Beyond Paying the Bills


The refrain you usually hear when you ask unhappy people why they are working is the line, “It pays the bills.” This response implies that “the bills” are the unavoidable price of modern existence. It further suggests that we are helplessly chained to a cycle of financial burden.


It is true that a regular job appears to provide a consistent source of funds. Reliable employment translates into reliable income and our imaginative minds begin to project the present into the future, enabling us to make plans. With projections predicting a stable future, we buy houses for our families and occasionally spring for a new car. Self-employed individuals are at a disadvantage in this regard, because their income is not quite as predictable. Therefore, one of the advantages of having a job is that it allows us to believe that “it pays the bills,” and gives us confidence that the money will be there to meet current obligations and incur new ones.

Unfortunately, reality wreaks havoc on our projections. Organizations in this period of our history find it much easier to cut costs by cutting people; many employers have lost any sense of responsibility to provide secure employment. But despite the evidence of instability in nearly every organization on the planet, the regularity of a paycheck lulls us into the belief that it will always be there, making it too easy to create new financial obligations, making us feel more dependent on the whims of an employer.

We also forget that having a job is in itself an expensive proposition. Beyond commute and clothing expenses, there are dozens of hidden costs in having a job. These include: contributing to a co-worker’s birthday gift; laying out a couple of bucks on the football pool; being shamed by the company into contributing to their favorite charity; or feeling like you have to buy a couple of those waxy chocolate bars that working parents of high schoolers foist on their colleagues every school year. Taking into account the remarkable talent of most Americans to spend far beyond their means, it is safe to say that we waste a good two-thirds of our take-home pay on stuff we didn’t really want or need in the first place or on the trappings of employment itself.

While many people have told me that they work primarily for the money, the desire for money does not necessarily translate into having to have a job. There are hundreds of other ways to earn a living, many of which may be far more appealing than having to live your life by the clock and put up with the insanity of organizational life in the 21st century. So why do people automatically assume that the best way to survive in our culture is by getting a job?

I think it has to do with the hard-dying need for the appearance of stability. Having a job creates a routine that makes life appear to be a stable proposition. Going to work every day helps order our existence and human beings like a sense of order in their lives. A job gives us social validity, enabling us to confirm our right to respect when asked the question, “And what do you do?” While well-publicized layoffs and reorganizations have compromised this traditional meaning of security, having a job seems like a more ordered reality than working in the arts or starting your own business. The regularity of the weekly schedule provides a soft, steady rhythm in the midst of the chaotic dissonance of modern existence.

Unfortunately, this love of order is a two-edged sword. Our need for predictability can interfere with our ability to perceive new opportunities and consider new ideas. We get very stubborn when someone messes with our personal sense of order. However, when the need to preserve routine becomes more important than the human needs to learn, grow and contribute, we stagnate. Because organizations often reinforce our natural preference for order with endless rules and regulations, life in an organization can become so regimented that we start working far below our capabilities.

This need for order can also lead to absurd decision-making. I know many people who chose their careers simply because they believed that a particular field had a bright future. They didn’t bother to consider what the day-to-day reality of the job entailed, what kinds of people they’d be working with or even if they thought the work was particularly meaningful or important. They found careers that paid well or gave them status and it seemed to be the sensible thing to do. Unfortunately, they often find that years of education were wasted for a life at work that drained their spirit and left them feeling more trapped than ever. One woman I worked with who gave up artistic leanings to become an MRI tech spent most of her work life projecting her inner dissatisfaction onto her boss and co-workers, complaining constantly about anything and everything that triggered her inner frustration.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to let the economy control you or define you. We tend to start our search for work with the question, “What’s out there?” when we should be asking ourselves, “What do I really want to do?” You may not get there in your first attempt. It may take years of compromise and hard thinking to align your needs to something that will provide you with a decent income. But if you surrender your dream to the need for security at the start of your search, you’ll have a much harder time getting there. In the process, you’ll be compromising your psychological and physical self, which helps no one.

So, keep an open mind and open your eyes to the possibilities within you. Don’t get stubborn and affix yourself to a single possibility. Take the time to define what you really want and filter your choices through your true desires. You may have to settle for 40% for now, but if you keep pressing and refuse to give up, you might increase that percentage and wind up with something that makes you pretty happy.