Will Your Dream Career Actually Pay the Bills?

by | Aug 13, 2014 | Career Design | 21 comments

I ’m not as successful as you think I am.

I am, however, as successful as I need to be.

That feels wonderful to say because few things are as exhausting as trying to maintain a facade about your life and what happens inside it. Likewise, few things are as satisfying as knowing you have and are enough.

A while back, a reader took me to task because she realized from one of my posts that my business is not the primary source of income for my family. Here’s what she said (edited for privacy):

I have been reading your advice about leaving well-paying jobs for work you love [for a long time] and was seriously considering jumping ship to “make my dreams come true.” I used you as my career-changing role model, believing in all you wrote and assuming you were now making enough money to support yourself (and anyone else who was part of your life).

What I see now is that you are relying on your spouse for income. This is a HUGE caveat that I don’t see mentioned anywhere else on your blog. Perhaps you don’t think it’s relevant to your message — but I’m wondering how many other readers might be assuming what I did and falsely reassuring themselves about their own futures?!?

I don’t take offense to these questions. I know how important it is to have a sense of hope that what you want to do is possible.

Unfortunately, no role model can really provide that for you.

That doesn’t mean role models aren’t useful. Knowing that other smart, talented people are making big changes in their lives and coming out okay should be a big relief. It’s a good indicator that if you’re reasonably smart and plucky, you’ll figure things out too. That’s what I call hope!

There’s a huge difference between “career change is possible” and “this idea I have for a new life is feasible.” Too many people try to mimic someone else’s success (probably because that’s exactly what a lot of people advise you to do).

The goal is not to replicate someone’s exact strategy, but to understand the parameters and trade-offs you have to work with.

Here are 3 questions you can use to drill down on someone else’s experience in order to evaluate the feasibility of your own dreams.

1. How much do you really need?

There is no single amount that will “support a family.”

The amount of money you need to support a family in London, for example, is very different than what’s needed in Montgomery, Alabama. Even families within the same city do just fine at vastly different income levels.

The point is that you need to know that number for yourself. Knowing how much a role model makes is interesting, but not particularly helpful. It turns out there’s a psychological factor that is a better predictor of future earnings.

You often make as much as you need.

Think about that for a moment. What I’m suggesting is that if you’re a single parent who needs to support two kids on $55K a year, that’s probably what you’ll make. If you’re lucky enough to have a spouse or partner who cuts your portion of the bills down to half that, that’s probably what you’ll make too. This is true even if our two role models here are running exactly the same kind of business.

Why? Because it’s hard to push yourself to make more than you need. Running a business or stepping into an entirely new career field involves a steep learning curve and a lot of uncomfortable forays outside your comfort zone. If you need the money, you’re more likely to push past those fears than if the money is just a nice-to-have.

Currently I make almost no money from my business. I pay myself a salary of $1000/month, and that doesn’t happen every month. The needs of our family have been primarily funded by my husband’s income.

We also live a pretty modest lifestyle. For the last three years, I’ve used the top of the cat’s scratching post as a bedside table—not because we couldn’t afford a table, but because it wasn’t important to me.

When we needed more money, I made it. For example, when we decided to move to Seattle and knew we would likely buy a house, I made the money for a downpayment with a lucrative contract writing scientific articles and book chapters. People in this position were usually paid around $75/hour. I told them that my coaching clients pay me $200/hour, and if they wanted my services, they would have to do the same.

So they did.

That meant I was able put $70K into savings in just one year while working part-time. Sometimes your business pays more in opportunity—opportunities you can chose to pursue or not based on a combination of need and desire.

What about those people you know that started a business and made six figures right off the bat? Well, first of all, there’s a big difference between revenue and income. So many entrepreneurs throw around revenue numbers without revealing the actual take home, which is far smaller than you think.

Second, that need we talked about can be driven by emotional needs too. I interviewed a start-up founder who nearly worked himself to death to hit 7-figure revenue numbers within a couple of years. He was embarrassed about some prior failures and felt he had something to prove.

When determining your own needs, put a real number on it. Use figures from past spending to make sure you’re being realistic, but also play around with different scenarios. What if you moved to a new location? What if you downsized? What if you moved closer to family? What if you didn’t have to commute to work?

A friend of mine who works in construction sold his house and lives out of his van. This sounds sad to a lot of people, but my friend loves it. Now he only takes projects he’s excited about and enjoys lots of quality time with his kids, who are in their 20’s and just getting started in life.

Most of my clients find the amount of money they need to be happy is lower than expected. That’s reassuring when you’re just starting out. The truth is that many of us need far less than we have. We’ve been trained to trade happiness for things for a long time.

2. How much are you capable of earning?

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making when it comes to role models is this common phrase, “If they can do it, so can I!”

I hate to be the wet blanket, but maybe, maybe not.

I remember my mentor, Jon Morrow telling me once, “Make a list of all the ways you can increase your sales. Cross out each idea that you keep procrastinating to implement. You’ll never do it.”

The truth is, I’ve discovered there’s an awful lot of “proven tactics” that presumably work great for other entrepreneurs, but don’t work for me. Tactics don’t always translate.

What role models are good for, however, is to get a sense of the options available. There are so many different ways to earn money. Instead of asking how much money your role models make, ask what skills and strategies they primarily rely on.

Once you have a list of options, you can test drive them as a side gig first. See which approaches match your personality and skills. Play around with price/salary points, then extrapolate from there.

What you’re looking for here is: for any particular business model or career, what separates the high earners from the low earners? And how well do your skills, interests, drive, and personality match up with the ones finding financial success at the level you need?

3. What are the trade-offs?

One of the most important lessons you can learn is that real success involves trade-offs.

How much money you can make is just one of many considerations you have to evaluate before making a jump for your “dreams.” No career change will provide you with a perfect life that solves all your problems.

To make those trade-offs consciously, you have to understand your own priorities. Jon Morrow revealed his business grosses $100K/month. But he also revealed to me that working on his business is pretty much all he does—he doesn’t have a social life. That’s a trade-off he’s more than willing to make, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.

My friend Farnoosh Brock famously shared her decision not to have children. Her priorities were building her business, focusing on fitness, and traveling around the world.

For myself, I am increasingly prioritizing health, creativity, and community. I’m actively seeking a schedule that reduces my feelings of stress. Weekends are devoted to family, friends, and spending time outdoors. I put my No Regrets course on hold for a year and half to give myself the time to play with book ideas.

In the long run, I’m convinced these priorities will pay off, both emotionally and financially. But right now, it’s still a big experiment. I don’t know if it will work for me, much less anyone else.

No one has it all figured out. No one gets to “have it all.” There are no guarantees.

If you’ve done all of the above, I don’t see how jumping ship to follow your dreams can be a bad thing. As Jim Carrey said in a recent commencement speech,

Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.

That’s not the same as saying it’s financially feasible to do whatever crazy idea is rattling around in your head right now. But I also believe that if things don’t go as planned, you will find a way to make what you need. I haven’t had a client yet who wasn’t able to recover from an unexpected bump in the road.

On the other hand, maybe your dream will be easier and more fulfilling than you can even imagine right now.

Either way, it will be a wonderful learning experience and a story to tell.

Who knows, someone might even call you a role model.