Building a Better Bloke

The rat race conundrum

Posted in Careers, Travel by Sam de Brito on February 10, 2010

By Mark Darby

I achieved a major coup in my 27th year on this planet: I quit the rat race and the small cubicle that comes along with it.

Call it my ‘Saturn Return’ year, itchy feet or just plain fool-hardiness but I quit my job editing and designing a finance magazine and decided I needed to get out of Sydney. After five years in the harbour city I had about $10,000, a car and no relationship to show for my efforts.

With nothing set-up and all my worldly possessions packed into my Honda Civic, I drove down to Melbourne to crash at a mate’s house and plan my next move. Three months later I was on a plane to L.A.

But I’m getting ahead myself …

My professional life to this point has been strange to say the least. At 33 years of age I have two degrees, one in Systems Analysis and the other in Communications.

I have been everything from a programmer, graphic designer, web content manager, door-to-door knife salesman, student recruiter, communications director for three different government departments and two volunteer based not-for-profits, and a magazine editor.

All of these jobs (except one – and I’ll be getting to that in a moment) have been soul-crushingly boring.

As a journeyman editor which a predilection for the humanities, I had no interest in finance whatsoever. Stock brokers are some of the most boorish and myopic bastards I’ve ever had the misfortune of dealing with and that opinion has generally not wavered in the years since.

Like all dreamers I’ve always sensed that I was put on this earth for some great purpose. Whenever I mention what I’ve done with my life at social gatherings people seem to find it genuinely intriguing and fantastical.

“Wow – you’ve done all that and you’re only 33! All I’ve been is an accountant since uni and bummed around Europe for a couple of months.”

Like all dreamers, my life does not seem nearly fantastical enough. It’s littered with lost opportunities and wasted time and the sense that I better pull my finger out soon or I’ll never get the chance to be truly amazing at something.

So, getting back to my flight to L.A. After three fruitless months moping around Melbourne I ended up landing a job that to most people sounds insane.

My job involved travelling to different American universities, going into lecture halls, screaming at the top of my lungs to anywhere from 50-800 freshman students about volunteer opportunities abroad, and repeating the process for any class that would listen to me over a three day period.

I would then drive/fly to a new university, find some accommodation and start the whole process again.

Americans are an enthusiastic bunch, and getting a round of applause most hours for my dog and pony show was exhilarating. No one in Lincoln, Nebraska is expecting to hear “G’DAY GUYS!” at full volume in their Monday morning chemistry class.

After three days you became a minor celebrity on campus. Like a rock star but without the groupies, drugs, sex or money. Ok – so nothing like a rock star, but still quite cool.

I was good at this job. So good they had me manage an American and European recruiting season and I lived out of a suitcase for two years. No fixed abode for more than three months and I got to see most of Western Europe, North America, and Central America, with all my accommodation and travel fees covered. Sweet deal.

Most important I had escaped the cubicle … for a while.

So let’s cut to the chase. I met my fiancée in America. Love at a first sight. Whirlwind romance and four years later we’re engaged to be married. Best thing that ever happened to me.

But something else happened that I didn’t anticipate. She got into ANU for her masters degree and I had to leave my travelling job and go back to a cubicle so I could support her while she studied.

The sense of professional liberation I felt abroad has been eroded by three years of horrible bosses, rat race drudgery and a return to the sort of work situation I had thought I would never have to deal with again.

Now that my partner has started working I’m ready to take the bull by the horns again and start my own business.

My question is whether there is anyone else that has been in a similar situation professionally?

How did you regain your professional focus and move forward while incorporating more of the family-centric responsibilities that come with being in your thirties?

Mark Darby currently pays the bills working in the tertiary education sector.

27 Responses

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  1. trumpet player said, on February 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    *toot toot*

  2. Tinman said, on February 11, 2010 at 1:47 am

    I don’t know the answer to your question.

