This guest post from long-time GRS reader Knot Theory is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.
I’m a consumer of the personal finance blogosphere as much as anyone. I support the efforts of J.D. and others who write about money because I know it’s really moved me to make some big changes. But the truth is: I can’’t always relate to their situations.
So many of these blogs seem to be written by people who work in their pajamas or by people with no opportunity cost to blog (they’re either financially independent already or stay-at-home parents). These are both great things, but I don’t hear much from a Joe Sixpack schlub with a 9-to-5 like me. Instead, there’s a lot of Tim Ferris-type noise about how us poor saps who go out and punch a clock are the suckers.
Plus, there are so many blogs advocating early retirement in the form of extremely low cost lifestyles, or quitting your big power job to become something touchy-feely, etc. You know what? That’s not everyone’s reality.
As an experiment, I thought maybe GRS readers would like to know that one of your fellow readers has, in fact, done the opposite of what many of these bloggers recommend: I’ve gone from a touchy-feely feel-good job to one that’s boring and practical — and I couldn’t be happier for it.
Doing What I Loved Led to Ruin
When I was eighteen, everyone told me that I should choose to do what I loved. Well, I knew exactly what that was: I was going to be a high school math teacher.
I worked hard for several years to become a teacher. I achieved my dream. But what happened wasn’t what I had expected.
I’ll admit that the highs were absolutely amazing. I’ll be describing the negatives a lot more here, but the truth was I loved my job. Working with the students was a rush I haven’t experienced since. I wanted to do everything I could to help them. The truth is I loved the students and they were what motivated me every day.
But there were plenty of downsides. I knew going in that there were problems in the system. I knew I’d deal with drug addiction, homelessness, teen pregnancy, cultural barriers, and other issues. Still, my first year was amazing. I was given the most at-risk students the district could throw at me. I won the accolades and approval of my peers, and I slept well after long days of feeling great.
But somewhere along the line, something happened.
As my career progressed, I got into the position where I had to report certain problems, like suspected drug use, gang activity, child abuse, and so on. The truth is, you’re never prepared for this. You do an awful but completely rational thing: You begin to build little barriers to avoid getting involved past a certain point to protect yourself. It wasn’t this kind of thing alone that wore me down, although sometimes even now at 3 a.m. I still stare at the ceiling thinking about some of it.
My growing cynicism began to take its toll, and I began hating myself for working to support an education system that I saw as corrupt. The incompetence and protectionism I encountered was amazing. I don’t mean to make it sound like my administration was incompetent and evil (ditto for the teachers). There are good people in public education everywhere, but there were things that just began to wear on me.
I realized that the job I loved so much was actually destroying me. I was living an emotional roller-coaster ride every day. The stress was incredible because of the constant mood whiplash. Most importantly, I realized I had become entirely cynical of the whole public school enterprise. That’s when I knew that I had to get out.
Choosing to Be Happy
In 2005, my father died unexpectedly. This event rocked my world and made me question everything.
I knew that I just couldn’t teach anymore. I resigned. I left the thing I loved more than any other, and wept bitterly the day I did so. The agony of that decision was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in my life or since.
Emotionally and financially destroyed as a person, I moved back to my hometown to rebuild. It took a few years of working at Big Box retail, eating peanut butter and ramen, and two horrible jobs and sharing a place with my brother, but I went back to college for four years. I was a much better student this time, I have to admit, but it was because I went back with a purpose. I wanted to get out of Big Box retail and go do something that would pay better.
I walked away with my master’s degree in accounting. That’s right: I walked away from the career I was so emotionally invested in, the thing I loved to do, and into a career that’s honestly just a job for me. It’s just something I do for money, nothing more or less.
I miss teaching a lot. Every day, in fact. But the truth is I’m so much happier than I’ve ever been. Getting out of teaching and not being emotionally invested in my work has forced me to do things besides work more. I’ve learned how to cook, I’m making new friends, I’m reading more, I’m rediscovering my love of things I used to do before I was ever a teacher all over again. I do productive things on the side too, like study for my CPA license.
The money is a wash, honestly. I make as much as a I did as a teacher, although the potential is probably greater now. And the thing is now that I’m thinking about other things, I’ve learned so much about saving, investing, and I’m doing much better with my salary and working toward eventually being independent of a salary if at all possible. Ironically, I actually have fewer material things than I did before.
It took some painful life lessons and some hard financial times to learn that doing what you love is, in fact, absolutely not the paradigm we need to follow as individuals or a society. Instead, get out there and grab what affords you the most opportunities to be the best overall person you can be.
Would I ever go back to teaching? I think so, but not like before. At this point, I’d like to think I’ll go back in the future, but as a volunteer. I won’t do it until I’m financially set to do so without caring about being paid to do it. I noticed that the only teachers who managed to hang in there for years and years without being closet alcoholics were people who really didn’t need the money, including a couple who I knew donated their salary back to the district.
Maybe for you it’s not teaching. But consider that if there’s some kind of work you’re so emotionally vested in, even if it satisfies you, getting into it may come at a cost that you cannot anticipate. I for one will never encourage anyone to “do what they love” ever again.
The wise sage Dr. Seuss once wrote:
So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) Kid, you’ll move mountains.
I’d like to think through this I’ve gained some maturity and perspective. I’ve learned that just as it’s not emotionally mature to be an idealist, it’s not mature to be cynical either. Our culture prides itself so much on cynicism like that’s the hallmark of human intellect and self realization, but truthfully it’s not. Life, the universe, and everything is so much more vast and rich than just assuming absolutely everything sucks and is terrible. It’s important to be moderate and well-tempered, and you just can’t do that if you’re not a balanced person.
Your career is just one part of your life. You might not become a much happier person just because you do the work that satisfies you the most. You have to consider the effects it could have on you as a person besides just having to do the work. You should do the work that gives you balance, and not the work you love the most.