"Money is a good servant, a dangerous master." - Francis Bacon
On this week's This American Life podcast, there was a brief interview with a man named Jason Pittman. He had won multiple awards for teaching and just this past week won another one, and he clearly loved his job very much. The reason This American Life was interviewing him was because he'd decided to quit teaching to find something that paid more.
Now, I don't want to cast any judgment on whether Pittman is making the right choice for his life; clearly, it must be something he's given a lot of thought to, and he knows better than anyone else what he wants out of his life. The way his position was funded, he essentially had to campaign to secure his job every year, so I don't blame him for wanting to get out of that situation.
What I found interesting was why he said he wanted to leave this career he loved so much (to the point that he was crying about leaving) to make more money: "I want to be able to pay a mortgage and have a car payment."
Leaving aside for the moment whether that's possible on his current salary ($58,000), I was struck by how this wish was phrased. Not "I want to be able to afford a safe place to live and a reliable car," but a focus on wanting to be able to afford to have and pay off loans. These would be in addition to his student loans, which the program said he's still paying off at age 38.
Mike and I have talked a lot lately about our possible future plans, as I weigh my options for jobs and we look toward adopting our first child. In all our discussions, we focus on what is going to make each of us happiest in terms of how we spend our time, what's important to us in raising our kids, and where we would want to live that would make the most sense for both of those other factors.
Money plays a part in this equation, of course, but as a facilitator in creating the day-to-day life that we both want. Some of the paths would probably require us to take out loans, while others wouldn't. But getting to a financial position that would make it reasonable to take out loans is not a goal unto itself.
This may not be what Pittman meant exactly, but I felt like he put his finger on something I have struggled to understand about American culture. Just as getting married isn't necessary for being an adult, having a mortgage isn't either. Yet this has somehow become part of the narrow Path of Adulthood in so many people's minds, like a game of Life where you can't move on until you Stop and Buy a House.
There is such a huge emphasis on this that I don't think it's unreasonable to think someone would actually leave a career they love and are extremely good at in order to be able to secure that mortgage.
I worry that as a society we've lost touch with what money is for. As I said last week about the article on engagement rings, gaining more money is not, in and of itself, always the right path -- only to the extent that it aids in the creation of the life that we seek. This is why I like Ramit Sethi's work so much; he challenges people to define what a "rich" life means to them before working on gaining more money.
The fact that he even has to say this -- and that his message seems so unusual in the realm of personal finance -- points to the unspoken and often unquestioned message it is countering: that more money is always better.
As I'm evaluating my different job options right now, I have to constantly remind myself not to fall into this trap of thinking that the highest-paying job is necessarily the best one I should pick. Yes, more money would make some of our long-term goals more feasible more quickly, but recent experiences have taught me that a full-time job takes up a huge chunk of my time and thus has a huge impact on my overall life satisfaction. Picking the job that's the right fit for me, as long as it doesn't actively hinder our other life goals, will always be the best decision.
I'll finish with this excerpt from Laura Vanderkam's excellent book 168 Hours. It raises a question about whether Pittman may decide to go back to teaching down the road if his mortgage and his car payment don't bring him the same satisfaction his 10-year teaching career has.
If you take a job you don't like just to make money, there is a good chance you won't do it very well, and it will suck the life out of the rest of your 168 hours.Thoughts?
That's what Danny Kofke discovered. A few years ago, he was teaching first-graders to read and write in Sebastian, Florida. He loved seeing their eyes light up when they figured out the connections between letters and the concepts they represented. Unfortunately, as a teacher, he was earning only $35,000 a year, so when his first daughter was born, he decided to try something more lucrative that he felt would better support a family. A friend who managed a company that sold high-end floor coverings offered him a job. Some of the salesmen were making six figures.
Now, there is nothing wrong with selling flooring. In the case of high-end, hand-crafted rugs, it's like selling art. Plenty of people become obsessed with the intricacies of Oriental rugs, and would consider expertise in this art form to be a core competency.
Danny Kofke was not one of those people. He started out enthusiastic, but "I slowly realized I wasn't passionate about it. I made a pretty bad salesman," he says. When people came in wanting a four-thousand dollar rug, he'd find himself thinking, "I don't care if you like it." There was no way he was going to hit the top end of his potential income range, and looking forward, he realized that if he hated his job, he was going to be spending a lot of the additional salary he earned above his teaching income trying to make himself happy.
But he figured the opposite was true, too. "If you do have a job you like, if you're happy in life, you don't need those materialistic things to make you happy," he says.
So when a job working with autistic children opened up, he quit and went back to teaching. Now he's supporting his family on about $40,000 a year and has written a book called How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher's Salary. The Kofkes live frugally, but when you love what you do, it's a lot easier to come home and sit on a secondhand sofa than if you're miserable for 8 hours a day.