August 31

Should I be taking a job for less money to be happy?



I didn’t think about how much money mattered to me until I started my first job. Sure, it was more money than I had ever earned anywhere else in my life… but I never thought that hearing the pays of my peers would affect me so deeply.

As I heard my friends share about the monies they were getting in tech or in their own businesses, I saw myself doing a double take.

I found myself asking,

I’m not any less talented or smart than them. Why am I earning so much less?

Why am I earning almost 50% less than them? What’s wrong with me?

Over the past few months, the issue of salary has been close to my heart.

Because I’ve seen how many of my peers say, ‘Money is not that important to me.’

But when push comes to shove, when they start facing difficulties in their careers, you start to hear gripes about salary.

The pay here is really horrible.

They can’t pay as well in the charity sector! I love the impact I’m making, but I don’t feel that I’m paid enough to do this.

It’s not just social service professionals like social workers or preschool teachers who are complaining. Doctors complain too!

If you are here, you’ve probably been thinking of a change in career. You’ve done something for some time, and it’s no longer satisfying. You don’t find the joy, meaning and fulfilment you once had when you started.

You might be looking at another job and thinking,

That job scope looks attractive. The pay isn’t great, but I love what I will get to do there. I love the impact I will get to make.

Today, before you take the plunge, I would like you to take some time to think more deeply about the issues at hand. This article will draw on my personal experiences working in different settings.

What should you be thinking about?

Don’t fall into the either/or fallacy

It doesn’t have to be money OR happiness. Sometimes, when we don’t feel satisfied with our work, we might be tempted to say,

I got all these material things, but don’t seem happy. Why?

You might be tempted to think that walking away from it all will bring you the happiness you want. But it may be because you pursued one at the expense of the other, and not because money was inherently bad.

In his classic “Good to Great”, Jim Collins talks about how companies which moved out of mediocrity embraced the beauty of ‘both/and’.

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, talks about how great companies dropped the limiting belief that they had to choose between dichotomous options, but instead embraced the beauty of having both/and.
Jim Collins, in Good to Great, talks about how great companies dropped the limiting belief that they had to choose between dichotomous options, but instead embraced the beauty of having both/and.

Thus, be wary when you find yourself saying,

I need to choose between money or fulfilment.

Don’t put yourself in a place where you have to choose between binaries. More often than not, the binary is created by you, rather than by the situation.

Thinking in binaries reduces possibility.

Thinking in holistic wholes increases potential.

Be wary of the ‘money is bad’ argument.

By itself, money is neutral.

It’s an enabler for the things you want to do. Beyond a certain amount, yes, it may not bring more happiness. But below a certain amount, it does place significant restrictions on what you can and cannot do.

Are you thinking in terms of potential, or impossibilities?

Why are you working NOW?

There are different reasons why you go into a job. In the graphic below, you will see how Bruce Tulgan has laid out how people may have different reasons for clocking in and out of work.

Understanding why you are working NOW gives you a clue to how you want to approach the future role you are looking for.

You may not be very happy at your current job, but there’s a reason why you’re staying. You’re not leaving yet. Why is that so?

When you look at the above diagram, what is the description that best describes why you’re currently staying in that job?

For example, in one job, despite being unhappy at the job, I saw it as a weight station job. I didn’t know what I wanted moving forward. I knew that I didn’t want to be in such a job.

But I knew that simply exiting without any plan wouldn’t be wise, especially in an economically uncertain time. Therefore, giving myself a timeline of 6 months to think through what I wanted to do helped me to clarify what my strengths were, what I was interested in, and what culture I was looking for moving forward.

As you look at how you’re approaching your current job, take the time to reflect on the things that will be important to you moving forward.

Ask yourself:

  1. What’s working at this place that I love?
  2. What’s not working?

Are you moving ‘from’ and not ‘to’?

Once, I faced difficulties in a job. An opportunity came by.

By every account, it looked like a good move. But I knew that I was moving ‘from’ and not ‘to’. I was moving because I wanted to run away from the changes that were being asked of me.

I faced a dilemma.

You may be in such a position. You may be facing struggles at your current job. You think that moving to another job with a lower pay, and more fulfilling work, may be better.

But before you move, ask yourself.

  1. What are the push factors pushing you away from this job?
  2. What are the pull factors in the next role you’re looking at?

If it seems that there are more factors pushing you away than are puling you towards the next job, you may be in for a nasty shock when you go into your next role.

