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The Dark Side of Pursuing Meaningful Work: Welcome to Sacrifice City

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I’m a rather upbeat person. A glance at virtually anything I’ve authored tells that story.

That said, I’m also a firm believer in truth, and sometimes “upbeat” and “truth” conflict.

Today is one of those days.

Welcome to your personal tour of Sacrifice City.

A Lifestyle Choice

First, a clarification:  when I encourage the pursuit of meaningful work on this site, I am, in essence, endorsing a lifestyle choice.

The search for and retention of a life filled with purpose and deep life satisfaction isn’t some fad diet we pick up and try for 10 days to see if it’ll fit. On the contrary, such a life arises from consistent and committed choices made over the course of hard-fought decades.

I wouldn’t support this lifestyle if I didn’t deeply believe it is worth having. Every single piece of data I can get my hands on – including my summated first person experiences – indicates it’s the way to go:

But anything worth having comes with sacrifice.

And right now, I’m feeling it.

Benefits, Meet Cost

Staying true to my upbeat nature, though, let’s first consider the benefits I’ve gained through a commitment to meaningful working – and living. Benefits I believe any of us can reap, if we want to badly enough.

  • Freedom
    • The following questions make me pause long and hard whenever they’re answered:
      • Who’s your boss?
      • What are your work hours?
      • How many sick and vacation days do you get a year?
      • What’s your work phone number? (I honestly have no clue – who the heck uses the phone these days?)
    • Not being able to readily provide a straight answer to those questions = freedom (to me, at least)
  • Autonomy
    • Related to freedom, autonomy goes one step further, into the moment-by-moment decisions of my day. I pick what I want to do when. Some tasks are non-negotiable – like, say, grading papers and exams – but precisely when they get done on a given day is up for grabs.
  • Purpose-driven sense of mission
    • In contrast to the work-structure questions I can’t answer, there is one question I can answer without pause:  “Why?”  Ask me why I’m doing just about anything in my life and I have an answer. A personally meaningful, deep-seated answer. That’s not for nothing.
  • Concentrated time with my family
    • Researchers find that 100% of respondents say “relationships” create meaning in their lives. 100%! In a society where we can’t agree whether we prefer the cookie or the cream in an Oreo, that finding seems pretty compelling. So my husband and I have both made conscious decisions to maximize family time, including taking jobs that give us summers off (and thereby foregoing the many better-paying and potentially satisfying jobs that don’t meet this requirement) and choosing to turn down freelance and coaching gigs (athletic for him, career for me) to have late afternoons together year-round.

Good stuff, right? Absolutely. I’d make the same decisions a thousand times over to gain what I’m so fortunate to currently have.

And yet.

Yet there comes the moment of reckoning when you have to look hard in the face at all you’ve sacrificed to get what you have.

We’re talking here, of course, about the ol’ four-letter word that always accompanies benefits:  cost.

Meaning or Money?

Without a doubt, the most notable cost for my life’s many benefits is money. The big buckaroo. The almighty dollar. The smacking smackaroney.

Wait, that last one didn’t make sense.

The point is, there’s a whole heck of a lot I’m not going to have in life because I’m so committed to meaningful, purposeful living. And sometimes it makes me downright ill.

At this very moment we’re preparing our house to go on the market and searching for a new home in a community with strong schools and highly engaged parents.

Shorthand:  we want to move to a place where a good deal of money is flying around.

Put another way:  we’re looking to move where we can’t afford to be.

Speaking of which, here’s a great way to get acquainted with meaningful working/living costs:  Spend a Sunday afternoon house hunting. Drive by the houses that are too “low-income” to warrant an open house. Step inside the “fixers” you can barely afford. Then torture yourself a bit by visiting a house $100K or so outside of your price range. Before long, “meaning”, “freedom”, “autonomy” and “family time” become a jumble of nonsense words an infant spews out at the dinner table.

