Forget the Dream Job, Take the Money & Run

As The Atlantic’s Don Peck wrote last year, citing a litany of research from Yale University’s Lisa Kahn, college graduates who enter the labor force during a recession make significantly less money—in their first year and over the course of their careers—than grads who walk into an economic boom. Workers stuck in the unemployment line for an extended period risk watching their skills atrophy and face increasing difficulty finding new jobs. That’s particularly true, though, for people waiting and waiting and waiting to land their first job. — The Glum and The Restless

Sit down, let’s have real talk.

Two facts: Your salary typically tops out around age 40 and new graduates that start out in a down economy rarely close the pay gap between themselves and their peers who came out of college in a boom.

Here’s the truth:

  • You have NO idea what the hell you want to do with your life. You might THINK you do, but I’d wage the percentage of college graduates that do is 2-5%. Even if you do know what you want to do, you don’t have the rocks to go for it, not yet.
  • You can say money doesn’t matter until you’re blue in the face, but nobody believes you. Again, if it REALLY doesn’t matter you’re in a tiny percentile. OR you come from a really privileged background.
  • All your future raises are based on your 1st starting salary. Virtually every single company you interview with after your first gig are going to ask, “What is your current salary?” Often times you can re-frame this question face-to-face, but not on HR’s paperwork.

Look, I get it. It’s “cool” to say you chased after your dream instead of selling your soul to corporate America. I got news for you… that line is as played out as saying you don’t have cable because there’s nothing good on television.

Here’s a secret. You can build your passions into virtually any job you take. Most jobs are relatively malleable after you settle in, and you can intertwine the things that give you energy into your daily tasks.

Maybe you take the high paying gig, and maybe the corporate world kicks you in the nuts. Provided you can endure for 1-2 years you’ll learn a lot and you can move on to somewhere else and write a significantly higher number in that little HR box. That number usually ensures you get at least that with the next company, whilst your peer who THOUGHT he was working on his dream job realized that his boss was crazy and living on 30K in NYC is damn near impossible. Now he’s moving on, and he’s writing that number in a box.

Five years from now you’ve both strategically orchestrated a job that’s a good fit, but he’s making significantly less than you because he chased unfounded dreams while you took the money and ran.

To reiterate, the assumption here is that you’re like 95-97% of people. There are exceptions to every rule: People who genuinely know exactly what they want to do without question, people who don’t get much utility out of money, and the savvy negotiators that can transform 30K into 60K.

Chances are you’re not that unique, snowflake. After you actually do work in the real world you’ll have a much better idea about the tasks and types of people that give you energy everyday. And you can shape your career accordingly knowing you have a head start on your peers — a gap they won’t close.

What say you grasshopper? Have you chased your dream job and regretted it? Did you take the corporate money and run? Did you follow your heart and couldn’t be happier?

  • Good post Ryan but I’ve gotta disagree. I chased my dreams into the music industry and moved from Chicago to LA to do it. Like lots of sexy career paths, the music industry severely underpays you until you’re at the Senior VP level at which point they severely overpay you. I didn’t stick around past the Director level so I can say I spent years being underpaid…as did the majority of my friends. Fortunately we weren’t in NYC where it’s even tougher to live on small $ like you say.

    I don’t know one of us who regrets a second of it. We had a blast. We all look back at our 20s and say how psyched we are that we did what we did….while at the same time laughing at the nonsensical salaries we accepted in exchange for the fun. As the Titanic was sinking, some stuck around and wound up kind of bitter like you suggest…too long down one path and it can get trickier to re-think your way out of it. Once I’d had my fill, I researched how to transfer my skills and interests and reinvented my career by becoming a recruiter/headhunter. Since that’s a sales-related path, no boss could tell me what I was going to make at that point…and my financial history was irrelevant…and I went on to earn what I felt I was worth. Sure, I put myself financially way behind my non-music biz/dreamer peers, but I never have to look back and say “I wish I” or “I should have”. The way I see it, I got to do the dream thing and then make the money…and not sell out along the way. Sure, I could use the money now from those years I was underpaid, but I wouldn’t want to give up those experiences or memories.


  • I have never chased a “dream job” as a job has never been something that was a dream of mine. 🙂 However I have had them in the past to earn extra money while building my business or to learn a specific skill set aligned with my goals. I’m not against jobs by any means but I think to many people work at jobs they are not happy at without creating an exit strategy.

    In the new economy I think its important for all of us to build some form of self reliance in one way or another. When you work for someone, you have less freedom over the choices you can make, the amount of your paycheck, not to mention you can be “let go” at any given minute. I realize there are always exceptions to the rule but overall I believe we should always have a back up plan.

    Great post, thanks for sharing! 🙂


  • David

    Why dont you have retweed or like buttons on this post 🙁


  • Wanda Gray

    Thanks for the post. I don’t know why you kept insisting the reader compare themselves to their friends, based on income. This is useless behavior that doesn’t matter, or help anyone. I don’t secretly wish for my friends to lose their jobs, nor do I hope to earn 10-20k more than they do.

    Your point seems to be: start doing something for a large paycheck so you can continue to climb through salary paygrades…that sounds like good advice, regardless of a boom/bust economy. Justifying why you should be paid what you’re worth is half the battle.


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