For What It’s Worth

dirt-road-to-nowhereA good while ago I got involved in a discussion flowing from a question from a soon-to-be new college graduate about entry-level jobs, appropriate salaries, etc.  As usual, I probably offered more than was requested, but that’s what you get for asking me in the first place.
Since there is never a bad time for graduations and new beginnings, I offer the substance of that advice once again, for what it’s worth.

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When I got out of college in 1975 I had a shiny new bachelor’s degree and limited prospects.  The academic stars in my fraternity were bragging about newly-acquired jobs in business and engineering that paid in the $10,000. to $12,000. per year range.  As for me, I snapped up a position with a small architecture firm in downtown Chicago for the princely sum of $8,400. per year (that’s right–per year), then bounced around to a few more firms for awhile, maxing out in my chosen profession at about $18K annually.  Tops.  But I had a ball.

It’s been said many times that as a young person starting out, you should go with your heart–to do what you love.  Please, if you do nothing else, follow this advice while you can.  It is wisdom.

You will, in life, basically spend or otherwise commit the sum total of whatever it is you earn, except for the odd set-aside saving plan, 401(k), et cetera.  Believe this–you will.  The art in managing an income lies not in making a certain amount, but in crafting your personal expectations to fit what you can reasonably anticipate earning.  Don’t get sucked into conforming to a scale of incremental progress shaped by what others think you should be achieving; it’s your life, not theirs.  Do what gets you jazzed and either (a) the money will come; or (b) you’ll find out that it just doesn’t matter.  The latter is actually the more defensible truth.

You already know what this is, if only unconsciously.  Once you make some of the destiny-altering decisions we’re traditionally called upon to make, a lot of the “choice” in life gets removed and your options become irreversibly limited:  If you marry.  Whom you marry.  What material things you (or she) feel(s) are necessary. What your parents expect.  What her parents expect.  What you think your contemporaries expect.

Screw that, while there’s still time.

I know this has nothing to do with the original question, yet it has everything to do with it.  I’m just suggesting that you discard salary as a measuring stick now, while it really isn’t necessary.  One day it may be, and then it will be the only relevant metric if you’re not careful.  By then it will be too late. Satisfy your heart now and set your course in that direction, while you have the opportunity.

One thing I tried to tell my then college-aged son (who wouldn’t listen, of course, because he’s a son and I’m his father) is that the most important thing he’d have after graduation from college is freedom of choice, so he shouldn’t indenture himself with excessive loans and obligations just to be able to say his degree came from a prestigious private college.  The power that money represents and only sometimes enables is itself, in the end, freedom of choice.  That’s why people whose options are limited want it so much.  Money requires a measure of allegiance and fealty, though, so the cost of acquiring and maintaining it also has to be accounted for.  When you have the luxury of such a fresh, unfettered start without that cost the freedom is, well, free.  Take it and run–it’s the last free thing you’ll ever see.

I had the most fun I ever had (employment-wise, that is) working in architecture, in those bottom-feeder wage structures.  It wasn’t the money that was so attractive to me or my colleagues of like mind and values, it was the creative energy and passion that came with the job.  I truly think that in the throes of that passion none of us really appreciated how poorly we were compensated or how unsustainable those salaries were.  We just loved the work, and each other, and the rest took care of itself, at least for awhile.  We were like those in the Garden who didn’t know they were naked because, at the time, it just didn’t matter.

Later on I ate of the fruit of knowledge and got “wise”.  I acquired a law license, got a really good position and ended up waist-deep in the muck of competition just to maintain myself right where I was standing.  Prestigious law firm, higher salary, more pressure and the inflated expectations of others.  It nearly killed me.  Awhile ago (quite awhile ago now) I made the decision to flee from that trajectory to pursue a path with more heart.  I feel better now.  I don’t make much money, but the expectations of those around me have been adjusted for the better, whether or not voluntarily.  I shit-canned the big law career, have recurring money concerns that will likely never end, and feel great.



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