Career Clusters Stories + Advice

What Does Passion Pay? How to Balance What You Love and What You Make

Image of a pile of books. The top book is open with the pages fanning out.

Picture this: I’m a BC senior, telling a mentor of mine about the jobs I’m applying for–and not getting. “Marketing, PR, book publishing. A lot of book publishing,” I say. “But I haven’t gotten anything.”

Melissa Warten, MCAS ’16

“But you want publishing,” she says to me, as if clarifying. 

“I mean, sure!” I say, quickly. “But it probably won’t work out. And it doesn’t pay much. I just need a job by graduation. Any job. For my sanity.”

She tilts her head, studying me. “But…you want to work in publishing.”

I realize now she’s not clarifying. She already knows. And she sees me two-stepping around the truth and is asking me to land squarely in the center of it. “Yes,” I say quietly. “That’s what I want. That’s what I’m good at.”

“So do that,” she says. “Don’t rush, and don’t settle. Go get it.”

End scene. Flash forward. It’s been four years since that conversation, and I’ve spent those four years in my dream book publishing job. I didn’t rush and I didn’t settle, and I now am a children’s book editor in New York City at one of the biggest publishing companies in the world. I love it, I’m good at it, and I like to think the world needs me to do it. Looks like I made it. 

Guess what I don’t make? A whole lot of money.

My starting salary was low. There were no signing bonuses, no crazy perks, and no promises of a quick promotion. But hey, I was getting paid a salary! More money than I’d ever conceptualized, to do what I loved! 

Then I ran my budget, and realized that the life I had chosen came with a price tag. And it wasn’t one I was sure I could afford.

As I departed a collegiate culture that drives students towards doing what they love and following their passion and setting the world aflame, I’m finding it now important to note that passions don’t always pay what we hope they will. But you can still do the thing you love even if the salary isn’t glamorous. To do so takes a delicate balance of knowing what you’re good at, financial mindfulness, and a well-rounded perspective on work and life.

Know what you’re good at

So you know what the world needs you to be. Great! The challenge now is to look at that position as if it were simply a job–and recognize where in your passion your skills lie. For instance, I came to work in publishing because I’m a passionate writer and avid reader. But what am I actually good at? Well, I can read really fast. I’m a strong communicator and collaborator, and a good writer. I spent my college career reading complicated texts, and parsing out just what they meant to say. Those skills translated really well to being an editor.

Where in your passion can you apply your broader skills? What positions are available within your industry that might maximize your capabilities? Think outside the box of your passion, and do your homework–know the different nitty-gritty roles your intended industry contains. Your love can be monetized if you put in the research for just how.

Be financially mindful

If the work you love doing doesn’t look like it’ll net you a whole lot of cash, the biggest gift you can give yourself is that of financial mindfulness. Salary research is key as you think about and apply to jobs–do your research and get a feel for how much money per paycheck you’d be bringing home. (Don’t forget taxes.) If it’s low, at least you know! Budget early and often, and think about how much money you’ll need to live month to month. Consider things like rent prices in your city, and student loans, and gym memberships or date nights or weekend getaways, because you deserve those too. Go into your new job with savings goals in mind, such as maxing out retirement accounts or a fully funded emergency cushion (3-6 months’ worth of savings). That way, you know the purpose of every dollar, and you’re more inclined to save a bit at a time out of every little paycheck.

It’s been crucial for me to prioritize money’s role in my life. Buzzy phrases can be misleading, like “if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life” or “don’t work just for a paycheck” or all of those platitudes that lead college students to put passion above pay. These words are true in many senses, of course, but they’re not all true. Money may not always be the whole end game, but it does always have to be a tool–how do you need it to work for you? Do you have bills to pay, illnesses to treat, a family or pets to feed? No matter what type of paycheck you earn, financial priorities are real priorities, and you become responsible for owning them. That might mean shelving the Eurotrip you’ve dreamt about while you pad your emergency fund; it might mean you live further from work to keep rent costs down; it might mean your grocery budget runs tight so you can pay down student loans. But a low paycheck might also mean that what you don’t have in money, you make up for in fulfillment and joy in your workplace–and for you, that might be a cost worth paying. 

Have a balanced perspective

Once you leave college, the metrics of success start to shift. If you’re like me, now that you don’t have to worry about your grades or GPA, you might start putting your salary in that brain space–stacking it against your friends, thinking you’re “losing” this big fake race that no one asked you to run. But your personal standards don’t have to change with graduation and the work force. Have a vision for the life you want to build with whatever money you make, and remember that on the path to fulfilling that life, your career choices don’t have to be final. You can leave a job that doesn’t feel like a dream, or come back to an industry you might have left too soon. Don’t burn your bridges, and keep your values top of mind.

At the end of the day, the world needs you to be YOU. The world doesn’t need another editor or another musician or another CPA or another whatever-thing-you-do. The world needs you at your best, building the foundations for a life that will serve you and your loved ones and others well. You are and always will be more than your career. You may start out working a job that isn’t your dream, but nets you a steady paycheck that allows you to do more things you love outside of work, or spend more time with people you love, or serves you in other ways besides passion. Or you may start out in your dream job, and realize that some other passions might need to take a backseat while you build a lifelong career. Whatever the case, wherever you land, you are a whole person. And the world is lucky to have you.

—By Melissa Warten, MCAS ’16

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