In my psychotherapy and coaching practice with gay men in my office in Los Angeles and all over the world (through webcam), I frequently help guys with career planning. One of the biggest themes in discussion lately has been about intrinsic, inherent rewards of the job or career choice, versus the extrinsic rewards. If you’re a young person planning your career, or someone older who is planning a career change, these considerations are important.
Intrinsic rewards of your work can be about doing work that is meaningful, such as helping your fellow humans or deriving the reward of creativity or artistic expression. This can involve working for a socially-meaningful non-profit organization, or working for social justice. It can also be about having a convenient, flexible schedule that allows you time to work on your hobbies or for caring for others, or about whom you work with. The value comes from things inherent about the job, and how it fits into your own personal system of values. Extrinsic rewards are when the work itself might be less interesting or satisfying, but it pays you the salary to have a better commercial lifestyle, or robust fringe benefits, perks, comforts, or status in your community. While it’s easy to “judge” those who only work for extrinsic rewards, one must consider the demands of providing for your family, and being free of the frustrations of under-earning, even it carries a “sellout” stigma to it. Most of the clients I work with have some degree of inner conflict about these often (but not always) competing rewards, and trying to achieve a balance.
Recently, I was working with “Evan”. Evan had been working for a non-profit doing contract compliance work overseeing government funding contracts. It didn’t pay all that much, and it wasn’t rewarding to him. Given this, he wanted a new job. He was interviewed for a job as an administrative assistant at a record company, and also interviewed for a promotion at his current job. He was conflicted, because he wasn’t all that interested in records, but thought it would be a change from what he’s been doing. He wasn’t that thrilled at getting promoted in contract compliance, but it would mean more money, and he wanted that because he and his partner want to adopt a child soon. The discussion lead to strategizing how Evan could find different work that he liked better, but that also paid more to address a very practical issue of needing more money for raising a baby.
Another example is Tom. Tom is an executive and investor who comes from a wealthy family. He had the choice of becoming involved with a big company and expanding its influence in another country, which in five years or so would earn him millions, or pursuing his dream to open a luxury resort in an exotic location, but probably for far less money. Working for the big company would mean extrinsic reward of money; working to open the resort would mean less money, but more intrinsic reward of fulfilling one of his dreams.
It’s so easy to say “go for the money”, but when guys do this, it can lead to feelings of unfulfillment and that your working life has no meaning. But going for purely instrinsic value can be frustrating because it might mean you’re earning less than the lifestyle you really want – not just for luxuries or comforts, but sometimes for the basics, like health insurance and car insurance – or even a car at all.
How do we resolve such dilemmas? Talking them out in coaching or counseling can be helpful, because in doing this, you lay out your own priorities based on your values. Things like how you were raised, what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, and what the current job market is offering are all variables. For most people, choosing and planning your career is a balance between making choices that help you feel rewarded internally, like enjoyment of your work, versus rewarded externally, like your salary, benefits, and perks.
I remember working with “Dan” years ago, who was a corporate executive dealing with somewhat dry topics. He once said, “No little boy dreams of doing what I do when they grow up. I’m not a cop, or a fireman, or an astronaut.” But his job and salary helped him support a partner who had become disabled, and helped him enjoy vacations and a comfortable home, and a solid plan for a secure retirement. He did the lucrative work for a time, built some financial security, then moved on to take other work that was more balanced with his personal interests.
Another client, “Kevin,” worked as an actor in Los Angeles, and while he didn’t work as much as he would have liked, and had a more modest lifestyle that didn’t include designer clothes, his own home, or vacations, he said, “At least every day I’m doing what I love to do – or trying to – and I still feel sorry for the guys in traffic on the freeway going off to be chained to their desk. Sure, they’re driving a newer, better car than mine, but I get where I’m going and still having fun. My fun work is my luxury.”
Having counseling and coaching on career issues can help you clarify your values, goals, and priorities. Sometimes you need help developing a networking plan, so that you meet the right people you can learn from (such as mentors) or the ones who can help you get the right opportunities. Sometimes you need to identify the areas in which you need more education, skills practice, or experience. Sometimes you need support balancing what you need in your heart versus what you need in your wallet, and guidance for how to make those compromises. Part of mature, adult self-care is learning how to make wise compromises without building guilt or resentment later.
Too many people seem to just go “where life takes you” professionally, and while this might seem organic, it’s also a little passive. In my article on seven ways to take care of your financial self, I talk about how planning your career is one of the steps. If you take a more conscious, deliberate, empowered approach, you might have less regret later on. As the lyrics in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (Rodgers/Hammerstein) go, your career should be “a dream that will need all the love you can give, every day of your life, for as long as you live” (or until you retire – when you might change to a “retirement career” even then!).
Think about your own work. Do you receive more of an intrinsic reward from it, or an extrinsic reward? Can you identify some behaviors that you can choose that might make the balance more even? How can you use the skills that you enjoy using the most, but are also the skills that the commercial market pays well for? When you think of yourself as an old person, are you doing things now that will feel like “good choices” later on? If you’re unsure of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and where all this is headed, consider some career coaching to make your choices more empowered and self-aware. You’re in the driver’s seat; where do you want to go?