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  • Kimiko Ebata

The Paycheck/Purpose Paradox: Questions to Ask Yourself Before Pivoting


A record-breaking 4.3 million people quit jobs in August--about 3 percent of the workforce, according to a Labor Department survey that came out last month. “Pandemic epiphanies” are being credited as the motivation behind this “Great Resignation,” as workers depart their jobs for greener pastures. This surge comes as no surprise given that COVID-19 has caused nearly two-thirds of US-based employees to reflect on their purpose in life according to a recent McKinsey survey.


With these new considerations, professionals are grappling with many existential questions, and the money-versus-meaning conundrum is no exception.


If you find yourself facing this dilemma, know that as long as you continue asking yourself whether you’re on Team Money or Team Meaning, you will never find the right answer, because you’re asking yourself the wrong question. These two drivers represent a false dichotomy; both are just two measurements of what one values.


After graduate school, when I was faced with deciding between purpose-driven nonprofit jobs in the U.S. versus higher paying intergovernmental work abroad, I worried about making the wrong decision. Instead of getting stuck, ask yourself these questions to help you find the right balance in your next role.


What is my current measure of success?

In their book “Designing Your Work Life,” Dave Evans and Bill Burnett find that while most people care about their success in making money and their success with making an impact, creative expression is another way for people to measure what they make, at work and in their lives.


If you were to create a dashboard of three gauges, one for money, one for meaning, and one for creative expression, which would be the biggest motivator for you right now? How would the other two compare? The objective is overall fit and consistency with your goals and stage in life.


If you find that you are most driven by meaning and are considering how you would like to influence the world, you can look at this in two ways: 1. the type of impact you would like to have and 2. the purpose of that impact.


The type of impact includes how you want to contribute your skills in this meaningful way. Is it by repairing broken systems/things? Or is it by supporting current systems/things? Or perhaps it is by coming up with new ideas? The purpose of your impact refers to how you would like to touch the world. Is it in a more personal way that is close to your life? Or is it farther away, say on a global scale?


What can I afford to lose?

When considering whether you can afford to sacrifice some of your paycheck for a more purpose-driven role, it is important to outline the minimum that you would need to make, if you were just barely “getting by” should you decide to make a move away from a paycheck-driven role towards one that is more propelled by purpose.


Instead of making up a budget of what you think you will need, first, keep track of how, in actual fact, you do spend your money on a monthly basis. To determine your salary floor, multiply the amount you need each month by 12, to get your annual figure. Then divide the yearly figure by 2,000 (estimated hours one works per year), and you will be very close to the minimum hourly wage that you need. This will be the salary floor that you will use when researching organizations and speaking with professionals in your target field about potential roles.


What do I have to gain?

Myriad studies support the argument that meaning is the new money. There are a number of benefits to moving into a more purpose-driven line of work, which can include a better work-life balance, increased productivity, and improved relationships in some cases. It is important to include these non-monetary motivators into your calculus.


No one can afford to live out a life that isn’t on their terms. Take this opportunity to find and maintain the balance of money and meaning that is right for you. Once you find that balance, I think that you’ll agree that having a meaningful life that includes a career that counts is priceless.