I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. – Jack London
This morning I read about a live art installation called “The Orbit” that’s being staged in Brooklyn, NY.1 It consists of a 60-foot human hamster wheel and the two men who built it, Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder. These men have made a commitment to live on the wheel for ten days. Their temporary home is equipped with a kitchen, beds, chairs and a toilet.
But here’s the catch. These two men are living on opposite ends of the hamster wheel, so in order for them to maintain balance and keep from falling off, they have to be keenly aware of the other person’s movements. When one man walks forward, the other must walk in the opposite direction. Their exhibit is the ultimate experiment in trust and collaboration. They built the hamster wheel because they wanted to demonstrate that we “all have to work together to get through the daily grind.”
When life is insanely busy and we’re plagued by multiple demands, it can feel like living on a hamster wheel. I often hear this complaint at the beginning of a new executive coaching engagement. “I feel like all I do is work and sleep,” my new client will say. “I have very little time left over for my family, my friends, for exercise, or for anything else but work.” They’ve allowed themselves to be captured on the hamster wheel and have lost sight that they have other options and the power to create healthy changes in their lives. They’ve forgotten the art of balance and have gotten stuck in just trying to survive.
The sad fact is that we can have more money than we’ll ever need, the highest pedigrees or roles we could ever attain, and more power than we’ll ever use, but if we’re only existing and not really living then what’s the point? We’re not, as Jack London said, using our time to support the lives we want to lead. We’re allowing life to manage us rather us managing life. We’re multi-tasking our way through our days and losing the joy of the present.
So what’s the antidote? Our human hamsters’ (Shelley and Schweder) theory makes sense. Trust, collaboration and support are required for both a sense of safety and for leading a meaningful life. We need to trust that we don’t have to be the ones in control of everything―that others’ can not only handle things in our absence, but that providing them with those experiences helps them learn and grow. We have to trust that when we take the time to meet our own needs for connection, nourishment and rest that the people we serve and care about will benefit from those actions, because we’ll be able to be more present and attentive when we’re with them.
We also have to understand that everyone needs a village to live a meaningful life. We weren’t meant to do this work of being human alone. We all need networks of support, people we can count on and relationships that lift us up to help us become our best. We have to learn how to work effectively together.
As one of my neighbors said, “After open heart surgery my focus was to survive, but now that I’m healthy again, I want to thrive; I want to do more, be more, and experience life to its fullest. Life is too short to do otherwise.” His vision of the kind of life he wants to lead is what many of us yearn to experience, yet lack the courage to consciously create. To thrive, we have to be willing to climb off the hamster wheel and change the way we live our lives.
If you’ve been living on a hamster wheel, how committed are you to climbing off? What choices could you make today that would enable you to live a fuller, richer life? Who or what do you need to trust to help you get there? Who might you rely on for support? How could making these changes improve the quality of your life and relationships?