Money has never been the main driver behind my career choices, but I certainly never minded landing that end-of-year bonus or salary increase. It turns out this desire to build more “material” wealth is common. According to the 2017 Charles Schwab Modern Wealth Index, most Americans define “wealth” as “having a lot of money.” However, the survey also showed that people place even higher value on things money can’t buy like good health, gratitude, and community.
In line with these findings, my own professional aspirations have since shifted toward building more “lifestyle” wealth like autonomy, flexibility, and quality time with people I love, especially after my father passed away five years ago. His sudden passing made me question whether my corporate career track was fulfilling, whether I was devoting enough time to the people in my life, and if I was spending my days doing work I truly cared about.
I turned to three other professionals to hear about the tipping points in their careers that made them re-evaluate what building wealth really means.
Room for a rich social life
Natalie Lesyk, Marketing Manager at Ning, began her career by following the money. “I came from a society where money was always treated as the axis of personal well-being. From a very young age, I thought earning more money was the ultimate way to express status and happiness because people around me were praised during those moments. So when choosing between several job offers, I preferred the one with the higher salary. I figured, the more I earned, the more motivated I would be to keep working.”
Unfortunately, this approach led Lesyk to take a well-paid global role that required her to keep odd hours to be available to the rest of her team in other time zones. “The exact moment when I realized that money no longer equalled wealth was when I missed my best friend’s wedding because of a business trip. When she mentioned (not being mad or seemingly upset at all) that she did not even expect me to come, I realized my identity had become linked to my job rather than people I love. In spite of having a large bank account, I was hopelessly poor.”
My identity had become linked to my job rather than the people I love.
This led her to prioritize finding a company that allowed her to nurture the various aspects of her life, even if that meant taking a lower salary. “I chose Ning.com because the company’s flexible working policy and respect for personal time makes the job truly rewarding. Being in an environment that lets me meet the entire range of my personal needs, interests, and professional aspirations is what truly makes me feel wealthy.”
Activities that fill you with energy
Travis Biggert, Chief Sales Officer at HUB International Mid-America, discovered that the wealth he initially tried to accumulate didn’t ultimately make him happy. “When I was younger, success seemed to be all about how much ‘stuff’ people had. I always chased the almighty dollar in my professional endeavors, where some annualized salary was the definition of success.”
This led him to make certain career choices that ultimately left him feeling unhappy. “I was three years into a job that looked really good from the outside, but I was miserable on the inside.” Reconnecting with an old friend ended up triggering his career pivot. “Right as I felt that I was hitting my peak of physical and emotional exhaustion, a long-time friend came through town on business and invited me out. About halfway through the night, I realized I was having fun for first time in a long time. Something about being with a friend from my past reminded me of a time when I was truly care-free, without a mortgage, a job, kids, or a care in the world. I found myself wishing things could be as simple now as they seemed back then.”
That evening opened Biggert’s eyes to how unhappy he was. “I realized I had become one of those people who wasn’t much fun to be around because my life had become about making money. But I found achieving that goal left me feeling completely hollow because I had sacrificed really important things in my life to get there.”
That night, his definition of wealth shifted from one driven by societal norms of reaching a number on a pay check to one about his personal definition of well-lived life. “Within a week, I resigned from my position, took a job with a lower salary, but one where I could work the hours I wanted and feel energized by the work. The more my work became a reflection and manifestation of who I was as a person, the wealthier I felt.”
The more my work became a reflection of who I was as a person, the wealthier I felt.
Biggert now has a nice balance of things that truly make him happy. “I routinely pass up that next higher-paying job for the sheer fact that my life is great, I like and trust the people around me, and most importantly, I’m having a lot of fun.”
Freedom to control my schedule
Diana Ostberg, Principal at Saam Architecture started her career working at a large, corporate architectural firm, focused on achieving traditional metrics of professional success. “Coming out of school, it was easy to focus on raises and bonuses as the measuring stick of how I was accumulating wealth.”
But her focus on climbing the corporate ladder cost her valuable time with her daughter. She became increasingly unhappy leaving her in daycare for extra hours due to her long commute and need to be in the office during “traditional” hours. “Every day I would be rushing to the train from the office. All I could focus on was getting to my daughter at the daycare center as quickly as possible. One day, pregnant with my second child, I picked up my daughter at daycare. She was tired and hungry and clinging to me. I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?!’ I knew I wanted to keep working, but I also knew that continuing like this wasn’t the life I wanted.”
For the longest time, Ostberg assumed her stressors were par for the course. “I didn’t see ‘wealth’ in this way for so long because having flexibility just wasn’t the norm in most architecture firms.” Instead of assuming her situation was as good as it gets and settling for the status quo, Ostberg proactively explored whether other ways of working would be possible so she could thrive in both her career and family life. “It was only when I spoke with the founders of my current firm, Saam Architecture, and heard their vision for a truly flexible workplace that I realized more balance was actually possible. The flexibility policy at Saam Architecture means that I control my schedule and find my own balance between work life and home life. I am dedicated to my clients AND to my family – I don’t have to choose.”
Wealth is really about freedom. I am dedicated to my clients AND to my family – I don’t have to choose.
She realized wealth was really about freedom. “Money pays the bills, but being able to control my own schedule and not miss out on family time is priceless.”
Wealth is in the eye of the beholder
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have lots of money to afford the lifestyle you desire. At the same time, less measurable aspects of wealth like energy, freedom, and a rich personal life can be even more important. The key is to reflect on and define what “being wealthy” means to you so you can then structure your career and life and make the tough choices necessary to accumulate those “assets” that truly matter.
This article is an unabridged version of my original piece published on Fast Company.
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