I saw so many of my peers in law school focused on money.
When On-Campus Interviews (OCI) came and went, the school buzzed with gossip about what firms had the highest-paying salaries for students and first year associates.
While I mostly hung around with other law students who, like myself, were trying to figure out areas of law we were actually curious about, most of my peers just wanted to work in Big Law — assuming their life would be set if they landed a position there.
Well, it’s been two and a half years since I graduated law school, and it’s been interesting to see if my fellow classmates still are just as excited about working in Big Law as they had originally been. From some of the feedback I’ve received — and some heard through the grapevine — I have yet to hear one authentically positive review.
You know why I’m not surprised?
Because a paycheque isn’t a purpose. It’s a tool.
Most people make the mistake about first setting their target on a specific salary. When you ask them how they came up with that amount, they’re unable to give you a straight answer. Or they say it’s because that’s on par with what other similar firms pay. But, if anything, that says more about the labour market, and nothing about you and your needs.
Here’s what you need to do instead.
Define Your Goals FIRST
Define your frickin’ goals. Your short-term, mid-term and long-term goals.
What are your life priorities in the next 1–3 years?
Do you want to take lots of vacations? Do you want to buy a motorcycle?
And in the 5 years after?
Do you want a big wedding? Do you want children? Do you want to buy a condo in the Big City, a detached house in the suburbs or a cottage in the middle of nowhere?
And in the 10 years after that?
What age do you want to retire? Do you want to take expensive cruises and buy a timeshare when you retire? Or do you want to maintain a low-key lifestyle that involves spending time with your loved ones and staying in your mortgage-free home? When you’re reflecting back on your life, what memories will be the most meaningful to you?
Figure Out How Much Money You Need SECOND
Once you figure out your specific and measurable goals, THEN it makes sense to calculate how much money you will need to get you there.
If you enjoy simple pleasures like a coffee and a good book, you may not need as much money as you think. If your hobby is owning luxury sports cars, well, you’ll obviously need to earn a lot more.
But it only makes sense to calculate how much you actually need, once you clearly define what kind of lifestyle you envision for yourself.
Money is the means to afford you the opportunity to reach these experiences. If money is the goal itself, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. You can become a lonely millionaire that no one respects or wants to be around.
If You Don’t Set Life Goals, Money Will Become The Most Important Thing
If you have the privilege to have a few career opportunities, it would be foolish to automatically choose a position solely on salary.
Consider how the job will make you feel.
Does the job excite you? Does the job align with your values? Can you advance there? Are you comfortable with the work culture? Will the job place you a step closer to your ultimate dream job? If you can’t affirmatively say yes to any of these factors, I suggest you think hard about your decision. Why? Because you’ll be working there solely for the money.
Don’t forget that every job comes with strings. You’re expected, at minimum, to spend 40 hours a week in this office, doing this work. A high-paying position usually requires that you work much, much, much more than that.
If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it will be so exhausting to muster up the motivation to spend the majority of your waking hours there. Scratch that, the majority of your life there. A cocktail of stress and exhaustion is a one-way ticket to misery.
If You Don’t Set Life Goals, You’ll Consume To Be Happy
Lots of people that I know that have high-paying jobs have little time for anything else. This unfortunately means self-care, quality time with loved ones, and other important facets of a well-balanced life get pushed to the wayside. It’s not uncommon to receive a text every week that they’re tired and overworked. These downsides may be tolerable to you if the job is actually something that fulfills you. But if you don’t find enjoyment from your position, there simply won’t be many upsides except for the money.
Sure, spending money on a nice meal, fancy clothes or a new car may feel nice because those are quick pleasures you can experience that involve limited time and effort. While in some ways this is understandable, and you certainly are entitled to reward yourself for your hard work, but it doesn’t negate the fact that this materialism is just filling a void. It’s short-term happiness.
Your identity doesn’t come from owning nice things.
Why Not Diversify Your Income Instead?
A job that you hate working will leave you mentally and physically exhausted and with zero motivation to voluntarily do extra work in your free time.
But there is another way.
Have you ever thought about taking a lower-paying job that offers a healthier work-life balance and start a side-hustle to supplement your income? Everyone has a primary source of income, but no one said this has to be your only source of income.
Rather than work one job that pays $80,000, why not take a job that pays $50,000 and start a side-hustle that earns you $30,000? Yes, you may still not be in love with your $50,000 position, but it might be more tolerable if that means you’ll have more energy on the evenings and weekends. Most importantly, it may allow you to work on a labour of love. Not to mention, your annual earnings would be the exact same.
And what if you start out only making $20,000 in your side-hustle? The $10,000 loss may still end up being worthwhile to you if that means waking up excited and motivated to work on something you enjoy.
So You Don’t Want Me to Take A High-Paying Job?
If you can find work that excites you and comes with a high salary, you’ve landed the ultimate jackpot. If you find yourself filled with anxiety on Sunday night, you need to listen to your gut. With any job, it’s important to consider what you’re receiving and what you’re giving. You don’t have to love your job, but life will certainly be more tolerable if you at least like your job.
But please, do yourself a favour.
Figure out your why before you figure out your how. A high-paying job may not be necessary, depending on what your actual life goals are.
Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed this story, you should check out www.jenonmoney.com where I write about the intersection of money, work and happiness. — Jen