You may be earning less money. But you may also find that the previous problems that occurred at your former company may recur. That may happen because you’ve yet to work through the personal issues that came up.

In the Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Career Resilience,

What do you value?

You value different things from me.

That’s important. Very often, we think that others value the same rewards as we do. That causes much of the misery in our work, as we wonder why someone does not seem to respond in the same way to different situations at work.

For example, during a previous conflict with a team leader, I was suggesting to a colleague that we try something new for a programme. Whilst it was just a discussion, my team leader ended up getting wind of it. He wrote an email to the whole team, reminding me to talk to him if there were any ideas I had. He reminded us that,

“as cliche as this sounds, there’s no ‘I’ in team”.

I felt ashamed by his action, and refused to talk to him for months. As I look back, I realised that my values differed from him. He valued power and influence, but I valued ‘autonomy’.

Reward values by Waldroop and Butler, in their book - The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back
Reward values by Waldroop and Butler, in their book – The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back

As you look at the values above, you can do this values exercise, recommended by Waldroop and Butler.

  1. Write all the values down on different cards.
  2. Sort the cards on a flat surface in front of you.
  3. Continue until you have them listed from most valued to least allude.
  4. Focus on the top three cards.
  5. Create a new column with just 3 cards, making the space between each represent the difference in importance to you if the two are being compared.

As you clarify your values, you will find the decision to jump to a lower-paid job made clearer.

Don’t push yourself off the edge

You might not love your job right now, but quitting without a plan might put you in lesser clarity than before.

When you have no income, you might be tempted to take any job that comes your way. Rather than taking time to plan, and move, you might take whatever comes to feed yourself.

Think of your career as a chess game. Whilst there’s wisdom in trying new things, and sometimes taking the plunge, see it instead as a series of learning experiences. These learning experiences will build your eventual victory.

This is wiser in the long run.

Having no income is stressful.

Very stressful.

I speak from experience.

When I finished compulsory National Service in the army, I had this sudden time of 6 months where I had no plan of what I wanted to do. With no job to order my life around, I found myself falling into deeper depression. I found myself binging on food everyday. I wanted to stuff the emptiness and anxiety within me about how and where to move to in life.

Things got better when I started to take on jobs like being a waiter at a restaurant. Whilst I knew that I didn’t want to be a waiter, it was something to order my life around.

Whilst there’s wisdom in the advice that we should spend time thinking and reflecting, learning also comes through doing. Learning about what you enjoy and where you want to be also comes from the experiences you have as you work, whether or not you love it.

As you move into action, you will be gathering data.

James Waldroop and Timothy Butler, The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back

If you are thinking about a career move to a job with less money, do the thinking in the job, rather than outside a job.

Are there alternatives?

There may be alternatives. In the company you currently work, are there possibilities for movements across departments that may give you a closer alignment with the impact you want to make. For example, many banks now run social enterprise arms that fund the development of business that impact the community.

You may ask to be transferred there.

Rather than dropping the entire portfolio of skills you’ve built over your career and starting from scratch in a completely different field, see if there are lateral moves you can make across the organisation to build a wider range of skills.


I remember the day I joined social work. I told myself that I wanted to leave a legacy that centred around the personal impact I had in each person’s life. I didn’t want to be remembered for being a famous inventor. Or a rich man.

I wanted to be remembered for that personal impact I left in someone’s life.

Along the way, I realised that financial gain was quite important to me. I had lived in an environment where I saw my dad retrenched multiple times. I saw the time when we had to take on food rations from kind donors in order to keep ourselves going.

I saw the time when my dad had to hide his face behind a cap whilst driving a taxi, to avoid being recognised by his friends and family.

That sense of financial insecurity fuelled the desire to be financially secure. Whilst social work didn’t leave me hungry, it left me wanting to build a stronger financial base of assets.

When I finally realised that I didn’t have to choose between money and impact, that I could do both at the same time through a social enterprise, that’s when I achieved a breakthrough in thinking.

As you look at your own journey, thinking about whether you should sacrifice your happiness for money, remember this:

It’s not money OR happiness.

It can be money AND happiness.

Drop the impossibility of false dichotomies. Embrace the beauty of the whole.


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  • This is great insight! I loved that you took time to share about how purpose and money didn’t need to be a false dichotomy, and that you could actually have both. Keep up the great writing!

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