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The Brazen Careerist

The dilemma of passion vs. pay

Everyone wants to feel passion about their job, but passion and pay do not always go hand in hand, and often they are inversely related. The trick for many of us is to figure out how to balance the love of our life with the food on our table.

Bill Hewett is the bass player for the Boston-based band, the Modeles, but he does not consider himself a big risk taker when it comes to putting food on the table. So he knew he was in trouble when the City of Cambridge banned fire from street performances. Before that, he had been making $500 in a weekend juggling flaming rings.

"It wasn't easy work," he says. "I'd have to stake out my spot at 8 a.m. even though I didn't start juggling until 6 p.m. I used to let other performers have my spot until my show began. The best juggling spot was a place a few jugglers have held for forever, and if you don't get a big enough crowd, they hassle you for wasting their space. So my spot was at the Out of Town Newsstand."

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After the fire ban, his income fell and he had to supplement it by working at a grocery store. But when the juggling season ended in the fall, the salary of a bagger didn't cut it. So he took a computer job at the New England Foundation for the Arts. Bill didn't really have all the skills the company needed, but the company didn't have the money to pay for the skills they needed, so it worked out well for everyone.

Barbara Reinhold, a psychologist and the head of the Career and Executive Development Program at Smith College, encounters people with the passion-pay dilemma at all levels of the workforce.

"There's no escaping the need to do what you love as part of your paid or unpaid work," she says. "But like so much of life, the secret is in the timing."

And Reinhold recommends that people make money first and then follow their dreams, "as long as you've been careful not to grow your tastes with your income. Many people spend and spend to try to forget that the lucrative work they're doing doesn't really fit them. This unfortunate condition usually results in a bad case of the golden handcuffs.

"Young people who make a deal with themselves about eventually going where their hearts would lead them and live frugally can have a much easier time of it than those who forget the frugality, or those who don't develop the skills and discipline required to make money until later in life."

I ask Bill about the possibility of postponing his dreams of being a musician, and he says he can't imagine not making music. "I'd do it anyway," he says, "for myself. So I want to see where I can take it." But it's clear that his dream has limits.

He makes $34,000 a year as a computer guy, and I ask him if he'd leave the job if he could make $40,000 a year touring with his band. He says no. He is certain he could make a lot more money as a computer technician in the future. And he sees it as a job he could keep his whole life, and grow with it.

He sees the creativity required to solve computer problems as similar to the creativity involved in music. And he is more skeptical of life on the road: "I couldn't live off that $40,000 a year for more than a few years. Right now, I don't worry about food, but sometimes I worry about strings for my bass."

It is no small feat to get a band member in Boston to talk to a career columnist. A bass player explained that it would be death to her image to talk about her job to the press. And Bill himself cited a friend who has actually worked for years as a consultant to save a truckload of money and is now spending six months focusing on his band. "Don't mention his band, though. He'd be embarrassed if people knew he owned a condo."

Meanwhile, the Modeles continue to make headway in the hyper-competitive world of almost-breaking bands. Bill is a modest guy. When I ask him how he knows his band isn't a dud, he says, "When we play in upstate New York, people get excited to see us."

Of course, the music industry is not known for signing a band to a label after hearing them in Utica, but one guitar player (who said his band is gaining traction in the underground and therefore cannot be mentioned in an above-ground career column) reports that the Modeles are well-liked by people who have jobs.

-- Posted: March 22, 2004

 
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