Today I will be dispensing life advice. There’s a certain type of person who will tell you that you should follow your passion regardless of money concerns; to do otherwise would be “selling out.” This is pretty terrible advice. If eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom are not my passions, should I never do these things? What is it about money (or rather, all the things that exchange for money) that makes it unacceptable to include among one’s goals?
The big problem with this advice is that it is often given to young people. Young people have passions, but they can only be passionate about the things they have experienced at their young age. When I was young, I was passionate about painting. Now I am passionate about economics. If I had taken the oft-repeated advice to “follow my passion,” I would be struggling to make a living as an oil painter. Only by not following my passion was I able to discover a different (and much more remunerative) passion.
Compensating differentials are key. The standard, textbook definition of a compensating differential is a difference in compensation that emerges because of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of a job. People who drain septic tanks earn more than people of similar skill levels because draining septic tanks is unpleasant. People who play in symphony orchestras earn less than people of similar skill levels because playing in an orchestra is neat.
However, the compensating differential as described above presumes that people know how pleasant or unpleasant the jobs are. What would be the compensating differential for a job that everyone thought was unpleasant but that was really quite pleasant? The answer is that the perceived unpleasantness would prevent most people from entering that job, so the people who did enter the job could get both a positive compensating differential and a pleasant work experience. There’s a significant benefit to seeking out such a career!
Here is my advice: Learn what you can about the careers that both pay well and sound unpleasant to most teenagers (hint: many of these careers involve doing math). Discover the one that you find most pleasant. Make that your career.