Negotiating the price of your soul
My favorite ad campaign in New
York City is one to recruit more teachers. One ad reads, "How
many people go back 20 years later to thank their middle manager?"
The ad raises the questions: At what point are we willing to trade
personal satisfaction for personal wealth? At what point have we
sold our souls?
Eventually, we all make a decision about how much
money we want to earn and what we are willing to do to get it. Even
though we think of money as a way to attain freedom, it's often
the people who make the most money who feel the least freedom to
make these decisions. And when someone perceives that it's too late
or too difficult to embark on making this very difficult decision,
that person misses out on one of those decisions that help us make
our lives our own.
These are questions that AP chemistry did not prepare
me for. These are questions that my B.A. in history did not address.
So in my early 20s I was lost; it is hard to spend 20 years in school,
thinking about very interesting, important things, only to find
out that jobs for recent college graduates that pay a living wage
do not generally require any important thought on any important
My first understanding of the money-fulfillment conundrum
was when I was 21 and adamantly refused to do any work that did
not have intrinsic value. I ended up living in my parent's attic,
listening to lectures about how I had to find a way to support myself
or my parents would throw me out. I became a bike messenger (and
my parents threw me out anyway), and I learned that intrinsic value
also comes in the form of being able to pay for my own food and
It took me 10 years to figure out that I actually
did enjoy corporate America. The team aspect of management requires
the same skills I used as the captain of my college basketball team.
The ladder-climbing, politics-mongering aspect of management requires
the same skills as a good round of chess. To me, corporate America
is like a game for adults, and I was lucky to discover that the
games that make me happy also bring in money. I am not sure I would
ever have known this about myself if I had not lived on Ramen noodles
while experimenting with the idea of trading money for meaning.
My husband took a different route. He went straight
from college to a fast-track career in corporate America, but he
finds the whole scene laughable. He cannot believe how little work
managers do (he has cited me as an example). He cannot believe that
being on time takes precedence over being exact (he cites the software
his company launched). He resents reporting to a manager who is
not doing Nobel-Prize caliber inquisition, and he is annoyed when
he has to manage people who cannot do the job as exactly and perfectly
as he can.
So we decided to drastically cut back our spending
-- for the foreseeable future -- while he figures out what sort
of job would make him happy. I am scared because I have harbored
a financial vision of our future that does not involve a one-salary
family. But I am more scared of spending my life with someone who
does not enjoy his job. So we are leveraging the fact that our overhead
is low, and my husband is looking at possibilities.
He has called many people in the nonprofit sector
to figure out the best way to translate his money-grubbing brand-building
experience into human rights activist relevance. As it turns out,
six of the seven people he talked to were frustrated with their
jobs because they either did not make enough money to live on or
did not make enough difference to justify missing out on the corporate
salaries of their friends. The interesting thing was, though, each
person was struggling to figure out how to balance their desire
to change the world with their desire to support themselves. No
one said, "I'm scared to think about changing careers"
because no one was making much money.
And then we had dinner with my friend who is a user-interface
designer. He is Mr. Employable -- the guy who got laid off on Monday
and got a job on Tuesday and used his enormous severance for a down
payment on a co-op.
But he is not happy. He hates his job. He said he's
hated it for a long time, but didn't tell anyone because he felt
guilty complaining when he didn't know what would make him happier.
I said, "Why don't you try switching careers," and he
said, "I can't now that I have the mortgage."
It takes courage to take risks to find out what makes
you happy. Most people do not get it right on the first try. Once
you accept that career dissatisfaction is a distinct possibility,
then you can plan for flexibility. Think twice about buying a house
that will prevent you from taking a salary cut to change careers.
Realize that the higher you let your fixed costs go, the lower the
chance is that you will feel freedom to examine your work-life honestly.
Some people rescue abused children from street life.
Some people sell junk bonds to millionaires. No one would claim
they could know the right decision for you, (besides, maybe, your
parents). But there is a right decision -- and you know it when
you feel it. So face up to the hard decisions, and remember that
some people followed their dreams and made a ton of money for doing
so -- eBay, for example, was built on a cherished collection of
Pez dispensers. You can always hope that you will be next. Just
don't bank on it.
-- Updated: March 23, 2004