Our jobs take up a large part of our lives and students in university are in a season of their lives where they search for jobs and consider what makes a better job. After talking to many of my peers, there seem to be several characteristics of a good job: money, prestige, and satisfaction. But if we were to examine each area carefully, they appear to be lacking in some way. Instead, I believe that these worldly measures of what makes a better job are a shadow of what really matters – ability, passion, and need.
Money is an obvious characteristic of a good job – a good job should pay well. In the economics faculty, as people are desperately applying for top internships and weighing their options, it appears that a better offer is one that pays more, and not many people question this assumption. Surely, when someone has a huge house by the beach, or becomes a millionaire, we would deem that person to have succeeded in life. But is money sufficient to motivate someone? People in financial sectors easily leave after a few years of making a lot of money. People with high ability also need not choose jobs that pay a lot – Hawking comes to mind, since I just read about his PhD thesis being released to the public. Brilliant minds may not choose jobs that pay most – perhaps, they are motivated by something else like prestige.
Prestige is what people tend to associate with a job. This seems to be a good account of what makes a good job that would attract people of the highest ability. There are many civil service scholars in Cambridge who would be paid just a fraction of what they would have been able to earn in the private sector. The same could be said of brilliant academics who live in mathematics rather than finance. Such lower pay could be more than compensated by the fact that the world views them as people of high ability – they would eventually be able to publish ideas to influence the world, or take up top positions in the civil service to influence people’s lives. Arguably, people can live their whole lives for prestige, and work very hard for it, but if the approval of other people is what truly makes us happy, it seems that our happiness is just too temporal and transient. Furthermore, the higher one gets in the bureaucratic ladder, the more criticism that person tends to face, and being disliked at your job is something that most people wouldn’t associate with a “good” job.
Job satisfaction is one characteristic that seems more plausible, and I’ve used this to justify my career choices too. If satisfaction is what motivates a better job (whatever this means to an individual), then our happiness is no longer contingent on others. This is how leaders tend to motivate those under them: it would be amazing if we could find meaning in what we do – teachers teach knowing they are molding the future generation; civil servants work knowing that the policies they implement will help people tremendously; church workers preach knowing that the gospel will be spread, and all these things can give us joy. However, if we think that a job is good only for the satisfaction that it brings, then it seems like we are living our lives only for our own pleasure, and putting our brains in a vat with an experience machine seems no different. There is something more to a “better” job than these.
Instead of money, ability is a better characteristic of a good job. A job is better for you when your ability is better suited to it. People tend to truly enjoy doing what they are good at, and they tend to do better at what they are good at. If one were to force herself into finance even though she might not have the aptitude for it, she could just end up doing badly, and the monetary incentive would only be transient. But if she does something that she is good at, it would be far easier to rise up the ranks quickly, and the money associated with the job would follow. Thus, it is the ability that matters.
Instead of satisfaction, think about passion. One can be “satisfied” with her job without being passionate about it – it would be nice to have 9 to 5 jobs with a good work life balance, and I need not actually care about what I am doing in the job. Passion is closely related to satisfaction in the sense that both are what you want to do, even without the incentives of money and prestige. However, passion happens when there is a strong cause that you are very interested in and are willing to champion regardless of the odds placed against it. Chasing this dream is what really brings joy in the job. This also helps to qualify ability: if I were good at math, but I don’t enjoy math, I would still be miserable being a mathematician. But if I am good at it and I am passionate about it, doing a job allows me to succeed and find joy. At this point, our idea of a quality job is still rather self-centered, so I believe the last factor is the most important.
Consider the world’s need. Both prestige and need concern our relation to the rest of the world. Rather than choose a job where the world recognises you and gives you credit, wouldn’t it be far more meaningful to choose a job that changes the world for the better? Great people in history are remembered often not for how brilliant they are, or how passionate they are about causes, but are remembered because they made a difference to the world, which stemmed from their ability and their passion. Similarly, if one is quantitatively capable and has a passion for finance, his going into the financial world and competing with all the other interns would just give him money and prestige, and he would just be one of the many nameless faces that have “made it” in life. But if that same person were to give all these up to go to a developing country to teach mathematics for instance, he is actually filling a deep need that the world has, stemming out of the same ability (and possible passion), and that’s how the school’s founder is remembered. Can we really say that the latter job is worse than the former?
Thus, I really hope that we can go beyond the way the world thinks about jobs in terms of money, prestige, and satisfaction, but look to what really matters. I hope that we can all find one day find the place where our greatest strength (ability) intersects our greatest passion, that addresses the world’s greatest need, fulfilling what we were made to do on this earth.