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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 issues.

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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 shelter.

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

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