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I Took a Pay Cut for a More Meaningful Job (fastcompany.com)
174 points by deepaksurti 21 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 150 comments



The problem with trying to find meaningful work is that 1. the pay is generally terrible, and hours will likely be long 2. if someone is paying you, it's still a "job", with all the implications, responsibilities, and power dynamics that go with that. You still take orders from a boss all day. And if it were so damn fun, then they probably wouldn't be paying you for it.

The most fun internships/jobs I've ever had were all unpaid, because I could come and go as I please, and literally work on whatever I wanted. The second you're getting paid, your personal interests are thrown out the window, and your job is now to take orders from your boss.

Of course there are exceptions. I'd imagine that being a tenured professor would be pretty sweet (though getting a job like that these days is extremely difficult and competitive), or if you're a doctor then helping save lives in Africa or something would probably be extremely fulfilling. Being a politician seems like it would feel meaningful, and they get paid solid six figure salaries.

But overall, the search for a meaningful job that also pays decently and doesn't require crazy hours is like searching for a unicorn, so for most people with the talent/luck/opportunity of working high paying jobs, achieving financial independence first before seeking meaningful work is probably the smartest move.


I don't think meaningful work has to be necessarily something with crap pay and the workload of a donkey in the first world war.

The key is the word "meaningful". I know a lot of people (and I used to be one), who would shift from job to job and leave when things weren't right any more. But this typically seems to involve taking what you are as a person as given, preferring instead to simply try and change one's circumstances to match that.

It's much easier to find meaning in your work if you're prepared to allow what you are as a person be up for negotiation somewhat, in addition to wanting to exercise a degree of control over your working circumstances.

A reflection of this is pretty easy to see in the way some people frame their decision-making when deciding whether to get a new job or not. They ask themselves "is this really what I'll want?", as opposed to "is this what the person I'll be after a few years of this will want?" or "will this turn me into a person I want?". By unconsciously taking one's self-image as fixed in that way, it becomes harder to find meaning in work and as a bonus also makes it somewhat more likely that you'll make the wrong decision because your potential future mental state isn't accounted for.

Not saying you do this at all, but that there are a lot of shades of grey between being an intern and having to do what your bosses say slavishly. And a lot of them are only really visible when you look inward at yourself rather than outward at your environment.

I've got a job at the moment that's great because of this - it's not perfect, but being able to work on what I am at the same time as shaping what this job is makes the job of finding a happy means of existence drastically easier.


>>But this typically seems to involve taking what you are as a person as given, preferring instead to simply try and change one's circumstances to match that.

Relevant quote: “The reasonable man adapts to the world around him, whereas the unreasonable man tries to adapt the world around him to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Something to think about next time you find yourself wanting to just get up and leave when things stop going your way. ;)


> They ask themselves "is this really what I'll want?", as opposed to "is this what the person I'll be after a few years of this will want?" or "will this turn me into a person I want?". By unconsciously taking one's self-image as fixed in that way, it becomes harder to find meaning in work and as a bonus also makes it somewhat more likely that you'll make the wrong decision because your potential future mental state isn't accounted for.

Thank you for this!

I think people overestimate how static the "self" actually is—everyone changes over time, and given how many hours a day you spend doing it, a job would almost definitely change you.


It's amazing how much of a revelation this can be! I remember it was shocking for me at first. The implications of being even a little less rigid in self-perception open up this entire giant conversation with yourself about how your world shapes you. And being able to talk about it is the first step to being able to do anything about it.

It's actually quite fun to think explicitly about what else you could become (and why), I think.


If the meaningful work you want to do is in education or environment... There is basically no well paying jobs.

There's no business profit in clean water or air, so capitalism doesn't cover the need. The fact there might be no customers in an area in 50 years is outside the scope of economic patterns. In 40-45 years all the current business leaders will have their pockets lined & be retired... and new leaders will beg the government to fix "the problem no one saw coming"... Shifting businesses profits today for taxpayer-funded fixes later for "economic revitalization" or "environmental repairs"

On top of these issues... if you have bills, you often can't take a pay cut to pull this off. I'd be willing to take a pay cut for meaningful work, but it would still need to cover child care and rent. My wife looked at jobs with the EPA, they offered $50k for masters degree and 8 years of experience. A single family home on 1/5th acre is $500k+. If we both did meaningful work we could not live there, let alone have kids ($1250/month child care).

We decided we just couldn't do meaningful work in the DC area and left. This stinks because we really need to be worried about this stuff for our children's future. But as long as private industry pays 50-75% more, the rising costs of everything to accommodate those well paying jobs chokes out teachers, environmental workers, and low-wage retail jobs (aside from kids still living at home)


> If the meaningful work you want to do is in education or environment... There is basically no well paying jobs.

Lambda School is an existence proof that you can do good and make money in education. Minerva University looks pretty good too. Udacity and Coursera are helping and have helped a ton of people as well. When I was a kindergarten teacher I used Starfall.com all the time. Mathletics and ixl.com come highly recommended by friends who teach primary school. Outschool.com are working on a teacher student marketplace for classes. Baselang.com is the best place to learn Spanish on the internet, hands down. Italki.com is a pretty good marketplace for language lessons too.

You can’t do much with schools really because schools are run for the benefit of teachers not students but if you want to help students there’s a lot to be done in education, and plenty of people doing it.


I just don't agree with this viewpoint at all. There are plenty of profitable startups directly focused on education and the environment. Maybe you don't agree with their definition of meaningful but don't let perfect be the mortal enemy of better.

whatever meaningful means to you should be a highly personal measure, not the classic, obvious societal ones. It also helps if the macro-benefit of the act is a symptom of the behaviour vs. the goal. example: I ride a bike to work everyday because it's fun, good for me and cheaper than driving. I dn'to it primarily because it's good for the planet, but hey, it's a nice bonus. We need to look for lots of opportunities that do good for others as a consequence of doing well for ourselves, not a subsistute.


> being a tenured professor would be pretty sweet

The grass is always greener.

I was a tenured professor (the European equivalent). Overall it was a very good position but not necessarily meaningful, and certainly not lucrative. Besides, being somewhat a second-class researcher, I was kind of stuck in my university.

I thought for a long time this was the Graal job, until I realized that there were so many cool things to do. I eventually switched job, and I regret that I hadn't done it before. Simply changing job is very refreshing.