    I’m 33, single, still at uni, and HOPING to start establishing a career in the next year or so. All things considered, it sounds to me like you’ve got it pretty good. Sure your job sucks, but everyone’s job sucks. There’s not much you can do other than make the best of it, and be grateful for what you have (which sounds like a lot).

  3. TC said, on February 11, 2010 at 8:17 am

    I’m with Tinman. I’m still at uni and hoping for a job. What you got is a pretty sweet deal.

  4. CC said, on February 11, 2010 at 9:46 am

    I am 47 and am wishing that i had had the guts at 30 to get out of the grind and do something about it then. Now with mortgage school fees etc etc i am going to have responsibilities until i turn 50. But i have promised myself that when my youngest has finished grade 12 that i am going to have my very own gap year. I figure that if i dont do it at 50 then it will never happen. So mate all i can say is good on you – there is no instruction manual that you have to adhere to with life. A life spent in a cubicle does not sound like much of a life – but you have already worked that out.

  5. FJ said, on February 11, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    First of all, Tinman and TC clearly aren’t true dreamers. Sure, it sounds like you have had some great times in your life, but why stop now?

    Second, thank you for sharing your story. I too believe that I’m put here for some great purpose and even though I also have a ‘pretty sweet’ job that people are impressed by at parties I really don’t think my life has been fantastical enough.

    I’m 25 and trying to get out of the race and so thanks for being one voice that (kinda) says it will all work out.

    I’m also married and so I think I’m asking a lot of the same questions as you.

    In other words I don’t know if I have many answers for you but one book I read – I haven’t put its advice into practice yet but it’s like a drug for dreamers – is the four hour workweek by Tim Ferriss. I feel like in your position you might be better prepared to use what he suggests.

    Keep us all updated with any more answers you find along the way.

    • Tinman said, on February 11, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      I don’t believe that there is much room in the world for dreams or dreamers. The day-to-day concerns of paying the bills and getting by tend to take precedence over loftier ambitions. Perhaps big dreams are possible for a few lucky ones, but for the vast majority of the human race, just getting by is the achievement of their dreams. From what I can see, the realistic limit for most people’s dreams is making the best of their situation and getting by the best they can. Anything more than that is idle fantasy, which is a luxury most people can ill afford.

      • Bob, The Backpacker... said, on February 11, 2010 at 6:24 pm

        What do you classify as a dream?
        At what point do you think its unobtainable?

        I’m curious.

  6. Tinman said, on February 11, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    @bob the backpacker:
    I’ll put it this way. I think is social mobility is mostly a myth. Most people are born, will live, and then die, within the basic social stratum they arrived in. But for a lucky few, whose sheer exceptional ability means that they simply cannot be denied social and economic advancement, most people are constrained by their starting social and economics circumstances and will never be permitted to move beyond them.

    Our society is designed to maintain the economic status quo, which requires that a small number of people be at the top, a few more in the middle, and a lot of people at the bottom. The way I see it, the whole notion of “dreams of a better/different life” are just fantasies perpetuated by those in power to keep the rest in their place by distracting them with unattainable dreams of drastically changing their economic circumstances. Those in positions of power like to promote the idea that we live in a meritocracy , but in reality we live in an oligarchy controlled by the economic elite, for the economic elite. We have shifted from a system of feudalism in which status was determined by birth, to one in which the economic elite have become the feudal masters based on their (usually inherited) wealth. In either case, the haves have a vested interest in keeping economic and political power out of the hands of the have-nots.

    Bottom line. We do not live in a free society. We live in a society high on dreams of freedom and opportunity that simply do not exist for most people. The economic order needs all of us cogs to keep turning, and it plies us with fantasies of opportunity to keep us in out places, rather than throwing spanners into the works, as we would do if we realised that the opportunities promised are lies.

    PS: Although this sounds a lot like an anti-capitalist rant (which it is in a way) I do not necessarily think that socialism really has anything better to offer, just another kind of tyranny (albeit of a more transparent kind).

    • Andy said, on February 15, 2010 at 1:56 am

      Oh just go become a fucking stockbroker, Tinman, and you can join the higher socio-economic ranks with minimal skill. Stop being such a downer.

