The Big Battle: Money Versus Job Satisfaction

Over at Get Rich Slowly, J.D. wrote an interesting article about the relative importance of money and job satisfaction, which was itself a continuation of a pretty large online discussion on the topic:
- The Brazen Careerist gives five reasons not to change careers
- Paul Graham talks about how to do what you love
- The San Francisco Gate on asking why you work so hard
- My own review of The 4-Hour Workweek

J.D. states the question as such:

What sort of advice would you offer to a young person just entering the work force? What’s the most important thing to look for in a job? Is money the top priority? Job satisfaction? Is it better to be in a job you love that barely pays the rent, or to be making a fortune in a job that sucks your soul out and spits it on the floor? How can you tell what you love when you’re just starting out?

The answer to this is very complicated, but I think it strikes to the heart of what personal finance is really all about: understanding yourself.

Many, many Americans today follow a traditional route of going through primary school, then secondary school, then college, and suddenly they’re dumped out into the work force, locked fairly tightly into a specialized field, and all the way along they’ve never really been able to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. For a few very lucky ones, the answer becomes clear in high school; for a few more, it becomes clear in college.

For the vast majority of us, though, we find ourselves out in the world without a real strong grasp on what our true values and goals are. We believe that we are supposed to work and make money and have certain things in life, but we’ve never been able to really sit down and figure out what that means for us. This is quite often referred to as a quarter life crisis, when people reach the workforce and realize that they don’t know why they’re there.

I went through this very thing myself. There were major aspects of my life that I didn’t understand when I graduated from college and when I got married. I spent several years, a time that I will call my “wilderness years,” trying to understand what was wrong, and it wasn’t until my financial meltdown a little over a year ago that I began to really understand some things about my life: what my values really were and what my goals were.

I originally believed that my goals were what most American children are taught: go to college, get a good job, work hard, pay your taxes, and have a family. Today, I realize that for me, most of those things are true, but they didn’t mean what I thought they meant. For one, these values aren’t equal, and their respective values are very different for each person. For another, some (or all) pieces may not fit into what’s best for everyone.

Here’s the real truth of the matter: if you can’t explain why you’re going to college, or why you’re choosing to study a subject, or why you’re making a major life choice, you shouldn’t be making it. I now feel that going to college immediately after high school was a huge mistake: I knew the easy answer of why I should go, but I didn’t really know why I should go.

I should have taken a year or two to really figure out what I wanted to do with my life: fill a backpack full of belongings and some cash, take a one-way ticket to another part of the world, and just wander around on my own for a while, reading books and seeing the world and talking to people completely outside of my own experience. Maybe then I would have understood better what I really wanted out of life instead of the many disastrous, almost nonsensical choices that I made throughout my twenties – the only good moves I made were getting married to my wife and having a child.

So, what advice do I offer to someone trying to answer these questions for themselves?

Life experiences are more valuable than anything. If you’re just finishing high school and really don’t know what to do with your life, do not immediately go to college. Take some time and figure out what you want to do, and spend that time having some significant life experiences. This doesn’t mean sitting around your parents’ house playing Playstation games, or going out and partying every weekend. I recommend either getting involved with a volunteer program that can take you to a different situation than you’re in now, or else simply taking a one-way ticket somewhere else and wandering for a while, figuring out how to do things for yourself. Eventually, with enough life under your belt, you’ll begin to understand what you should be doing and that’s where you should go next.

But I’m already stuck in the workforce with tons of debt! Do everything to get yourself on a level financial playing field, then reconsider the situation. This means living frugal for a while – the more frugal, the better. For many people, debt is a major way of keeping them in their current life choices, no matter how unhappy they are.

Focus on figuring out what you really enjoy in life. Simple bromides like “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” are somewhat helpful, but they’re sometimes clouded by what you believe your life choices should be. Spend some time defining your true life goals and then start looking at what you need to do to get there. You’ll soon find out that much of your life is just a distraction from that goal or a stepping stone to help you reach it. Toss out the distractions and look for more stepping stones.

You’ll know when you find your true north. I did, and many others I’ve talked to feel the same.

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23 thoughts on “The Big Battle: Money Versus Job Satisfaction

  1. HappyRock says:

    Nice post TSD.

