On Thursday, I featured a guest post from Free Money Finance that proved to be surprisingly controversial. His five steps to six figures in seven years offered solid common-sense career advice for those looking to boost their incomes. Many readers disliked the post. (Though they didn’t hate it as much as FMF’s previous guest article.)

Though I don’t share all of your complaints, I do think some of you made an excellent point: Just as money is more about mind than it is about math, so too a rewarding career is more about personal fulfillment than it is about raking in big bucks. I agree that I’d rather work at a low-paying job that I loved than make $100,000 a year at a job I hated. I’d rather be happy than rich.

In response to FMF’s post on Thursday, Mike wrote to share his predicament. He’s hoping GRS readers can help him decide what to do:

I feel like I am at a crossroad in my career, and I truly don’t know what to do.

I am 31, married, and have two young children. My wife is well respected in her field and has a good salary; she likes what she’s doing, and has opportunities for advancement. We have a pretty hefty mortgage, but it is totally manageable with our current income stream. We also have a considerable monthly cost for day care. Overall, our financial situation is decent and improving.

Anyhow, those things aren’t the issue. The issue is me. I am in the IT field, but it is just not something I’m passionate about. My job pays well — $75,000 a year — but I am on call a lot and work a lot of hours that go un-noticed. I dread getting up and going into the office. My fear is that if I try to switch careers now, I won’t be making that much money. I’m not as happy as I used to be doing this type of work.

Part of my problem is that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I really enjoy working with my hands, and I am very handy. I have remodeled homes (mine, my parents, and some friends) and I have done some commercial construction projects (in-laws used to own a property management company).

I am just looking for something that drives me right now. I can honestly say that I am not a good leader, almost like I need someone to be a mentor to me, as I have never really had that. I am willing to work hard, and I know I would have the support of my wife and family with whatever choice I make. I just can’t justify leaving a good paying job right now without having a clue as to what I want to do next.

I need some help.

Mike’s situation is far from unique. In fact, I get e-mails like this all the time. There are many people who feel trapped in jobs that they hate, but who cannot quit because of the financial implications. What’s the solution?

The best thing, of course, is to find a career where these two intersect: a job you love that pays well. This isn’t always easy to do.

The first — and most difficult — step is to find out what it is you really want to do. What would make you happy? (And how can you be sure?) In researching my book, I’ve learned that meaningful work is one of the keys to personal fulfillment. Research shows that if you have a job that matches your personal values, you’re much more likely to be happy than if you’re doing something you find meaningless. But it can take a lot of soul-searching to determine what exactly “meaningful work” is for you.

I also think it’s important to reduce your lifestyle as much as possible in order to give yourself flexibility in your job search. The lower your expenses are, the more options you have. If your lifestyle costs $10,000 a month, your family needs to earn at least that much (more, after taxes) in order to maintain it. But if your lifestyle costs just $5,000 a month (or, better yet, $3,000 a month), you have a much wider range of career options.

In our e-mail discussion with Mike, FMF offered some good advice:

Is it really the IT field that you hate or something else? Maybe it’s the company you’re working at or the people you’re working with. Maybe it’s the aspect of IT you’re working in (for instance, you may hate database management but end up loving web security — or something else if you tried it.) Or maybe it’s the industry you’re in. Perhaps you’d be fulfilled as an IT consultant working on various projects for clients rather than trapped with one company doing the same thing over and over.

There are lots of factors to consider and I highly recommend you think about the various options before you ditch the career (and the valuable asset) you’ve built over the past several years.

I know that some people argue that a job isn’t something to be loved. Work is work and you should treat it as such. I don’t agree. I’ve had jobs I hated, and I’ve had jobs I loved. I believe it’s absolutely worth sacrificing income to find work that is meaningful and fulfilling.

But how much should you sacrifice? And how do you find this meaningful, fulfilling work? What steps should Mike take to change his situation so that he’s no longer miserable? And how does the current economy affect his options? If you were in Mike’s shoes, what would you do?

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