      • Tinman said, on February 15, 2010 at 4:24 pm

        That would simply make me part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  7. Ben said, on February 12, 2010 at 11:45 am

    gotta disagree with you tinman

    i think belief in what is possible is the difference. self-belief is a powerful key as it not only provides you with the strength to take chances, but its very nature is self-reinforcing.
    sure, that is influenced by your upbringing, which often includes your socio-economic background – but it isn’t necessarily limited by that.

    i’ve always found the difference between those who sit in the “norm” and those that “dream”, is that the dreamers aren’t allowing their self-doubt (which everyone has) to stop them making the choices.
    to do this though it helps massively to be raised in a healthy way (such a complicated thing), and/or mentally strong.

    * ps, i think “full blown” dreamers can end up being delusional. anyone can fantasize about this or that. there’s gotta be a healthy balance between confronting one’s own fears, and recognizing one’s limitations.

  8. Tinman said, on February 12, 2010 at 4:48 pm


    I totally agree that belief (or lack thereof) in what is possible is significant. However, I would go further than that and say that there are two facets to this viewpoint. There is a positive-negative orientation, ie. the world is basically good/the world is basically bad; and there is a control orientation, individuals have significant/negligible control over their destiny. People who believe that world is good and believe in individual free will will feel able (and entitled) to achieve because they are able to and there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. People who believe that world is good but believe destiny rules their fate will be benignly accepting of what fate hands them (such as the religious, who put their fate in God’s hands). On the other hand, people who believe that world is bad and believe in individual free will will feel compelled to strive to achieve for their own sake because self-reliance is the only way to survive in a hostile world. Finally, people who feel that the world is bad and that they have little free will will have their spirits crushed by the seemingly random cruelty of existence.

    Of the two aspects, the “control of one’s own destiny” component seems to be the most important one. People who have ambitious goals seem to have a far greater belief in their ability to shape their destiny than those who feel crushed by fate. The question this raises therefore is, are these people deluded as to the limits of their own agency, or are they simply noted cowed by the possibility of risk?

    Of course, such a discussion is entirely academic if there is no way to exert control over ones outlook. Thus, the real question becomes, “How do you turn a negative outlook into a positive one?” That’s one question I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory answer to…

  9. Ben said, on February 14, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    hmmmm… ok firstly, i’m assuming you’re talking about a spectrum of how people feel about the world around them and that it’s possible for there to be a range of personalities incorporating all of those 4 elements in varying degrees? i mean, i don’t think it would be possible to be a balanced and mature thinker if you didn’t have all 4 of those components in you.

    secondly i’m uneasy about that last question. surely the answer doesn’t lie in having either or, but instead requires each person to be able to hold the dark with the light, giving both equal power, and being ok with the fact that they’re both there?

    • Tinman said, on February 15, 2010 at 4:42 pm

      I’m a little confused. Do you mean that it is possible to believe that the world is both “good” and “bad” simultaneously? If that is what you are saying, then wouldn’t such a person be in a state of cognitive dissonance (simultaneously harbouring two contradictory beliefs)? Perhaps my meaning was unclear. What I was trying to say was that “on balance” people have an overall positive or negative view of the nature of life and the world. While they may identify particular aspects of life/the world as being “good”, they could still hold the opinion that the “bad” in the world outweighs the “good”, and so the world is predominantly “bad” overall in spite of its “good” parts. Thus, in my view, people will tend to hold a single overall good/bad worldview.

      As to your second point, on reflection I agree with your suggestion that there does indeed need to be a balance between the two extremes. What I was meaning was that if you are at one extreme end of the scale, how do you move in a more positive direction along the scale to a point where you achieve a state of equilibrium? Obviously, moving too far along the scale in the positive direction would make you on of those delusional dreamer types we mentioned earlier, which would be just as unhelpful being excessively negative.

