Lifestyle Design: Choose What You Do

I’ve been thinking about this for some time. This is a follow-up to the previous post Lifestyle Design: Choose Where You Live. I took this picture during my vacation to help make the point:

It was taken on the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. The classic Inca Trail takes four days and three nights of hiking.

The three people in the picture are a tourist, a guide, and a porter. You can tell who’s who by the amount of stuff they carry on their backs. The tourist only carries what she needs during the day: a camera, a jacket, a water bottle, a hat, sunscreen, etc. The guide carries his own gear for the day and the night including  warm clothes and sleeping bag. The porters carry what the tourists need in the evening and gear for the group including tents, chairs, food, cooking pots, plates and utensils, and a propane tank for cooking. Yes, a propane tank on their back for the entire journey.

According to a guide book, a guide earns about $100 a day; a porter earns about $30 a day. What’s the difference between a guide and a porter? The ability to speak English (or whatever language the tourists speak). I’m sure the porter knows where to go and where to stop just as well as the guide but not being able to speak English makes the porter earn less while doing more work.

Is it fair that the ability to speak English is valued so much? No, but that’s the way it is. It behooves a porter to learn English and become a guide.

The media like to pick on English and Art History majors. A former colleague was an English major. He taught high school after getting his teaching credentials. He soon realized being a high school teacher wasn’t going to give him the financial security he’d like to provide to his family. Rather than complaining about low teachers’ pay, he quit and started working in customer support. Soon he was handling the most critical customers. He moved from customer support to sales support, then to business development. Now he’s a Senior Vice President of an international company. Choosing what he did made a huge difference.

Over at Bogleheads investment forum, we had a 19-year-old college student getting paid $20k for a summer internship. That’s a $80k/year pay rate for someone without a college degree when news reports would have you believe college graduates with degrees can’t find jobs. It’s not about whether you have a degree or not. It’s about what fields you are in.

I follow the blog Leigh’s Financial Journey. From what I read, Leigh graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the last few years, during the financial crisis and great recession. Nonetheless she’s earning six figures today and she’s getting good raises. Do you think it has to do with what field she’s in?

Choosing what one does makes a huge difference to one’s income. All jobs require that you put in a good day’s work. If you are working for pay anyway, you might as well work jobs that pay more. Jobs that pay more aren’t necessarily harder. Supply and demand make them pay more. That’s all.

What about doing what you love? I heard on NPR this story about someone wanting to become a professional ballet dancer. Not only it requires a lot of talent, a lot of investment in costumes and shoes, spending on lessons, years of practice and high risks of injury, now get this:

Ballet dancers start out earning about $60,000 a year — and pay raises are rare. That’s if you can get a job in the first place. Since 2007, 2008, companies are shedding dancers. They’re rarely hiring them. Careers are also pretty short: Dancers usually go pro around 17 and a lucky dancer will retire around age 40.

Doing what you love is a luxury few can afford.

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  1. J says

    I think luck matters more than choice, at least in my situation. I have a job that nets about $100,000+ a year. My computer science degree helps, but it is not a requirement. I also have a unique skill set that employers find useful. However, I credit most of my current success to luck, not choice. For example, I had never heard of my current employer before they offered me this job, and it was a three-week gig that turned into a year-and-a-half’s worth of work with no fixed end date on my contract.

    I’m also lucky that my current employer continues to survive. In the past, I worked at one company that died when it could no longer feed itself with projects. I also worked at another company that died when the grandson of the owner embezzled all of its money. Bad luck for me, both times.

    I didn’t even choose to be in this industry. I aimed for another industry and landed in this one by luck. I’ve “chosen” to stay in it since then, but that’s the extent of the control I have had over my career.

  2. Harry @ PF Pro says

    Regardless of how much you think people should get paid, you have to look at the facts. Teachers, ballet dancers will never get paid as much as computer science, engineering, business, etc. I chose a field(aerospace engineering) where I knew I would get hired and get paid well. I didn’t have a ton of interviews but I did get 2 offers(in 2009) and I’m making very good money now. It’s not something I love, but I get paid a lot, I’m good at it, and I’m saving like hell so I can retire to something I love or like a lot in 10 years.

  3. Leigh says

    Hope you had a good vacation, TFB!

    I did two majors in college. Both of them were fields I am incredibly interested in, but I quickly realized with internships that there was a far better career in the first one than the second one. I have been out of college for just under three years now. I had zero problems finding internships or a job after graduation and I receive plenty of emails from recruiters today.

    I am really fortunate that I greatly enjoy my job AND it pays well. If I have to work for money, I can’t think of something I would rather do than what I’m doing now. I’m glad I’ve figured that out early in life.

  4. Wai Yip Tung says

    Were you on the tour yourself? I was and I think there is a misunderstanding in the role of the guide and the porter. There are lot more different between just speaking a foreign language.

