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The Problem With Purpose

Following your passion doesn’t always pay.

Key points

  • A balance between purpose and practical needs can help ensure long-term satisfaction and well-being at work.
  • Passion can hinder negotiations and pay raises.
  • Leveraging unique skillsets can help someone find better opportunities.
  • Work cannot and should not be one's sole source of fulfillment.

As noted in our previous blog post, we are very much pro-monkey. We can learn so much from them and our other friends in the animal kingdom. We are also big fans of zookeepers because they are amazing. They play a critical role in ensuring the health and well-being of animals in captivity. They provide appropriate, nutritious food, keep the animals mentally stimulated, and deal gracefully with unsupervised toddlers eager to share Dippin’ Dots with the wallabies.

Zookeepers typically have college degrees and years of experience through volunteering and internships. They are physically strong, observant, hardworking, and patient and are great communicators and advocates for the animals. Most importantly, they feel an abiding passion for the animals under their stewardship.

Given the demands of the job, the importance of their work, and the requisite education and experience, zookeepers must make some real money, right? Well, the average starting salaries are around $38,000 a year. Experienced zookeepers make around $51,000 a year, an amount that comes close (but doesn’t qualify) to a middle-class income according to the Pew Research Center.

Why don't zookeepers—and others in what are often called the “helping professions”—get paid more? At the risk of sounding reductionist, we think it’s a problem of purpose and power.

We all want a job that sparks joy. Working with students, we get asked, "What should I do with my life?" all the time. It is almost impossible to answer this without something like: "What brings you joy?" "What are you passionate about?" "What change do you want to make in the world?" Or even "What would you do for free?" The objective is to seed a conversation about a fulfilling career and to get them to think at least a little bit beyond their paycheck.

We think work should mean something. After all, we spend more hours working than we do relaxing or with our loved ones, so it’s important to find joy and purpose in what you do. Conversely, it's tough to excel at something you hate. (You been there? So have we).

The crazy thing is that finding and following your purpose can lead to a reduced sense of fulfillment and authenticity. When we limit ourselves to vocations typically tied to our passions, we take power away from ourselves.

For example, the zookeepers have a tough time negotiating salary when management knows that not only do they desperately want and love the job, but dozens of others want it, too. Even a serious commitment to excellence will only get you so far in organizations desperate to control costs. The result for our poor zookeepers is tougher working conditions, lower pay, and a reduced sense of accomplishment relative to their peers.

Recent research about life and work satisfaction even found that when job demands are exceptionally heavy your sense of authenticity at work begins to dwindle. So, as the possibility of advancement and remuneration becomes more remote, frustration follows. Eventually, that could lead to resentment about one of the things you used to care about most.

Does this mean we have to choose between passion and financial and psychological well-being? We don't think so. We suggest identifying where your skills and interests intersect with real needs in the workforce.

Consider lesser-known adjacent vocations with higher demand. Instead of a zookeeper perhaps you pursue becoming an animal nutritionist. That sounds fun! Aligning with unfulfilled demand gives you leverage when negotiating and encourages the employer to be more accommodating. Employers pay a premium for unique skill sets that can help them fulfill their mission.

And remember, fulfilling work is important, but your work is not your life, and you are not your work. Volunteer! Form meaningful relationships based on shared interests! We are big fans of hobbies, too. Plant a garden, mentor someone, start a book club, learn how to throw a boomerang.

Find a thing that makes you happy. Maybe even head down to your local animal shelter and adopt a new friend. You may not be a zookeeper, but we know you can handle a dog or cat (or both!) or maybe even a rabbit. Just please don’t get a monkey.

More from Tara Ceranic Salinas, Ph.D., and Ed Love Ph.D.
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