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How much do you make? Judging your self-worth by your paycheck

By Sander Biehn | Jan 19, 2015

Admit it! You are what you earn. At least, that is a thought that often goes through your mind. You secretly covet your boss’ job regardless of what you tell others. Sure, you want the power, but the money wouldn’t hurt either. My secret it out, and I believe I share it with many more of you than you might think. I judge myself on how much money I bring home.  But how did it start? Where and when was it that I decided to tie my ego to the paycheck my company gave me every two weeks?

The first real job I had I worked as a ‘laborer’ for the State of New York at the Limekiln Lake Campground in the Adirondack Mountains. I was excited by the hourly wage they offered, and it was a short walk from my grandfather’s cabin where I would stay for the summer. I would earn plenty of money for the next school year and enjoy summer at the lake. One of the better duties laborers at the campground were given was to mow the lawn surrounding the parking lot by the beach. After all, this is where the lifeguards worked. That particular year, the lifeguards were two girls and they were very popular with all my fellow laborers. These lifeguards were never busy compared to the sweat and toil we put into our daily routines cleaning toilets and picking up trash. All they ever did was sit on a white chair in their red state-issued bathing suits. One day over lunch, a fellow laborer remarked about the pay that the lifeguards received. They got a full $3 an hour more than we did. How could this be? They just sat on the beach all day. Someone pointed out that they had passed lifesaving and had advanced swimming certificates as well.

This was my first encounter with the tearing jealous need inside me to earn more than my peers. Being paid less than others made me wonder what I had done wrong. Was I just born a laborer instead of lifeguard? I was smart enough. I could have passed the tests had I put my mind to it. Instead I was being paid $3 less for each and every hour I worked than the girls from Schenectady! This wouldn’t be the last time I felt this way.

I wasn’t at all prepared for the career in sales I was about to enter where this jealousy became even more pronounced. In sales, about the only criteria on which to hang your hat is your ability to sell. In a commission-driven environment, selling has a direct correlation to earnings. In sales, the more money you make the better you are at your job, full stop. For this reason, sales people are also much more likely to talk about how much they earn. Many sales people I know feel that their paycheck and their self-worth are one in the same. Of course, in order to protect fragile egos, especially in down selling years, conversations in the break room amongst sales people cannot always be trusted as being 100% truthful. When sales people aren’t talking about how much they earn, they are often talking about how much they could earn if only they were working for the right company with the right compensation plan. I remember Roger constantly bemoaning our incentive plan and talking about how much former sales people from our firm were making working for our competitors. Sometimes he would drone on about how much more the large business segment guys made us in mid-markets. “I need to look into working in that division!” he would always conclude. Fantasizing about better jobs with better pay plans allowed us to collectively participate in feeling jealous of others and added to our own sense of inadequacy.

Is it is any wonder that after 20 years of conversations like this with others and with myself that I became completely engrossed with my W-2?  I have read enough used self-help books to know that these conversations are not healthy. I could avoid the break room, but how did I turn off the messages I kept playing in my mind.  Did I really want someone like me as a friend?

Through it all, I forgot about what I was working for in order to relentlessly pursue making as much money as I could. I became irrationally jealous of people who made more than me. Why? Because I had judged myself on how much I took home. Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as others around me were promoted to positions of power and higher salaries. I was always a top performer, but never got the nod to move up the chain. What was I doing wrong?

It took me a very long time to figure it out, but the answer came in the form of a stagnated career and salary. I started to ask myself some hard questions.I had worked 23 years and possibly had 25 more to go.  How did I want to remember all this time I spent at work? Beyond supporting my family adequately, what was my purpose?  Could it be that my pursuit of more money had clouded my ability to progress in my career and, more importantly, be happy? Chasing a larger paycheck had led me down a blind alley.I needed to change my approach entirely.

Any change can feel strange at first. I found myself making decisions in a new way. I sought a new position and projects based on what interested me and what I thought I was good at instead of how much money it paid. Had I lost my mind?  I even moved my family 1,000 miles and paid for the move myself because there was no relocation money allocated for the new job. How could this help my sales career? Something began to change in me and I felt a new sense of confidence and ownership in my destiny. I saw my work as unique and powerful. Regardless of what I was getting paid, I knew that I was good enough. I didn’t need the biggest paycheck, I was as talented as anyone else in the company. I stopped judging myself by the measure of others  and began running my own race.

I cannot tell you that by taking your eye off the zeros on your paycheck you will ultimately earn more money. But it does appear that most people who rocket up the corporate ladder are not solely chasing cash. What I can tell you is that by looking after what is truly important to you ultimately will make you happier. Take it from a recovering paycheck chaser. Don’t postpone happiness for the prospect of just having more in your bank account.

Sander Biehn is the author of “The Thirty Year Paycheck: Destruction and Redemption in Corporate America” available on Amazon and Kindle.

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