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Heavy Meddle: To Follow One's Heart, Or Follow The Money?

The costs --existential and otherwise -- of making a living. (Stephen Coles/flickr)
The costs --existential and otherwise -- of making a living. (Stephen Coles/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

Which is the better employment: a job of your dreams, where you love what you do but you don't make enough to live where you'd like? Or a steady, secure job that pays well enough to take care of things while boring you day after day? How does one find the balance?

PHOTO

Signed,

Out of Balance

Dear OB,

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of this column that I do not have a good answer for you here. I could certainly spout a bunch of platitudes about how you can’t put a price tag on contentment, and how every hour spent in meaningless toil is an hour wasted. Conversely, I could point out that growing up almost always requires surrendering the lovely fantasy that your means of support will be spiritually nourishing.

The sad truth is that these competing views will continue to do battle for the rest of your working life. And, in fact, if you take a big step backwards, it’s worth noting that we here in the developed world are actually lucky to face such a dilemma. Millions upon millions of people work to keep themselves and their families alive. The idea that labor might be fulfilling never even enters into the equation. So let’s start from the premise that we’re living in a lucky age and in a lucky precinct.

...growing up almost always requires surrendering the lovely fantasy that your means of support will be spiritually nourishing.

It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a huge difference between a job you love and one that is crushing your soul. Most tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I’ve worked as a shipping and receiving clerk, a dishwasher, a caterer, a soda jerk and a freelance writer. None of those jobs was perfect, but they all had enjoyable aspects. For instance, though washing dishes was gross and boring, I did really and truly love the sensation of blasting food off a plate with a high-powered water nozzle. Likewise, while I found serving rich people food on trays to be a generally humiliating vocation, I very much enjoyed learning basic cooking techniques from the kitchen staff, as well as, at one point, eating my own weight in bacon-wrapped scallops.

So it’s important to take whatever joy you can in a job, even if it’s not your dream gig. And it’s equally important to realize that it’s easy to idealize a particular job in the abstract. Once it’s your job — the thing you do to make money — it’s likely to be imbued with all sorts of pressures and doubts and anxieties.

I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here. I’m trying to suggest that our happiness in a work place is not solely the product of external forces. The attitude we carry into our work plays a huge role.

All that being said, our society does tend to reward mindless obedience more than personal creativity.

The Founding Fathers didn’t promise our citizens happiness. They promised us the right to pursue it. The sooner you figure out what happiness means to you, at least in terms of your employment, the more quickly you can channel your energies toward that goal.

Your question about finding balance is the right one. But only you can decide what that balance is. And it requires, more than anything else, that you conduct a brutally honest self-inventory. How important is material comfort in your life? If you really want to live in a hip neighborhood, and you want a one-bedroom apartment with good light and no roommates, well, then, that’s going to cost money. And that’s probably going to limit, at least for a while, the personal fulfillment aspect of your work. The same is true if you want a newish car with air-conditioning, and you like to eat out at restaurants, etc.

If, on the other hand, you don’t mind making due with a bit less, then you become freer to choose a job that brings more fulfillment than profit.

I spent several years as a “freelance writer,” i.e., unemployed wannabe, making less than $20,000 per annum. Mostly, I sat around in my underwear writing horrible short stories. I could afford to do this because my only expenses were rent, used CDs, and cheap pasta. Now that I have a family of five, including three small kids, we spend about $25,000 per year on macaroni and cheese. So the balance itself is constantly shifting.

The only thing I can say for sure is that you’re going to be happiest if you take a step back and figure out who you are and what you really want and what you need. If you don’t want to be stuck in a “boring” job, you have two choices: Find ways to make that job less boring, or find a job you consider more interesting. Chances are, the more interesting job isn’t going to pay as well, so you’re going to have to live with a little less security and comfort. Those are the rules of the road, at least in my
experience.

You should also be aware that taking a less thrilling job that offers higher pay comes with the risk of locking yourself into a more expensive lifestyle. It will be much harder to leave that kind of career path if you saddle yourself with a mortgage, a car payment and other forms of debt. If it’s early in your career, and you’re in your twenties with no dependents and limited debt, then you have the freedom to experiment, to try things out and hop on and off different career tracks. But once you're locked in financially, you can get stuck with “needing” to make a certain amount of money. And if you have kids, your needs shift from your own personal fulfillment to making choices that best serve the family as a whole.

...our happiness in a work place is not solely the product of external forces. The attitude we carry into our work plays a huge role.

A less selfish way of approaching this would be to ask yourself where your talents truly lie, and in what ways your abilities can best contribute to the world in general. That job with the investment firm might be tempting when you see the salary, but does that mean the world is losing out on a gifted elementary school teacher? Or a painter? Is it possible to take that high-paying job but use your other talents in another capacity? Or do you need to fully commit yourself to one path in order to fully express your unique talents? Make these questions a part of your personal inventory process.

I’m writing this response on July 4, so I’m inclined to go a little old school on you. The Founding Fathers didn’t promise our citizens happiness. They promised us the right to pursue it. The sooner you figure out what happiness means to you, at least in terms of your employment, the more quickly you can channel your energies toward that goal.

Onward, together,

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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