Lately I have become interested in something called ‘background dissatisfaction’. I heard these words from Eckhart Tolle’s book: The Power of Now. He describes how so many of us have an underlying anxiety about life that we are so accustomed to, we barely even notice it. It’s a bit like having muscle that has been tensed for so long we have forgotten what it feels like to relax. I have noticed that most of us have a string of recurring worries that seem to contribute to this dissatisfaction and that inhabit a huge percentage of our daily thoughts.
This idea made me wonder what the ‘background dissatisfaction’ of my generation is (those who are currently in their 20’s) and whether it might tell me something about the causes of the quarter-life crisis. I decided to conduct a little survey of young adults in their 20’s to see if I could reveal some themes in what keeps this generation up at night.
I obviously expected to see similarities in people’s answers, but I didn’t realise quite how strong the themes would be. Over the next few months I am going to write some articles around the most prominent answers that came up from this survey.
In today’s article I want to talk about one of the major concerns which surround young adults regarding their career development:
‘Should I choose a career I love or one that pays?’
This seems to be a real tug of war of this generation, and one that I find going back and forth about with my clients.
It is important to recognise that being able to choose (or even consider) doing what you love as a career is a gift. The majority of people in the world work just to be able to fulfil their basic needs (think the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy). If you are reading this article you might be one of a very small minority of people who can choose a career that will not only allow you to pay the bills but also can offer some kind of personal fulfilment or ‘self-actualisation’ as Maslow puts it.
A small thought from me before I dive into the main body of the article; I don’t think that doing what you love and earning money are on opposite ends of a scale. We seem to think that you haveto choose one or the other. Between investment banking and working for a small charity there is an enormous spectrum of opportunity.
THERE IS NOT JUST ONE ANSWER
The first thing to consider when confronted with this question, is there is not just one universal, objective answer. We are inundated with messages to follow our passions and do what we love but the answer to this question is different for everyone and will probably change throughout our lives. So the question should be changed from ‘should I choose between what I love and what pays?’ to ‘what is important to me and what are my priorities?’
Easier said than done!
It can actually be surprisingly difficult to have the self-awareness to answer this question. In this article I want to outline some of the questions and ideas that I pose to my clients if they are confronted with the pay versus passion debate. My hope is that these questions and thoughts will help you decide for your yourself which way you lean.
1. WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY WANT FROM YOUR CAREER?
This is probably the most important question to figure out when tackling the pay/passion debate. Ask yourself:
‘Looking back over your career, what would you like to have achieved?’
On one end of the spectrum, some people want their jobs to solely be a means to fund their lives outside of work. This group might derive their sense of purpose from their relationships and activities outside of the workplace. On the other end of the spectrum, are the people who get their sense of purpose entirely from their job. For this group there is barely any separation between their home and working lives.
Try to work out where you lie on this spectrum. If you are closer to group 1, pursing a career for money would make more sense than someone in group 2. If you are closer to group 2, then pursuing a career you are passionate about is likely to be more important than money.
2. WHAT IS THE MINIMUM SALARY YOU COULD LIVE ON?
Come up with a number based on your circumstances that is the total you could reasonably live on. This way you will know (if you ever have to take a pay cut) what your reasonable minimum is. Also, evaluate what resources you have:
- Do you have money saved up?
- Could you move somewhere cheaper?
- Could you move in with family?
- Do you have anyone who could support you for a while?
All these questions help you to realise your possibilities and the amount of ‘wiggle room’ you might have if you were to make a career change.
3. WHAT IS IT ABOUT MONEY?
Most of the time, money itself is not the motivator. Some might get a sense of satisfaction for seeing a larger number in their bank account but usually, it is what money can give you that is the driver. So what do you really value that earning a lot of money can give you?
Note that obviously everyone needs a basic level of security, food and shelter, but try to think about what you hope earning more money will give you beyond basic security. For example: owning property, holidays, clothes, car, social life etc.
Jot these things down and reflect on their relative importance compared to a career you love and are passionate about.
Consider the following:
- Imagine a scenario where you had a fulfilling career but were unable to afford the valuable things money can buy
- Imagine the reverse scenario where you have the valuable things but your career is unfulfilling
- Which scenario is more comfortable?
4. COULD YOUR PASSION BE COMMERCIAL?
Controversial one. Benjamin Todd, founder of 80,000 hours, an organisation that helps direct people into high impact careers describes how turning his passion in philosophy and martial arts into a career would have been an incredibly challenging path. His advice (if your passion really isn’t commercial) is to do something that can have the greatest positive impact in the world. He advises this because it is most likely that pursuing a career that has a great positive impact is also going to have great personal fulfilment.
I think this is brilliant advice, but I also believe his passions are extreme examples. If you have a passion in mind, or something you love to do, put it past the common-sense test. If there were a scale between ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ I would try to find something near the X:
It is important to remember that when you do something you love and are passionate in your whole way of being changes. You become motivated, resourceful and tireless. You are more likely to enter a state of ‘flow’, which is an experience of intense concentration and focus where you are performing at the height of your capability. If you are performing at this high level, the chances of you being successful in your pursuits are far greater than if you are doing something that is generally de-motivating for you.
So even if there is no obvious path to make your passion commercial, don’t underestimate the power of someone pursuing their purpose and the ‘flow-factor’.
WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES?
Take stock of what you are responsible for currently. Ask yourself ‘will there be an easier time in the future to take a risk than now?’. Age is a really important part to this. When you are in your 20’s it is likely to be the best time to take a risk. If you find yourself constantly worrying about the future asking questions like: ‘What if in 5 years I am not where I need to be in my career?’, then I would really suggest slowing right down. We can’t know where we are going to be, or what we will want in 5 years, which means the best we can do is focus on what we want now. If we put energy into the present, the future will likely take care of itself.
The question of passion versus pay is really a question of personal priorities. It is about understanding what is important to you and accepting the consequences if you decide to give something up. If you are experiencing a quarter-life crisis, remember there is no universal answer and it is down to you to decide which way you lean. I will leave you with one question that was the decider for me to pursue a career based on what I love doing:
‘If you were to meet your future self in 15 years, what would their advice to you be to you right now?’
Quarter-Life Crisis Coach
Career coaching for those in their 20’s.
These are just my thoughts about the kinds of things to consider, but would love to hear what other people think are important questions to ask.