Don’t do what you love for a career—do what makes you money

Good advice isn’t always inspirational.
Good advice isn’t always inspirational.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Thiessen
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The white-haired old guy who inspired me to rush home and write out a five-figure check was not an investment advisor or a lifestyle-design guru. I never even learned his name. We only met because I happened to be sitting in the café car of a Washington DC-bound Amtrak when he got on board and started drinking.

Do not make eye contact with a man gulping Bud Lite first thing in the morning, I told myself. Then, because I’m a weirdo, too, I looked up and made eye contact after all.

“It’s my last day of work,” he explained. “From tomorrow on, I’m retired.”

That changed things. Suddenly, the least I could do was buy him another beer, and let him tell me how he’d been making the same commute every weekday since a year before my birth. No, his wife wasn’t retired too; she’d died a few years back. What he hoped to do now was travel, maybe do a little volunteer work. “I’m lucky I’m still able to physically enjoy things,” he said.

I went home that night, having thought all day about what it would be like if I waited until I was 65 (or even 45) to retire. Would my husband be dead by then? Would I be so drained after a lifetime of work that I’d just be grateful I could still walk and eat?

With all this in mind, I sat down and I paid off my last remaining debt in the world: What was left of my mortgage. After the check went through, the balance read, “PD IN FULL.”

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This was possible only because, however, coming out of grad school eight years ago, I made a deeply unsexy career choice: To work full time for money, not passion.

I know, I know—it’s not exactly the stuff of magazine covers. And on one level, this approach goes against everything our culture tells us we should do with our careers. Everyone from your graduation-commencement speaker to your parents’ neighbors to your best friend will likely urge you to use your talents to pursue your dream job no matter what.

And what could possibly be wrong with urging people to do what they love? What kind of monster would urge people to consider a petty little thing like financial security? Let’s face it: No one has ever designed an inspirational poster of an eagle soaring of a canyon with the caption, “Actuaries make decent money—lots of stability, too.”

But there’s something to be said for financial stability. Eight years ago, I was married and living with my in-laws. I had $300 in my checking account, no health insurance, and $22,000 in student debt. All of which highlights the first caveat about this pursue-your-passion business: It’s probably much better advice for someone who’s born rich, or holds a tenured academic position, than it is for the rest of us 99 percenters.

That’s not the only argument to be made against it, either. For starters, it’s almost always worthwhile to think through the contrarian view of any pervasive cliché. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in her viral 2014 article for Jacobin, the do-what-you-love mantra can end up devaluing necessary but unglamorous labor—as well as the working-class people who perform it. (Nassim Taleb, Alain de Botton, and Mark Greif have offered up their own criticisms, too.)

And are we really so sure that the best thing to do with passion is attempt to monetize it, anyway? Why assume it’s easier to turn passion into money than it is to turn money into passion? Why not side hustle for love, and keep the filthy hands of commerce off our art or beloved hobby?

What if you don’t have a grand passion, anyway? Lots of people don’t. Hell, just keeping the lights on is a tall enough order for a vast majority of people.

Beyond the basic flaws of a philosophy that urges emotion over practicality, there’s a strong, proactive case to be made for choosing a career based on money. Here are just a few of the things I’ve come to realize over the course of my career:

1. Working for money gives you a welcome clarity of purpose. If you’re like me, and you spend a lot of your time wondering about life’s big questions (and spilling La Croix down the front of your shirt), then it’s a humongous relief to have total focus in at least one arena. Working for money is like a tropical-island-screensaver of the mind. You always know what you are doing. There’s no confusion. 

What’s more, it’s worth considering the motives of those who want to convince you to work for love, not money. Maybe they’re clouding the issue so they can pay you less than you’re worth.

2. Most of life’s problems are intractable. Money is that rare problem that’s possible to (mostly) solve. Say you’ve got a difficult relationship with your Mom. That’s something you may eventually learn to cope with, sure. But because you’re dealing with the wild variable of another person, this is not a situation that you can really solve for.

Money is different. Pile up enough of it and you can drastically alter your circumstances, eliminating the worry of sudden medical bills or, eventually, your kid’s college tuition. I’m not saying it’s easy—far from it—but it is possible.

3. The sooner you have money, the less money you need. Every dollar you save and invest in your 20s and 30s becomes many dollars because of compound interest (and what finance types call “time in market”). All this means that, if you do your saving now, while you’re young, you won’t have to sweat this crap all that hard when you’re in your 50s, and retirement is closer at hand—or at least, should be.

4. Likewise, if you work for money now, as opposed to passion, you’re generally in a better position to pursue your passion later on with no financial stresses. Imagine being able to paint or sing or act or write lyric poetry about your cat and not worry about how to pay the rent, like some lucky trust-fund kid. This is my dream, reader, and maybe it’s yours, too.

5. Financial independence is an inherently rational goal—the “fuck off fund” carried to its logical conclusion. To a greater extent than most of us want to admit, you’re only as principled and independent-minded as your bank account allows you to be. So if you really want to be free, not just from one bad relationship or one bad work situation, but to do what it is you really want to do, you need the dollars first and foremost.

I realize all this is easy for me to say when I don’t actually have all the money yet. Maybe, as Biggie warned, “the more money we come across, the more problems we see.” Buy me a Bud Lite in a year or two and I’ll tell you if it’s true. Right now, I can only think of those potential problems as ones I’d be really glad to have.

“Did you love your job?” I asked the man on the train, hoping to hear some ultimate secret about how to balance money and passion, about making a living versus actually living. “Do you have any regrets?”

He just shrugged and changed the subject. “I’d rather talk about my retirement.”