    For me, making the choice to get out of debt really freed my mind to explore who I was, what I valued, and where I wanted to go. Being bogged down in debt, I would have never guessed how much it clouded my vision, and how restricting it was on the choices I had. I literally had a whole new world open up as I started getting out of debt.

    The debtor is slave to the lender in more ways than just financial.

    -The Happy Rock

  2. Brett McKay says:

    I think job satisfaction should come before money. Take my situation: I’m studying law and have the grades to get a job with a big law firm here in Oklahoma that starts off at $90,000. For a time, I was really motivated to go for that kind of job. Then I started to see the pressure of the billable hour and the time away I would be from my family. Also, I don’t think the work would be that exciting. I’d basically be researching and writing for someone else for 8 years. When I started to get a pit in my stomach thinking about working for Big Law was when I knew it wasn’t for me. I’ve decided to work for the government. Sure, I take a pay cut, but the job satisfaction makes up for.

  3. J says:

    Excellent post. I wish I had this information a few years back…yeah I would have changed a lot of things. All that is over now. At least I am glad I started to open my eyes in my mid20s. Ever since I was a kid, I had everything plan from grammar to getting a job. However, I never looked past the “getting a job” part. No matter, I still have some time to redeem myself.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. shawna says:

    Great post! I cannot agree with you more on waiting to go to college. I went to college right out of high school and I ended up changing majors five times before I graduated, which meant a 4-year degree took me 7 years because I kept taking classes for one major that didn’t meet the requirements of a new one. Long story short – I ended up with more school loan debt because of this stupid mistake.

  5. guinness416 says:

    That Mark Morford piece linked is great, he’s such a talented writer.

    J, don’t feel bad for not looking past the job part. When you’re a kid, anything beyond that is inconceivable. You need a level of maturity/experience to get to the stage Trent’s talking about anyway.

    For my part, as I hit thirty I’ve had a decade of a corporate career that (guess what) I hate. I’m not gonna feel bad though, I’m extremely well paid and my career has gifted me savings, travel opportunities, communication skills and no (non-mortgage) debt.

    I hope to get a sense of my “true north” soon, and enjoy your personal development pieces a lot, Trent.

  6. Josh says:

    Well, the ‘take a year and figure out what you want to do’ is nice in theory. The reality is that most scholarships are only good for students heading straight into college, most people I know who took a year eventually didn’t go to college, and I don’t think may people have the $$ to go travel and ‘find themselves’ right out of high school. I doubt you’d recommend taking a loan for a trip instead of a student loan.

    I think the true problem lies in the primary education system. They don’t focus on helping kids find out what they want to do. They just act as college prep. schools. I almost think higher education is a scam. Kids would be better off if they knew how to manage money and do their taxes by the time they graduated high school than by having a high SAT score so they can waste tens of thousands of dollars on a liberal arts degree that has no practical application in the working world.

  7. Andamom says:

    Great posting. I wrote about this recently as well as it pertains to my life that is … I went the “right” route without regard to whether it would make me happy. Understandably, I now feel perplexed about my future career path. In fact, I opted to start my blog because I was looking to examine a variety of things –like career issues and motherhood (much more fabulous in my experience than working for a corporation)…

    The adage goes — do what you love and the money will follow. But really — how many of us know specicifically which passion or interest of ours is the one to follow?

    I would have loved to take a year off to figure out who I was and what I wanted, but I did not have the option… It is a nice idea –but it isn’t practical for many people. Although I agree that just continuing from high school to college without regard to what is the true calling isn’t a good idea either.

    Because my frustrations seem to be shared with others, I am going to blog about my thoughts and see if I have an epiphany…

  8. briana says:

    I have a different opinion on the matter. I was one of those kids who had so many interests that I couldn’t decide what to do. I think if I had taken time off after high school, I would have continued to vacillate. Indecision would have cost me both a head start on my education and my career.

    I think that you should pick something that interests you and take the plunge right out of high school. The key is that if you’re not sure about your path, to pick something that you can accomplish within a shorter time frame. For example, instead of going straight to university and taking a bunch of random arts courses, I did a two-year community college diploma program that taught me concrete editing and writing skills. I chose that field based on my interests and abilities, and while I would probably pick something different now, it has at least armed me with a set of versatile skills that I can apply in a variety of jobs.