      • Ben said, on February 17, 2010 at 11:10 am

        With your first paragraph, I think we’re saying the same thing – i.e. my references to there being a spectrum of views about the state of the world, from one extreme to the other.
        “On balance” they may be leaning towards one good/bad direction, but they are still taking into account the other viewpoints.

        Asking how to get into an equilibrium with it all is (i feel) an important, ongoing struggle for people on both sides (although those with “positive” mindsets might reckon they don’t want or need to go to the negative side, i would argue that you get hit with it one day, and the more balanced your view, the better you’ll be able to handle it rather than just pretend it’s not there). i feel it’s a huge indicator of mental maturity (among other things).

        in terms of what may help, one idea is to look at the opposite of what you are (you may already do this). e.g. if you’re more towards an extreme end of the negative scale, think of those that are on the other end. criticise them. identify their weaknesses as you see them. their lack of perception. lack of ability to take a balanced view incorporating the negative’s of life. then recognize your remarkable similarities with them (as they would undoubtedly be viewing you the same way).
        i think that way you can learn more about it all, which is the only way to have an informed viewpoint. although it may not flip you from the negative to the positive side, the learning is the path.

  10. random said, on February 15, 2010 at 9:35 am

    I think you don’t necessarily need to consider all office jobs to be soul crushingly boring- that’s a self defeating approach. True, if you’re a rugged outdoorsman then working an excel spreadsheet all day is not going to do it for you. But if you identify things that you like doing maybe you can find a career that meshes well with your interests.

    My own career started in finance and sharebroking, but I was bored sh!tless after just a year, too structured and every day was the same. My hobbies had always revolved around electronics and audio gear, and eventually through trial and error I found myself in corporate IT, which has been brilliant! It’s quite hands on and fun; lots of trouble shooting and research, and close enough to my interests that I’m never bored. Plus the pay is good. 2 years later I’m still really enjoying it, despite the odd hours and the occasional server crash. So there you go…

  11. Veronica Hope said, on February 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Ok I stopped reading about three negative responses ago!

    Mark, do whatever the hell you want. You did it last time in Melbourne and it worked a treat.

    You and your missus just need to be on the same page about what’s important to you both. She’s studying now? She’s following her dreams… maybe you can be pov together?

    I’m 25. I started on reception, moved to ad Account Management, then Copywriting/Editing. I kept moving onward and upward (Gen Y, giggity giggity) – you learn something, you move on. I now have a website copywriting company specialising in SEO.

    You have the hunger for your business, just read and read and learn and learn until you feel like you can’t fail.

    In terms of the cash part – the most important part – think of what it really means to you. I used to manage my money Anal Annie… paid my rent a month in advance, bills as soon as they came in. Now I realise that doing everything to the letter was what was making me insane!! I would buy gifts for people who didn’t need them, buy clothes I didn’t need, say ‘I’ll get this one’ in restaurants when it was unnecessary. Even if you’re skimping now, you can always find more fat to trim.

    But I was not happy on my salary. I am so much happier now having time to run, time to do my hair, bake, see my friends – time I couldn’t buy before. I miss out on expensive fun, like Good Vibes, but I go to comedy nights and other subcultural stuff for $10. I go see a movie only when I really, really want to see it. My company will soon be more profitable… at the moment, all I care is that I’ve spent summer 09/10 outdoors!

    As hard as it might be to find, I would recommend a job that takes up less time, perhaps for a little less money, so you have the energy to work on a side project. I had support though. He’s dumped me now, but I was with someone very entrepreneurial. Your lady might not understand, but don’t hold it against her. You will only end up resenting her if she makes you feel stifled anyway so let her join you on the journey. Combine your skills and hers if necessary for a great business.

    Good luck I can tell by your attitude you’ll do great.

    *BTW I can’t stand the expression ‘haves and have-nots’ NEGGO. My Mum had seven kids on about $60k and still sent us all to catholic schools, fed us, put us through sport and hobbies. There are people who TRULY have not, and those people don’t have computers or time to comment on blogs. If you’ve got a computer, you totally ‘have’.
    Sorry I’m a little delirious today, can’t be bothered editing.

