4 min read

Would You Sell Your Time for 500x Less Than You Could Earn?

Although life is about so much more than making money, looking at this graph gave me pause
A green field with flowers and trees under a blue sky speckled with clouds
What does the good life mean to you? | All images James Bellerjeau

Greetings friends!

I believe making money is less important than learning how to be happy. But I still chafe when investing my time in comparatively low-paying pursuits.

I suspect it’s a consequence of a career spent prioritizing my efforts and focusing on the highest-return projects.

Even though maximizing my earnings is not my goal, I can’t help but look at how the things I do now compare to both what I once did and my current alternatives in retirement.

Have a look with me at the situation and tell me what you would do in my shoes.

Higher education really paid off for me

I had a series of summer jobs during college and law school. From farm hand (a truly terrible job during hay season in upstate New York) to box mover to law clerk, I steadily increased my earnings power.

This was some decades ago. And while I’ve not adjusted any figures for inflation, the point still comes through vividly.

Bar chart showing hourly wages for various jobs, ranging from $2 per hour for a farm hand and $654 per hour as in-house lawyer
Illustration by your illustrious author

Further, these are all hourly wages, adjusted to reflect how much I actually worked. That is, the associate job looked like it paid even better until you factor in the 100-hour weeks.

Don’t let any public company executive whining about their stressful jobs fool you. The pay is hard to beat, at least for working as a company employee.

But what goes up

Now in retirement, I’ve got a host of activities to choose from.

Here’s what I’ve been spending time on, and how it stacks up on an hourly basis:

Bar chart showing hourly wages for various jobs, ranging from $625 per hour for an executive coach and $0 per hour as a blogger
The road to penury is paved with, hmmm, keyboard keys?

No one compels me to undertake any of these activities. They each bring me different nonmonetary rewards, in addition to the pecuniary kind.

The activity I probably enjoyed most was creating my own blog and writing a weekly newsletter – this very newsletter. This activity is entirely unpaid — in fact, it’s costing me money to maintain my site.

Coaching executives is unexpectedly fun because I leverage my hard-won experience to give high-quality advice without having to go off and implement it. Coaching keeps me engaged at a high professional level.

Teaching law students lends me some prestige. And I always enjoy the interactions with students. I know they can tell when their professors put in the effort, so I hold myself to a high standard.

That leaves Medium — What to do with Medium?

I went to the global publishing platform Medium as an experiment, an alternative/addition to blogging. Right away, there were several advantages:

  • Ease of publishing and a clean, beautiful design
  • A wonderful community of writers and readers
  • Monetization for stories, many of which I was going to write anyway

Can you imagine how gladly I gave up my hay hook, sweaty gloves, and aching back for the rigors of law school? Part of my relief was knowing that the pay of a farm hand was entirely unworthy of the effort.

Now at my keyboard, I may be risking only a sore butt and aching shoulders, but the pay is even more dismal than those distant summers past.

It simply cannot be for the pay. Indeed, introducing money into the equation risks ruining the fun for me. I can make hundreds of times more money with comparatively little effort.

This is why I haven’t rushed to migrate my newsletter over to Substack, and its lure of regular subscribers. I do not want to be driven by money.

But again, darn it, I don’t want to feel like a sucker.

As always, life’s important questions come down to honesty

To live a good life, the question we must each honestly answer is this: What do we really want, and what are we willing to do to get it?

What do we really want, and what are we willing to do to get it?

You may have extravagant wants, but if you are not willing to pay the price, you are but daydreaming.

You may have modest wants, allowing you to cover your costs in many ways.

I find myself remembering why early retirement called out to me. It was Mr. Thoreau who whispered quietly but insistently in my ear:

Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day; for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher’s desk. — Henry David Thoreau

Every day, I think about the answer to this question.

What would you do?

Be well.

If you’re OK with someone who poses as many questions as he answers, you’ll enjoy reading all my stories.

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I published a version of this story originally on Medium.