Working for the Money

On our drive down to the beach, Denisa was going through a game we’d bought a while ago for road trips. It had a series of questions that were supposed to start discussions. One that stood out in my mind? “Would you rather get paid a million dollars a year to do something you hate or $20,000 a year to do something you love?”

That was a pretty easy one for me to answer. A million dollars. In one year, you’d make more than you would in fifty years of the other option. Work a year or two or three, then retire and only do what you love from then on. A harder question would be something like this: “Would you rather get paid $40,000 a year to do something you hate or $20,000 to do something you love?” The exact price point might vary, but somewhere in there, you start to have a dilemma: make enough to be comfortable, but be unhappy making it, or make too little to be comfortable, and be happy. (Sometimes, of course, you don’t even have the option. You make what you can make, happy or not.)

I faced a similar decision (albeit on a smaller scale) when I was in college. I was working at the BYU Library, making $8.50 an hour and very content with that. It seemed like plenty. But I remember one night Denisa suggested (this was while we were still dating) that I look into jobs that pay better so that we’d have more to live on when we got married. After a bit of scrounging and searching, I came across what looked like a great job: gas meter reader at Questar. I’d make something like $11/hour! The best thing was that you got paid by the book. A book was a premade set of meters to read on a certain route. Questar calculated how long it “should” take to read them, and once you read them, you were paid that many hours, regardless of how long it actually took. There was one four hour book I could read in an hour.

I quit my job at the library once I got that job, and I worked reading gas meters for the next . . . two years? Something like that.

I made quite a bit more money, but I was a whole lot more miserable. Reading meters on sunny breezy day was just fine. Sure, you might get tired after a while, but it was good exercise, and good pay. But what about in a thunderstorm? Ever try scribbling down notes in a deluge? Or how about after it snowed a foot? And don’t forget angry dogs you had to deal with, or suspicious homeowners. There was a long list of things I didn’t love about that job. Things I actively disliked. Things I hated. (And when they changed it so that you no longer got paid by the book, but paid by the hour? It got even worse.)

In the end, I quit to go back to working in the library for quite a bit less money. But I loved working in the library. It was something I truly enjoyed doing. The money was only a part of the equation.

And that’s really what it is in the end, an equation. It’s not a simple matter of “Make $X and be Y happy.” That’s a lesson I learned reading those gas meters at Questar, and it’s probably one of the most valuable things I walked away from there with. Salary can overcome some problems with a job, and enjoying a job can overcome some problems with salary, but in the end, you have to look at your life and find where that minimum balance lies, and then stick to it. Ideally, you end up being well above it, but we all know life isn’t always ideal.

And that’s my deep thought for you today.

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