I saw a great bumper sticker the other day.  It said:

Teachers: We’re Focused on Outcomes, Not Incomes!

This leads me into my soliloquy for the day.

When you pull back and look at today’s world of work from high altitude, and contemplate the way in which our careers intersect with our lives, you could make a convincing case (as I would) that jobs really only do one key thing.  They are prisms.  They have no value in their own right.  They serve the singular purpose of transforming TIME into STUFF.

Think about it.  Each day, millions of Americans go to work and channel the exact same inputs into their job: time and energy.  Sure, some people may work a few hours more than others, but in general pretty much any serious professional today — be they janitors, teachers, attorneys, petrochemical engineers, or career coaches — is spending around 50-60 hours a week doing whatever they do for a living.  That’s the common denominator, and as human beings, none of us really has that much more of this “resource” to plug into our jobs than anybody else.  You could easily make the case that a Starbucks barista works every bit as hard, for example, as the average financial analyst or chief marketing officer.  Have you watched one of these people juggle 14 complex, multi-syllabic latte orders lately?

So when it comes to the job market, the “inputs” are pretty boring to talk about.  They’re largely the same, for all of us.  Where it gets much more interesting, however, is the “outputs” side of the equation.  As stated above, we don’t all go to work simply for the sake of it or because we don’t have anything else we could possibly do with our time.  We go because we want and need things — and are willing to trade our time and energy to get them.

In reality, it wasn’t all that long ago, historically speaking, when people didn’t even have “jobs” so to speak.  They just lived.  And loved.  And played.  And survived.  But now in our more sophisticated civilization, that kind of lifestyle isn’t very practical.  As one of my favorite authors (Daniel Quinn) once remarked, most of us really have no choice BUT to go to school, get a job, and join the rat race  — because they lock up all the food, and if we don’t work, we don’t eat!

Trust me, though, I’m not one of those idealogues suggesting that modern civilization has no merits and that we return to some romanticized notion of primitive times.  I wouldn’t even suggest dialing the time machine back to medieval Europe, unless you could arrange to be born into royalty!  Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve become pretty fond of the fact that I don’t have to grow my own food, sew my own clothes, or watch my loved ones pass away at an early age due to some mysterious plague.

My point though (finally) is that the key to being happy at work is to know what you want (or need) to get out of it.  Which work-driven outputs are important to you?  Which aren’t?  What tradeoffs are you willing to make?  What are the top things you’re seeking to get out of the next job you take?  And what work-related benefits used to be important to you, earlier in your career, that you could now pretty much care less about?

The fascinating part about all this is that everybody I’ve met, over the years, has a different set of priorities in this regard.  When you ask people why they work and what’s most important to them, there’s not nearly the consensus you might imagine.  Some people want to get rich.  Some aren’t the slightest bit motivated by money.  Some want to be famous and see their name in lights.  Others hate the limelight and want to work behind the scenes.  Some want to love what they do or feel their work makes a meaningful difference in the world, while others think such notions are crazy.  This camp maintains that “work is called work for a reason” and that notions of fun/enjoyment/meaning have nothing to do with it.

Seriously, the diversity of opinions on this subject is astonishing (although I’m sure a statistician could find SOME slightly common pattern and correlation among certain age groups or people who hail from similar socioeconomic backgtounds).  You’d be surprised, though.  I’ve got some clients who would consider “career heaven” to be doing a job for $40,000 that leverages their strengths, ignites their passions, and/or allows them to help others in some capacity.  And then I had another guy come in who laughed at even a six-figure salary and said “$100,000?  That’s ridiculous.  I wouldn’t even get out of bed for a measly $100,000.

A similar anecdote?  I taught a workshop once where a guy spoke up and said “I’m a successful corporate executive, but if I had my dream, I’d love to do something much more exciting, follow my passion in music, and be a rock star.”  Then the guy next to him spoke up, out of the blue, and said “Wow, that’s interesting.  I’ve been in a rock band for the last 15 years and would kill to have a corporate job like yours where I could settle down, spend more time with my family, have decent health benefits, and enjoy a predictable income.

Tradeoffs, my friends.  It’s all about tradeoffs.  So I encourage those of you in a creative transition phase of your career to try and gain a clear perspective of what outputs are ultimately most important to YOU in a job or career relationship.  At the end of the day, you may have to make some tough choices around these issues, as discussed in a blog article of mine from a few years back you’ll find here if interested.

To me, the bumper sticker I cited at the start of this article pretty much says it all.  While I reckon most of us would love to see teachers paid a lot more, in a perfect world, we don’t (sigh) live in a perfect world.  And while we all tend to funnel the same amount of input into our jobs, in terms of time and energy, we all clearly recognize that the outputs of various career avenues are grossly unequal.

Muse on what’s most important to you — and go after it!