Career Woman

What motivates you? Career happiness or big money


As a millennial child in the 90’s, I often heard two different phrases related to growing up: “You can do whatever you set your mind to! Do something you love!” — and — “Money doesn’t buy happiness, kid.”  So, I grew up with a skewed reality: follow my passion, and don’t sweat the lack of money. Boy, did that pan out poorly.

Although I enjoyed my education in Anthropology, it only landed me in a significant pile of debt with no promising job opportunities. And it wasn’t for lack of trying; it just isn’t a high demand discipline. Yet, so it was that I found myself struggling to make money, and struggling to enjoy the jobs that paid me a slightly-lower-than-livable wage.

All my personal struggles got me thinking: what’s better, loving your career or making a significant high salary? Should I pursue my dreams, or seek out a financially stable career?

Obviously, the people on Wall Street don’t love what they do (or if they do, they’re lying about it), but they sure can enjoy life when they have the time. And certainly, parents who pursue a higher paying job for the sake of their child’s future education have to forfeit most of their family time to their job. So, in terms of success, which direction in life will be the most fruitful?

Through my research, I may have found an answer. Here’s what the experts say about happiness and your career.

The money and performance paradox

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, is a strong believer in pursuing your dreams. His research into behavioral science has exposed an interesting paradox within the working world that disproves much of what is understood about human work ethic.

As illustrated in a RSA Animate Video based on his TED Talk, Pink shows that money is a motivator, but only in a certain way. To get people to really enjoy their work, “the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take money off the table. […] Once you do that, there are three factors that science shows lead to better performance and (not to mention) personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.”

He also illustrates studies done by the Federal Reserve Bank with students at M.I.T. According to the study, which incentivized students to do work on a salary scale, work that only required mechanical skills performed accordingly: higher pay resulted in better performance. However, “once the task called for rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward resulted in poorer performance.” So, how does this correlate with motivation?

As Pink illustrates, our desire to perform best at work has nothing to do with the salary we are making. Seeking out a higher salary might prove to be financially smart, but our own happiness and the health of the business will suffer unless we are genuinely enjoying what we are doing. We must have a sense of autonomy (personal accountability and freedom to do what we want when we want to), mastery (we enjoy perfecting our craft, whatever that craft may be), and purpose to succeed.

This is also reflected in the growing disengagement “crisis” of the business world. Businesses are finding that disengaged employees cost millions of dollars in poor job performance and wasted hours. The best way to keep employees engaged is through promoting company culture, providing autonomy, and not motivating employees through money but through personal growth and collaboration. Happier employees lead to profitable businesses.

The salary to happiness ratio

However, business happiness is only one side of the coin. What about worker happiness? How can we – the workers – seek out a happier life through our career? According to research collected by psychologists with the National Academy of Sciences, happiness and money are intrinsically tied together, but not always in a positive way.

According to researchers, and quoted by the NY Times: “It’s not so much that money buys you happiness but that lack of money buys you misery, said Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton and one of the authors of the study. ‘The lack of money,’ he said, ‘no longer hurts you after $75,000.’”

Making around $75K a year is essentially what we consider a “middle class income.” It’s not a whole lot of money, but it’s enough to afford basic necessities. However, if you make less than that, you are sure to be unhappy due to the stress of not being financially secure.

Finding a middle ground

For those of us who are making well below that $75K a year mark, this news might be a bit of a bummer. How can we pursue our passions if we can’t survive off of them?

In the NY Times’ article, they also noted: “People who sought high incomes were more likely to major in things like business, engineering and economics, […] while people for whom high income was not paramount gravitated toward the liberal arts and social sciences.” This is also reflected in the millennial generation, where — according to a study conducted by Earnest — those who majored in the humanities were far less likely to be able to afford to move out of their parents’ homes after college.

Yet if humanities and the arts are your passion, why can’t that also be your career?

As Pink proved earlier, people tend to flourish when they’re doing what they love to do. It’s possible that pursuing your dreams could lead you down the road to success. You just have to put in the time and effort to find the job that fits you. Even students that major in humanities move out of their parents’ house eventually. It just takes some time.

As I see it, it’s similar to the “tortoise and the hare” analogy. If you race too fast, you’ll become distracted and burn yourself out. If you stay persistent, like the tortoise, you will succeed over time.

For example, although my career path might never be in Anthropology, I know that the aspects that drew me to the discipline – such as helping others, studying cultures, and breaking down social constructs – will eventually lead me to enjoy other jobs, such as HR or journalism. It’s just going to take some trial and error, as well as time building up experience before I can get there.

Although this might seem idealistic, and it is sure to prove difficult at times, the best path to success truly is following your passion. Learn what drives you and keeps you motivated, then find a career path that fits your ideology and you will be able to accomplish great things.

About Katie McBeth

Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. When she’s not writing about millennials or small businesses, she spends her free time training her dog Toby to herd her three annoying (but adorable) cats around her house. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Twitter

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