Also tenured professor who left. I don't think of myself as second rate but academics, at least in many fields of the US, is becoming full of bullshit-chasing fads. Universities see your role as to bring in money from the federal gov, which means constant pressure to join bandwagons even when you vehemently disagree. I never felt as little intellectual freedom as I did in my tenured position. Mix it with dysfunctional top-heavy administration and it's a toxic mix. It probably varies by institution too, but then you run into the bizarre stochastic kobuki of academic hiring in a Ponzi scheme environment with excess graduates.


I was such a graduate. Stumbled into a project after my masters with no clue what the big picture was. But it turned out to be awesome. We were creating software that was planned to be developed and used by three universities. My professor's assistant had the vision, each of the three unis hired a guy just like me and we were supposed to design and implement everything. Turns out the other two had no clue about anything so I ended up doing pretty much everything while they were constantly busy doing random stuff for their bosses that had nothing to do with the project (very common thing as I learned over time).

It was such a great two years since I actually managed to finish the core functionality in a way that it was actually usable and not just a proof of concept good enough to make the ministry that funded the project happy.

I learned so so much during this time. I made a lot of mistakes, bad design decisions, but actually understood first hand why they were bad. There was minimal pressure from above, I was 99% running on intrinsic motivation. The professor didn't give a shit at all; he was really nice but I can't recall a single conversation with him about the project. His assistant had the final product in mind but since he was a mathematician with close to zero programming experience he gave me a lot of freedom, just made sure the overall direction I was heading was right, and giving valuable input regarding usability, stemming from years of experience of dealing with university staff. Oh yes, that also was a huge learning experience. Making sure professors and students from all the different faculties won't mess things up royally when interacting with some part of that system. What a little fool I was before that.

Maybe it's because it was the very first job I had, maybe because I was still a naive youngster living in a shared apartment not caring about money other than being able to pay rent and eat, but whenever I think back it still feels like the most enjoyable job I ever had.


This is basically my life right now, and it is indeed awesome.


> never felt as little intellectual freedom

What are the other things you have done, in which you have felt more intellectual freedom?

> stochastic kabuki

I love this description of academic politics, thank you.


I've worked as a "nonacademic" professional as well after my degree but before my faculty position. There there was less time for research but any research was highly encouraged. I also ironically felt more freedom as a grad student and postdoc for similar reasons.


If you had tenure, why weren't you free to research whatever you like?

In other words, what recourse did the university have at that point?


Just curious. Are you financially well off ?

Are you very confident in your skill that you have no worry of being unemployed at all ?

My personal opinion is that people who are not gifted but work very hard and have an average IQ can not take risks like leaving a tenure job unless they are free of financial responsibilities.

What are you thoughts ?


What was your next job?


Having a "boss" is something that happens as a result of anything needing hierarchical organization, regardless of pay, though. I'm not sure if you've done much volunteer work, but there's pretty much always a string of people in charge and you'll still largely be taking orders to ensure that you and everyone else are actually contributing in a helpful way instead of just dicking around.

If you don't want a "job" you probably just want a hobby.


If you hate having a "boss", you can always become your own by starting a company.

In software, you can get into consulting and contract based work. That way you can be somewhat selective about your clients. Focusing on finding contracts where the work you do is contributing to something you value personally.

Having multiple clients also empowers you to feel like you can so "No" to a client without worrying that you will lose your only source of income.

Also, hobbies are a great way to offset the stresses that come from working on projects you do not enjoy. Spend your free time working on something you enjoy, simply for your own joy.

Also, word to the wise: It's important to remember that no matter your employment status, you are _always_ your own boss. It is your life you are living. Choose how you want to live it


Getting into the consultant and contract based work is what I did about 6 years ago, my only regret is not doing it sooner.

It truly is a level of "fuck you" freedom, especially after you've built up your nest egg.


Or try a hobby that doesn’t require work at all, but rather play, with friends. Simple stuff - throw a disk around at the park, play some cards against humanity, etc.


> Being a politician seems like it would feel meaningful, and they get paid solid six figure salaries.

There was an article I think on the New York times about how every representative and senator had to sit and call donors for money pretty much all day as in they have a quota to meet. Once you have donors, it is basically the same thing as having an employer I'd imagine. Especially with large donors.

I imagine self funded billionaires don't have that problem but then that's not limited to politics I would think


sit and call donors for money pretty much all day as in they have a quota to meet

My brother pointed out to me the goal really is to be able to control your own schedule. I guess that isn't it.


And, unless you're at the higher levels, politics doesn't pay especially well. In most states, serving in the state house of representatives isn't even a full-time position.


The notion that meaningful work is inversely correlated with pay is one of the most detrimental myths that prevent smart people from even starting to look for high-impact companies and roles. It's a convenient but weak excuse.

Off the top of my head, here are a couple of high-impact, high-paying companies that are currently hiring: - Tala (https://tala.co/) - Upsolve (https://upsolve.org/) - Jupiter (https://jupiterintel.com/) - One Concern (https://www.oneconcern.com/) - Promise (https://joinpromise.com/)

There's thousands of other companies we've vetted for Dolphin, a jobs app to find high-impact, high-paying work tackling everything from climate change to healthcare reform. We're still building out the MVP but feel free to stay updated at https://www.splashwithdolphin.com.


> The notion that meaningful work is inversely correlated with pay is one of the most detrimental myths that prevent smart people from even starting to look for high-impact companies and roles. It's a convenient but weak excuse.

> Off the top of my head, here are a couple of high-impact, high-paying companies that are currently hiring: - Tala (https://tala.co/) - Upsolve (https://upsolve.org/) - Jupiter (https://jupiterintel.com/) - One Concern (https://www.oneconcern.com/) - Promise (https://joinpromise.com/)

"Meaningful work" does not mean soving social problems (as all your examples in some sense do). I know lots of great mathematicians and physicists who would find it magnitudes more meaningful to solve problems from their respective area, but could neither get a job in academia nor there exist companies where you can work on such questions.


It is just supply and demand.

There are many aspects that make a job more desirable: pay of course, but also how meaningful, interesting, flexible, safe, comfortable... it is.

So if you don't want to sacrifice on one aspect, like pay, some else will, and he will get the job. It is especially true if it doesn't require special skills you have.

