Updated on 09.08.14

Ten Big Mistakes #2: Career Choices Based Solely on Earnings

Trent Hamm

Avoiding the Trap of Choosing Money Over Passion

I chose a career path for the money instead of one that matched my passions and skills.

During my high school years, I felt fairly certain what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be writer, preferably a science fiction writer. I was absolutely enamored with the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, and countless others who made a life out of meshing scientific progress with imagination. I dreamed of going to college, majoring in English literature, and minoring in mathematics and another science or two.

My high school English teacher encouraged this dream. Virtually everyone else looked at me as though I walked out of the insane asylum. They pointed to the low average income of an English teacher. They told me that was a waste of a perfectly good mind.

I was convinced by everyone around me that the measure of a person’s worth and intelligence was how much they managed to earn.

By the time I actually went to college, I settled on a life sciences major, which led me to at least some lucrative opportunities. As time went on, I added computer science as well because I showed a knack for computer programming.

Because of the incessant drumbeat I heard for money, I chose an educational and career path that I knew directed me away from my passions. I did have some degree of talent, especially in the computer science classrooms, but I wouldn’t spend my odd hours writing code. I would spend my odd hours reading and writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

I did get a good-paying job out of college, but as that job became more and more consuming, I felt my life dreams of writing slipping further and further away. I slid into something of a personal malaise because I wasn’t chasing my big dreams any more. I tried very hard to put a bandage on that with material things.

Putting a bandage of material things on top of a personal wound doesn’t help in the long run.

What I wound up doing is spending an awful lot of my free time for years channeling my energy into what I felt was fruitless writing because the act of writing felt good to me. I’d share my writings, watch them fail, and become convinced that by my career choice – seeking the better paying job – I’d lost my chance to follow my real dream. That’d just make the malaise – and the spending – worse.

The Long Term Effects of Not Following Your Passion

The long term effects of this showed up in my career and in my finances. I began to feel very burnt out on my actual career. At the same time, I would try to cure this feeling of failure and burning out by buying stuff that I didn’t really need or didn’t have time to really enjoy. This brought me deeper and deeper into credit card debt and deeper and deeper into a sense that I couldn’t escape.

The solutions were right in front of me, but I didn’t see them.

What I Could Have Done Differently

First of all, I could have just majored in what I wanted to in college. Yes, this might have meant foregoing income, but it would have also meant following my passions and dreams instead of walking away from them. Alternately, I could have double-majored in a way that allowed me to follow my dream and still follow a lucrative path, too, if the dream didn’t work out.

Later, I could have focused on actually trying to launch writing as a side career instead of just writing aimlessly and somehow stumbling onto the success of The Simple Dollar. I started The Simple Dollar not as some sort of aim of finding a new career, but because I loved to write and I knew I was going through the same financial issues that a lot of people my age were going through. My target audience at first was, quite literally, my friends who were also struggling financially. I stumbled into this, period, and it took me many years of wandering for it to happen. Putting some aim into that dream would have made all the difference.

I didn’t do either of these. The only reason I’m writing for a living right now is pure, simple luck, albeit luck that had a place to sprout because I actually was attempting to write in some fashion.

The real lesson here is that happiness doesn’t come from money. As long as your basic needs are met, additional money does not bring happiness. It brings some material luxuries, but it also usually brings additional problems, too. The only way additional money helps is if you use it wisely, enabling you to … well, frankly, chase those dreams and passions you have.

What Can You Do to Avoid this Trap?

If you have a dream so strong that you stay up all night involved with it, give chase to that dream. Passion like that makes up for a lot of ground in other areas, because so many people out there are just clocking their nine-to-five with little real passion at all. A lot of people get by on skill or on the fact that their job mostly just needs a warm body that can follow instructions. The people that succeed, though, are the ones that mix passion with a little natural talent – but the passion and the time are the biggest elements (just ask Malcolm Gladwell). This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw ambitions for a high-income career away – double major and balance the two, or get a degree in a profitable area, live lean for a while, then go back to school to focus on the less-profitable passion. Or, better yet, just try to get your foot in the door without the degree (if you can). Money will come to you because passion is one of the few things worth paying for in life.

If you’re already in a career that’s taking you away from your passion, spend your free time chasing that passion with all your… passsion! Toss off as many of your extra activities as you can and focus your energies in your free time on making a go of that passion. It might require taking classes or it might require just “woodshedding” for a while (in other words, practicing a skill you love until you’ve acquired a high degree of proficiency). Don’t abandon that dream just because the circumstances of your life aren’t helping you with it. Instead, create a flowerbed upon which it can grow, a flowerbed created out of the excess time and energy in your life when you’re not working at that job.

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  1. Vicky says:

    Heh, I’m going through this right now. I majored in Multimedia and Web Design because I’m decent at it – but I don’t love it. I like tinkering now and then, but it tires me out and it’s just not enjoyable. I went because I was a VERY poor kid (mother unemployed for years) and everyone told me it was what I needed to do to get out of where I was living.

    I went. I have a fairly lame job but they pay is decent.

    And I’m struggling to get back to school to chase my passion of working with animals. :p I volunteer at a SPCA and a local dog club teaching obedience classes at night, and I’ve just decided to GO FOR IT. Starting school in January, and I have my sights set on working in some place awesome like Sea World one day <3

  2. Maureen says:

    A lot of excellent science fiction writers have a solid education in science (it really shows if they don’t). Consider your education to be an investment in your future science fiction writing career.

  3. Beth says:

    I sometimes wish I had the passion and abilities for computer programming, the law, medicine or some career that pulls in the big bucks.

    I’m lucky enough to work in a career where I get to pursue my passion, but I know I’ll never earn a huge income doing it. Posts like this remind me that there’s more important things than money, but that’s hard to remember when you see friends and family earning so much more than you do and doing things you can’t afford to do — like travelling and buying a home.