    Above all, although I’m not 100% positive, is that there is a certification requirement to be a guide. They have to have good understanding of the culture, history and archeology and not just bullshit in front of the tourists. Secondly the guides are the leader or the deputy leader of the group. This mean more than just knowing the route. They have to herd the tourists, take care of their safety, and to handle emergency. Thirdly they are the front line business representative of the tour company. They need to entertain the customers, answer their questions and make sure they have a good time. Porters mostly do not do this. Their main contribution is their labor.

    Think about the business of a nice restaurant. It may not need much professional skill, but you can’t just make the dish washing guide a waiter. They should have knowledge like pairing wine. But simply making the customer happy actually require a lot of soft skill and not everyone is suitable to do it.

  5. Harry Sit says

    Yes I was on the tour. Everything you said is true. The guide does more than just speaking a foreign language and knowing the route, but all of those tasks are not hard. Carrying 60 lbs up and down the mountains is hard. Ballet dancing is hard. The world just happens to value a guide’s skills more than a porter’s skills, an engineer’s skills more than a ballet dancer’s skills.

  6. B says

    I agree with TFB. The advice I’m giving my son is to choose a lucrative career field and make enough money to do the things you enjoy outside of work.

  7. KD says

    Ahh! The American Naivete! Only in the U.S. of A does one have the luxury of “choosing” one’s career. No such option exists in most of the world. In India and China (a 1/3 of world’s population), opportunities for higher education are limited by seats available and a legitimate degree that would amount to something. Decimal place ties broken by inane criteria including starting alphabet of your name are common. I have been through it. Yes, things do get that competitive that you need so many criteria to break it.

    The next decade in the US might be the first whose educational attainment will be primarily dictated by affordability – which is other end of luxury, I suppose?

    Research published recently and discussed on NPR spoke about serious advantage toddlers gain before entering school just by having (a set of) parents who introduced them to more vocabulary. There are so many reasons why people do not get the opportunities to better themselves while growing up – social, economic, political, geographical etc. Thankfully, they do not give up and they do try to make the most of the opportunities available to them as adults – including being a porter!

  8. B says

    KD – I live in the USA. I understand that life is not fair and not everyone has the same resources or abilities. TFBs post concerns people who have choices. My son has just about every advantage I can think of: he’s gifted academically and is physically healthy; has two parents who are married; has college educated parents/grandparents/siblings/aunts & uncles; attends a school in an excellent public school district; has parents with considerable financial resources that will pay for his college (not anywhere — but figure anything $40K a year and under). His choice for junior year of high school was to take a “zero hour” which starts at 7:05am so that he can take an extra science class. Here is his schedule:

    Advance Placement (AP) Language and Communication
    Honors German 4
    Honors PreCalculus
    Phys Ed
    AP Chemistry
    Honors Physics
    AP US History

    He is also a really good guitar player and loves music. My suggestion — educate and prepare yourself for a career, have a band and play music on the side for fun.

    Another point — how many things that you “love” turn in to work when that’s what you do for a living? My example, my brother-in-law the airline pilot. I’m sure he became a pilot because he loved aviation, but flying is work now and he doesn’t spend his free time in the air.

  9. Random Poster says

    Very thoughtful comments and interesting post. I follow a few PF blogs, and people are generally doing well again. There is a little under-current toward ER. I wonder if this is a whole new modern twist that the world is taking, or if the internet is a whole new lens that magnifies the tails because, honestly, who would bother to post about the middle of the bell curve… Is it a good thing that there is incredible mobility to those that can gain a foothold, and for those at the top to be at the bottom in the blink of an eye? The modern life is fast paced, whether we care to acknowlege it or not.

  10. Donald says

    I like your site and agree with your general premise, but I disagree with the example between the guide and the porter. The guide (a good guide I should say) has a vast array of skill and education advantage over a typical porter. A guide is at least a high school graduate unlike most porters, has specialized training in the ecology and history of the region and has the personality traits to deal with foreign tourists from all over the world. I speak Spanish and spoke with the porters during my trek and they were great people but none of them could have been a guide just by learning English.

    There is a difference between a skill and a career/field. But I agree that younger people (with lots of help from their parents) should keep the supply/demand aspect of the labor market in mind when deciding on a career and gaining extra skills.

  11. Harry Sit says

    You can train and acquire skills in demand. One porter on my trek tried to speak English to the tourists. I see him as a guide in the making a few years down the road. Later I met an accredited mountain guide who started out as a porter at age 18. He used his savings from his porter wages on going to a mountain guide training school for three years. Needless to say he lives a much better life now.

  12. The White Coat Investor says

    Yes, it’s not fair, but it’s not like this is a closed book test. It’s pretty easy to see what any given job pays.

    Plus, even within a career field, it’s easy to see what pays more. In my field of medicine, an orthopedic surgeon may be paid 3-6 times as much as a pediatrician for just 2 more years of education/training (13 years instead of 11.) Even within my specialty of emergency medicine, pay varies from as low as $120K to as much as $550K depending on where you work and how much you work. Fair? No. But it’s not that hard to figure out where the better paying jobs are.

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