The worst is if you are an expert in the field of your current well paying but boring job. All that expertise may not translate well into the "more meaningful" job you found. So not only you will be against people who are ready to get paid less but you will also be less competitive.


You’re generally correct, but unlike pay and flexibility (which are often zero-sum games) comfort and meaning are very individual. What is deeply uncomfortable or meaningless for one person might be tolerable and meaningful for another.

This means those four variables aren’t as summative as you make out.


Unpaid internships are tricky and something to avoid unless expectations are clear from both sides since the beginning. "I could come and go as I please", sometimes, is not compatible with somebody taking responsability and signing some documents that the intern must present somewhere, specially in fields with more offer than demand.


Toxic people or circumstances that breed toxicity can be everywhere also in places where you don't get paid.

For me it is about learning, trust and appreciation, which is a cultural thing.


Plenty of stories in academia of the research being impactful and exactly what a researcher loves to do but they ultimately walk away from being wrung dry by a toxic boss.


A third problem is that it is often pretty hard to actually find a meaningful job that is hiring.


I did this in 2013. Went from working in a lucrative, stressful high frequency trading systems development environment, into developing systems for humanitarian organizations. Loved the work, the next two years were the happiest and the most chilled out in my life. The negatives: burnt through a lot of my savings. I'm back in a different industry now, and the return was a bit painful, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Advice:

1. Have at least two years worth of savings, or an alternative source of income that can cover all your basic expenses, or don't do it.

2. Don't take a job that requires you to work harder than you did in your old job. In the beginning, the change will be invigorating, but soon it'll start to wear you down. During my "sabbatical", I worked only six hours a day at most, saving plenty of time for family and personal pursuits.


It's also sometimes possible to get some small contract work with the employer you are leaving, so long as you don't burn any bridges. ( At least in software dev. There are frequently systems no one else knows how to maintain etc. ) It might not be a very appealing idea, but a few weeks work of this type a year can go a long way to offset loss of savings.


But in your case there is also a moral dimension, not just self-fulfillment: Financial speculation is parasitic and socially harmful without actually providing anything of actual real value. So, IMHO that's a switch worth making for essentially any decent job.

Also, about working harder - that depends on how hard your old job was; and some of that hardship is sometimes due to working on something you would rather not be doing.


Financial speculation is parasitic and socially harmful without actually providing anything of actual real value.

Is it? Farmers hedging against crop failure are getting a useful service, it's allowing them to invest in a crop without the risk of bankruptcy. The same goes for airlines who hedge the price of fuel, not many people would run a business that risked collapse if the price of oil goes up by 10%.


The futures market ran fine before the massive high frequency trading vampires running around. Liquidity isn’t a moral good.


Liquidity isn’t a moral good

It does make markets more price efficient though, as a small investor I prefer this over being dependent on the whims of someone like Warren Buffet.

massive high frequency trading vampires

It's a relatively small industry, profits in the US peaked at approx $5B in 2009 and have declined since. [1]

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-frequency_trading


> Financial speculation is parasitic and socially harmful

Well, I can tell you from personal experience that mom-and-pop investors can't really compete with co-located HFT algorithms, and that they do seem to shift wealth further into the hands of wealthy investors (who can afford these systems).

The industry did leave a bad taste in my mouth, but I feel they perform an important stabilizing function within the markets. These algorithms tend to be based on massive amounts of historical data, so one can think of them as hyper-rational. I feel (without anything to back it up, of course), they can guard against markets going into emotion-driven feedback loops.

That said, I am a supporter of alternatives such as the Long Term Stock Exchange (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-Term_Stock_Exchange).


> I feel they perform an important stabilizing function within the markets

I'm not convinced that's true. E.g. see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228261350_The_Flash...: "We conclude that HFTs did not trigger the Flash Crash, but their responses to the unusually large selling pressure on that day exacerbated market volatility." That doesn't sound at all like "an important stabilizing function".


> Financial speculation is parasitic and socially harmful without actually providing anything of actual real value.

Is it parasitic? Look at it like mushrooms, which is what hedge funds are to our society.

They both eat dead and rotting tissue. Eg. overleveraged companies or companies which lie to the investors to defraud them. Hedge funds short the hell out of them to clear out space for better companies.

Are mushrooms and financial speculators parasitic if they feed off dead bodies?


I know dreadfully little about finance, and your comment is quite intriguing. Could you kindly elaborate?

How do hedge funds work, and what makes them particularly suited to recycling pathological businesses? Are there any notable examples?


Strongly recommend you get The Little Book of Hedge Funds by the Mooch himself, Anthony Scaramucci. Succinct and filled with history.

But the basic concept of a hedge is an investment to offset risk you've taken on as part of another investment.

The typical purpose of a hedge is to smooth out your expenses or returns - for example, you can use the futures market to more or less "fix" the price of whatever raw goods your business needs.

Large equity hedge funds take this concept to the "raw goods" of companies on the stock markets. They take a overall long or short position in the market and then offset that by making smart individual long or short bets on companies they think will over/underperform the market.

So to answer your question, what makes them "suited" is the business is based on their ability to identify companies out of step with the market. They do a tremendous amount of research and analysis to accomplish this, and they share this research with their investors so you can make an informed decision on whether to invest in their hedge fund or not.

Think of them as well trained bloodhounds or military scouts, able to spot danger or opportunity before others are aware of it and take swift action to deal with it.


What if you had doubled down on saving at the first gig, worked that a few years more, then stepped into the humanitarian gig with all the runway you needed? Plausible?


I will chime in here as I did something along these lines. It's not worth it. If you/anyone wants to do meaningful work. Make lots of money, use the extra money for things that matter to you. It's a hard learned lesson. But everything improves when you are getting paid more. Your colleagues, the opportunities, literally everything


"everything improves when you are getting paid more"

This is demonstrably not true, as shown by a slew of studies on happiness. Past a certain point, more money does not meaningfully impact your life and make things better. That point is different for different people in different locations, but signing up for golden handcuffs is a fantastic way to make yourself miserable.

If you've got a choice between 10% more pay to work with people who make everything suck, and 10% less to work at a place with interesting projects and people you like, take the pay cut. From personal experience, no amount of hobby funding will make up for you hating your job.


Often, the pay at the more meaningful job is under that happiness threshold.


