work that matters
This is a long post is going to piss some people off.
I had an early morning meeting a few weeks ago that I’ve been mulling over in my head. An old acquaintance told me over breakfast about the work that his firm is doing in healthcare financing and insurance estimation. It’s very high level policy oriented work that is front-and-center with healthcare reform, and it’s a lucrative prospect. He asked me if I would consider joining him and his team – because not only are “we changing the game in how we fund healthcare, we’re going to make a lot of money doing it.”
Work right now is all-consuming. I’m barely above water trying to figure out how to launch a major medical device. There are questions of technical assessment, market strategy, brand positioning, and a thousand things that I’m ultimately responsible for that I’ve never done before. And since January, it’s been a thousand miles an hour with no breaks. I’m stressed.
But what I do is create technologies and systems for people in their most vulnerable moments. I spent thirty minutes telling him why I didn’t go into consulting or hedge fund trading (and I had the opportunity). Sure, I could have made more money. But money isn’t what I was chasing.
So to be asked, point blank, to leave and do something else for the money? I was almost insulted.
I’ve heard all the arguments that you can make money first and then use it to make real change in the world – a la Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Or that you need to work at a place like a consulting firm to “get exposure” and “learn the industry” before you can do meaningful work of your own.
Please. I went to a top five engineering school with a footprint at all the major consulting firms. I served on an Advisory Board alongside lawmakers and CEOs of major corporations. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity or exposure that I chose the route I chose. It was because I didn’t want to wait for four years of exposure and experience (and a fat paycheck) to do work that I found meaningful.
I’m not saying that I love every piece of my job. The past five months have left me ready to pull my hair out at times. But what’s important to me is that moment of quiet joy when I stand at a patient’s bedside and a doctor introduces me as the engineer that made sure the medicines made it into your body.
Some people genuinely enjoy working at consulting firms or finance houses (and I have lots of friends that do). That’s fine. But I also have friends that have deluded themselves into thinking that working where they are is what they actually want. The point here is to not turn down something you love in favor of something you aren’t passionate about. Real passion – passion for the work – not just passion for the money (Penelope Trunk has a related post – about falling in love with a person, not falling in love with money). Don’t justify to yourself that you’re passionate about something if you’re doing it for the name, the prestige, or the paycheck.
Here is a story from Ramit Sethi (I believe the link to the story requires a free subscription).
A few years ago, I was a senior in college, deep in interview season, and one of the guys in my dorm had been talking about working at a company (let’s call it Company A) for months. It was an awesome company where he would be doing cutting-edge work — IF he could get an offer.
He was OBSESSED with the firm. He spent weeks prepping, doing informational interviews, researching them, talking to alumni who worked there… and put together a phenomenal interview strategy. And FINALLY, after all his hard work, he received a great job offer from them.
…but then he received a job offer from Company B for about $5,000 more.
Company B was basically a financial chop shop where they took elite grads and forced them to work for 16 hours/day doing Excel and Powerpoint. It has a prestigious name, but the work is a joke (and everybody knew it). Yet they pay top dollar and pick off people like my friend year after year.
It was amazing to watch him change overnight. “Yeah, Company A is pretty cool…but B is doing some REALLY interesting things. I could totally see myself working there for a few years, then doing what I really want. Maybe an MBA? Or starting my own firm?”
I’ll never forget thinking that it only cost $5,000 to buy his dream and squash it.
Back then, I hadn’t developed my philosophies about Conscious Spending and honestly, I was more judgmental than I am now. So keep that in mind when I tell you what happened.
“Why would you turn down your DREAM JOB for a little extra money?” I asked.
“It’s not just about the money,” he said. “The work is really interesting and I think there are some good opportunities once I finish my two years there. And it is an amazing brand on my resume. Yeah, the money is good, too…”
This was a guy who’d spent months CONSUMED with getting into the other company. He knew exactly what he would do there. We used to joke about these big-name companies that just swoop in and buy the best talent, but then stick them in jobs that a monkey could do. Plus, he essentially had his pick of jobs and was graduating debt-free from Stanford (thanks to his parents). He could work anywhere and not worry about money.
Now this is going to sound a little arrogant, but I said it back then, and I still mean it today.
“Dude, $5,000?” I told him. “In the grand scheme of things, that’s NOTHING. If you make the right moves, you’ll be able to make that in a month…or even a day.”
But even though he loved this company, and had psychologically committed to working there for MONTHS, when he got slapped in the face with a fat job offer he changed overnight. It’s hard to turn down that amount, even if it only adds up to about $100 per week. It’s difficult to imagine your friends making thousands more than you do… even though you “could” have made that much.
And so he went to work there. He hated the job. But he made money, and now he’s become yet another finance guy.
This is the part that will upset people. I know I’ll get some emails from people in finance and consulting telling me how much they love what they do and that I don’t understand because I’m one of the “lucky” engineers that does what they want. But this isn’t about finance and consulting. This isn’t about people who actually, legitimately feel like the work they do is fulfilling. This is about being honest with yourself about what fulfills you - and making the conscious decision to pursue just that.
We are responsible for designing the lives we live.