Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What if My Calling in Life Doesn't Pay Enough to Live On?

I had lunch today with Eli, a terrific former student. He was a superstar in the MPA program, and then accepted a challenging HR job. After a year, he knew he was in the wrong place. So he left, and landed his current job, which is teaching elementary school to 7- and 8-year olds in a French language immersion school.

Eli's eyes light up when he talks about his work. He knows that he is really making a difference. He shared a story about a belligerent child that he was able to reach, and who now enjoys school. It was obvious to me that Eli is flourishing in his work. It may be his life's calling.

But the reason for our lunch was to discuss a difficult question. It's one I hear a lot, but I must confess I don't think I have a great answer yet. Eli asked: "What if your calling in life won't pay the bills? Is it irresponsible of me to do something I love if I can't comfortably support my family at it?"

Let me tread cautiously here. I certainly can't answer that question for anyone else. But I've thought about it a lot, and would like to share a couple of reactions and stories.

Reaction #1: What does it really mean to support a family? If you contrast our luxurious Western lifestyle with most of the world, even our school teachers live in comparative opulence. Our perspective on "supporting a family" may be a little warped! My father was a school teacher. I grew up in a tiny house with very simple means (by US standards). Money was tight, and often a worry. Dad did extra jobs to make ends meet. But I did not personally suffer one iota from not having the best toys or the coolest vacations. My childhood was golden, and I like to think that I learned perspective, economy, and (hopefully) humility because of my upbringing. I certainly benefited from an example of a father who did meaningful work extremely well.

Reaction #2: What hidden costs are you incurring by accepting lucrative work that you don't love? During my short and miserable corporate career, I came home from work diminished. Because my work consumed my energy, rather than igniting it, I felt depleted by 6pm, and was less of a husband and father than I could have been. I probably would be wealthier now if I'd stayed on the corporate track. But I shudder to think what it might have cost me in terms of my well-being and family relationships. If you are concerned about whether your work gives you enough money to support your kids, give deep consideration to this: how do you weigh the importance of giving your kids money against the importance of giving them your energy, joy, and example?

Reaction #3: Are you really sure that your calling won't pay off in the long run? We are most likely to excel when our work is our calling. And people who excel usually (not always) get rewarded in the long run. My MBA ethics professor told a story of a student who was passionate about restoring old cars. But he planned to set aside that passion for a financially secure career, even though he dreaded the work he was headed for. My professor urged him to trust that his real talents would allow him to be successful. So he took the great gamble and pursued a career in auto restoration. He eventually became one of the foremost car restorers in the world, owned his own auto museum, and did extremely well financially. I am not making any guarantees about your future by sharing this romantic story! But it is worth remembering as you think about whether you can "afford" your calling or not.

There are no easy answers to Eli's question. And I did suggest to Eli the possibility of shifting to a more lucrative career that could still capture his calling in life. But I hope you don't rush too quickly to abandon your calling because it might not make you rich. When I die, I'd rather have a smile on my lips from the joy of meaningful work than ulcers from toiling unpleasantly to make money.

And I'll take to my grave exactly the same dollar amount as the rich guy.


  1. No job in this world is wrong. The only thing is the thinking. Today we all are in this world so as to live a life but think of those people who are not even having their dream fullfilled just for the sake of money. At least you are lucky to be in this stage. Always be happy with what you have and what you are. Life is very precious. Live it with full fledged version.

  2. Jeff, there is another important item that is often overlooked and that is budgeting and investing to create wealth. It is not income that makes us wealthy but, well, wealth. You should play the game Cashflow 101 sometime with some friends who invest. You may find that it provides an interesting perspective on this question. One of the things you learn is that the janitor and teacher are, in some ways more likely to become wealthy than the doctor because of how they handle their expenses and income. The doctor is under great pressure to live in "The House" and drive "The Car" and purchase all the trappings to gain respect and it is often the case that they do not have the wealth to sustain the lifestyle that their income seems to require. I suspect this point sort of dovetails with your first point about what is enough. But it takes it an action step further by focusing the tight living on a goal of investing in income producing options such as real estate or vending machines or coin op laundry's etc. that can make the teacher the lowest paid but most wealthy at the end of the game....

  3. Big thumbs up to Brian's (BKHeywood) comment! Someone who is pursuing a calling that may not be lucrative in itself should definitely read "The Millionaire Next Door" and/or "Rich Dad Poor Dad." It turns out that real wealth and salary are not nearly as correlated as people suppose. Thanks, Brian!

  4. I've spent my parenting life telling my kids, "you get what you look for." If you want wealth, you'll find it ... and everything that goes with it. I've lived long enough to see more than enough of that. There's great wisdom to the statement, "We have sufficient for our needs." Jesus told a parable about a wealthy man whose wealth grew so he tore down his barns and built bigger but gave little thought to those with less. When we leave this frail existence we will wish we'd been smarter about how we handled our money, and that may take the direction of wishing we'd dispersed more of it rather than accumulating it.

    Money doesn't have anything to do with calling. It serves only to muddy the water. Someone started early in the creation telling the lie that you can buy anything in this world with money. You can't buy anything at all with it. It's just a test. Kudos to you for shifting the focus to faith.

  5. As I've recently embraced a more minimalist lifestyle, I've asked myself similar questions. The answer, for me, has come in questioning everything. Do I want a big house because I really want it or because society tells me that is what success is? Do I want a new car enough to carry the payments or can I be happy with one that is wearing out a bit? Minimalism fits my heart. I am pursuing it and encouraging my family to do so as well. As my children graduate I am asking them to decide if they want to go to college instead of just doing it because it's the next thing. I am encouraging my daughter as she pursues an English teaching degree because that's where her heart is, knowing that money will likely not be abundent for her. But she will be happy. And I've seen too many people with lots of money who are miserable. The trade off isn't worth it.

    Stopping by from Bonnie's blog.

  6. Hi Jeff,
    Usually I am not regular to read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and do it! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice article.

    property investment experts