Outside of the likely salaries for people on HN I would agree with you. However, I'm fairly confident tech worker salaries start at or above the threshold in most locations.


Also, tech workers often have the luxury of working remotely, so there may be the option of relocating to a place with lower cost of living (if the meaningful workplace allows remote work).


Money can buy almost anything but time. No salary can give me back the 8+ hours every day it took to get it. Why not just spend my time doing the work I want to do in the first place?

More money for the same job is always better, but if it means I have to take a job doing something that doesn’t contribute to my goals, it’s a poor trade. I can always make more money. I can never get back spent time.


This is incorrect. I took a 10% pay cut to join another shop with a better work culture. In this case it was not that the new domain was more meaningful but rather the way everyone worked. When you can feel the impact of your work on your clients a lot of things also improve.


I am glad it worked out for you. But give it time. Everything compounds. The firm that's paying you more is signalling that it's financially healthy and taking right business decisions. Of course pay cut for a startup adventure that's compensated by possible rewards using stock grants, is not comparable


Or, as is often the case in banking for example, they're signalling that they're especially fucked up and no one any good would work there if they "only" paid market rate.


>The firm that's paying you more is signalling that it's financially healthy and taking right business decisions.

I care why exactly about any of that? If the firm goes under then I move to another one. I have no vested interest except in my own level of happiness.


I have witnessed multiple situations where a high paying company had a very poor management team and a terrible work culture. People did stay here mainly because the pay was good. The 10% pay difference was because the first company was in the financial domain and the other was not. I have witnessed other case of people moving out of a financial software shop with similar results (better work/life balance, better satisfaction, slightly lower salary at the beginning).


>Make lots of money, use the extra money for things that matter to you.

"I'll fix it later."

I suppose this is how the people building our surveillance state justify the work they're doing?


I don't know how you reached to that conjecture. This whole "state is evil" idea is very mass market now. And I hear even people just entering the workforce holding such views. I personally think it's just mass consumption gone crazy. Where people are completely detached to reality. They don't really think how governments work and why they take some decisions. It's some netflix series, movie, some article that has slowly turned entertainment into their reality.


This is what the FIRE movement (Financial Independence and Retire Early) is all about. I would highly recommend the book "Your money or your life" by Vicki Robin. The best approach to switching to more meaningful work is to start by getting your financial life in order. I speak with personal experience: I realized earlier this year that I did not need to feel stuck in a dead-end job and this gave me the courage to quit.


The Fire movement is pretty harmful imho. I think it benefits the authors and podcasters much more than it helps actual people. It probably works for very specific personality types. And really shouldn't be sold to anyone and everyone.

I have friends in their 40s who retired early. And most of them are loosing their minds. It's sad and frustrating to watch. They have nothing much to focus on daily, and after a few years of it, you can see the cognitive decline compared to the rest of the peer group. Their people skills keep degenerating, from lack of constant challenges that the middle aged adult deals with at work or home. And that mounts over time, making lot of things harder and harder.

I get all the frustrations people (rightly) have with institutions, govt and corporate robot wonderland, but I have done more interesting and personally satisfying things being within those structures, than I have done anything outside them.

Financial independence is not just an emergency eject button when faced with difficult choices. It a big asset in the corporate world while competing with a cohort that is deep in debt (alimony/kids college/health expense/mortgages/golf club membership etc etc). Sooner or later everyone in any org knows who can be bought and who can't. Both kind of people have value to the org and impact on the org. People who misunderstand that, end up pushing the eject button prematurely.


Cognitive declines in their 40s because of not working professionally?

That's the first time I've ever read this, so I'm very skeptical.

But if it were me (and I'm working in that age range right now), I'd be jumping on personal projects I've always desired. Writing, in particular. And probably a little tech project stuff in areas that interest me.

May I offer that many of these wealthy people you know aren't intellectually-minded? That's certainly true of most financially successful leaders I've come to interact with.


This article and post is timely, because I "retired" last Friday (I'm 37). It doesn't ring true at all to me that retiring would necessarily be bad for your cognitive skills. Maybe it depends on the type of person, but I'm engrossed in personal cognitive pursuits, such as teaching myself machine learning, putting together an app of my own for the first time, indulging my writing hobby, and of course spending more time with my daughter. It is these very pursuits which led to me retiring; I want to throw myself completely into them instead of dabbling with them on the side. I don't see how someone would "lose their mind" from retiring, unless retiring aggravated other vices such as drinking or watching excessive television.

I've no doubt one's personality slowly changes when no longer chained to authorities saying what to do and when to do it, and when no longer exposed to corporate "culture". That's quite different than one's brain turning to goop. After only a week, my brain feels clearer than ever as the cobwebs of work stress slowly clear away (it still hasn't landed that I don't have to work ever again). Maybe his friends who are "losing their minds" are just seeing the world a bit more clearly? Or perhaps they were uniquely unsuited to retirement, lacking any intellectual pursuits?

I'll probably write an article on my experience in a year or two and let you know if my brain has turned to goop, assuming I can still read/write when that time comes!

Edit: as long as we’re throwing out competing anecdotes, the only person I know personally who retired so early is wildly successful. Far more than he was at work.


> the only person I know personally who retired so early is wildly successful. Far more than he was at work.

If he's wildly successful, did he really retire?


Well, that's the rub, right? Anyway, what he did was get super into his hobbies, one of which was "urban gymnastics" (or whatever it's called), and eventually ended up on the Indonesian version of American Ninja Warrior, in his 40s (!!), which I found pretty inspirational.

Not a lot of money in that, at least for most people, so I think it's fair to call it retirement.


Exactly. Another example of the same thing: how quickly did your parents go bonkers after the last of your siblings moved out?

Now make this happen like 30 years early. There's a lot to be said for having a job but not needing it. It gives you the chance to look up from just waiting for payday and view your position in your org in much greater detail, because you can afford to take a few chances.


I dunno, my parents did not go bonkers after we all moved out. They turned into much nicer people. Adults I could actually talk to 1:1


While I agree with the point that parents can absolutely be happy/happier when their kids move out, them being adults you could talk to after you moved out probably has more to do with you maturing rather than them ;)

Or, more nuanced, everyone involved was able to develop and chill out!


