machine, grinding grain or corn to enrich the pockets of those that held them. And how like our modern world this is!

We take each step in our professional lives because it is the next one.  We tell ourselves that it is because we become bored, or because we see the people above us making a hash of it and believe we can do better. Or perhaps we think we want more power, responsibility and control; we want to make an impact and see our visions realised. Or perhaps it’s just the money. But all too often most of those possibilities prove to be false promises: more money means more tax; more responsibility means more stress; more challenge means more problems. And sadly, the higher you go and the harder you work the more apparent it becomes that no-one is truly in control; even those closer to the top have their hands tied in some way or another – they are just forced to hide it better. But throughout all of this, is the continued and persistent momentum of the machine of Continuing Professional Development.

Whatever we believe our motivations to be, in the end we have been conditioned to see ambition as the ultimate accolade.  In our modern workplace, if you do not aspire to be better, be more, go further, you are somehow written off as lazy or stubborn. And I think of the child at school – intelligent and able – who takes the decision not to attend college, and is subsequently hounded and harangued by people telling him he was wrong. How dare he deviate from the next step he was supposed to take. The tragedy! The shame! The waste! No-one seems to consider whether that next step is the best step for the individual about to take it.

And in truth, who does this additional industry benefit? The greatest success of the modern manager is selling the necessity of working yourself into the ground to be successful. They get more from us, and we take the next step because it is there. It is expected that we take it, or else fall down and lose our place upon the wheel entirely.

Unfortunately, the time we spend constantly taking that next step towards getting the life we want results in too many of us failing to happily live the life we have. And with every extra penny in our pay packets, we find another thing to commit it to – forcing ourselves even further into a life of work. Thus, we become parts of the commercial machine; we buy into lives we don’t really want, in order to pay for things we don’t really need.

But really, what is wrong with being content with where we are? Why are we unable to reach a goal and stop, sit and soak in our achievements? To enjoy the success of achieving what we aimed to do in the first place, without always needing to accomplish that little bit more. Why can’t we look at that next step, neatly laid out in front of us and say, ‘No. I don’t need that.’ Or take a step along a different path all together?  And then, choose to live our lives for the things that really matter to us.

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