    What I do now is very different from what I trained for in college, but I still find the lessons I learned then valuable. Community college was much less expensive than university, and my diploma is transferable into several university-level BA programs, should I wish to upgrade my education.

    It depends on your personality. I have a hard time making decisions, because I tend to overthink things. I needed to stop thinking and worrying and just get started, or I was in danger of treading water. I’ve enjoyed working, and I feel good about the possibilities for my career.

    If I could tell my younger self one thing it would be to be less afraid to act. While the choices you make early in your career do shape what comes later, the path is much more plastic than I had assumed in high school. If you have a calling, great. If you don’t, pick something you like now and get started on that, whether it’s working, volunteering, travel or some combination of things.

  9. Canadian says:

    I think taking a year off after high school is great. (In Britain they call this a “gap year”.) I took a year off to work full-time in a volunteer program (far away from home; only saw my parents at Christmas). It was great in making me more independent and open-minded. It did not affect my eligibility for scholarships when I applied to university a year later. (Why would it, my high school achievements hadn’t changed?)

    Life is too short to be stuck in a job that’s sucking your soul out of you. I would choose job satisfaction over money. In my case I would not have considered careers earning under a certain (modest!) amount, but if a person had a true calling I can see why they would choose to make even less. For example, artists. Or missionaries. Anyone who truly feels there is something they are “meant” to do. Money can’t buy that feeling. If I knew of something I was meant to do, I would do it in a heartbeat. As it stands, I choose to stay in a career which I find challenging and fulfilling and which I believe makes a positive contribution to society.

  10. Aussie says:

    Great post. I regret not taking a year off after university. I wanted to do a ministry training program for a year but my parents were shocked that I would give up a first year position with a Big 4 accounting firm for that. Subsequently, I got stuck in the public accounting world for 7 years. I’ve only recently left that role after all the hours and travel almost cost me my marriage. I would definitely change my choice to go to work right away after uni and I would definitely have left public accounting after 6 months when I knew for sure it was not for me. I’m still on the search for my true north but at least my marriage is much much more stable and we’re trying for a baby which is definitely something I have always wanted =) Thanks for the encouragement to keep looking =)

  11. Rich Minx says:

    I agree that you should think about what’s important to you, but looking back with ‘if onlys’ doesn’t achieve much. You don’t know how your life would’ve turned out if you’d chosen a different path. Your past experiences may seem like ‘terrible mistakes’ clearly led you to setting up this blog which so many people find useful.

  12. Michelle says:

    Thanks for posting this bit and the links, Trent. I needed to hear it.

    I officially resigned from my lucrative engineering job yesterday. Two more weeks, and then I embark (for a second time) on the “starting my own business” adventure.

    I will stay in the black if I’m careful and frugal, but it will take a real effort. In the worst case, I’ll just get a “real” job again, but maybe this time I can stick with my dream.

  13. Minimum Wage says:

    My job barely pays the rent AND it sucks my soul out.

  14. Jamie says:

    “the only good moves I made were getting married to my wife and having a child.”

    Having been a consistent reader of your site, I know how much you care about your family. However, I don’t think this sentence should be trivialized.

    If you had really set out on your own after high school, would you have ever met your wife? This just illustrates how often what you once viewed as a mistake, or a regret, has substantially changed your life for the better.

    I often look back on my life and realize that some of the supposed “boneheaded” moves I had made were actually some of the best decisions of my life. Not because the decisions were actually any good, but because they led me down a path I may never have tread.

    I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I obviously don’t think that making poor decisions on purpose is a good thing. I just think that regretting those decisions may be shortsighted and a premature judgment. Every decision has made you who you are today. From your plunge into college, to your financial meltdown. Whose to say that the Simple Dollar would exist in that alternate reality? And how many of us have been affected now by your posts?

    I realize this isn’t really the point of your post, but it’s just where my mind went when I hit that sentence…

    Keep up the great work, Trent.

  15. Trent says:

    I was lucky enough to have met my future wife while still in high school.

  16. Thanks for linking to Brazen Careerist. This topic is inherently so big and messy, but you do a great job of sharpening the questions we should each be asking ourselves.