As a parent I can see that a lot of conflict with children has to do with them being (or us seeing them as) something we have to steer and prod in the right direction. And a lot of resent (also reward) is created by having them in your space constantly messing things up or putting demands on your life. When your kids are taking care of themselves, and living as autonomous adults... the relationship changes.

As an adult, I moved back in with my parents for a few months in university, prior to moving out to Toronto. At first it was fine but within a few months the same old conflict with my father came back. Being in 'his' space made it hard to be friends.


My daily routine looks something like this nowadays: spend mornings studying logic programming. Afternoons, I fire up my GPU cluster on AWS and try out some NLP experiments. Some days, I'll work on Haskell if I feel like it. Or possibly training a CNN to control the trains on my model train layout. Its fun :-)


unless you're working towards a phd or freelancing why would you waste your entire day doing this?


A day full of intellectual stimulation and fun doesn't sound like a "waste" to me


Sigh... I feel like, even five years ago you wouldn't have to explain this at HN, of all places. But now, it's partially HN, but also partially get-paid-lots-for-programming-news.


Indeed, I already have a PhD (machine learning - 1992) and I worked in software development for 28 years, mostly doing what others told me to work on. I now get to do whatever I want.

I've always admired the way Knuth has spent his "retirement" and this little quote summarizes my goals too: "my role is to be on the bottom of things"

(see https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html)


seems like a waste if youre not applying what you learn to anything practical.


Would you say the same to someone writing a novel, painting, or composing poetry?


if youre studying perspectives and color theory all day but never paint a picture then whats the point?


The poster's activities ("studying logic programming", "NLP experiments", "work on Haskell") are the equivalent of painting or composing poetry: a creative activity done for enjoyment. A better analogy for you (not that studying perspective and color theory couldn't be enjoyable in itself even if you don't paint... though of course it's a very different sort of activity from painting) may be "If you paint all day for your own pleasure but never exhibit or sell a picture then what's the point?" (not sure whether you would say that)


I know many workaholics that have retired in their 40s and 50s, almost everyone worked either in the medical or technological field. One common thing was that almost everyone came out of retirement shortly after, and either started doing consulting or went back to some employer with better hours.

I think that if work is such a big part of your life and identity, then simply going cold-turkey can have adverse effects. Work is often not just work - there's a huge social aspect to it too. Your co-workers, clients / customers, people that you interact with a great deal.


Looks like in your last paragraph you came around to what I was going to say. I find that focusing on the FI half is pretty satisfying.

I'm not there yet, and I don't know what will happen when I get there, but I do know that I have a heck of a lot more savings than most of my peers, and it leads to me being a lot more relaxed at work when things start to get stressful (Or maybe I am just more relaxed by nature).

To me, it really comes down to the NN Taleb version of FIRE which is "Fuck You" money.


And even if it isn't about FU money, there are degrees of FI. There's a big difference between being able to move to a tropic island if you feel like it and not worrying about the next mortgage payment if you've had it with a current employer.

But even the latter creates a lot of degrees of freedom. Being able to honestly say and act as if you can walk out the door tomorrow if you feel like it does a lot for stress levels.


FIRE doesn't necessarily mean retirement, as you touch on later it can be a valuable position to be in even if you continue working. Independence is the single greatest luxury that money can buy so labeling the FIRE movement as harmful, especially based on a few anectodal data points, is very strange.


I believe the internet goes to big extremes. I only want to read a newsletter from the “be a bit more prudent and save some more and then retire at the normal time with a reasonable expectation that you won’t run out of money” movement.


Measured advice does not a cult following make :-)

Personally I agree with you. Financial prudence doesn't need to equate with freaking out at the thought of having a restaurant meal with friends. Nor does having certain organizational routines mean buying into some complete time management "system."

I do think some people feel they need the structure of systems that are at least in principle pretty absolutist though.


I also highly recommend "Early Retirement Extreme: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Financial Independence" by Jacob Lund Fisker.


I also recommend ERE too. It is really a distillation of the FI philosophy. Very good to have in your mental toolbox.

The discussion about increasing the savings rate was really illuminating.Some might be put off by the "Extreme" part and the occasional tendency to go to great lengths to save costs, but that should taken as being tailored to oneself.

The forum is also a nice place for lot of interesting discussion with good people.


> Most Americans say they would give up a more lucrative job for a more meaningful job that pays less in a heartbeat.

{citation-needed}

Obviously, someone struggling to make ends meet and having little retirement savings is hardy in that position.

Oh wait, we're only talking about what people say! Well, sure, people say such things --- in an idle moment when thinking ramifications through is temporarily off the table.

"Gee, I wish I had a more meaningful job, even if it paid less (just as long as I could somehow maintain my current lifestyle). Also, I won't get into numbers about how much less. Maybe just a few hundred dollars a year less, that type of thing."

The key metric would be, how many people act on this impulse. How many Americans are actually switching to lower paid jobs that are more meaningful? And are actually meaningful, that is, and where that is a choice: not being forced to switch to a lower-paying job and then rationalizing it afterward as being more meaningful.

I suspect plenty of people would also take a less meaningful job for more pay. What could be less meaningful then getting money for doing nothing? Yet, that's what a lot of people want, such as anyone who buys a lottery ticket.


Personally I've estimated the quality of life I get from working on something fun and meaningful to be about 12-15k/yr. That's the gap between "dream work" and something like generic CRUD business logic type stuff. A huge part of that is the "dream work" also being 40h with decent flex hours, good coworkers, and good management. That 12-15k number is potentially upward of 40k if lacking those.

You spend too much time at work to not enjoy it. And I value my own time and enjoyment highly. I wouldn't want to sell it for less. The lower side of the software engineer payscale is still enough that I have more than I want day-to-day. The main limits it imposes on me are house/car/early retirement related things.


> Also, I won't get into numbers about how much less.

They get into numbers in the second paragraph; up to 23% of lifetime earnings.

> The key metric would be, how many people act on this impulse.

We can get a rough tally of how many are acting on it from labor stats[1]. And I'm assuming all of these are what people view as "meaningful" work; I work in finance and find it plenty meaningful but I imagine that's a minority view.

Quoth the BLS:

Total employment: 144,733,270

Community and social service: 2,171,820

Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations: 1,951,170

Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations: 8,646,730

Healthcare Support Occupations: 4,117,450

Education, Training, and Library Occupations: 8,779,780

So if those broad areas hit the "meaningful" buttons, you're looking at about 17% of the workforce.

