Thoughts for Thursday: One Life to Live—Economics (Part 2)

This Is A Continuation

If you’ve not read Part 1 of this topic (posted about six weeks ago), you should read that first. Buckle up first, though. It’s long. Apologies.

Do What You Love And You’ll Never Work A Day in Your Life

Wayne’s my hero…

That’s where we left off. We were discussing motivation and why people do jobs they hate. Or at least we were getting there. Today’s post will (hopefully) be shorter.

We started that last post talking about how I worked a janitorial job that wasn’t for me for a few weeks then decided to quit, even though the money would have helped. A big part of the reason I quit was because I had another source of income that paid a lot more for less time. In other words, I had the freedom to do so at the time. Sort of…

The janitorial job paid minimum wage, which, where I live, is $12 an hour. When I quit, I had several writing clients that paid me between $65 and $85 per hour. The work wasn’t as steady when I first started the janitorial job, so I wanted something that was more guaranteed. Then one of my clients doubled the amount of work he was giving me, along with my salary. That meant that instead of busting my ass cleaning toilets for thirty to forty hours per week, I could work two to three hours a day and get paid almost as much—just from one client. It’s not hitting the jackpot or anything, but it definitely made the decision to quit the janitorial job that much easier.

Why is that, though? Why is it worth it to my writing clients to pay me so much more for so much less of my actual time? Mind you, I’m not complaining, but I’m curious. In other words, why do the shittiest jobs pay the least amount of money?

A Day In The Life…

I’d like to look at a few jobs, professions, and careers at different levels and compare the toll they take on the people who do them. We’re going to examine a day in the life of each of these employees and see if the pay measures up. Let’s start at the top.

Chief Executives

In the corporate world, the CEO is king/queen. They are the top of the food chain. They get paid the most, so you would think they do the most work. But do they? And if not, is that okay? Turns out the answers to these questions are a little more complicated than they first appear.

According to this CNBC article based on a Harvard Business School study, most of a CEO’s job is shmoozing, basically. They do work, on average, more than the typical American worker, but not necessarily more than any other professional. They average a little over sixty hours a week, which, for many lower level managers is also normal.

The difference, of course, is that for a CEO, much of that “work” is actually meetings. Meetings that most admit take much longer than they should. And where do these meetings take place? Well sure, sometimes they’re in the office, but a lot of times they’re on the golf course, or on the boat, or on the ski resort, or at the restaurant. To quote the profit Mark Knopfler, “That ain’t workin’! That’s the way you do it. Get your money for nothing and the chicks for free.”

So I’m a CEO. I get up early, sure. I check my calendar first thing to see what’s on the agenda for the day. I have a breakfast meeting from 8:00-9:00 scheduled with one of our most important vendors to discuss the logistics of a new prototype my company is building. By the time I get to the office, it’s about 10, and I take some calls for about an hour.

At 11, I have to give a presentation to a group of potential investors in one of our conference rooms. In between calls, I’ll go over the notes for the presentation that my assistant put together for me. The presentation lasts from 11 until 2, and is catered at a nice hotel across town. After the presentation, I drive back to the office and get there around 3. Then I meet with senior staff to discuss the progress of ongoing projects, the overall vision for the company, and goals for the immediate future. That lasts until 4:30. From then until around 6 pm, I stay in my office and respond to e-mails I didn’t get to earlier or return calls. I also work on strategy for the company during this time.

I’m usually home by 6:30 or 7:00, but my phone is always on, and I may need to meet with someone or other during evening hours. My job can carry a lot of stress with it if my time isn’t managed properly. After all, the entire company’s direction rests on my decisions. Thankfully, I get the best healthcare plan the company has to offer, and I can afford to do activities with my family and friends that keep me grounded and balanced.

For all of this, I am compensated with a salary that is something like 750 times more than the average hourly wage my corporation pays out (that data is based on AT&T wage comparisons – $42,000/year vs. $30,000,000/year).

Sales Professionals

Some top sales professionals can earn more than some CEOs. They work their asses off and sell their souls to do so, though. Much of the work I described that CEOs do (lunches, meetings, etc.) is the same as what sales pros do. The difference is, the sales pro often has to travel a lot more and work harder. Now when I say some top sales professionals can earn more than some CEOs, I can say that because technically, Jeff Bezos’ “salary” is only something like $78,000 a year. Similarly, Elon Musk’s Tesla “salary” is considered California’s minimum wage for CEO’s and is technically less than what an experienced teacher in Washington state can make now.