    Penelope

  17. Tubaman-Z says:

    When I was a senior in HS (way back in 1982), I applied for the NRTOC scholarship, Marine Corps option. I did this for 2 reasons (1) I was dared to by some friends (I’ve always been pretty physical and conservative), and more importantly (2) because my father had been in the Marines, but not an officer. I thought it would mean a lot to him to have me in the Corps and be an officer. Truth to tell, I didn’t expect to win it, but I did. And then the soul-searching started. I have the greatest respect for the military services and was not afraid. But I wasn’t sure if that was who I was…or wanted to be. My dad was not a man of many words, but he told me this during my struggle – “I’m proud of my service, but it wasn’t the best time of my life. If you do this, do it for you, not for me.” That freed me and in the end I declined the (4 year full) scholarship. I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different.

    I’ve now been with a large corporation for 20 years, 13 years in mgmt. I’ve stayed in a very well paying job that eats at me largely to enable my wife to stay home and support her and our daughter. There are corporate benefits to be sure, but the family benefits are more important. I have discovered a couple of things of late:
    1) I was happier at a lower-level in the corp, even making less (but still good) money. People need to have the insight and guts to turn down promotions.
    2) If I had it to do over again, I would likely go into nursing. I really care for people (part of why I am in mgmt – trying to mitigate corporate anti-personnel policies) but would like to have a greater impact.

    Great column Trent. Thanks.

  18. plonkee says:

    I would caveat this statement:
    if you can’t explain why you’re going to college, or why you’re choosing to study a subject, or why you’re making a major life choice, you shouldn’t be making it.
    saying that if you are sure that it is the right decision but you can’t explain why, then you should probably go for it. Not everything can be explained in a rational way.

  19. ck_dex says:

    If one wishes to volunteer for a year after high school or to apprentice to a professional in a field in which you are interested before committing to paying for education, I think that might be useful. But traveling the world for a year is really just a long vacation for which your parents must foot the bill. I know LOTS of parents who have paid the bills for these vacations when they have never been able to travel the world themselves.

    Anyhow, I think the realities of cost of living inflation and global competition for good jobs is going to make this kind of indulgence more rare.

  20. js says:

    All I’ve ever wanted since I was a teenager is to have meaningful work. I took the good paying secure job I hate and have no interest in instead though. It’s got medical benefits, and allows me to save a bit, and I’ve got disposable income and no debt, and I can travel, and I’ve got a short commute, and the hours are reasonble, and the boss is not abusive. And still I hate my job. But I’ve no guarantee of not ending up with something much worse if I just up and quit (I could afford a few years off too).

  21. ecq says:

    I agree completely I would have done much better at college (ended up transferring from very expensive, well known private school to state school) if I had taken time off first.

    I also think at 18 and after 13 years of school time off helps .. Its why so many fail out and take 5-6 years to graduate anyway.

    Great post!!

  22. Ann Bartleson says:

    Oh, if life were so easy as to just do what makes you happy!! I never thought I knew what I wanted to do while I was in high school. It took me until I was in my thirties to realize I knew all along. I fell for the “finish high school and go on to college” plan. I toughed college out for two years, long enough to get an associate degree and a few skills to substain me.

    I finally realized all I ever REALLY wanted to do was be a mother and homemaker one day when my daughter asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid. It just finally clicked. I know that by most people’s standards that is not a “job”. I am now 43 and my two children are nearly grown. When I look back at what I truely enjoyed, what gave me ulitmate joy, it was keeping my house and raising my children. In today’s world that is not enough. That is not the “correct answer”. At 43 I wish I had been true to myself and married a man who shared the same values. I now know that there are a few men out there who really do think that’s OK. I would have had 10 children and been delightfully happy cleaning and raising children. Exhausted, but happy and fulfilled.

    Now I’ve worked for 20 odd years at a profession that I hate. While I was younger I kept thinking that I’d eventually “find” something better. Now I tell myself that in four years my youngest will graduate from Christian school and I will be in a better financial position to persue “something” that will give me fulfillment, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s too late and if I’m just too old to start over. College is expensive too even though I’ve impressed upon my children that they need to be resposible for a large portion of the financial commitment of college.

    So for now I’m frantically searching for what to do with the second half of my life since I can’t go back and go with my first choice.

  23. Adrian says:

    I think that asking an 18-year old boy or girl what they want to do with the rest of their life is crazy.

    But what’s done is done…. my aim now (I’m in my thirties) is to somehow get into an area that truly inspires me. It’s the only way to enjoy your work, and the only way you’ll ever be truly “successful”.

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