You have a choice. Either follow your ideals and your passion, or choose the career that will make you a boatload of money. At least, that’s what you’re told. We live in an increasingly complex world, where nuance is the only clear attribute, where multiple dimensions come into play. Yet, in terms of your career and your finances, the old dichotomy between selling out or staying true to yourself rears its head again and again.
You would think science is immune from this, but it’s not. When it comes to money vs job satisfaction, Fiscal Tiger reports that researchers found $75,000 a year is the magic number. In a study from the National Academy of Sciences, people who made more than 75K weren’t as happy as those who did, and people who made less were also dissatisfied. The gist is that $75,000 is enough to afford a comfortable lifestyle. Make less, and you’re “miserable” because you can’t afford what you need. Make more, and you’re not happy because you’re caring about money too much.
“Everyone’s pursuit in life is different. Not all people want a job for the pure satisfaction of it, some just want success,” says Fiscal Tiger author Katie McBeth. “In the end, psychology proves that happiness through wealth cannot be achieved over a certain threshold.”
This, then, begs the question, what is success, and what is happiness? Is there really a “threshold” when it comes to wealth and happiness? What no one’s telling you is the answer depends on you.
The tale of two successes
Look up “richest person in the world 2017” and Bill Gates checks in at the top of the list with an estimated $75 billion. But recently, Microsoft’s latest CEO, Satya Nadella, said he has always been “bothered” by Gates’ original mission for Microsoft. That mission was to put “a computer on every desk and in every home”. To Nadella, that mission had an obvious endpoint and was too limiting in scope.
Here we have two differing takes on success. Gates said that once his company achieved PC ubiquity, it would be a success. Nadella’s goal for Microsoft, “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” is much more nebulous and open-ended. What if he ends up empowering someone whose goal is mass destruction? That’s a completely different story.
There’s no doubt Gates is a success, having helped pioneer a solid foundation for Microsoft. There are other reasons he’s a success, which I’ll get into soon.
A man with a different mission, a different idea of achievement, Nadella is also a success. In 2016, Microsoft posted good numbers, particularly with its cloud service Azure, for which revenue went up a stunning 93%. Given the direction the cloud is going for business, Microsoft’s future could very well be in the cloud, a technology as nebulous as Nadella’s mission.
The cloud can play a role in every part of business operations, from data hosting to payroll. In 2016, 53 percent of organizations used cloud SaaS solutions for payroll, a 12 percent increase from 2015. And according to an IDG survey 2018 will also see 60% of IT department apps and platforms on the cloud, a 15% rise from 2015.
Microsoft is putting an emphasis on the cloud moving forward, and that jibes with Nadella’s mission, but there’s more. In 2016, Nadella and Microsoft brought Minecraft: Education Edition to classrooms. It leverages the hugely popular Minecraft game to help students learn both computational skills and subject-matter knowledge, and costs only $1 to $5 per student. This also goes great with Nadella’s mission.
Although I can’t sit down with him and ask, “Satya, are you happy?”, there’s clearly a level of happiness he must feel from making business decisions that help empower people. If kids can get more out of their education through the inexpensive Minecraft: Education Edition, that’s definitely the definition of empowerment. He’s also big on empowering employees. When Microsoft’s Twitter AI bot got hacked and (according to USA Today) became a “venom-spewing racist”, Nadella emailed the team and said, “Keep pushing, and know that I am with you.” He says, “Any decision about a new product or a new hire, I’m always thinking about that sense of purpose and culture.”
Nadella’s net worth is $84 million. That’s a far cry from Gates, but to be fair to Nadella, he’s only been CEO for three years. Does Nadella suffer from the lack of happiness that researchers found comes with making over $75,000 a year? Given what we’re seeing and hearing so far, that seems absurd. Maybe if he’s only concentrating on the money, unhappiness would be his lot. But he’s focusing on initiatives that mean something to him.
Back to Gates. Given the way Gates ran Microsoft in the 90’s, a cutthroat, tunnel-vision company that dominated the market to the point where it got sued for creating a monopoly, an observer might think Gates is a relatively unhappy person.
But Gates is creating his own version of happiness through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, as well as the new Breakthrough Energy venture. Gates obviously believes in tackling big picture issues, which is interesting, given that Nadella’s critique of Gates’ Microsoft mission is that it did exactly the opposite. Breakthrough Energy will fund startups working on a promising renewable energy solution to the climate change problem. The Gates foundation has also divested in fossil fuel holdings by 85%. In 2016, the Foundation threw $80 million at solving the gender inequality problem. Most recently, Gates said governments should tax robots and use the money to fund job creation. He believes taxes from automated work should go towards hiring workers for jobs a robot wouldn’t be suited to do, jobs that require empathy.
Again, I can’t sit down with Gates and ask him if he’s happy. Like Nadella, he’s focusing his efforts on issues he cares about.
The numbers paradox
Something happens when you focus on the metrics you need to hit, the amount of money you need to make in order to achieve happiness. You become less happy. Numbers are abstract and have little meaning in and of themselves. Manipulating them helps us achieve things, but if you’re watching the numbers instead of focusing on the issues, the achievement rings hollow.
And, each person has their own issues they care about, nebulous or concrete, immediate or far away. Happiness is unique to each person, and can’t be quantified by a number. More than anything, happiness is an emotion you have when you’re not thinking about whether or not you’re happy. To analyze happiness, to treat it like a number—that just defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it?
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