But those are their salaries—not their stake in their companies. That’s where their real fortunes come from. Sales professionals are under a similar kind of pressure, but they don’t see the the same kinds of returns that CEOs do.

I know salespeople that earn over six figures. I know salespeople that earn minimum wage. The top salespeople I know are always on the road, always representing their companies and products, and nearly always working. They do so because the more they sell, the more they make, and with theoretically unlimited earning potential, why wouldn’t you take advantage of every moment (if making lots of money is your primary goal)?

Another area of overlap between CEOs and top sales pros is branding. CEOs create the brand for their company. Salespeople create a brand for themselves. They build trust and relationships and then hustle to keep them alive.

A salesperson doesn’t really have a typical day. They go from call to call, meeting to meeting, and city to city. It’s its own kind of monotony in a way, though, I guess.

Industrial Laborer

I’ve been one of these, so let me give you a typical day as an electronics circuit board tester. Get up at 4:30 am to leave by 5:00 so that you can start your shift at 5:30 am. Walk through the factory doors, put your lunch in the refrigerator, put your smock on, and report to your supervisor for the day’s assignments.

Stand at a station for a few hours at a time testing and packaging hundreds of circuit boards, following the same procedures diligently for each one. Take a break after two or three hours. Go outside and have a cigarette because that’s what your working class parents did and that’s what a lot of the other guys do, and hell, it brings 7-10 minutes of enjoyment to this dreary existence. After your smoke break, you pick up a new batch of boards, move to a different station, and follow a different set of procedures until lunch. After lunch, you pretty much do all of the exact same things for another five hours (we worked ten hour days).

When you get home from work, you’re really tired from standing all day. You’re either really bored or really anxious from being with your thoughts all day. Or you’re just numb from listening to your co-workers gossip all day. (I put headphones in, so for me it was the former). You barely have the energy to make yourself something to eat and watch a little TV before you go to bed around 8 so you can get a full eight hours of sleep.

You get paid just above minimum wage for this, and you answer to a team of engineers who see you and all of the other floor workers as expendable monkeys who couldn’t possibly know anything. Then, after months or even years of doing this job, one day the orders dry up. The foreman calls everyone together and you get your layoff paperwork. Time to find a new job. Unless you’ve been there forever, which might actually be worse (In my case, it would have been).

If you are a lifer, you’ll probably start to earn better money after a few years, but you’ll still probably live paycheck to paycheck—especially if you have a family to support. You might get promoted to a more interesting and lucrative position, but in the end, people like you stay in the same job for thirty years and retire there. That’s the way it’s been for decades. The company probably gives you decent health benefits and a 401k that you may or may not be putting enough money into.

One of my managers at the janitorial job fell into this category. She’d worked in that shitty job for over twenty years, cleaning the same buildings inside and out, and she looked like every step she took pained her to the core. When I first met her I thought she was a lot older than I am. Granted, I think this about a lot of people because even though I’m in my forties I feel very young.

Anyway, after a few days of interacting with her it occurred to me that she was probably a lot closer to my age than I thought she was originally. It wasn’t so much that she looked like an old lady, she just had this sort of… aura of old about her. And after doing that job for two weeks, and imagining her doing it for twenty years, I can easily understand why. The first day we met, she told me she loved cleaning. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it certainly didn’t look like she loved her job to me.

Middle Manager

This is the person who manages one store of a giant retail chain. This is the woman who runs the shipping department at the factory. This is the dude who manages a cube farm (otherwise known as the customer service department) of an insurance company. This is the principal or vice principal of a single school in a large district.

These people, FSM bless ’em, work the hardest of all, I think. To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’m gonna ramble a second about a piece of wisdom I learned in the Air National Guard.

The enlisted rank structure in the Air Force goes from E-1 through E-9, Airman Basic is the lowest rank, and Chief Master Sergeant is the highest. Right in the middle of that rank structure is the Staff Sergeant.

During one of my first training exercises with my unit, a Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) and I had a great conversation. I had graduated tech-school as an Airman First Class (E-3), and he and I were talking about when I would be promoted to Senior Airman. He said something to me that day that I took with me. I won’t say I adhere to it, necessarily, or even completely agree with it, but there is some wisdom there. He told me, “Brandon, Staff Sergeant (E-5) is the best rank in the Air Force. You have just enough responsibility to get out of the grunt work, but not enough responsibility to get blamed when the shit hits the fan.”