> What could be less meaningful then getting money for doing nothing?

Totally had that doing government contracting. The trouble is you realize it's a trap: if you ever need a real job your lack of doing anything means you're fucked.

> Yet, that's what a lot of people want, such as anyone who buys a lottery ticket.

More realistically, anyone who is investing passively. But that's not a job or your profession, and when people talk about "meaning" they're asking "who am I?" If you're a carpenter, your identity is wrapped up in the houses you build, for instance.

What the article is missing is the classic dichotomy of work to live vs. live to work.

If your profession is who you are, meaningful work is more important in shaping your identity.

But if it's not, the "work to live" paradigm, you're making money to support something else. If you're working to take care of your family, you're a father or a mother first. If you're working to support your art or projects, you're an artist or an engineer regardless of your paid job title.

[1]: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm


23% is remarkably little considering compound interest and the marginal utility of money. It sounds a little bit like the old nugget, "how much money do you need to retire?" and the answer is always "a little bit more than I have".


The citation is provided, with a link to the study:

> Nine out of 10 Americans say they would give up a significant portion of their paycheck–up to 23% of their lifetime earnings–if they could swap their day job for more meaningful work, according to the Harvard Business Review.


I think most Americans who say that are already in a position of privilege. It's pretty easy to take a salary hit and teach school children about rockets if your job at raytheon already bought your house and put your kids through college.


Sure people in prison SAY they want to leave, but how many of them ACT on it? That’s the REAL question.


Surely getting a lower paying job is easier than breaking out of prison. Not to mention that they aren't going to send dogs after you in the woods to get you back behind your old desk.


Personally I disagree with both the article and most of the comments. I don't particularly care about meaningful work, I enjoy solving problems that matter and I'm good at it so I want to do that. Retirement, however, doesn't interest me since most interesting impact-full problems are in industry. I actually like having a boss who does all the boring things regarding running a company so I don't have to. At the same time I will trade money for a less stressful job (ie: less politics, better boss, less boring work, etc.).


>> I don't particularly care about meaningful work, I enjoy solving problems that matter and I'm good at it so I want to do that.

Isn't this the same thing? Meaningful is highly personal & contextual, so a problem that matters IMO definitely is meaningful.

Being good at something valaueable that you enjoy is one of the key measures of a life well lived for me, so kudos on that.


Thanks for posting this. I was surprised to see the comments in this thread weighing so heavily in the opposite direction.

Finding meaning in your job doesn't mean that you have to accept terrible pay and long hours. It just means that you've put thought into what you'd like to get out of your career besides a salary. It's possible to find a realistic middle ground between fulfillment and max salary.

Because everyone spends the better part of their day at work, performing work that has no meaning to you comes at huge cost. You will never recover that time.

Personally, I figured I had enough to be comfortable and would rather spend my limited time optimizing things other than my W2. My last career move was an 80% pay cut. In retirement, I would do similar work according to my interests, so why not cut to the chase?


Can you say more about the difference between impact and meaning? What would be an example of meaningless impact that has value to you?


To me, meaningful would mean something like helping the poor or working for a decent non-profit.

On the other hand, working for an ad-tech company and increasing revenue by 40% through some machine learning would have impact (on the company, clients, users, etc.) but not be particularly meaningful.


I don't see "meaningful" as referring to something like helping the poor, I see it as referring to feeling fulfilled. If that involves helping the poor, more power to you. Me, I took a $20k paycut to switch from writing node js all day to pen testing at another firm and I could not be happier. It's been two years since switching and I still look forward to waking up and going to work each day instead of groaning and dying a little on the inside. Paying $20k/year to be happy and feel fulfilled is a complete steal in my book.

Just my own anecdata though.


Beware the seduction of perceived martyrdom. Are you really helping people, just making yourself feel good, or are you doing what you think other people will perceive as selfless? And yes, there's overlap between them all.

Ad tech is a second order business. You're helping other businesses fulfill their purpose. I don't blame you for not finding a connection to value there, but that doesn't mean you can't find one in traditional industry.


It feels like you’re talking about fulfilment, at which point we’re not really talking about the work itself, but the stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning.


Nothing creates more meaning for you than to create the opportunities based on knowing what you love. Since we're all different, different things create meaning for us differently. Rarely will a job someone else creates push our buttons best.

I created my course at NYU and wrote the book Initiative https://www.amazon.com/Initiative-Proven-Method-Bring-Passio... to create a step-by-step process to unearth each person's passions. I find that reflection alone or taking online quizzes doesn't reveal passions like action does -- that is, taking initiative (thoughtfully, with a process that works).

Recently, one person started blogging his results doing the exercises. As of August 25, here's his latest: https://anthemoftheadventurer.com/2019/08/23/exercise-6-10-p....


Thanks. I hope I can find ways to extract the essence of your method and subtly incorporate it into CS education.


Let me know if I can help. I'm easy to find online.


I can add some perspective. One and a half years back I took a 80 percent pay cut to join a 10 member startup. My salary now has improved to almost 60 percent of my previous company. I don't really regret that decision though and here are few things I clearly thought about before making the decision.

1. Learning and growth opportunities at the new place

2. Autonomy around my work

3. People

I think people derive meaning when they see that their ideas are appreciated and users care about the product. I liked the people at my previous job, however the first two items were somehow missing.

It also helped that one of the co-founders at the startup was a friend from undergrad.


Looks like some of the people interviewed in the article are unhappy with their job change, and some are satisfied.

The bottom line is it's a big risk to take, and such a choice may mean having a more fulfilling career but also having a lot less money in retirement. It would be interesting to see how many of the happy people in the article will still be happy when they are retired.


... and how many of them died before retirement and never got the enjoy the fruits of their hard work.

... and how many of them find themselves with lots of money in retirement, but discover that they have missed their window to spend quality time with the people they love. Spouse has died, children have grown and moved away, etc.

So there are risks in the other direction as well.


My father retired "early" (at age 59) and was diagnosed with a brain tumor the same year and passed away. It's so true that "waiting to retire" is a huge risk if you're banking on indulging your hobbies then.


