For students finishing college this year, the search for graduate schools and entry-level jobs is well underway. We are accustomed to imagining ourselves in a variety of future situations, and the fact that we will soon have to close some of these options off forever is disturbing to us. I never imagined how much of a burden the process could be; in addition to the applications, essays, and interviews, there is the psychological weight added by the approach of a major decision.
The decision about which career to follow forces us to consider factors other than our own desires, and chief among these are the hard facts of finance. Most graduates of a four-year university enter the workforce with a significant amount of student debt; those considering law or a professional school will pile up even more. Debt can be crippling, and those of us with loans will have to find work that enables us to pay them off.
On the other hand, we are aware of the connection between personal happiness and satisfaction with one’s career, and we want to pursue fulfilling work. And so, many students face a tradeoff between work that pays well and work they enjoy.
Some people are well-suited for the business world, and because their vocation translates easily into a lucrative job, they can have it both ways. Those who would rather be, say, journalists or teachers do not have it so easy—many liberal arts majors feel compelled to make serious compromises by going into consulting or banking, or entering law or business school, instead of following their passion.
But life is too short to make such compromises for any real length of time. After graduating with highest honors from Harvard Law School, Barack Obama turned down a coveted federal judicial clerkship and high-paying corporate law positions to organize a voter registration drive and become a civil rights attorney in Chicago. That he would take enormous pay and status cuts to do this is one of many reasons to admire him.
In Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!, a character says: “It’s awfully easy to rush into a profession you don’t really like, and awfully hard to get out of it.” That’s a good lesson to keep in mind as we make these difficult decisions. Paying off student debt is one thing, but is a six-figure salary necessary? Happy individuals will be happy whether they earn $30,000 per year or $80,000 per year.
There are two ways to become wealthy: to have more and to need less. It is an economic fact that “needs” grow with income: The greater your income, the more likely you are to discover that you “need” all sorts of gadgets and extravagances that never occurred to you before.
If you “need” a luxury condominium, a 50-inch plasma TV, or a yacht, then you’ll have to maintain an income that corresponds to those tastes. If you can do without such things, your compensation may come in the form of more leisure time and a more appropriate career.
The individuals who belong in business are those who are called to business, who immerse themselves in the affairs of their firm, who are energized by client meetings and deadlines, and who take pride in being in the driver’s seat of the world’s greatest economic engine. These people work hard and deserve the respect our society gives them.
But if your heart and mind are elsewhere, go where they are—even if it means leaving the city, cooking your meals instead of eating out, forgetting about brands, eschewing status purchases, buying used, or finding cheaper entertainment. If the reward is doing work that you enjoy and believe in, that sounds like a fair trade.