  4. Brandon says:

    This confirms something that my dad always told me, though I knew that already :)

    When I was in school, my dad always said (paraphrased) “Find something that you love that you can make a little money at, if you don’t love it, it’s not worth it”. Luckily, what I love (computer programming) can also make a bunch of money.

    When I was about to graduate college, I had a few job offers. One was from my current internship employer in an engineering management position, and another was computer programming for a little over half of the management positions salary. I took the programming job, and now, 3 years later, I still don’t make as much as that management job, but my internship employer had to be shuttered. I guess things just have a way of working out.

  5. Johanna says:

    I’m not sure majoring in English is necessarily the best choice for an aspiring writer.

    I went to a talk once on the psychology of creativity. The speaker had studied the works of first-year and fourth-year art students, and found that there was no difference in the creativity shown by each of the two groups (as defined by some objective measure that I forget). That is, going to art school doesn’t make you any more creative. I wonder if the same is true of creative writing.

    On the other hand, to be a writer, you need to have something to write about – it’s a rare and lucky person indeed who can make a living by writing about being a writer (although Trent seems to be such a rare and lucky person). So majoring in some other field that’s of interest to you, and building the knowledge base necessary for writing with authority about that topic, can only help you, it seems to me.

  6. Nick says:

    I agree about following your passions and I am lucky enough to have a job I love that pays very well. I think people should also take into account yesterday’s post with regards to this tho, because I know too many people who racked up student loan debt for degrees in ‘Art History’ or ‘Philosophy’ because it was what they loved, only to wind up working at Starbucks and living with their parents because the student loan payments are too high. And these weren’t even very expensive schools that they went to, they just didn’t have any money saved for college due to their situation, so it was all loans.

    By pursuing a degree they are passionate about, they end up making it difficult to pursue other potential goals in their life, such as buying their own house, getting married, raising a family, driving a nice car, etc.

    And yes, I know not everyone needs to go to college. And I think people should reconsider pursuing the degree if they don’t have the money or if it doesn’t lead to a profitable career (such as engineering, comp sci, etc).

  7. Matt says:

    Wow. This article sums up what I’ve been going through the past few years. In high school my best subjects were math and science and I was encouraged to go into engineering. The large starting salaries and potential for growth mesmerized me. Added on to this was the large grant that I got from a top engineering school.

    I was never a very hands on person and enjoyed more abstract thought than engineering offered. I ignored many signs that engineering was not for me and was forced to declare a major after only 3 months at college. I continued to focus on the financial gain that engineering promised rather than whether it really pertained to my interests. I found that while I loved higher level math and science, designing and building real things did nothing for me.

    Now I’m working at what should be the ideal job for an engineer, namely having full control over a design in a challenging environement. I find myself disillusioned with the profession and looking for a way out. I’ve decided that I would love to teach and am currently applying to grad school to become a high school math teacher. Now the finances of this job are wildly different than engineering, but I think so my enthusiasm will be as well.

    This is probably the best article I’ve read on The Simple Dollar and I will continue to follow it well into the future.

  8. emc says:

    This is what makes me so frustrated about the sentiment young people usually get when they mention going into the arts. Having graduated from a top art school, and now working successfully in the field for a few years, I’m confident that this was a great career path for me (I’ve already paid off my credit cards, own my car, have savings, and I’m happy with my job).

    I meet a lot of people who say they always wanted to do art, “but you know, there’s no jobs doing that” which is just wholly untrue. None of us are starving, but that’s just the stereotype that endures in this country. I used to help my art school recruit, and I’d meet parents who were convinced their children were wasting their lives. I even had a high school guidance counselor tell me I’d never be successful enough to pay off my loan debt, so maybe I should just go to community college “until I really figure it out.”

    I think, at an impressionable age, it isn’t just one person’s worries about their money, it’s the pressure from everyone around them to do something else. Something to keep in mind when you encounter someone trying to follow their passions.

  9. Steve says:

    In 2003 I started college in a bioengineering program and a big state school. After two years I decided it wasn’t really for me and, understanding that I’d probably make half as much, changed schools and finished with a degree in biology.

    In the summer of 2008 I entered the workforce and neither option had many positions available. I registered with a staffing agency and ended up temping with a company doing sewer work. Two years and two pseudo-promotions later, I use my computer skills but not my biology (or engineering) eduction for my work.

    The problem with biology is that it’s such a broad field that you graduate qualified for a wide variety of jobs but without mastery of anything. And when you consider that most scientific corporations and research-oriented universities require a degree AND 2 years of relevant experience for an “entry level” job, you almost have to sign up with a temp service and hope that (1) you get placed, (2) you make enough to pay the bills and get by without any benefits, and (3) they like you enough to keep you.

  10. Nicole says:

    I’m all for majoring in whatever you want to. What you major in isn’t necessarily going to determine what you do afterward. (Though life sciences is not exactly what I’d pick as bringing in lots more money than an English major.)


    Being a free-lance writer while earning minimum wage as a waiter or grocery bagger etc. can also be really draining. Jobs that don’t pay much can be just as tiring or more so than jobs that pay well. And you have to work more hours to get the same target income.

    It’s important to have some income, even if that income is separate from passion. There’s a reason that a lot of the famous novelists are former lawyers. Lawyering provides a nice income after the loans are paid off and isn’t most people’s passions. I think Your Money or Your Life does a good job of talking about when your passion is aligned with your job and when your job just brings in money to allow you to pursue your passion. Passion pursuit can be part of a long-term plan with financial independence as an outcome.

    Of course, my passion is sleeping in and reading novels (but only novels that I want to read). So far nobody has offered to pay me to do that. I’m doing a second-choice thing bringing in money as an econ professor. I’m fine with the trade-offs.

