Nathanael Garrett Novosel, December 1 2021

Is Money More Important Than Meaning?

Money.  Nothing in this world seems to be both sought after and demonized at the same time.  Can money buy happiness, or is it the root of all evil?  Is it more important to earn money or be happy or feel fulfilled by your career?  How you answer the question will go a long way in what your life path looks like.

Before we analyze the question, let's quickly define the three terms involved:

So, you are now faced with the choice: do what you love and find meaningful, or make more money?  How do you decide?  Well, you'll want to keep the bigger picture in mind.  Let me explain.

As we said, money can be used to buy goods and services.  And there are many forms of growth that can be enabled with said goods and services, such as physical (via food, gym memberships, etc.), intellectual (via school, etc.), and social (via outings and activities, etc.).  So when someone says that they entered a career that could afford the lifestyle that they wanted to live, that's what they mean: the income enables them to do what they want to do and provide for the people that they care about to a level that satisfies them given the effort required and their skill set.

Unfortunately, some people look at professions like computer scientists, data scientists, or other fields and think, "Boring.  I want to work on my art!"  In essence, they see the high-paying fields as either requiring many, many extra hours or not being the type of work they'd be interested in.  So, it seems to become a matter of trading off money for interest.

The good news is that it's not necessarily the case: you can combine your passion and your desired income to find something that works for you.  Just like I've mentioned in past posts that if you get injured playing sports that there are still plenty of paid positions in the industry, you don't have to choose between being miserable yet rich as a [insert field you find boring here] and financially struggling yet fulfilled as a [insert field you find fulfilling here].  For example, if you like art but want to earn the money that a businessperson makes, you can become an art dealer.  If you like music but can't break through as a superstar, then you can become a manager, an agent, a promoter, a graphic designer for the cover art, or a million other jobs that could keep you close to what you care about and pay a decent salary.

So you can marry doing something that interests you with something that pays well, but you can also make what you do more fulfilling.  For example, you can work for a company that helps foster the next generation, helps to maintain or improve health, or brings food to disaster areas.  In that case, what you're doing is more based on what you're good at because what you're contributing to is more important to your fulfillment than exactly what your role is in the mission.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to balance your interest, ability, and income potential as appropriate.  The great news is that it's completely up to you: follow your passion and be willing to live modestly, go for the money and live the life that you want (or save up to do what you really want to do), or find an option that balances the two (or, at best, gets you both!).  But, most importantly, it's not actually a tradeoff between money and meaning; it's a tradeoff between your job being meaningful and the fulfillment you can attain from what you do with the money that you earn through our job when you are not doing it.

Remember that there is meaning in financial growth, as many people find the status that they gain or the good that they can do with it to be meaningful to them.  Yes, you can argue that money is not the meaning but rather delivering value to others and accumulating the resulting freedom and security from money is what is bringing that sense of meaning and significance.  But I'm not here to judge your intentions.  Financial growth can be your purpose, or it can be that money is a means to health, family prosperity, helping other people grow, growing a business, spending more time doing something else, etc.

In summary, the meaning of life is growth, and financial growth is one—but not the only—form of growth.  Money is usually a means, not an end.  The end is what money gets you; you can find meaning in what you do for others, what you can do with the money, or both.  You do not necessarily have to choose between them, but if there is a tradeoff then make sure that you make the right one for your overall life goals and not just to maintain status amongst your peers or family.  If you do things for money but it's empty, you won't last long doing it before you burn out.

On a final note, it's important to remind yourself that money represents a positive thing: value delivered to others.  If you have a negative opinion about money (e.g., you have to be evil to get it, some people accumulate “too much”), then you'll either see poverty as a virtue even if you're miserable or you'll unknowingly sacrifice potential life goals simply because you refused to accumulate the money necessary to achieve them.  If you instead see money as how you prove that you’ve contributed to society so that you have the freedom and security to pursue other areas of growth in your life, you can be okay with earning money—even/especially when you actually enjoy doing the thing you do and would do it even if you weren't paid.  And, in a great counterintuitive twist, seeing money as a means and not an end will ensure that you do not glorify it, cheat or swindle someone to get it (i.e., acquiring it while making someone worse off), or earn it without regard to whether you enjoy what you do in exchange.  And that last point is most important: when you have a healthy understanding of what all matters to you and incorporate money as just another factor, you are more likely to do what's best for your overall well-being vs. earning money for things or appearances.

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Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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