    • Tinman said, on February 18, 2010 at 8:38 pm

      Are you a troll?

  12. rahmad fl said, on February 19, 2010 at 2:53 am

    good info .. I am very interested with your article …

  13. Cartman said, on February 20, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I love it when you dreamers come thudding back to earth because your chickens have come hiome to roost.

    It’s like that South Park episode where Cartman gets his own theme park and thinks all his dreams have come true only later to fall on his bum when it inevitably shatters around him.

    Smart people set realistic goals. They may not be small (like a modest house in the burbs) but they have a much greater chance of coming to fruition.

    A smart person knows to find a job that pays really well, use that money to set up investments or other income generating structures and retire early and then go and enjoy life. This is much better than bumming around, not setting anything up and then having your fragile circumstances change and it all turning to shyte

    • Michael said, on February 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm

      You love seeing people fail? What a loser you are “Cartman”.

      I think your South Park reference is completely irrelevant to this article (and it’s a shame, because Trey and Matt are dreamers and may even see you as the “biggest douche in the universe”.

      The author thought there was more to life then the rat race, and chose to drop it and see what’s out there. His story is not unique or particularly noteworthy, but neither is he not a “smart person” because he had the courage to ditch the weekly slave wage we have all become addicted to, and see what else is out there.

      Society needs dreamers to create medicine, technology, art & music, even iphones, and it needs “smart people” like you to keep the economy running strong. So all good.


  14. Graham said, on February 21, 2010 at 1:59 pm


    What you did in those years over in America and Western Europe sounds inspirational to say the least. How many people could boast that they have done such a thing at parties and other social gatherings? I certainly wish I could.

    I am approaching 30 myself and I am only now on the raod to employability (though it’s not for want of trying in the past), so I am not quite sure how to answer your question, however your tale of what you accomplished overseas is inspirational to say the least.

    I understand that balancing work and family is not easy, however I do wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

  15. Slimjim said, on February 22, 2010 at 11:46 am

    All jobs suck – that’s why you get paid to do them.

  16. laissez-faire? said, on April 4, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    as a woman; when family obligations are not as pressing time wise, and being well along in years, is it a waste of time to sink years into more education when it may not pan out financially in the long term? is it better to sink the time and money to pursue a career path that you think would bring contentment, or is it better to take the safe and practical path? the path of predicable, mediocre employment. i’m struggling with those questions. i don’t want to waste my time. or are we all spoiled thinking we can have it all?

    btw, i think it is completely different for a man. i think they bear a greater weight, and pressure in the traditional role of “provider”, therefore not really having the same freedom that women do in a sense. different of course in a solo parenting situation.

  17. Mr Fish said, on June 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm


    This Job in the USA sounds truly amazing. Burly, Liberal! what a club!

    I bet the people who you worked with in that organisation were incredible people…i think you’d need to be to keep that energy going…

  18. David said, on June 7, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Hi Mark,

    My wife did that job aswell – at least its sounds the same as the one you did..…She said she didn’t enjoy it because she had to work with someone she didn’t like…I’m not sure if it was the same for you, but Amber was put with some guy who she’d never met and was forced to spend 24/7 with him even though he was a bit of a twat… For a moment I thought it could have been you (not the twat part, but the fact you were both called mark), but you guys have a different last name. She did this job quite a few years ago and you sound like your there a little more recently…

    Did you meet your wife on campus? that would be a pretty good perk to the job.

    It sounded like a pretty amazing job… she keeps talking about possibly going back as giving it another go which is strange… Even though she keeps whinging about it, she says it changed her life in so many ways… I think it may help – she’s been pretty unfocused lately (hasn’t had a job for 4 months) and needs a reality check.. this may snap her back into the zone.. very similar to maintaining the professional focus you speak of..

    Good luck with the new business

  19. Merrilee Bowlus said, on April 16, 2011 at 4:46 am

    This blogs is great

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