Seriously, as of last night I wanted to take my high-values, eye-on-the-big-picture, creating-a-life-I’ll-respect self and shake the bejesus out of her, screaming, “go off and finally accept a fricking job that’ll pay you what you’re worth and will enable you to afford a house in which you and your kin can stand upright in the bedrooms!”

Man alive!

[Note:  Is this a first world problem? Abso-total-lutely. I get that. I see that. I feel gratitude for that. And now on with my (extremely common) first world crisis.]

We’ve occasionally touched on money at Working Self in the past – most directly in Money and Happiness: What’s the Right Balance? and less so in the recent How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills - but I don’t write about money often because I honestly don’t think about money often. Again, an amazingly fortunate situation, I know.

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t think about it because I have so much of it – cue the laughing cat there – it’s because I don’t typically see the value of beyond-basic-needs money.

I learned early on that the best way to stay true to a meaningful lifestyle is to steer clear of commercial traps like, say, the mall, or magazine ads, or, well, just about any public place in our society.

Before you think I’m a major hermit (!), I should clarify that I steer clear mentally. We did visit the mall this weekend, for instance, but I didn’t set foot in a single store or browse in a single window. We were there for the food court, the Easter bunny, and the carousel, thank you very much. (And even at that, it would’ve been much cheaper to stay home.)

Bottomline:  when I don’t look at all I’m not able to have, I don’t realize what I’m missing. That way the benefits are free to loom large and splendorous in my mind, enabling me to continue to make the tough calls in life, like turning down a ten-thousander in exchange for some quality family time.

The real estate search, however, unavoidably flips this whole approach on its head.

The Final Reel

Why am I bothering to tell you all of this? Truth in advertising.

You need to know what you’re choosing when you say, “I want a job that feels meaningful.” Or, “I want to create a life I can feel proud of.” Or, “I want to make a difference.”

What are you willing to sacrifice to have those things? Seriously:  how much are you willing to give?

There is no “half in.” You either pick the path ripe with freedom, autonomy and purpose, or you’re a slave to the clock and the dollar. (Show me the lucrative, fulfilling part-time job that you can get without sacrificing your morals and I’ll change my take on that.)

Bottomline:  we have to be 100% clear on that answer before starting pursuit of a life filled with meaning and life satisfaction, or else our commitment to the path will prove as steady as Russell Brand’s commitment to Katy Perry.

Intentionally and actively creating a meaningful life necessitates looking at the whole picture – the entire, un-airbrushed, ugly cracks spidering from the edges sort of picture – and considering whether we’ve truly got the stomach for it.

Maybe in your case what feels meaningful will also happen to be lucrative. Kudos on your luck, if so.

For most of us, however, the path that picks us can cover the bills (and only after some major strategic tweaking), but it ain’t gonna buy us the house we always imagined our children growing up in within the sort of neighborhood where parents invest time and energy into being present and aware.

I trust that my future self won’t care about the latter part of that sentence. I trust that she’ll review her life and think of the memories made within the walls of the ranch house she never wanted, not the “cozy” square footage encased within those walls. I trust that she’ll know she conducted the right cost-benefit analysis for her and her family, and will have great dignity and integrity about her choices.

My current self, though? The one who wants a hit of in-the-moment pleasure now and again?

Quite honestly, she’s feeling quite blue.

And that, my friends, is the whole picture.

Photo Credit: DecoDesignCenter.com

Rebecca Fraser-Thill About the author: A career coach, college instructor, blogger, and speaker, Rebecca Fraser-Thill empowers young adults to lead the lives they imagined they’d have. Drawing on psychology research, a decade of work with twentysomethings, and her own quarterlife frustrations, Rebecca encourages millennials to transcend the platitudes and pursue meaningful, fulfilling lives.

What do you think?

4 comments… add one

  • Hi Rebecca, I’m going to disagree with you slightly. I don’t think it needs to be an either/or proposition.

    I think if we want 100% fulfilment – then maybe this is true – though in every niche you can find people at the upper levels who are deeply fulfilled AND making a lot of money. It’s about choice.