    I also agree with previous posters who suggest that an English major is not all that and that other majors also provide life experience that is useful for writing. If you really want to learn about iambic pteradactlys or whatever it was my English major friends were always complaining about, it is never too late. They were also always finding hidden sex in things, even Jane Austen.

  11. Gwen O. says:

    Sometimes I feel the advice to major in what you love no matter what the potential income is for rich kids only. I majored in public health because I love it, but with the bad economy the two main areas public health workers get jobs, the government and non profit organizations, just aren’t hiring. In fact the only jobs I could find in NJ after graduating was working at a preschool part time and being a nanny.
    Now I am considering going back to school to get a degree in nursing. I really wish someone had sat me down and had a frank discussion with me about job prospects in public health, what you could expect to earn, and asked me to think hard about the kind of life I want and if those two are compatible. It’s easy when you are a poor college student to feel okay with living at a lower salary the rest of your life because you are already poor. Even if I got my dream job at a non-profit, it is disheartening to realize I would never be able to afford a house. I wish I would have realized this sooner.

  12. lurker carl says:

    The term “starving artist” didn’t come about by accident, but you don’t hear anyone described as the “starving research scientist who writes great proposals, technical reports and journal articles” or “starving office manager who creates fantastic wedding cakes at a great price” or “starving truck driver who plays in a killer sax.”

    Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t guarantee it will be passionate about you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow your dreams but passion tends to lead to distort reality. Most passions are better left as hobbies or incorporated into a career rather than pursued as a life’s work.

  13. John says:

    You don’t hear anyone described as the “starving research scientist who writes great proposals”

    Until I was 15, my father was a physacist working at a university without tenure. Our budget was supplemented by food stamps and WIC.

  14. Bob says:

    #9 John, what’s a physacist?

  15. Emily says:

    I didn’t know enough about myself when I was in college to follow my passion. I had no ability to identify what it was. I majored in engineering because my family scared me that to do otherwise would mean living in a cardboard box. I hated my engineering job, but after figuring out exactly what I hated and why, I decided to go to law school. I ended up getting swayed by the big bucks again and worked in patent law. It was excruciatingly boring and terrible, and I cried every night (and sometimes in the bathroom during the day). It allowed me to pay off over $70,000 in law school debt in one year, though, and I was able to switch to something that I now know is my passion – family law. I wouldn’t have known when I was 18 that that’s what I wanted to do. I had to go through 2 jobs I hated to learn about myself and pay down debt. So yes, those were 4 miserable years in jobs I didn’t like, but now I will have 30 years in a job I love. I wouldn’t consider either of those jobs “mistakes.”

  16. Jen says:

    Trent, I completely empathize with this. I grew up wanting to be a science fiction writer as well, idolizing the same authors you mention. I chose a practical path, deciding to study aerospace engineering, and then later, computer science. But even in those fields of study, it was the creative, theoretical, logic-based pieces that I was most drawn to. Writing a proof, or an algorithm, or elegant code. I’m a database developer now, and I make great money with no worries about being able to find a job. But it just kills me to say, “I used to be a pretty good writer.” Or to look at the plastic bins tucked in closets full of my old journals and short stories and even juvenile full length novels. My brother is a talented painter, trying to make his way in the world. He’s pretty broke most of the time, but he gets by, and I envy him for having the strength to choose his passion over immediate practicality. And when he asks me why I don’t write anymore, I don’t know how to answer. Because it hurts too much to think that the answer is, “it isn’t practical.”
    So thanks for this post, Trent.

  17. Matt says:

    Well put Emily. If you’re on the path that you want than changing anything in your past might have thrown you off that. Who in college is ready to decide what they want to do? Unless you are lucky and get to work at an internship directly related to what your career will be like, than there’s no way of knowing what you want to do.

  18. LB says:

    I have a MS in wildlife biology. I love my field and worked for several years before graduate school as a seasonal field technician then as a state wildlife biologist- all of which I loved. I left a good job when the economy was still doing well to go to grad school, but graduated after the economic downturn started. I had to take a job which is only tangentially related to wildlife- and most days I really don’t like my job (and I’m making less money than I was before grad school). A lot of days I think that it would be better if I’d gone into medicine or some other good paying field which I don’t have a passion for- I might still hate my job but at least I’d be making enough money to buy a house. I followed my passion and it went well for awhile (and will probably go well again) but it hasn’t been an unequivocal success.

  19. Wes says:

    As a former English major, I can say that a BA in English will not contribute much to a writing career, except that it will hone your reading, analytical, and critical writing skills and expose you to an array of literature (but guess what- you can do that without paying tens of thousands of dollars on a formal education). For all of those who still want to major in English, though, I second Trent’s recommendation on double-majoring. I was a double major in English and Finance, and I believe that the combination of complimentary disciplines gives me a more well-rounded perspective of how the world works. That said, if you want a formal education as the basis of your writing career, you can major in almost anything (probably whatever you want to write about, history, science, sociology, etc) and follow up with an MFA.

    As far as chasing your passions go, I think people need to take this advice with a grain of salt. I like researching constitutional law, and that’s why I’m going to law school. But I know that “chasing my passion” in this manner doesn’t mean that being a lawyer won’t ever be a J-O-B. It’s often the case that you work 90% of the time doing something boring so that people will pay you for the other 10% of work that you love.

    And to be honest, my decision to go to law school is largely based on the salary. My ultimate goal in life is to be beneficial to society, and a high salary is a good (though not the only) proxy of how beneficial you are. So in a sense, yes, I’m chasing the money, but not entirely for the material gains. I think this article could mention the possibility that having a high paying job may make someone happy in this way.

  20. BJD says:

    One of the problems with this is that people tend to no longer see the difference between a career and a job. Those terms are now incorrectly use as synonyms.