Within the context of the military, I think he was definitely right. Being a Staff Sergeant was awesome. I could order Airmen around, but I never had to attend a manager’s meeting, or do any of the managerial work that sucks.

Of course, the “Type A” part of my personality rails against that kind of thing, because it does reek of settling for mediocrity. On the other hand, it is a mighty comfortable position to be in… and that’s kind of the whole point of this post.

Middle managers go one step too far. They hit Staff Sergeant, and then somebody promises them a little more power, and they go for Tech Sergeant, then Master, then Senior, then Chief. Or that’s what they think, anyway.

The percentage of middle managers that actually make it into senior management is pretty low. At least in the Air Force it is. I have a feeling that it’s the same way in business, but I don’t have any hard data on that. By the time you get to the senior positions, however, the competition becomes more intense. Consequently, there are a lot of people that get stuck in careers that end up being dead ends.

What Do You Mean, “Dead Ends?”

Well, what I mean is this. The middle management position is the death of the American Dream. It’s where upward mobility stops. Here’s what should sound like a familiar story to many of you.

I started working for this manufacturing company when I was still in college. I worked my way through my junior and senior years there as a general laborer. I got to know the managers of the plant, and when I graduated, they hired me on to work in the purchasing department. I worked hard for about three years. I developed more relationships with people in the company from otehr departments. Finally, when the position of Director of Sales and Marketing opened up, I applied and got it. Now I manage a department of twenty five people, and we barely meet our quotas each month. I have to deal with scheduling conflicts, employee attitude issues, answering to my boss, the V.P. of sales, who, I’m slowly realizing, I’ll never replace.

After about thirty years, I’m still the Director of Sales and Marketing. I’ve been doing the same job for the last twenty five years, and all I can think about every day is the day that I’ll finally get to retire and do what I want.

Random Fictional Middle Manager

Teacher/Professor

I’m biased, because this is the “what you love” for me. Here’s what a typical day looks like.

Just kidding. There is no typical day. That’s one of the things I love about it. You show up to school about an hour to a half-hour before the kids get there, depending on what you have planned for the day. Before the bell rings, you have at least fifteen kids coming in with random issues for you to solve, or asking what they’ll be doing that day (even though you write it on the board in plain English each morning).

You go through your classes one by one, and even if you’re teaching five sections of the same class, presenting the same material five times a day, each one of those classes will surprise you with their response to the material. You’re constantly on your feet physically, and on your toes metaphorically.

In between classes, you’re monitoring the hallways and looking for discipline issues. When the bell finally rings at 3:00 (or whenever), you deal with the last few students of the day for about an hour or so (if you don’t coach), and then you bang your head on the desk as you grade the day’s assignments and try to figure out you’re going to do better tomorrow. You typically get home a couple of hours after the bell rings, and you take your work home with you—again, both literally and metaphorically. You grade at home. You answer parent e-mails. You worry about a lot of your students.

By the time June comes around, you’re ready for two and a half months of nothing. But that’s not what you get. You go to training in the summer, you plan your next year, and you reflect on how to make it better than last year.

Teachers get paid on the low end of middle class, for the most part. They do, however, get a lot of time off to enjoy the rest of their lives, and that is more valuable to me than more money.

Freelancer/Independent Contractor/Consultant

This is another one I’m a little biased toward, because it’s currently my only source of income. That’s about to change in a month or so, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The idea behind freelancing, or being an independent contractor or consultant is that you’re your own boss. You choose your clients. You set your own schedule, and you set your own terms. You’re also 100% responsible for your own success or failure. There are no office politics, no moving and shaking, shucking and jiving, or other tomfoolery. It’s like the Libertarian wet dream. However, absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying.

Here’s what a typical day would look like if I were actively seeking new clients at the moment.

I’d get up around 8:00-8:30, check my e-mails, look at my stats, e-mails, and other messages. Then I’d start on whatever work was on my plate for the day. Once that was done, I’d spend time on bookkeeping, scheduling for myself, and then trying to find more work. A large part of my time would be spent on writing proposals and trying to land contracts.

In order to make any real money as a freelancer, you have to do a lot of crap work first to build up a portfolio and reputation. Once you do that, though, you can actually earn as much as some top sales pros.

