By Luke Erickson

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s such a simple question, isn’t it? We ask children this question; and yet, if we’re being honest, many of us so-called adults are still trying to answer this question ourselves.

And it’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Many of us know what we’d like to do every day… We’d like to sit on a beautiful remote beach somewhere, or enjoy a cruise, or a campground, or whatever your ultimate vacation and downtime may look like for you.

Long-term retirement? Isn’t that the ultimate goal? To be able to do whatever you want, when you want, with ne’er a concern for the company politics, or bosses, a paycheck, or what you “should” be doing.

But ask any long-term retiree and most are not lounging on beaches for years or sitting around doing nothing. That’s because we all need a purpose in life and to feel like we’re making progress on something or doing something worthwhile. That’s where hobbies come in. Hobbies are actually work disguised as something we “get” to do instead of something we “have” to do.

Jobs and hobbies. Two very different things, right? But both work. Do you suppose it’s possible to have a job that pays you enough to live AND actually be something that you “get” to do instead of something you have to do? That’s the sweet spot, isn’t it? The elusive holy grail. Aligning our interests and motivations with a job that actually pays well.

Do such jobs even exist? The interesting thing is that the answer to this question is actually different for each of us. There are some personalities for whom a day of tinkering with formulas and numbers on a spreadsheet is fascinating and intrinsically rewarding, and yet, there are other people who would consider this sheer and utter drudgery. So yes, for some of us these jobs do exist. For others – i.e., those who can’t imagine spending their time doing anything else but mastering the didgeridoo – a decent paying job that we truly enjoy might be a little harder to come by.

There are three basic categories that working adults fall into. Group 1 is the category where our interests and work are mutually exclusive. Work time is necessary in order to provide support for the things we actually want to do. This is the category where people really do not enjoy their jobs, are not interested or motivated by the work, and would not have anything to do with their job except for the fact that it’s a paycheck. This is the category referred to by Michael Hyatt, author of bestseller Free to Focus, as the “drudgery zone.” It’s a way to make a living, but not a fun way to live life.

Group 2 is the category that the majority of folks fall into. Those in this group enjoy their jobs well enough, it’s not ALL drudgery. BUT there are definitely more than a handful of things they might change if they were independently wealthy and didn’t really “need” the paycheck. Hyatt would call these the distraction/disinterest zones where you might have SOME passion or SOME skills in what you’re doing, but you’re not often simultaneously passionate AND proficient at what you’re doing.

And of course, that ever-elusive Group 3, those who manage to work for fun and would do the same work or something very similar even if they didn’t need the paycheck. This is what Hyatt calls the “Desire Zone”, where you love doing something and you’re also really good at it. Good enough to make a decent living.

So now for that humdinger of a question you knew was coming. How close are you to this fabled group 3? Do you enjoy the majority of your waking hours? Or mostly just the weekends?

In 2016 folks at conducted a study collecting over 500,000 samples of people in close to 700 career categories and asked about their salary and happiness levels. From this data they were able to identify those jobs that tended to produce the happiest and highest paid employees.

First, the happiest career categories were mostly “right brained”, or rewarded based on creativity. These include video game creative director, music producer, motivational speaker, film director, singer, and others. Unfortunately, most of these career choices average relatively low salary levels.

However, the highest paid, on average, tended to be doctors, surgeons and other health related careers.

Now which categories produced both happy and high paid individuals? Interestingly, not all health related careers derived the same level of happiness. For example, family practitioners, immunologist and pathologists tended to score only average on the happiness scale in spite of their generally high salaries, while general surgeons, neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists and pediatricians scored high in both categories. Other fields, like pilots, CEOs, and motivational speakers also averaged high scores in both categories.

And jobs that tended to score lowest in both happiness and salary level include janitors, telemarketers, cashiers, stock clerks, retail salespeople, etc. Not shocking, right?

So, what is the takeaway from this data? Here are mine.

First, everyone is different. For example, attorneys don’t generally score high on the happiness scale, but they do score high on the salary scale. It is likely that there are at least a few attorneys who genuinely enjoy their daily work for the sake of it, and not just for the salary. So it’s still possible to find that balance of happiness and salary in this career field; it’s just statistically harder.

Next, it’s never too late to consider a career change for yourself. Yes you may be in the middle of a career that you spent years and endless tuition dollars pursuing only to find the happiness or salary or both isn’t nearly what you expected. Should you suck it up and stay? Maybe. Or make a huge career and lifestyle change? Maybe. OR possibly consider something in between?A lateral company move, or a small side-hustle that you really love and don’t do for the money, but could possibly turn into something bigger in 5 or 10 years.

Last, no one really sat me down as a kid and talked through this idea of balancing happiness with salary when choosing my career field. I was encouraged by my parents and guidance counselors to identify what interested me and what I was good at. And this was helpful advice, but I still found myself floundering in college for a long time because the truth is that I was interested and semiskilled in a bunch of different things. Perhaps that’s the way it needs to be. For some of us, you can’t really identify what you enjoy until you’ve first tried a few things that you DON’T enjoy! But armed with a little bit of data on career fields that tend to produce happier, better paid people, I might have been able to short track the system a bit.

The lesson is, don’t be afraid to have some conversations with your kids. You may not be able to completely circumvent their need for trial and error in choosing their path forward, but then again, a little time spent discussing the importance of balancing happiness and salary has the potential to save years of effort and thousands of dollars. Perhaps it’s worth a conversation or two.

Luke Erickson, Ph.D., AFC®, REALTOR® is an associate professor of personal finance for the University of Idaho. He lives and works in the Treasure Valley. Luke and his wife Rachel have been married for 16 years and live in Meridian, Idaho with their four energetic children. Got questions or comments about kids and money? Email them to and he’ll respond in future articles.

Share this article!

Leave a Comment

twelve − 4 =