Should You Go for Meaning or the Money? A Debate

A debate on how much to prioritize material acquisition.

Posted Jun 13, 2014

Society’s mind-molders are schools, colleges, media, and religion. Pretty much with one voice, they urge us to prioritize meaning over money. Yet many people go for the money, even many of our best and brightest. For example, Harvard’s 2014 Senior Survey finds that 1/3 are going into the two most lucrative fields reported: finance and consulting.

Here’s my internal debate on money versus meaning:

Marty Nemko #1.  It’s easy for teachers and the media to preach meaning over money but in reality, if you’re a Mother Teresa, you’ll definitely be poor but be far from certain you’re making much difference. For decades, zillions of people have worked on behalf of the poor yet the achievement gap is wider than ever. In contrast, if you go for the bucks, the benefit, although smaller, is far more certain: you’ll more likely have a nice house in a nice neighborhood, nice car, good health care, etc. Those things matter.

Marty Nemko #2: You’re painting too extreme a picture. People who work for nonprofits don’t starve.

Marty Nemko #1: Nonprofits rely heavily on unpaid volunteers. And nonprofits get many applicants for each paying job, so they can pay poorly and expect you to work long hours for The Cause.

Marty Nemko #2: A for-profit job can be meaningful, for example, if you’re even peripherally involved in, for example, developing or distributing a better smartphone or medicine.

Marty Nemko #1:  But too often, corporations are all about profit, which doesn’t provide as much societal benefit. Even with something as life-critical as medications, drug companies introduce new drugs that aren’t much more effective than generics but because they’re patentable and thus they can charge a fortune for them.

Marty Nemko #2: You can also find meaning, of course, in creative work: writers, artists, performers. But unless you are very talented, well-connected, or lucky, ideally all three, you risk poverty.

Marty Nemko #1: I know some creatives who'd rather live on ramen and canned tuna and with four roommates in a slum than get a straight job.

Marty Nemko #2: Most of them get tired of that after a year or two of banging on doors and usually never getting paid more than minimum wage for their art. How many actor wannabes trek to New York or Hollywood and then a few years later, crawl back home with their tail between their legs?

Marty Nemko #1: You’re assuming you can find meaning only in creativity or a product that makes the world clearly better. But even being an accounts-payable clerk who makes sure everyone gets paid on time should feel they’re doing meaningful work.

Marty Nemko #2: And because fewer people want those jobs than say working for an environmental nonprofit, they tend to pay better.

Marty Nemko #1: I think the biggest point that hasn’t been made so far is that studies find that beyond a bare middle-class income, people aren’t happier when they make more money.

Marty Nemko #2: That’s partly because an employer usually pays big bucks only if the job is hard, requires long hours, is stressful like litigation attorney, and/or is soulless, for example, bond trader.

Marty Nemko #1:  Another reason that money beyond a middle income doesn’t make you happier is because after the momentary good feeling of, for example, buying a new Mercedes rather than old Toyota, doesn’t yield enough incremental pleasure to compensate for the worklife you just described—hard, long, and stressful.

Marty Nemko #2:  Also, if you live in a fancy neighborhood and have other rich friends, it’s hard not to get sucked into Keep-up-with-the Joneses.  If they say they’re vacationing in Tahiti, it’s hard to tell them you’re going to the Catskills.

Marty Nemko #1:  I feel this is getting too one-sided. Remember that money buys lots of things that people do care about. They can decorate their houses in a way that makes them feel proud to have people come to their house. They can hire a gardener so the outside looks great without their having to plant, mow, weed, feed, and water. If they want plastic surgery to look 10 years younger, they can afford it.

Marty Nemko #2:  Those are weak bases for choosing a career. Remember, you spend the best hours of your day, the best years of your life working.

Marty Nemko #1:  I’m not feeling any clearer about whether to prioritize money or meaning. Maybe that’s because the golden mean is appropriate here: Strive to make just a middle class living doing something that feels meaningful to you.

Marty Nemko #1 and #2: Sounds right.

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

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