I stumbled upon the post Making the Choice between Money and Meaning a few months ago in the Harvard Business Review. The author talks about the trade-off between meaning and money (meaningful work and a sizable salary do not generally come hand-in-hand) and why we should pursue a life where we can have both.

Money has always been a means to an end, and growing up around working-class families gave money a very real and tangible reality. Money was the difference between an empty and full stomach, and the difference between those that pushed on with their education and those that dropped out of school early with no qualifications.

For me, as for many people, money determines what is affordable and what is not, and it creates choices between having certain things now and having the other things later.

As a university student, money plays a part when weighing up future career prospects. At the basic level, living comfortably is better than living paycheck-to-paycheck. Beyond the bare necessities, it is all about lifestyle: more $$ = bigger house, better car, more expensive holidays, designer everything.

Financial wealth, or rather the accumulation of it, also affects us in more ways than just increasing our ability to buy things. Wealth is also seen as an indicator of ability, of success, of happiness, and of determination.

Much like how the pursuit of money and meaning are seen to be opposing goals, it seems like there is also a related trade-off between money and authenticity. The stark reality seems to be that doing what you love is incompatible with a job that is ‘acceptable’ to both internal and external expectations.

In a speech given at a university graduation in 1990, Bill Watterson gave this advice to the graduating class:

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

Bill Watterson is famous for his Calvin & Hobbes cartoons (which I adore) and shares a similar way of thinking as many of the creative people that I know. He, like them, believes that “a REAL job is a job you hate” and that people who work in the corporate world are, essentially, sell-outs. People in ‘real’ jobs are seen to have traded in their individuality in order to “[buy] into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards”.

When I decided to study law instead of music, a few music friends were very unsupportive of the decision. Admittedly, I didn’t have very good reasons for doing so at the time (my Chinese mother was a loud advocate for jobs that had good and stable ‘career’ prospects) but I have never looked back on the decision with regret. I love what I do today and the opportunities that it has given me to grow and figure things out for myself. I had not turned back on what I want from myself and what I stood for.

Perhaps it’s a product of financial systems gone wrong and a generation of disillusioned young adults, but as polar as the views that people may hold about money (and in particular the pursuit of money), there is nothing wrong about aspiring to climb the “imaginary ladder of success” – as long as you do so consciously. As Bill Watterson recognises, success and what makes someone feel good about their work is subjective to the person who experiences it. You can have an enviable career, and be a happy person too.

Doing meaningful and financially rewarding work, while still being true to yourself, is difficult. It is often easier to give up parts of yourself, whether it be your values or changing aspects of your personality, in order to be more successful at your work. But satisfaction is not gained in sticking with the way things are (and all its trade-offs) but rather to aspire towards the way things should be.

That is true authenticity.


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