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?

My Advice for Those Entering the Workforce

1. 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.

2. 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.

What if you’re 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.

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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