    It is similar to how SNACK and TREAT have become synonyms. It used to be that SNACK was something to eat in between meals to keep your energy up, and SNACKS were often fruit or small sandwiches. TREATS on the other hand used to be once-in-a-while item and often were dessert type things. Now days, kids are given snicker bars and cookies as an everyday type of SNACK between meals. SNACKS are important to good health; TREATS are not important to good physical health but are important to good mental health. Using TREATS as SNACKS can lead to poor physical health which often leads to poor mental healthy (ie, healthy self image).

    Going back to JOB and CAREER…people used to have jobs that and had hobbies to partake in their passions. Careers used to mainly be identified with medical doctors and lawyers and other occupations that required extensive education. Now days, most are encouraged to think of your job as a career and find a way be fulfilled by that career choice. Many of the jobs out there are not fulfilling to most people and many people’s passions would not pay well enough to maintain their desired quality of live.

    My view is simple – encourage people to have a good job that is stable enough and pays well enough (and those measurements will vary person to person) to allow for a good quality of life that includes your ability to enjoy your passions.
    may be defined as providing enough extra time, extra money, etc). can mean that the job does not overly stress you mentally, physically, or ethically.

  21. Joe says:

    My problem is that I didn’t have a passion for anything. More correctly, I didn’t have an interest in finding out what my passion was. I just wandered into whatever happened to be there at the time. This led to a lack of money and of enjoyable work. About 25 years ago I accidentally backed into a job in computers. I’d never been enthusiastic about them, but that was because I only knew computers of the 70’s and early 80’s. At the start of the 90’s I ended up in a programming job.


    I found my passion and my career. Unfortunately it was almost to late. At the same time I was discovering this my health started to have problems. Now, I have the passion and some skill, but I can’t work.

    The moral of the story is, “You snooze, you lose.” Seek out what you love and pursue it with all your might. I still have hopes of finding some way to eek out a living as a programmer, but the odds aren’t in my favor.

  22. Katie says:

    And to be honest, my decision to go to law school is largely based on the salary. My ultimate goal in life is to be beneficial to society, and a high salary is a good (though not the only) proxy of how beneficial you are.

    Oh honey, law school will disabuse you of this one very quickly (or at least your first job will). In law, a high salary is nine times out of ten a combination of how rich your clients are and how much you can drag out your cases to collect on billable hours. In fact, I’m almost willing to make the inverse argument – the lawyers are truly benefiting society tend to be making school teacher money.

    It’s not an absolute rule and there are plenty of counterexamples (hell, I like to think I have a nice middle ground going in my own practice myself), but it’s true more than it’s not, I think.

  23. Julie says:

    Where did I read this? Anyway, it was within the past few months–that *ability*, and the personality of the person was what made them successful in their chosen field–not education (although that helped with the goal) so much. It’s down to determination and competence.

  24. wanzman says:

    It’s called work for a reason.

    Sure, when I was a kid, I wanted to play in the NBA or on the PGA Tour, but it didn’t happen.

    Most everyone wants to have a wife (husband), kids, a house, etc. With that also comes responsibility, which often times mean you have to get a decent paying career. Our grandparents did it, and our parents.

    Not that I totally hate my job, but sure, I’d rather spend my days on the beach or playing golf, but I would also rather not starve or have to live with my parents who have worked very hard to make a life for themselves (and give me a great start – by the way).

  25. Crystal says:

    I think following a passion is great advice, but if you didn’t have a passion in high school (like me), getting a degree to make good money is a great idea. I got a Marketing degree but didn’t want to go into sales, so I settled for the job I have now, 5 years later. I make a whopping $35,000 a year but it is LOW stress. I still don’t know what my passion is (although I am in love with blogging right now), so I’m going to continue to settle.

    If you have a passion, grab on with both hands and find a job that can pay you at least a living wage while you enjoy it. If you don’t know what your passion is (or think that maybe there just isn’t a job that exists that you’d be passionate about), explore your options while raking in as much money as you can. Settling sucks, but settling and making crappy money sucks more.

  26. Wes says:


    I think you and I have different ideas about how to benefit society. If working for a low salary to stand up for the legal rights of the powerless is how you want to benefit society, then you are very noble and I have a great deal of respect for how you want to live your life.

    Likewise, if I find it beneficial to stand up for the legal rights of multi-billion dollar corporations who employ thousands of people and provide valuable goods and services to millions, then that’s what I will do. The reason certain clients are rich is because they provide valuable services to society, and the reason they pay some lawyers a ton of money for legal advice is because that advice helps to keep them in business, and thus allows them to continue to provide their services. This is what I mean by saying that, as a lawyer, my salary may be a good proxy for how beneficial I am to society.

  27. Katie says:

    Wes, regardless of what you think of the underlying work, I still suspect you won’t feel wholly the same way after you’ve billed a client several thousands of dollars to standardize the commas in a contract. Willingness to pay /= benefit to society.

  28. Katie says:

    Though actually, I think you make the more important point yourself: “If working for a low salary to stand up for the legal rights of the powerless is how you want to benefit society, then you are very noble and I have a great deal of respect for how you want to live your life. ”

    That kind of demonstrates that it’s not a proxy. Nobody said high paying jobs were worthless (I really don’t think they are) – it’s just ludicrous to make a general statement about how higher paid lawyers are contributing more.

  29. Emma says:

    I’m a little mystified and can’t tell if I’m vaguely offended by this.

    I’m an English teacher. Maybe I’m a girl, maybe I grew up in a different place around different people. But “a waste of a perfectly good mind”? That sentence just sounds suspiciously hyperbolic. Maybe you wanted to spice up the story with a bit of drama, but I have never in my entire life heard somebody say something like that to me. I’ve had people intimate that I’m not gonna get rich teachin’, but nothing that severe.