I think the lede is buried here, since it doesn't sound like any of them regretted their decision of seeking more meaningful work. The take-away seems to be that it may not happen right away with the first job you take and it may take some time to get adjusted (from a high-earning lifestyle).


Life is short. You can't take money with you. Do what you want to be doing now, not later. Scrimp and live cheaply > hating a stressful life of luxury/debt/peonage/agony.


>“I was eight months pregnant,” she says. “They escorted me to my desk with a box to collect my personal belongings, and that was it.”

In many a European country the company would be illegal in doing this.

Employers only recently got the ability to fire pregnant/breastfeeding women in the EU, and only as part of mass lay-offs.


It's illegal in the US to fire someone for being pregnant (FMLA).


Yes, but you can mask it as not being for it.


unless you work at will


AFAIK FMLA covers at-will employment (which is the vast majority of employment in the US)


This confirms my belief that one should find a job they're good at and retire early instead of attempting to improve work-life-balance by trying out "feel-good" jobs. Success at what you're cut out to do makes you happier than chasing the current mainstream moral agenda, saving the world and so on.


I don't disagree with you, but when you said "one should find a job they're good at", what you really saying is "find a job that pays a lot that you can also do well".

I don't think working a boring high paying unfulfilling job inherently makes one happier than "saving the world", but having financial security and good work/life balance is certainly superior to working long hours, living paycheck to paycheck, and flirting with poverty.


Money doesn't but happiness. But not having money tends to bring a lot of stresses sooner or later.


Absolutely. There's this popular sentiment today that says anyone can do/be anything. It's certainly popular in tech, but I have limited knowledge of other areas. Talent is becoming a bad word.

But I'm convinced that one of the keys to happiness is to live a life that plays to your strengths. If you have a natural aptitude to problem solving etc then you could become a really good engineer, or you could become a mediocre violinist. Which is going to lead to a more fulfilling life?

People are born with natural talents. We should be encouraging people to do what they're good at, not telling them they can do whatever they want to.


I think this comes from the fact that we have automated/formalized most of the meaningful work. If you spend 10% of the time solving problems and 90% playing petty office politics, it doesn't really matter how good of a problem-solver you are. Especially if most of the problem-solving part comes down to following clearly defined procedures.

The flip side is that the economic contribution of a single employee becomes vanishingly small, affecting the salaries, or rather what you can buy from them.

I agree with you that building your life on top of your natural strengths is the most fulfilling way of spending it (having done so myself), but I think these days it is extremely hard and is only possible if you manage to start your own business and grow it to the point where it can pay your bills.


What if most people are not good at what society currently appears to value?

I don't think most people are against doing what they are good at (or even, what they like), it's just that discoverability is poor and in a lot of cases the most important thing ends up being a certain brand of social or political skill, and not the other secondary skill you might posses. For people to play to their strengths, we need a society that can detect and nurture those strengths, and I don't think we have that right now.


I value free time even more than a meaningful job because I can spend my free time doing anything I want.

How much money would you pay to free up 50% of your time? I decided that was worth $70k, going from a $100k job to a $30k job while working on a beach.

I have friends my age trying to retire early which means they spent their 20s and now onto their 30s working their ass off which aren't the years I'd be so eager to throw away at work.


Those choices are much easier without children.

Once you have children, then you need to be in the better school districts, in the area with better income security, hence you’re now competing with other parents also trying to secure as much as possible for their children, and on the treadmill you go.


I think the reality is, if we're talking about tech, that many companies market their "mission-driven" culture to make it seem like what they do somehow has more meaning than working at Google or Amazon but it's mostly just a ploy to get people to do exactly this e.g. take a pay cut and feel OK about it when, in reality, what they do is probably not any more "good" for the world than what a big co is doing.

I recently went to a talk on "effective altruism" and came away feeling like that was a better model for impact e.g. make a lot of money and give a lot of it away to organizations and causes where the measurable ROI is the highest.


Can’t see how encouraging people to take more “meaningful” jobs isn’t just another form a vicious ladder kicking disguised as feel-good advice that will stunt their financial growth for several years, and possibly make them unable to ever catch up to their peers.

People who already have a fair amount of wealth independence are the ones who can afford to take “meaningful” jobs. If that’s not you, there’s no shame in being in service to a corporation and getting paid good money for it. Our values of what is meaningful changes over time, and it’s not worth taking paycuts to chase such mercurial ideals.


I agree, sometimes you have wait and work for a guy you do not like in a job you do not particularly enjoy. If you can stand it and it pays your bills it's ok. I guess, the real problem is when people have the opportunity to change their jobs for the one of their dreams but they are simply too scared to get out of their comfort zone.


I took a $40k pay cut to work in social good, and I can't recommend it enough. I have an advantage in that I don't have a family or dependents though. Just putting this out there in case any one's thinking about it but thinks it's too crazy: it's a lot more crazy to spend the most productive hours of your life on something you at best don't care about, and at worst actively despise.


>Katy Rey was running a large call center in Florida and working long hours when she heard about opportunities at Tesla’s solar panel division. Rey jumped at the chance to work for a company where she felt she could do something more meaningful, even though her salary would be slashed in half. “Everyone was taking pay cuts in the room,” she says of an early training in Vegas. “And the people they recruited were outstanding.” They could deal with the pay cut, Rey says, because they felt like they were “saving the world.”

Well, Musk himself did not take any pay cut, so that should have been a pointer...

>Rey felt like the company found intelligent people and convinced them to push their limits. (...) Six months into the job, Rey was abruptly laid off over the phone

When "changing the world", companies should start with how the treat their own employees...


I think the question around performing meaningful work is largely rhetorical; the challenge is where do you find meaningful work?

We tend to love the romantic notion of throwing away the high paying meaningless (to us) job to follow your dream, but in reality it tends to be more of a dream than the way things work.

I wish more people would put some deep thought into (1) defining what meaningful work in their context would look like, and (2) building a strategy for moving from their current state to the desire one that doesn't involve essentially throwing away what they have to start over.

As far as trading money for meaning, I see this as an alternative view on the well known limits of extrinsic motivators; you'll trade any money beyond your personal level for deeper purpose. The key then is figuring out what this amount is, then evolving into meaningfulness.


