During my senior year of high school, after I had learned that I had received enough scholarships to attend a major university, I sat down and studied all of the majors that were available to me. Two of them really stood out, due to my personal interests: English and mathematics.
Unfortunately, as soon as I told anyone about my goals, they’d almost always tell me the same thing. “You’ll never get a good job with an English degree.” “A math degree? The only way you’ll get good work with that is with a Ph. D.”
And I believed them. Instead of paying attention to my natural interests, I started focusing instead on which majors offered high paying jobs and, from there, I picked a major in the hard sciences that seemed to interest me the most. It was a compromise.
Flash forward to thirteen years later and what do you have? I’m not using that degree in the hard sciences. Instead, I took a pay cut to become a writer – the job I wanted to have from the start.
Too many people focus on salary as the sole definition of a good job. I’ll be the last to argue that it’s not good to have a healthy income. A great income opens many doors if used properly – savings for the future, a higher standard of living, and so on.
But what good is that higher standard of living and savings for the future if you’re living a significant chunk of your adult life in a state of unhappiness.
A friend of mine – let’s call him Dale – had a factory job a few years ago. The job didn’t pay particularly well, but it was a solid hourly wage, somewhere in the $13 range. Dale didn’t love the work, but he enjoyed it. He was one of the most competent workers there and enjoyed a lot of cameraderie from the people he worked with and some respect from the foremen because he did his job well. He got his choice of shifts and overtime options because of his status there.
Then, suddenly, an opportunity of sorts opened up for Dale. He could take a $30,000 a year job with solid benefits – but he would be the low man on the totem pole there. Plus, the work was fairly dangerous and psychologically wearing.
Choosing between the two wasn’t an easy decision, but Dale chose the higher-paying but less-enjoyable job.
After about a year of it, it’s pretty obvious that even with the substantial increase in income, Dale is less happy. He now works a shift that keeps him from seeing his kids in the evening. He’s gained a bit of weight and seems to spend most of his spare time involved in escapist activities – for example, he’ll often spend hours upon hours just riding around on his motorcyle or his ATV. He sleeps quite a bit more, too. In conversation, he just simply doesn’t seem nearly as happy as he used to.
Yes, his salary went up substantially, but was it really worth it? I think few people would argue that it was.
Given my own experience – as well as Dale’s, and the many readers who have written to me along similar lines – I’d argue that salary is of only secondary importance when finding a “good” job for you. I’d argue the following factors are at least as important – if not more important.
The work itself If I’m going to spend eight hours (at least) per weekday engaged in an activity, one’s personal happiness is going to hinge significantly on how personally enjoyable the work is. Does the work fulfill you – or does it drain your soul? Do you end your work day (most of the time) happy and alert, or do you go home empty and exhausted? Do you find yourself happily thinking about your work on occasion during your free time – or does thinking about it make your stomach turn? One side of this coin connects to a happy life – the other connects to a much less happy one. How high of a price is stress worth?
Flexibility of time The more flexible the hours, the better. Are you worried about getting fired if you attend your daughter’s dance recital? Are you constantly yanked away from family events by your digital leash… excuse me, cell phone? Are you constantly missing quality time with the people you care about because of your work? That has a very real cost – and it’s a very steep one. Every time you miss something important with your family, it’s an opportunity that never comes back and it’s a trust that can never be recovered.
Peers Are you respected by your coworkers? Do you have a good relationship with them? Or is the workplace filled with constant mistrust, intrigue, and gamesmanship? Again, it’s all about the stress – what kind of price can you put on a stressful environment?
In the end, ask yourself this simple question: how much sustained misery is an extra dollar worth to you? For me, such misery isn’t worth it, particularly when you consider the multitude of methods a person can use to shave their spending without really altering their lifestyle.
I’d rather live frugal without a miserable job than have a few nicer things and spend all of my time loathing my work. Something tells me that when people step back and take a serious look at their lives, many people will feel the same way.