    I don’t know. Something about that just really rubbed me the wrong way, and not because some unknown person criticized my profession. It simply sounds phony and overwritten.

    In general, I’m uncomfortable with the hard and fast, black and white tone of many blog posts I read here. Do this, you’re evil. Do the opposite, you’re fantastic! Buy Tide with a coupon, you’re financially frivolous. Et cetera.

  30. EmilyP says:

    While I was in grad school going to career-advice seminars, one thing that struck me about the panelists holds true for just about every happily-employed adult I meet now (includeing Trent, for example): he/she is usually not working in his/her first-choice career, not the “dream job” they would have imagined in college, and often are not working the same job they were hired for, despite being with the same employer. It’s about – as #10 Emily says above – learning what the perfect job for you is, and making it happen; or even taking incremental steps to make your job better, and in the end having sculpted an excellent career from all the opportunities you find/create. A career is not one choice, but a years-long process, and a college major is only one part of that.

  31. Steven says:

    So, I was listening to Sarah Silverman speak and she said this, “I own my apartment and I don’t compromise my ethics and values to make money, you know you just have to learn to live small.” It’s people like this and perhaps you too Trent that forget money does equate to the happiness. It just flatlines at like a C+ life level.

    I’d recommend that you do pursue money, but pursue a career that you can maintain the lifestyle outside of work you want.

    Don’t do an English major, unless you are going to teach. Writing is free, you can do that anytime anyplace.

  32. Sarah says:

    I strongly disagree with this advice. I am not working in my high school fantasy “dream job” but I make a salary I could not have even dreamed of, and better still I have a lifestyle and job that fulfill my top priorities.

    I have friends who did decide to follow their dreams to be a writer. They have delayed marriage, baby-making, and of course, they do not drive a Prius and can only dream of affording 3 children! Trent, please remember that they only way you can afford to pay off your debt in the time you did and transition to the lifestyle you have now is because of your CS background. If you can focused solely on writing and English, your current life would look really different. I would encourage any young people to talk to graduates who have followed the career path before deciding, not just people who have an idealized idea of an English degree.

    I am incredibly happy with my life. I have no regrets. I love my job and my salary!

  33. katy says:

    I am in the complete opposite position. I am a full-time, salaried musician in a symphony orchestra. I’m planning to go back to school in the next year or so to do something -anything- else. I love to play and perform, and I’m at the top of my field. So why am I giving it up? Money is near the top of the list. Having a normal, predictable work schedule is up there too.

    There is a lot to be said for having a day job. Not having to depend on your passions to pay your bills frees you up to enjoy your passions more. You can pick and choose your gigs and not have to take every bone that is tossed your way.

  34. Wes says:


    From my first post: “My ultimate goal in life is to be beneficial to society, and a high salary is a good (though not the only) proxy of how beneficial you are.”

    I’m not making a blanket statement about high-earning lawyers (or any other kind of worker, for that matter) being more important than low-earning ones. Such a valuation is highly subjective, and there are as many ways to value one’s work as there are people working. So based on my values, if a client pays me to standardize the commas in a contract, I will find fulfillment in doing so knowing that such standardization benefits the company (also the employees, customers, society) by producing an air-tight legal document which contributes to its continued profitability. They wouldn’t have paid me to do so if it didn’t.

    The point I’m trying to make is that one can seek a high paying job and find happiness in doing so. Showing that you can still benefit society in a low paying job does not discount my belief that money earned is a good (though, again, not the only) proxy for how beneficial you are to society.

  35. Matt says:

    Wanzman I think you missed Trent’s point. Obviously if you somehow became incredibly wealthy it would be unlikely that you would go full tilt towards a career. I think he’s saying that what you are much more likely to be successful at something you have a passion for.

    And Wes, I don’t believe that salary is a measure of what society values. It is a measure of what your client values. Alex Rodriguez makes millions of dollars a year because the Yankees value his hitting, not because he provides such a huge societal good.

    And don’t discount Katie’s opinion so fast, she sounds like she has real experience in law. There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the highest salary possible, but please don’t make it seem like you’re serving a higher cause solely based on the money you make.

  36. Maggie says:

    I think there also has to be some consideration of how narrow the path can become when you follow your passion. My younger son, for instance, dreams of playing in the NFL. At 6-4 and about 300 lbs at 15 years old, he might just make it someday. Now, at each step in the journey toward that dream, fewer and fewer people can be successful. Any kid who pays the fees can play in youth leagues, then fewer can play in high school, fewer in college, then really hardly any of those kids that dream about it at 12 years old end up in the NFL. So, we encourage him to follow his passions as far as he can, but to have a very strong plan B that he also feels at least some passion for.

    It seems like there is some aspect of the narrowing path with being a writer- we can all write a blog, fewer of us can write good blogs, fewer than that get a wide audience, then how many of that subset might be able to get books published? Surely not everyone who even has a true passion for writing can make it to the final goal. Maybe it doesn’t hurt anyone to have a well thought out plan B, one which would not feel like a failure to them.

  37. Wes says:

    Thanks for your input, Matt. But I disagree with your point about Rodriguez being beneficial to society. If you follow the money, here’s what you’ll find: The Yankees pay Rodriguez millions because he can hit good. They can do this because his good hitting attracts fans who are willing to pay to see him hit. The fans pay the Yankees this money because Rodriguez’s hitting gets them excited, and seeing their team win makes them feel good inside. If society is willing to put up the money to see Rodriguez hit, then I would argue that society values his hitting to the tune of a few million a year. Now I may not have the flow of cash mapped out exactly as it actually is, but I think you get my point.

    And again, I’ve never discounted anyone else’s opinion in this thread. I’ve only defended my belief that a high salary is something to shoot for if you find it a good proxy of societal value. And again, valuing your work is subjective, and there are multiple proxies. Please, quote my post where I say people making more money are serving a higher cause.