I took a pay cut to go to my last company. Every employee of the original company was getting abused so badly by the founder that I really would've taken anything. It just so happened that the company I was taking a pay cut to go to had tremendous opportunity for growth, and what started as a medium sized paycut turned into a huge pay increase. I'm glad it worked out that way, but I'm certain that pattern is in no way common.

Now, I would probably take a small cut to do something I was excited about. I've been working with my therapist to try and figure out specifically what that would be, but I haven't had a ton of luck.


I'm also now kind of doing the same thing. I left a high-paying job in NYC/SF and am now applying for remote jobs. The compensation for remote work looks like it'll technically be a paycut from my NYC/SF salary, but I think the freedom of being able to live where I want, work my own hours, and not have to deal with office bullshit will made it worth it - not to mention the cost savings from not giving away an extra #1-2k/month of your paycheck to NYC/SF landlords.


I feel this on some level but at the same time, I've personally never had an issue finding money to go along with meaningful work in our industry. Maybe I'm just lucky though! A few of my friends work in public sectors, love the work, and don't make much but they are definitely happy. Just can't see myself not making good money over something I'm passionate and reasonably good at. Especially for the level of effort and impact I'm making.


I would be happy to take a pay cut to help people again, but I'm not willing to take a big enough pay cut to be a realistic candidate in the non profit world. The conflict between my real and ideal values tears me apart daily


Any discussion about a meaningful job will benefit from a look at 80,000 Hours -- https://80000hours.org

Making a positive difference in the world is a great thing to do.


Meaning is just a story that people tell themselves about their job. Its as much about personality and framing as it is about the actual tasks and duties performed.


I did this once. Great life experience. I left two years later, but that was after traveling the world on the company dime.


as a developer, and software builder this is relevant. would you make more writing in a code / framework you don't like. or take a small paycut but be remote and write code in a language / framework you like ?


Honestly, there’s so many variables you can’t assess about a new job, that unless you are 100% sure about it (or driven mad by your current job) you shouldn’t make the jump for less money. You wanna be happier? Then make the jump for a job that pays less because it requires you to WORK less. Try working 4 days instead of five or 6 hours instead of 8. Now that’s a change.


You make a very good point. I think the biggest factors that can determine happiness at work are the immediate boss and the immediate teammates, two things that are very hard to assess until you have already joined the new place. But the money is easy to assess and guaranteed because it is written on paper and it is legally binding. A boss with a good attitude, however, isn't guaranteed, no matter how rosy things look during the interviews. So it makes sense to never take a pay cut unless there are other compensating factors that are also guaranteed. Working 4 days instead of 5, or 6 instead of 8, seem like those things that can be guaranteed by the contract and would be worth taking a pay cut for.

This reminds me of a personal story when I interviewed for a very popular startup in the valley. They boasted of working 12 hours every day. I had a competing offer from a non-startup which required me to work about 7 hours every day. The CTO of the startup agreed to pay me 20% more than the non-startup. I politely explained the CTO that I could work for 12 hours every day, however, I would need a 70% more pay than the non-startup's offer, so that I feel I am being compensated commensurate to the time and effort I spend on the company. The CTO, now visibly upset, said, "If you like working 7 hours every day, please do join that other company!" while completing missing the point that I am okay to work for 7 hours or 12 hours as long as the pay is commensurate. Needless to say, I joined the other company for lesser pay and lesser working hours, and I am quite happy about the decision because it leaves with me a lot of time in the evenings to pursue my hobbies and also pick up new fun technologies to learn.


> because it leaves with me a lot of time in the evenings to pursue my hobbies and also pick up new fun technologies to learn.

As someone who has hired developers in the past. This "12 hours CTO" missed a good opportunity. It's much better to work 7/8 than 12. As frequently, developers when they get home. The itch will get too much and then start tinkering and learning new things in their personal time.

Of which, the time spent will benefit the company and they can put those new skills to use in a professional environment. Win-win for everyone.

Being visible at a keyboard for 12 hours is not.


I think it was pretty nice of you to use a linear scale. If a company wanted that much more of my time I would have quoted them a premium (just as an hourly employee might make overtime in such a situation).


Exactly. The utility of income is not linear. The first 10,000 dollars are much more useful than going from 190,000 to 200,000 a year. That's why the tax system has a progressive structure. If you want me to work 10% more then you need to pay me more than 10% more.

And that does not even consider that my free time is very limited. If I have say 2h of completely free time everyday (24 hours minus work, commute, chores, gym, household crap, etc) and I need to work just 1 hour per day longer, then that cuts my free time per day in half. That is HUGE. You better pay me a lot for that.


There utility of disposable income is perhaps not linear. But I can tell you I enjoyed my second raise a lot more than my first. My first raise gave me just enough to start saving money over time, no room for quality of life improvements. My second raise is what allowed me to start spending money to enjoy myself.


What the tax system doesn't respect is that my life might be better and more productive if I spent a year earning 200,000 and then took a year off, then if I worked a 100,000/year job the entire time.


You can get around this by taking the year off from July through June (I've done September through March it worked well for me and my taxes) :)


I thought someone would say that :), that's a combinatorial optimization that happens to work in the exact scenario I described, and assuming no further constraints.

But you lose out if you instead want to do 2 years on 2 years off, or if your one-year employer doesn't want you to work July to June, or if your year-off plans don't work July to June, or any number of more complicated scenarios. My point stands that the system isn't designed to support this kind of irregular high-income work.


if the company routinely requires 12hrs working days, i would stay away from them anyway

that just ensures low quality code,high pressure environment and people always on the edge ,not to mention high turnover and constant burnout and low morale

unless this is for a specific period,this is not a sustainable policy


I joined a startup back in 2009 and negotiated a 4 day work week for a 20% reduction in pay. Spent my day off doing community ministry work in a poor neighbourhood. It was great. The day off provided fulfilment that the job never would have.

It helped that we were in the middle of the GFC and the idea of 9 day fortnights were in the news as a way for employers to cut costs.

Later I managed to keep that job and work remotely, living in a smaller town with low living costs. Even better! The small town also had fibre in our street so for a while I had faster internet than head office :-)


That sounds like a great arrangement. What were your for workdays like, did you work 8ish hours or did you have to work longer days?


Ha! In my interview they asked that. 8 hour days.


What part of the employment agreement guarantees you “meaningfulness”? I know the parts that guarantee my pay & benefits.




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