I earn $34,000 per year.
On bad days, I struggle with my sense of self-worth because of that number. There are various triggers. I let that six-figure-earning FIRE blogger get me down because of their thoughts on how small changes in spending aren’t the solution, making more money is. Or a jealous spark ignites in my brain when the new member to the work team, so young that even I thought that he seemed fresh-faced, tells me that his former job offered him a $65,000 salary to keep him.
I have reflected a long time on the cause of this anxiety, and I now realize it is tied to home. I was in my hometown for a funeral last week, and a woman I vaguely knew approached me to ask how school was going. I explained that I now had my Master’s degree and was working for a pharmaceutical company. Her eyes glazed over. She obviously had no idea what any of that entailed. Nonetheless, she said, “See, you’re living proof that people from [hometown] can do something. Everyone else thinks we’re nothing, but you prove that’s not true.” And that stranger’s voice had real pride in it.
My small, rural hometown is impoverished. Few people go on to higher education at all, much less an advanced degree. Those of us who do cannot stay, because there are no jobs. The best job one can get is as a nurse or in the dangerous and tumultuous coal mining industry. My grandpa worked in the latter most of his life, and never reached Mr. Steward’s current salary. From youth, I was told that someone as smart as me would go on to be very successful, perhaps as a doctor or lawyer. The subtext was that success meant making a lot of money.
It’s not that the people in my hometown valued money above all else. It’s simply that when you don’t have any, it’s easy to overestimate money’s ability to fix your problems. Money becomes the sole metric of success, because it’s the sole focus of your energies. No one told me to earn money in ways that made me miserable. There was simply an assumption that no one who was making real money could possibly be miserable while doing it.
And yet, I did find myself in a place of misery. I didn’t go down the obvious professional roads, but I did go down the professorial path. Just four years ago, I had a 3.98 GPA in a History PhD program I was getting paid to attend. I had recently received word that I had won a large grant to live in Europe for a year to do my research. I was living the academic dream. If all had gone well, I’d likely be finished with my dissertation now, and perhaps be making $60,000 a year in a tenure-track position.
The problem was, I was also having panic attacks (literally, not figuratively) about pretty much everything. I did not want to travel for research. I wanted to put down roots right where I was. I wanted to enjoy studying the things I loved. I did not want to sacrifice them on the pyre of academic relevance. I wanted to have my family and spend ample time with them. I did not want a constant tension between my work and personal life.
Most of all, if I was going to continue, I wanted to know I’d definitely be rewarded with a tenure-track job at the end. That prospect seemed increasingly unlikely. Instead, I’d likely have needed to move to a new place every year or two, trying to put down roots all over again in a new adjunct position. It was not the life I wanted.
So I took my Master’s and walked away. I got a job that paid less than I make now, but I was a lot happier. I like my new job even more. And really, that means that I have made it, just as folks said I would. I may not make the astronomical amounts of money that everyone assumed would go with success, but we have everything we need and more. I have had a life full of amazing experiences, including several months lived abroad. I find my work intellectually interesting. And I find my family, friends, and community emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. I have found a life that lets me leave potential money on the table when, ironically, the cost is too high. In short, I have found a life that allows for happiness measured in more metrics than simply money.
The funny thing is, the people from home also know, deep-down, that happiness is not totally about money. That funeral I attended? The man was lauded for his deep faith, his gentle words, and his love for his family. No one said a word about his salary.