  38. Hope D says:

    I have a very gifted daughter. She is a gifted artist and writer. She wants to be an author/illustrator. I believe she could be successful. I have told her that she can choose that direction if she wants. But she can also choose other areas and do her “passion” on the side. I have told her a lot of people do that. She has a lot of options. I will leave it up to her. I don’t want her to be a “starving” anything.

    I went into teaching. I then became a stay at home mom. My husband has developed a disability. I will need to become the sole income earner. Teaching will not cut it. I am going back to school for nursing. The pay is so much better. Sometimes your passion changes. Mine used to be teaching. Now my passion is my family. I want to provide for them.

  39. Nicole says:

    Wes– I’d agree with you EXCEPT for some things where the market is out of whack. Wall street folks should not be making near as much money as they are. If those markets were better regulated there wouldn’t be money to be made by screwing stuff up.

    I’m not talking about Wall Street folks making things work more efficiently or using arbitrage, but the ones who pushed the limits of credit default swaps or who made huge amounts of money by what is essentially misrepresenting the actual value of a portfolio. Obfuscating information so markets could not work efficiently. It took smarts to be able to do that but in a better regulated market that should not have happened. With better regulation I don’t think these folks would be less valuable to society but more valuable, even though they would not be making as high salaries. They’re getting “rents” not the fruits of productivity, in Econ 101 terms.

    But yes, baseball players, CEOs, etc. presumably they do provide value. Big contentious literature on those subjects with the majority in favor of them earning their extra-normal salaries. The recent wall-street executive literature says the exact opposite.

  40. Val says:

    Society values watching really talented people play baseball, as there are many people willing to spend lots of money on tickets to see it live, and many more people who watch it on TV, generating ad revenue. Society does not value watching moderately talented people play baseball as much, and few people would spend the same amount on tickets or watch it on TV, and society as a whole is a fickle fan and will not watch games if their team constantly loses. So, ARod gets lots of money because of the scores of people (which is our “society”) watching him win, which causes the Yankees (just the client, who is trying to provide society what they want) to want to keep him and therefore pay him that salary. It may not be a “greater good” to improve the world, but our society values leisure time and entertainment and sports and will pay a lot for it.

    I bet there are a lot of people who find it a mistake that they chose their career SOLELY on passion and now are stuck working at a job they hate because they couldn’t support their family with their “passion” and never tried to improve their job skills or marketability in some other field. I think there needs to be a balance of passion and money.

  41. Wes says:

    You’re right, Nicole. There are a lot of situations where the market is inefficient, and I’ll concede that my system doesn’t work under these circumstances. But nothing is fool-proof, and I believe my approach still works for those who are honest with themselves about what they find valuable to society.

  42. Nicole says:

    Wes– So that was Econ 101. If you want to move up to Public Finance economics, I think that’s probably where a lot of other commenters are having problems. They’re thinking, isn’t a Social Worker worth a lot more than the social worker is getting paid.

    The answer is YES. But again, it’s because there is market failure. In this case the market failure isn’t fraud, but that the benefit is coming from positive spillovers to society that society is not completely paying for. We benefit from reduced crime, reduced emergency room visits etc., but as individuals we don’t want to pay for these benefits if we can get everyone else to pay for them instead (tragedy of the commons). So we have to set up a government to capture these gains, but of course government is not as good at pricing out value as the market is when the market is working. That is going to be true for many government positions.

    People who work for monopsonies will not make their productive wage (econ 101)– the firm can offer less. People who work for monopolies will often make more than their productive wage (also econ 101)– they also benefit from monopoly rents.

    There’s a big range of how actual wages vary with productivity within imperfect markets.

  43. Nick says:

    Sorry Wes, but I have to do this…

    You talk about how you could provide valuable services to a corporation by making their legal documents air-tight and then in the very next comment you say:

    “The Yankees pay Rodriguez millions because he can hit good.”

    Did you mean hit WELL? I hope you aren’t getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour (or more) to make contracts air-tight with that kind grammar, but you probably are…

  44. Trent,

    I’d like to share MY thoughts on “luck” with you, as it seems that you firmly feel your success is the result of luck. This is a snippet from an upcoming article on my blog (and I hate to lower my hand to my readers but I feel it is something that should be shared with you):

    “Preparation leads you in the right direction but, like dreams, can only take you so far. Once you reach a point where all the preparations have been made, it is time to take action. Action creates change. Change brings about opportunity. Don’t count on luck to bring you the life of your dreams. “Luck” is just opportunity presenting itself to those prepared to act upon it.”

    You, my friend, created your “luck”.

  45. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    @lurker carl: “you don’t hear anyone described as the “starving research scientist who writes great proposals, technical reports and journal articles””

    They’re called post-docs.

  46. MattJ says:

    Science generally requires training, and college is really the only place to get it nowadays.

    Art requires much less training. What are truly requires is practice and feedback, which you can get without paying tuition.

    My advice to aspiring artists out there who are planning to attend college: Minor in your art of choice. Major in science, business, medicine…

    How many musicians would be better off if they had a business or accounting degree, even if they didn’t need the degree as a fall-back career?

  47. Wes says:

    Nicole, thanks again for bringing these issues to light. Anyone working in the public sector (teachers, social workers, etc) has to deal with the fact that their salary may be less (or sometimes more) than their labor is worth. This goes back to what I was saying about everyone having to value their work differently. As someone planning to go into a field where the market is generally efficient, I believe I can use salary as a proxy for my goals.

    Nick, you got me. Just another example of how a degree in English will not make you a good writer.

  48. Johanna says:

    “They’re called post-docs.”

    Er…what? I got $40k/year when I was a postdoc, and I know many people who got much, much more. You could certainly argue that postdoc salaries should be higher (to compensate for the level of experience, long hours, and nonexistent job security), but starvation level they are not – in my experience, anyway.

