What Volunteering for a Non-Profit Taught Me About the Rat Race in Malaysia

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The alarm wakes me up at 6.30am in the morning.

It’s time to make coffee and get ready for work. Traffic is bad as always, and I curse the jam as I drive to work.

I have my breakfast, start work, have lunch, work some more, drive home and curse the jam again. At home, I watch my Netflix show, browse social media, and head to sleep.

I wake up the next day and do the same thing again. Rinse and repeat.

That was my life in the rat race. Sound familiar?

I knew I was in a rat race just waiting for the next promotion, the next task, the next public holiday. It was like I was living, without actually living.

But I got married, moved out of my apartment,  and quit my job. While searching for a new job in the city my husband lived in, I started volunteering.

Volunteering is seen as a thing young people do to get a nice mention on your CV. But as a working professional, volunteering gave me a new perspective on life. Here’s what I learnt.

Success — When is it ever enough? 

 My sister once told me “In a rat race, we are all pressured to succeed. But what is the definition of success? Once we have reached our goal, we always crave for more — more money, more power.”

I watched my sister work hard and climb her way up the corporate ladder until the only way she could go was forward.

She worked until she became a manager in an international company and earned a decent salary. It is unthinkable for her to have a change in career or quit her job. After all, there were bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Not that she minded it — she liked what she did. She loved the financial independence that her position gave her.

It was different for me, though.  I saw the rat race as an endless cycle. I felt like every time I moved ahead in my career; the happiness was fleeting for me. It was never enough.

At one point, I asked myself: What is the point of living? If life is just about moving towards an unrecognizable goal? 

I didn’t have an answer to that question, and I tried not to dwell on it too much. It was one scary door that I didn’t want to open.

Time is a luxury, and suddenly I was rich. 

Things changed when I migrated to another country to be with my partner. Suddenly, I was filled with life’s biggest luxury: Time.

I had SO MUCH TIME. I was unemployed, and I couldn’t find employment until my visa was approved. For the first time, I had no clue what I could fill my day with.

At this point, let me put a disclaimer here. I’m lucky and thankful that my partner is able to support us financially throughout all this. I know that many people do not have this luxury, and everyone’s situation is different. But that was the situation that I was in.

So one day, my partner tells me, “Why don’t you try volunteering? It’s quite a popular way for migrants to get local work experience here.”

And I did. I searched and searched for non-profits.

There are many NGO’s out there who need the help, and the chance of getting rejected is little to none.

“What would you do if money was no object?”

Volunteers and workers at Zen Tea Lounge
Volunteers and workers at Zen Tea Lounge

Those were the words spoken by philosopher and author Alan Watts, and it has been repeated many by career experts.

A job which you’d do for free, is exactly what you need to be doing in order to have a fulfilling career.

I knew that I loved to write. So, I searched and found two writing positions on Facebook.

I applied for both positions, and after a short chat, I was officially a volunteer at genU, and Zen Tea Lounge Foundation.

gen U is an NGO for aged and disabled residents, and Zen Tea Lounge Foundation supports victims of domestic violence.

My acceptance letter to the volunteer program. I work remotely, so I haven’t visited their office in person yet.

Currently, I spend 8 hours a week volunteering. Working without any monetary benefit was weird at first, but it was also liberating.

It felt good to work for reasons other than money, and for a good cause.  For once, I was actively breaking out of the cycle of money and promotion. I was contributing my skills to help others and gaining more experience as I go.

I met others who were like-minded and equally passionate to a similar cause. When there is no money involved, you meet people in the organization who are deeply motivated to help.

There were no politics and no backstabbing, simply because there was nothing to gain from it. Instead, it was just a community of helpful individuals working together.

Of course there is no logic in dropping a stable, well-paying job for the romantic notion of ‘pursuing your passion through volunteering’. But to me, it was a good start in exploring what I’d like.

Sending stories to an aged-care home on a bi-weekly basis.

So what did volunteering for a non-profit organization teach me about the rat race?

1. In the rat race, there’s limited ability to choose

In a rat race, it feels like we cannot choose our path or make any real decisions.

From the moment we finish high school we’re immediately thrown into college. We must know what we’d want to study and find work as soon as possible. As a result, we barely have time to explore our options. There is no room for trial and error.

By the time we realise that our study or career is not what we’d want. It’s too late to turn back.

2. If you want to change industry, you have to start at zero

In my personal rat race, I was stuck in my industry because I had gotten a promotion and its benefits. To start over in another industry would mean to reset at zero.

But volunteering allowed me to choose a role which I wanted in a company which I cared for. When I did that, I found passion.

3. People are in the rat race because they value stability over freedom

There’s this idea put into our heads from young that we have to choose stability over freedom.

Our parents tell us which professions to aim for, because historically those were the professions that would ensure that you are never out of a job: Accountancy, Medicine, Engineering, Law.

But what if there is more to life than simply choosing the careers which ensure a fat paycheck?

4. Volunteering was the first time I made a conscious decision on how to live my life

The wheels in my rat race started to break, and I wasn’t going through a routine anymore. For the first time, I made a clear and conscious choice on what I’d like to do with my skills, instead of just being trusted half-heartedly into a job.

More importantly, I’m realizing that the world is bigger than me and my rat race. It is a humbling experience to help others without any monetary reward in return.

And all it took was a little of my effort and time.

Zen Tea Lounge Office

For more stories like this, read: Taking a Break Between Jobs Was The Best Decision I Ever Made and I Quit My Five-figure Salary Job to Become a Travel Writer.

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