Made-Up Metrics

There’s a difference between money made doing work that drains you and money made doing work that fills you with passion and joy.

It’s difficult to quantify that difference, however.

A dollar is a dollar, however you earn it. The latent value of that dollar ebbs and flows with the market, but neither gains nor loses a cent based on whether you acquired it by thrift or theft, by helping your fellow man or stealing his wallet.

The ideological immutability of money was something I struggled with for a long time, beginning in college. Because of tips, I earned a solid profit every time I waited tables at a popular, local restaurant my sophomore year.

There arose an opportunity to apply for a low-level position in my intended field, however, so I stopped working at the restaurant and took that new job, instead. I earned far less at my new job, but it provided me with experience within my industry, and so the value derived was greater than the quantity of dollars I received; the money was less important than the experience, up to a point.

There was a new metric at play: something you might call industry equity.

I worked five jobs while in school, including that first design job, and then another full-time job after I graduated. I started my own business after quitting that final job, and in relatively short order, it took off.

Having the freedom to set my own hours, to choose my own clients, to determine my own financial destiny—that was new. That was amazing. That was something, I realized, I was more than happy to take a pay cut to enjoy.

Once again, there was a new metric in the mix. It was different, and difficult to measure, but it was very real.

I estimated I would be willing to earn maybe half as much as I was making before—provided that was enough to pay the bills—if by doing so I would be able to have absolute control over the nature of my business and the work I did. Later, after I’d gotten more comfortable with the rhythm of working with clients and managing my own time, I guessed I would probably need to be offered something like five- or six-times was I was making to even consider a position working for someone else.

This self-determination metric was clearly valuable to me, and remains so to this day. I’m not positive that figure—five- or six-times the income—is even accurate, because chances are, I’d still turn down the job. I love this way of doing things too much to trade it away for more money attached to less freedom.

One final metric I’ve had to make up is that of location and career independence. This goes a bit further than simple entrepreneurship: it’s being untethered from any single piece of infrastructure. And that includes physical locations, but also online platforms, methods of earning money, rituals and routines, and the like.

It would be tricky to move away from a bookselling system as convenient as Amazon, for instance, but I could. The same is true with my other income streams, all of which are humble, but which add up to something that allows me to live my life in this way. This diversification and these clay foundations come with a cost, but that cost, to me, is worth paying. The tradeoff is heavily slanted in favor of things I value, and as a result, though I earn far less money than I did when I lived in LA, these metrics still set me far ahead of where I was then, after making the conversion from pure money to money-plus-priorities.

Identifying your priorities, and understanding what fuels you, what drains you, and what you’re willing to pay to have more of the former and less of the latter, allows you to develop your own fuzzy-but-useful conversion system. It allows you to gauge opportunities and sacrifices using something beyond numbers and dollar signs—units of measurement that can be valuable, but which don’t take into account all of a person’s needs and wants.

You needn’t formalize these metrics for them to be useful. Simply being aware of them, and of the fact that you can reassess value in this way, lends the proper mindset.

Balancing the books is important and ensuring you have enough income to pay your way is vital. But beyond those foundational realities, you have a lot of wiggle room and a lot of opportunities for personal priority arbitrage.

If you enjoyed this essay, consider supporting my work on Patreon, or by purchasing one of my books.