  49. par717 says:

    What do you do if “they” won’t let you do what you love to do. This can take several forms and I have unfortunately hit every one of them in my life. Currently I can’t get a job teaching in my area. Everyone is cutting back. That’s what I consider to be my career but I can’t get a permanent job doing it.

    In other career paths I’ve been in “they” didn’t let me do what I love to do in other ways. (ie busy work, promotions out of the “trenches”, etc.) This has led me back to teaching because I love working with kids but the negatives of teaching (mostly not having job security of any kind) has made me question what it is I want to do now.

    I’m really feeling stuck now, it’s taking a toll on my personal life and I don’t know what steps to take next.

    Any advice for me?

  50. Katie says:

    Except, Wes, that for a lot of highly paid lawyers, much of the job involves maximizing transaction costs. Yes, you in particular, as a cog in the machine, will not be responsible for this. But when we’re talking aggregate effect, that’s often what ends up happening.

    By all means, I’m not saying that if you have a passion for corporate law and believe in the work that you shouldn’t go for it. I would just caution you against thinking of the legal field as a straight forward value-added-and-paid-for type of transaction. I think lawyers of all kinds have a lot to offer the world, but that’s also not the full story.

  51. Daria says:

    There are lots of people working jobs that make decent salaries to pay the bills while working at jobs that passion them on the side. One of my brother’s is a chemical engineer who writes science fiction/fantasy novels on the side.He has had 6 novels published. He loves to travel and promotes his books in bookstores all over the world by signing them as he travels. My husband and brother work as accountants while teaching part-time at the college level on the side which is their passion. One son works in a fraud department while doing film production as a side business. Another son is an accountant while while working on writing music on the side.

  52. Amanda says:

    Another thing to consider is that within a certain field (even the people talking about law)it’s likely that you’ll find a niche you enjoy. Focus on that! If you have less student loan debt you’ll be able to reach out and make more choices. That’s why I work 2 mos out of year. I really ENJOY preparing taxes! And I get paid a lot for it. =) But, you only get paid a lot by having that degree. And, if I need to, I can always go back to work full time even if it is doing the stuff that’s not my favorite!

  53. Leah W. says:


    Don’t go to law school for the salary. Most lawyers don’t make big bucks.

    Also, don’t get suckered into law school because of constitutional law. Con law isn’t as important (or as exciting) as you think.

  54. lurker carl says:

    All the post-docs I’ve worked with received decent stipends, between $35-50K per year. They starve because of their lifestyles.

  55. Is it overly simplistic to say “don’t let your career dictate your passion”, rather than “do what you love”?

    The job is a means to an end- your non-work hours. If you’re billing fat hours as an attorney while developing a coke habit and never seeing sunlight, that’s neither better or worse than chasing your dreams as a $12,000-year interpretive dance therapist and living in a shack. The money you earn, and the time you have to enjoy it in, are equal determinants of how good a life you’re leading.
    All the more reason to develop passive income streams.

  56. Sandy L says:

    I definitely went for the good paying job and don’t regret it. No way I was going into debt to get a degree in something that wouldn’t pay off.

    Trent, I wonder if you’d still be as good a writer if you didn’t have your negative life experiences to build on. I think it can be character building.

    Plus, I agree with others. I wasn’t passionate about anything specific in college. What the heck did I know at 18. I had to use the data that was available to me. Job placement rate, starting salary, career options, etc.

    Not everyone has that burning desire to be something specific. I envy those people.

  57. TigerLily says:

    I tell all my friends that want to know about blogging, saving $, or just being inspired – to subscribe to TheSimpleDollar.com.

    I, too, have enjoyed writing and have had several articles published. And I quit my job once my husband got his pension – to pursue my dream.

    Brent’s site not only inspired me to pursue my passion, his daily newsletters came at crucial moments in my life to address issues I was having. Whether it was how to economize to get me through a lesser income, or to advise on how to not give up on my dream, Brent has been a God send!

    Thank you for being such a great role model. And keep up the good work!

  58. Jane says:

    I think one of the big problems with chasing dreams that you had when you were younger is that you were probably clueless about the actual reality of a certain path when you were younger. You also probably idealized how it would be. This might set you up for disappointment once you actually realize your dream. When cold hard reality sets in and your either have high loans to pay off or the inevitable repetition of any job hits you, you might change your mind quickly.

    One thing that might clue you in to the fact that your dream job might not be as a great as you thought it would be is if you have to do an unpaid internship to move ahead. This most often implies that the market is oversaturated and that jobs are hard to come by.

  59. Jon says:

    I was very good at math and science in high school, and so I was pushed to go into engineering by my counselors. I hated it, and dropped out of college. I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree the same day my daughter graduated from college. My passion, however, was always for reading and collecting books. No one ever mentioned to me that I could major in libary science, and spend my life surrounded by the things I love.

  60. *sara* says:

    NOt sure if someone has mentioned this, but i you plan (as a high schooler) to move towards a career that typically makes less money, be sure to look closely at what that lifestyle may look like, and move towards it with eyes open, making wise decisions accordingly.

    Talk to the men who majored in history, and now have massive student loans, a wife and kids, and can’t find a job, and hear about the pressure that puts on them. Be realistic about what type of apartment in what state the income in your field will provide. And DON’T rack up a bunch of student loans unless your career path will support paying them off!

    Go to community college, get scholarships, etc, which will give you a high return on your investment, rather than going to an expensive private school, if you’re going to choose a typically low-paying major.

  61. Fredrick says:

    You can never have too much money. Regardless of what you do, the decisions you make within that career are based solely on making money.

