If I could travel back in time and give myself a little bit of career advice, I’d spend some time talking to young Steve about earnings over a lifetime of work, or average career salaries. The median elementary school teacher salary in the US, for example, makes about $51,000 a year. The median attorney salary is closer to $91,000. The median auditor is closer to $58,000. Here is the difference, though: a median is just a median, meaning that half of the people with that profession make more than that figure, and half make less.
The school teacher population is going to be made up of a lot of teachers making between $40,000 and $51,000 a year – maybe younger teachers, or lower-cost-of-living areas. The other half might make $51,000 to $70,000 or so. There might be a few outliers in expensive areas – New York or San Francisco – but there will not be teachers making $450,000 a year. The system is not designed to allow anyone to escape into a significantly higher pay bracket (and we’re talking about teachers, not teachers who become administrators – that’s a different job).
That’s a real difference from some other professions. Take the Big 4 firms – Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG. An auditor in a Big 4 firm probably makes less than a schoolteacher to begin with (particularly on an hourly basis). These lower-level auditors make up the majority of the employees of the firm. For every partner, there might be five managers, each of whom might oversee ten staff (for example). So 6 of every 56 people are managers or above, and only 1 in 56 are partners (I made up those ratios, but based on my experience that’s a fair guess). So the median’s lowered to account for the huge number of lower-level staff.
But in an environment like that, the chance for exceptional rewards for exceptional performance exists. Now, if you’ve worked in a corporate environment or read my last post on stupidification, you know that exceptional performance is not always the requirement for getting rewarded. Sometimes it’s being the CFO’s nephew. But as compared to the teachers above, there is a chance that earnings can grow far, far beyond their starting levels. A teacher can’t, even if they win an award as the greatest teacher in their state. An outstanding diplomat can’t break out of the government pay grades.
What all of this means is that not only do you have to consider the starting salary for your career, but you have to look at what the possibilities for exceptional earnings are. I know earnings are not everything. Many people can also fall into the trap of believing that they will be the exceptional performer, but in a bottom-heavy organization far more people will quit or be fired than will make partner or executive.
So consider average career earnings, and then think about whether you are willing to be the exceptional performer. If you aren’t, maybe the average career earnings aren’t that critical. If you don’t plan to excel, a career where everyone can be expected to be compensated within a narrow range is fine. If you do plan to excel, make sure it’s in a profession where that excellence might result in reward. That’s not to denigrate teaching or praise public accounting. I realized early on in my career in public accounting I wouldn’t be a partner; I didn’t have the drive to be an exceptional auditor. So I joined the lower level of the median salaries and might have been happier – and done better over the course of my first 10-15 years of working – had I done a job search and chosen a different career path, with a narrower bank of average career salaries.
Note: I haven’t read Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? yet, but I gather that’s what that book is all about – the idea of making yourself into an “artist,” which Godin believes makes you deeply committed to becoming indispensible to your organization. Maybe I should read it…