Your Money or Your Life

Many of us look for fulfillment in our work, but that can sometimes involve making difficult choices.

Sunday’s New York Times told the story of a recent graduate of Claremont McKenna College, 24-year-old Brentt Baltimore, who turned down a six-figure job at a Los Angeles hedge fund in favor of a $33,000-a-year position at a venture capital firm in Detroit. (This despite having $38,000 in student loan debt.)

The Times pointed out that Baltimore is “part of a small group of recent graduates who are forgoing large salaries to work for start-up businesses” in Detroit, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans and other places. “Detroit, which is in danger of declaring bankruptcy, could use some job-creating entrepreneurship, and that is a big reason that Mr. Baltimore chose the venture capital job over the hedge fund,” the Times explained.

Blight and renewal in Cincinnati. Image credit: Derek Jensen

Peter Drucker would have surely applauded Baltimore. After all, he made a similar, perhaps even riskier, choice some 80 years ago (as we’ve recounted before). “I was doing very well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930s, and the work clearly fit my strengths,” Drucker recalled in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager. People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery.”

At this stage of his life, Drucker had no money saved, no new job on offer and a worldwide depression to contend with. Still, as he recalled, “I quit—and it was the right thing to do. Values, in other words, are and should be the ultimate test.”

Of course, for much of human history, very few could afford such a mindset. “The steelworker didn’t expect fulfillment out of the job,” Drucker remarked in a lecture delivered at George Washington University in 1992. “He expected paychecks that would enable him to feed his children.”

But increasingly, Drucker observed, knowledge workers—those, in other words, like Brentt Baltimore—are looking to make a difference, not just fatten their wallets. “Loyalty can no longer be obtained by the paycheck,” Drucker wrote. “The organization must earn loyalty by proving to its knowledge employees that it offers them exceptional opportunities for putting their knowledge to work.”

Have you ever turned down a far-better-paying job for one that offered more meaning and fulfillment?