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The Weight of Compensation, the Lightness of Contentment

Every Monday morning at Soul Shelter headquarters in Portland’s Hawthorne District, Mark and I hold a directors meeting (I’m Director of Fortune, Mark is Director of Fulfillment).

The first order of business is to power up Soul Shelter’s advanced server device—the Jura E50 automated espresso machine—after which we ponder solemn questions concerning fortune and fulfillment.

Last week Mark opened the discussion. “Why do you think fun jobs pay so little, and boring ones pay so much?”

The most longstanding of Clark’s Rules quickly came to mind, but for a moment my thoughts flashed back to the events of past months.

I’d met Mark by seeking editing help through Craig’s List, and we’d worked so well together that we decided to co-write a book. This collaboration was such fun that we decided to launch a blog that would build on the parables we’d written about two peasants seeking fortune and fulfillment.

Mark and I had taken very different paths in life. Disregarding the financial risks, he’d committed early and completely to a career as a novelist, while after struggling for a few years as a musician I’d moved on to a career in business. I’d found fortune, Mark had found fulfillment. Eager to share what we’d each gained, our discussions kept returning to the challenges of finding work that is personally fulfilling, yet pays decently.

So now, mustering the gravity that seemed appropriate to my considerably greater, er, chronological endowment, I offered Clark’s Law of Work:

Appeal is inversely proportional to compensation. The more boring the job, the higher the pay.

Mark pressed for details, so I elaborated, first noting that Clark’s Law of Work has been formally restated as Clark’s Construct Concerning Corporate Compensation (CCCCC).

“It’s a simple question of supply and demand. There’s an endless, overwhelming supply of people who want exciting careers as writers, painters, explorers, professional athletes, musicians, movie producers, television personalities, artists, models, singers, comedians, actors, and rock stars. But actual demand for people in those professions is limited. Huge supply and limited demand drives wages down.”

My novelist friend nodded slowly and took another sip of coffee. Mark looked amused as I continued fleshing out my construct. I drew a fresh cup for myself from the Jura E50. Coffee and Socratic dialogue are a beautiful match.

“If five kids on the same block all start selling lemonade at the same time, what happens? They drop prices to compete with each other. That’s exactly what happens in the “glamour” professions. Aspirants are so eager to break into the business that they’ll work for free—or even pay someone—to get started.”

blogatorium3.jpg“That’s why we see predatory fee-for-service ‘agencies’ for modeling wannabes,” Mark interjected, “and vanity presses for would-be writers.” I agreed: The law of supply and demand—the most fundamental principle of economics—is useful for understanding many things in life.

“What you say goes a long way toward explaining the low pay in creative/exciting occupations,” Mark admitted. “But what about high pay in boring professions?”

I refueled with a long drag on my quadruple Americano. Mmm! “Think about which businesses occupy the ground floors of the world’s largest office buildings? Financial institutions and insurance companies. These companies make money consistently because customers pay for their services ‘rain or shine’—in good times and bad. Money flows heavily and relatively predictably through these ‘infrastructure’ businesses and others like them: oil, steel, commodities refining, transportation, government and legal services, and so forth. Many would consider these boring organizations to work for.”

As a former legal clerk and temporary office worker, I acknowledged that ‘boring’ is a relative term, and Mark, who’s done his share of temporary gigs, agreed.

“But then there are the clerks,” he said, “and other administrative assistants for these companies. They don’t get high salaries.”

“Right,” I agreed, “because they’re doing low-skill work. A huge supply of people with low skill levels compete for a comparatively limited pool of clerical and other jobs, so wages remain low. But someone with high-level skills in a boring sector can command a high salary.

“The unfortunate truth is this: The greater the predictable cash flow, the less exciting the business—and the better the pay.” I encouraged Mark to ignore this as career advice, not that there was any danger he would abandon writing (see Fulfillment: A Work in Progress).

Looking skeptical, Mark proposed, “But there have got to be some exciting jobs that pay well?”

Sure, I replied. Here are some examples:

  • Crime Let’s face it, illegal acts can be extremely lucrative. But the severe moral and practical downsides make this a non-starter for almost everybody.
  • Dangerous work Miners, offshore oil rig workers, lumberjacks, professional underwater divers, and similar occupations offer good money. There’s a reason: You can get killed. (Mark was quick to concur, as his first novel explores the lives of coal miners)
  • Dirty work Same idea; see “Dangerous Work” above.
  • Hardship posts Fifteen years ago, a business school acquaintance of mine boasted to his classmates about the $150,000 annual salary offer he’d won—for a position based in a remote island nation. ‘Nuff said.
  • Whatever turns your crank The most important category of all: Some lucky people are passionate about law, accounting, insurance, and other professions that many consider unexciting. More power to them! “Exciting” and “interesting” are in the mind of the beholder.

We repaired to the Soul Shelter Blogatorium for notemaking, whereupon Mark postulated his first corollary to Clark’s Rules:

There are many exceptions to CCCCC, and like all of Clark’s Rules, CCCCC should be enjoyed or ignored at one’s own discretion.

The Director of Fulfillment is wise beyond his years. In recognition of his sagacity, this corollary is now known as CCCCCCC: Cunningham’s Corollary to Clark’s Construct Concerning Corporate Compensation.

Our pondering of fortune and fulfillment continues next Monday, when Mark writes about The Beauty of Letting Go.

Related posts:

Life Without Principle (or Interest)

Clark’s Rule About Priorities” (CRAP™)

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