    I think we can choose to have a portfolio career – to look for multiple income streams – some of which are more fulfilling and some more financially rewarding. It may take a lot of leg work to find those, but they exist.

    Also, the choices we make today do not lock us in for life. If you choose to prioritise money for 10 years to give your daughter the house you want, it doesn’t mean (a) you have to forgo all fulfilling work and (b) that you can never change this decision.

    It’s a decision you take, based on your priorities for the moment, and we live with the consequences.

    I think the idea that we find a great career that brings us major fulfilment and we park ourselves in it and live happily ever after only exists in fairy tales and marketing materials!

    In the real world people adapt, change channels, try new things out. They have periods where they’re really happy and maybe some other stretches where they put their head down and push the plow.

    But that’s part of the richness of life.

    So if you want the house AND you want to live a fulfilling life I think there’s a way you can do it. It might not be easy, it might not be clear, but it’s possible.

    Or maybe I’m wrong! But I’d love to hear what you think….

    • I love this pushback Steven, and the opportunity to stretch my thoughts. You have a terrific point about portfolio careers (I love Pam Slim’s book “Body of Work” on this front) and I do agree that we can/should have multiple income streams that perhaps may be serving different purposes in our lives. I agree that we never “park ourselves” in a dream career – but I do think we can build a meaningful thread over time (that “body of work”) that can exist for decades. I don’t think that’s marketing; it feels very much what I’ve lived for a decade – and hope to continue to build for the decades to come. But it takes hard choices and sacrifices to keep that thread alive – at least in my experience.

      I do worry about the notion of taking 10 years to make money, and then moving back toward “fulfillment.” Given that humans tend to increase their standard of living to match their means, it is very hard – you’d need a will of steel – to go back to having less income once you’ve grown accustomed to having more. I’ve seen this very thing shove many of my former students “off course” permanently. i.e., they intended to pursue one path (“X”) that they genuinely found meaningful and fulfilling, but then got a big-time, high-salary job offer (“Y”) that they couldn’t refuse and accepted it saying, “I’ll only do it for a couple of years, just to build my bank account so that I can go back do X.” I have spoken to SO many of them who, five or ten years in, want out of Y but can’t figure out how to do it because their standard of living has been built around that income. The only former student who I saw “escape” was let go during the financial crisis and couldn’t find another job in the field – so she went back to X and is now SO happy (in contrast to her rather miserable Y days).

      Life is indeed a puzzle with shifting priorities and it’s impossible to know what’s down the road. Perhaps I should consider accepting some more lucrative opportunities, even though I can foresee all the ways they won’t fit with me and my “thread.” I suppose it’s a question of trade-offs, and making such trade-offs is never, ever easy.

      Thanks for all the food for thought!

      • I guess what I’m trying to say is that in any situation it doesn’t have to be a choice between X and Y. I think there is always some way to have some of X and some of Y and be happy with that. The glass is always half-empty or half-full depending on how you look at it and joy and fulfilment can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I just worry anytime we present either/or options because I think it creates panic – it certainly does with me. Quite recently I found myself telling my husband: “I feel like there’s a fire and I can’t decide which of my babies to save!” But the point is that these choices really only exist in our overactive imaginations. 99.9% of the time, you can save all the babies. I’ll check out Pam Slim’s book – I’m not familiar with it. Thanks!

        • You may be able to save all the babies…but often not simultaneously! It’s funny because as much either/or options cause you panic, the promise of “you can have it all” causes me panic! All too often that type of thinking slips into “you SHOULD be able to have it all” – creating undue pressure that makes people kick themselves when realities appear and tough choices need to be made. I agree that we can have some of everything – but that comes at a cost, too: not having our fullest experience of either one. It all comes down to choices and priorities. I went into more detail in this week’s newsletter: http://us7.campaign-archive1.com/?u=a929a54cad79bc8b52ce66c60&id=ae314cb8e7&e=3839effd86 (I loved this conversation – thank you so much Steven!)