How to Unearth Your Work Life’s Core Principles

By Marty Nemko

There’s no one-size-fits-all set of work-life principles. You can adjust yours as life proceeds, but it can’t hurt to think about them so you can try to live those principles rather than be buffeted by external events.

The pay continuum

Many people overestimate money’s importance:

  • Beyond a middle-class income, money doesn’t buy happiness.
  • In many locales, you end up paying half of your income above $75,000 in taxes, so you generally have to earn $125,000 or more a year to significantly improve your material lifestyle.
  • For an employer to pay you big money, you need to make the employer bigger money, and that can bring ethical temptations.
  • Few careers pay big money, so your options are limited. Unless you have a shot at being the next Madonna, you may need to forgo artistic careers as well as nonprofit work, unless you’re a major fundraiser or director.

For some people, however, major money is important:

  • It’s tangible evidence of how much the world values your work.
  • Big money buys things like a nice house in a nice neighborhood.
  • All things equal, it’s better to go for more money than less. For example, if you like selling and can land a job selling a great product, and if you’re committed to not cutting ethical corners, why not?

How much money would you like to make near-term? In five years? And how important is that amount to you?

←—————————————————→
$30,000 $200,000+

The people-contact continuum

Some of my clients complain about being isolated at work — they crave more people contact. On the other hand, some of my clients would rather work mainly solo. Relatedly, some people like workplaces with lots of social interaction, even if work productivity suffers. Others prefer a minimum of chitchat, let alone interpersonal drama.

There is no right or wrong. The question is, “Where on the people-contact continuum would you like to be, and how important is that to you?”

←—————————————————→
No people contact Lots of people contact

The status continuum

Even though status is ineffable, many people are driven by it. After all, why would someone buy Gucci, Pucci, Coach, or Chu when they could buy less tony brands that look and perform essentially as well, still looking good by the time most people decide to change styles? Status. Why do people buy a “Beemer,” Mercedes, or Jaguar that costs oodles more than a Toyota, even though they break down more? Even though there’s no status in standing on the side of the road and waiting for a tow truck, many people buy designer-label cars, even going into debt to do it. Why? Status: It makes some people feel good to be associated with a status name. Of course, that concept extends to career. It feels good to know, and for others to know, that you’re a physician rather than a physician assistant, or a lawyer rather than a haircutter, even though surveys find that haircutters have higher average job satisfaction. Oh, and physician assistants and many haircutters do make a solid living. The question for you is (be totally honest with yourself), how important is status?

←—————————————————→
No importance Great importance

The workload continuum

Work-life balance is high priority for many people. They want to be able to succeed while leaving plenty of time for family, fun, and personal maintenance. For them, a 40-hour workweek is pretty much tops, and it’s even better if those hours are flexible, that they can take lots of breaks, and that when they leave work, they’re done with work. Rarely will they engage in professional reading or attend professional workshops or answer their email after work hours.

Other people find work more rewarding, contributory, and even pleasurable than what they otherwise might be doing.

Where are you on the workload continuum, and how important is that to you?

←——————————————————————————————–→
Fewer than 20 hours; not unduly productivity oriented More than 60 highly productive hours a week

The ambition continuum

No one blames a person for wanting to climb the status-and-income ladder. If you say you’re an individual contributor and your goal is to be a vice president, the response is usually “You go, girl” or, I guess, “You go, guy,” although I’ve never heard that sentence uttered by anyone.

But some people strive upward more because of praise than because they simply want to. Privately, they’d rather trade the money, power, and prestige of a big-time job for less stress and more free time. Or they may realize that if they push upward, they’ll rise to their level of incompetence. You spend too much time at work to let societal pressure dictate your level of ambition. Consciously decide how ambitious you want to be:

←—————————————————→
A basic job is fine. I want to rise as far as I can.

The ethical continuum

Most people claim to be ethical, but in real life, as in most human characteristics, there’s plenty of variability.

For example, some people believe that any sales or fundraising job is unethical because, in order to be more than an order taker, you have to manipulate the prospect into buying when he otherwise could buy from another vendor or donate to another charity. On the other hand, some people, as long as they don’t commit egregious ethical violations (like overtly lying about a product or the benefits a charitable donation will yield), prioritize putting bread on the table.

Another example: For one person, anything this side of selling tobacco or mind-altering substances is ethical. For others, ethics requires clear societal improvement. Of course, that can occur in all sectors: for-profit, nonprofit, and government. For example, someone who works for a company that makes best-in-class products such as Toyota, Apple, or Google, as long as their day-to-day behavior is ethical, can lay their heads on the pillow with pride. So can someone who works for a nonprofit that has demonstrated it makes a bigger difference than do peer nonprofits. A person who works for a government agency that belies the stereotype “Government does everything poorly but expensively” can, of course, also be proud.

So now I again turn to you. Where on the ethical continuum do you want to be, and how important is that to you?

←—————————————————→
Anything more ethical than selling addictive drugs Mother Teresa

The redistribution-versus-merit continuum

The New Testament urges us to prioritize “the least among us.” Indeed that’s the core principle of liberal/progressive politics and economics: “How can we sit by when some people live in mansions while others live in squalor?” Other people operate from the battlefield medic’s triage principle: When you have limited resources, you help more people by allocating medical supplies not to the sickest but to those with the greatest potential to profit.

Translating that concept to the career world, some people want to be social workers, inner-city teachers, community activists, or nonprofit employees, who usually focus on “the least among us.” Others are dissuaded from that view, arguing that, despite significant funds set aside by the United States to close the achievement gap, in their opinion that gap remains as wide as ever. Such people choose to work in organizations that employ and serve high ability/high achievers: high-quality companies or private schools serving intellectually gifted kids, for example.

So, what about you? Where on the continuum do you want to focus your career efforts, and how important is that to you?

←——————————————————————→
On “the least among us” On high-achievers, the “best and brightest”

The hedonism-versus-contribution continuum

This continuum is embedded in some of the previous ones, but is central, so it deserves separate attention. This continuum spans three philosophies of life. One end on the continuum is the belief that the life well-led is about the pursuit of happiness: Strive to do as little work as possible so you can have as much fun as possible. On the other end of the continuum is the belief that the life well-led is defined by spending as many heartbeats as possible making the biggest contribution possible: Work long hours using your best skills, even if some of the work is unpleasant, because greater good accrues from that than from spending discretionary time, for example, watching TV, playing video games, or even having family time. Between those two lies the most commonly held value: balance, the Aristotelian golden mean. It’s often referred to as work-life balance.

So, where on the continuum do you want to aspire, and how important is that to you?

←—————————————————→
Hedonism Maximum contribution

Your choices are cast in Jell-O

Of course, your choices aren’t cast in stone. They’re cast in Jell-O: You can change them, although it may get sticky. But thinking consciously about your core principles may give you a head start on living the life you want to live now and a life you’ll look back on feeling good about how you lived it.