So you can see, there are a lot of things I love about freelancing. That’s why, even though I’ll be teaching in the fall, I will be writing, too. Which brings us full circle.

Again, Do What You Love, and You’ll Never Work a Day in Your Life

We started this 3000 words ago with the question of why do the people who seem to do the least difficult work make the most amount of money. I don’t know if we’re any closer to an answer, but it seems to me that the determination is a key factor. Back in Part 1, I talked about the pharmaceutical company that spends billions of dollars on researching a new drug having a reasonable expectation of seeing a return on that investment.

The same is true with labor. The sad fact is, it takes nearly zero talent or training to work as a laborer in a factory. Because of that, if you don’t want to do that job, or if you’re not doing it competently, the company can easily find someone else who will do that job. Now they will only every pay these people minimum wage because they’re basically one of the most expendable resources the company has.

A pro salesperson, on the other hand, or a truly visionary CEO are rare commodities. They take time to develop and grow. If you lose one, it’s not that easy to find a replacement. Therefore, they’re worth more to the organization.

Working for The Man

In my experience, however, no matter how talented you are at your job, in a corporation, you’re always dependent on the organization, and no matter what you’re always working to make somebody above you richer.

From 2001 through 2007 I worked for the insurance industry. On my last day of that career, after a huge falling out with my former employer that nearly ended in a lawsuit, I decided I wouldn’t ever work to make someone else rich again. I set the wheels in motion to go back to college and to get my teaching certificate.

“But Brandon,” I hear you saying, “Aren’t you kind of working to make your students richer than you? I mean, teachers aren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination.” Right you are. However, I’m working to make people below me rich. Now, when I say “below,” I’m of course talking about age and social standing (kids don’t have as much social power as adults), not personal value, so please don’t think I’m talking down about students. I’m not. I’m simply saying that it’s my job to help them move themselves from a position of powerlessness into a position of power. That’s miles away from working my ass off to make someone who already has more social power than I do more powerful.

The same is true with freelancing. I may be writing articles to help make websites money, but I’m doing the ones I pick and choose to do. If I don’t like the client, I don’t work for them. That keeps all of the power in my hands, and in the end, that’s what the heart of that promise to myself was. Being an independent contractor allows me to be in complete control of who I’m writing for, what I’m writing, and how much I’m charging for those services. Market forces not withstanding, of course.

So I’ll always teach. And I’ll always write. And I’ll always play music. And I’m finally in a position where I can do all of them and make money. That, boys and girls, is living the dream. I’m doing what I love, and I’m getting paid for it, and even though I wouldn’t say I’m not working any more days of my life, I’m definitely not chorin’ anymore. To borrow a refrain from Bob Dylan, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”

I am able to do this because I put a lot of work into getting here. I worked for five years to get a teaching degree, then another three years to get a Masters in writing. I’m no longer as expendable as I was as a twenty-three-year-old electronics circuit board tester. It’s not that I’m more valuable as a human being, it’s just that it’s harder to replace me as an employee, now.

One Last Thing

I’m proud of the work I’ve put in to get here, and even though I’m about to finally reap the rewards of that work, I’m not gonna be rich. That’s not what motivates me. Proverbs and silly love songs talk about how money doesn’t buy happiness, but the guys who wrote that shit never had to sell their belongings or even their plasma to buy food or keep the lights on. They never had to sleep on the streets and ask strangers for enough money to catch a bus across town for a welfare appointment.

Of course money buys happiness… to a point. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs points out that basic needs come first. If a person doesn’t have enough to meet his or her basic needs, then more money will absolutely make them happier. On the other hand, if your basic needs are taken care of, a salary increase won’t help you much in the way of kicking the blues.

As a teacher, I’m never going to be rich. Even if I write and play music successfully, I’ll never make a million dollars in a year. I’m okay with that. I don’t want that kind of money. I want enough to take care of my basic needs and fund my summertime adventures that make me feel like Hemingway. As such, when I start teaching in the fall, I will—in a very real sense—be living the dream. Well, maybe not the dream, but definitely my dream.


Alright, Jesus! I thought this one was going to be shorter, but I had a lot to say, apparently. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your continued support.

Don’t forget, there’s a new Dingo Roy story up in the fiction section of the site. If you’ve not read any of those stories yet, please give ’em a read and let me know what you think. See you tomorrow for Fearless Friday!

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