Lessons from my worst money blunders: career choice

Why earning power should not be the only thing to consider in choosing a career.

Norman Y. Lono/Christian Science Monitor/File
EDISON, NEW JERSEY, USA - Valerie Williams of Edison, N.J., found her dream job as a career coach. Finding the right career for you might mean pursuing something beyond a big paycheck.

Along my financial journey in life, I made a great number of mistakes. In this ten part series which runs from July 19 to July 30, I’m going to focus on ten of my worst mistakes and the difficulties and successes I’ve had in overcoming those mistakes.

I chose a career path for the money instead of one that matched my passions and skills.

During my high school years, I felt fairly certain what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be writer, preferably a science fiction writer. I was absolutely enamored with the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, and countless others who made a life out of meshing scientific progress with imagination. I dreamed of going to college, majoring in English literature, and minoring in mathematics and another science or two.

My high school English teacher encouraged this dream. Virtually everyone else looked at me as though I walked out of the insane asylum. They pointed to the low average income of an English teacher. They told me that was a waste of a perfectly good mind.

In short, I was convinced by everyone around me that the measure of a person’s worth and intelligence was how much they managed to earn.

By the time I actually went to college, I settled on a life sciences major, which led me to at least some lucrative opportunities. As time went on, I added computer science as well because I showed a knack for computer programming.

In short, because of the incessant drumbeat I heard for money, I chose an educational and career path that I knew directed me away from my passions. I did have some degree of talent, especially in the computer science classrooms, but I wouldn’t spend my odd hours writing code. I would spend my odd hours reading and writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

I did get a good-paying job out of college, but as that job became more and more consuming, I felt my life dreams of writing slipping further and further away. I slid into something of a personal malaise because I wasn’t chasing my big dreams any more. I tried very hard to put a bandage on that with material things.

Putting a bandage of material things on top of a personal wound doesn’t help in the long run.

What I wound up doing is spending an awful lot of my free time for years channeling my energy into what I felt was fruitless writing because the act of writing felt good to me. I’d share my writings, watch them fail, and become convinced that by my career choice – seeking the better paying job – I’d lost my chance to follow my real dream. That’d just make the malaise – and the spending – worse.

The long term effects of this showed up in my career and in my finances. I began to feel very burnt out on my actual career. At the same time, I would try to cure this feeling of failure and burning out by buying stuff that I didn’t really need or didn’t have time to really enjoy. This brought me deeper and deeper into credit card debt and deeper and deeper into a sense that I couldn’t escape.

The solutions were right in front of me, but I didn’t see them.

First of all, I could have just majored in what I wanted to in college. Yes, this might have meant foregoing income, but it would have also meant following my passions and dreams instead of walking away from them. Alternately, I could have double-majored in a way that allowed me to follow my dream and still follow a lucrative path, too, if the dream didn’t work out.

Later, I could have focused on actually trying to launch writing as a side career instead of just writing aimlessly and somehow stumbling onto the success of The Simple Dollar. I started The Simple Dollar not as some sort of aim of finding a new career, but because I loved to write and I knew I was going through the same financial issues that a lot of people my age were going through. My target audience at first was, quite literally, my friends who were also struggling financially. I stumbled into this, period, and it took me many years of wandering for it to happen. Putting some aim into that dream would have made all the difference.

I didn’t do either of these. The only reason I’m writing for a living right now is pure, simple luck, albeit luck that had a place to sprout because I actually was attempting to write in some fashion.

The real lesson here is that happiness doesn’t come from money. As long as your basic needs are met, additional money does not bring happiness. It brings some material luxuries, but it also usually brings additional problems, too. The only way additional money helps is if you use it wisely, enabling you to … well, frankly, chase those dreams and passions you have.

What can you do to avoid this trap?

If you have a dream so strong that you stay up all night involved with it, give chase to that dream. Passion like that makes up for a lot of ground in other areas, because so many people out there are just clocking their nine-to-five with little real passion at all. A lot of people get by on skill or on the fact that their job mostly just needs a warm body that can follow instructions. The people that succeed, though, are the ones that mix passion with a little natural talent – but the passion and the time are the biggest elements (just ask Malcolm Gladwell). This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw ambitions for a high-income career away – double major and balance the two, or get a degree in a profitable area, live lean for a while, then go back to school to focus on the less-profitable passion. Or, better yet, just try to get your foot in the door without the degree (if you can). Money will come to you because passion is one of the few things worth paying for in life.

If you’re already in a career that’s taking you away from your passion, spend your free time chasing that passion with all your… passsion! Toss off as many of your extra activities as you can and focus your energies in your free time on making a go of that passion. It might require taking classes or it might require just “woodshedding” for a while (in other words, practicing a skill you love until you’ve acquired a high degree of proficiency). Don’t abandon that dream just because the circumstances of your life aren’t helping you with it. Instead, create a flowerbed upon which it can grow, a flowerbed created out of the excess time and energy in your life when you’re not working at that job.

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