  62. Lou says:

    A college degree (in any major) is evidence that you are reasonably intelligent and have persistence. One can bond closely with other young adults (note that basic military training would equally offer both of those rewards) If your college has a “core curriculum,” or if you major in Humanities, what you can get is a deep understanding that the answers you get are often determined by the questions you ask.

    Beyond those rewards, college coursework offers little, except to those who have a strong, clear vocation and pursue it. For many, it is a time for reflecting on and developing an adult self.

    I’m a retired college professor who has come to believe that many high school graduates would profit mightily from a “gap year” of work and travel, before enrolling in college. Such a glimpse of “real life” can provide both motivation and focus, good qualities for getting adequate value for the very expensive purchase of a college education.

  63. GayleRN says:

    @HopeC. Be very sure before you bother going to nursing school. I have been doing it for 22 years as a second career. It is my experience that while the money is fairly similar to teaching, the working conditions are not. You will be working every holiday and all summer long. You will earn vacation time but may not be allowed to take it. I have been denied all vacation requests (even single days) since March. Next request (October) is still pending. I get 2 sick days at the beginning of the year, but if I use them I am disciplined. Be very prepared to work 12 hour shifts and mandatory overtime. This can mean a 16 hour shift or more 12 hour shifts.

    AS for patient care itself. Be prepared to lift and turn anything from the run of the mill 200 pound patient, the very common 300 pound patient and up to and including 800 pounds. I won’t bother describing the icky parts. If a patient or family member complains, justified or not, you will be disciplined. You will be hit, kicked and very likely get a back injury. When (not if) you get a back injury it will be your fault for not using proper technique.

    My younger sister retired this year from teaching with a pension that equals my take home pay. In addition she has full health insurance. Someday I will get a tiny pension, whatever I can put into a 403b, and a discount at the hospital pharmacy.

    By the way there is a huge waiting list to get into nursing school, and few jobs as none of us can afford to retire and they are simply adding more patients to each nurse. There is very little hiring being done.

    It may be much faster to go back into teaching, certainly less physically demanding, and far less stressful as you will be unlikely to be held responsible for anyone living or dying.

  64. getagrip says:

    Whenever this subject of “follow your passion and I wish I didn’t do X even though X allowed me the means to now follow my passion which took me years to figure out” comes up I always cringe.

    If you have an honest passion for something and a clear goal, some high school guidance councilor or even your parents aren’t going to alter your course. If you don’t have a clear goal or passion, then yes, that evil, nasty high school councilor or your big, bad parents are going to point you in the direction where you’re likely to a) make the most money given your demonstrated and apparent aptitude (which would imply an area where you are likely to find a passion) and b) not be living in your parents house for the rest of your life.

    How dare those selfish people try to guide you away from your unknown or loosely defined passion in the hopes of giving you the best chance they can of helping you move on in life, the nerve!

  65. Mark says:

    Excellent points. An individual will find themselves absolutely miserable if they pick a career based solely on the income potential.

  66. Amy B. says:

    I started teaching at the college level this year and saw this first hand. Some students come in with a clear focus of what to do, encouraged by decent out-of-school experiences. One tells me he wants to earn as much as possible, having come from modest beginnings.

    I think many have hit on it, but my philosophy has been to use the time to put as many tools in the toolbox as you can, and when you find some that you really like, learn as much as you can about them. This allows you to cast a wide net later in life and cross over into fields that you may not otherwise consider at 18. Also, there are complementary skills to consider – health care and business or finance; engineering and writing (hello technical writers!)

    I know someone whose son loved baseball – so he majored in business, and worked his way up in the business side of the game. Still works in his passion, just in a different way.

  67. Jessica says:

    I am so inspired right now! I love your writing style and I can’t wait to start following my passion of writing as well!! Thanks for the tips and for reminding me that it’s not how much money you have in the bank but how much passion you have for what you do that makes life worth living. :)

  68. Wai L.Chui says:

    I would not call Ms. Hamm’s choice of life science major a huge mistake. Writers must have something to write about. Her experience in a science career would have provided a wealth of experience and actually contributed to her writings.

    Her mistake was to buy into the advertised criteria of success: money and nothing else. She probably would have felt as empty, and ended up hating writing, if she were to study writing in college.

  69. Alejandro says:

    Hey this article hit me very hard. My dream was to be a proffesional soccer player, not looking for big money, fame or the chicks, just for love of the game. I was discouraged by my parents, I think they were affraid of me being the clasic sportsman moron or not to be skilled enough to earn good money. I didn’t have the guts to pursue my dreams like many other sportsman who had the same issues. Now I have a decent payment as a IT manager but managing people is SO BORING, time consuming and stressing. I always think ‘why would happend if I did stick in my dreams?’ that’s killing me.

  70. Sandra says:


    “Art requires much less training. What are truly requires is practice and feedback, which you can get without paying tuition.”

    Umm…I disagree wholeheartedly. That’s an insult to the 28+ hours/week I put in just practicing my instrument when I was doing my undergrad in piano performance. And if you want the feedback, you need to shell out the money for a teacher. Whether this is through college tuition or through private instruction makes little difference. I make a decent living in my field, but it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point. So my point is that it may not always be best for someone who wishes to pursue a career in the arts to get a fall-back degree. That’s a lot of time and energy that is not being spent on getting a competitive edge in order to be able to get a job.

  71. the Tropes says:

    Like many young people, I wasn’t really sure what my passion was at that age. I had many interests. Like you, I enjoyed writing, and did do an English minor in university, including creative writing. I was also enthusiastic about music. In university, I took an interest in psychology.

    That’s the path I ended up on. It’s served me reasonably well, though these days I don’t do as much reading in the field as I should. I have a rock band on the side, though we aren’t at the point of making money at it. I rarely write any more. Right now, if I could make money at music, that’s what I’d be doing. I’m taking steps toward it, but in the meantime I have a day job that pays well, which I wouldn’t have if not for pursuing psychology.

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