The hidden advantages of NOT maximizing for income early
I think it’s a decent default rule to take the lowest pay you can for the first decade or so of your career.
If you ignore pay and focus on other things, I’m willing to bet you’ll be happier and earn more pay a decade in than someone who maximizes pay from day one.
I’ll walk you through my own example to explain some of the reasons I think this is true.
An early choice
It wasn’t a dramatic sell-your-soul-for-riches moment, but at age 19 I had a juicy job offer. I had just gotten married, had no job (nor did my wife), zero cash, and a mortgage to pay. I was working odd electrical and landscape gigs and sending out resumes.
I had a job opportunity that my friends were jealous of. It had a $45k base salary, company car, plus commission. They said I’d likely make around $50k in my first year.
I said no.
I wasn’t really excited about the job, but I could’ve been fine with it. Beyond looking for something more connected to my interests and skills, I also knew this job had a fairly low ceiling. I’ve never been primarily motivated by money, but I knew some middle aged people who had essentially the same job and I knew their life seemed pretty mediocre to me, financially and otherwise.
Instead, I got a job I was thrilled about that paid $25k. I excelled, and it led to several next steps with slightly higher pay. Here’s my first eight years in the professional world.
My actual pay trajectory:
Year 1: $25,000
Year 2: $28,000
Year 3: $35,000
Year 4: $35,000
Year 5: $40,000
Year 6: $40,000
Year 7: $45,000
Year 8: $75,000
Seven years in, I was still making less than that first offer I turned down. I never focused on pay. I don’t think I ever asked for a raise. That year seven job probably paid me too much too. I would’ve done it for $40k, but I wasn’t going to turn down the higher offer.
Let’s compare my pay trajectory to a very reasonable estimate of what I would’ve pulled in over the same eight years with the other job.
My forgone pay trajectory:
Year 1: $50,000
Year 2: $55,000
Year 3: $60,000
Year 4: $60,000-$65,000
Year 5: $60,000-$65,000
Year 6: $60,000-$65,000
Year 7: $60,000-$70,000
Year 8: $60,000-$70,000
The job had a pretty consistent ceiling. The best performers made somewhere between $60–70k. It wasn’t a role or industry that really had a clear path to something else within either. A jump to something totally new can always be made — I’ve done it myself more than once — but one of the dangers with high pay early is that it makes those jumps harder and less likely.
So for seven years, I looked like a poor sucker compared to my company car driving alternate self. But by year eight, I not only surpassed the ceiling of the previous trajectory, but had massive amounts of opportunity and social capital at my disposal, not to mention greater fulfillment in my work.
Oh, and each year after year eight saw quick and significant jumps in income as my years of learning where to focus and optimizing for value began to pay off. The years of non-income optimization also set the stage for me to launch a company in year 10 (and another in year 15!), something I’d never have been able to do without all the social capital I’d built.
Why does it work this way?
I think there are several reasons I was better off taking the lowest pay my wife and I could handle for nearly every job for the first several years. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t find a way to live on even less and worry even less about pay.
For me, lower pay early on meant several things:
1. It was easier to be impressive
A great way to get ahead in your career is to always strive to be the best employee anywhere you work. Not all employees are equal, and this is where low pay can be a big advantage.
A young $35k worker gets noticed for being just a little above average. A young $60k worker, on the other hand, had better be pretty damn good to command that salary early in their career.
You can stand out to your colleagues and the broader world pretty easily when you’re a low paid employee. Soon, you develop a reputation. “Hey, have you met that young dude from that one place? What a hustler. Maybe he’d be a good fit for this…” Again, this works both internally at a company and externally.
I had little problem establishing myself as impressive because being obviously worth more than a low salary is doable with a little hustle. A great reputation built over those first several low pay years can catapult you to a higher pay in ten years than yearly cost of living increases at a fatter starting point.
2. It was easier to find what I loved and hated
$50k isn’t quite golden handcuffs, but it’s kind of like copper handcuffs. Early, that’s a lot of money. Once you’ve tasted it, it’s very hard to go back. One problem my wife and I have is that we’ve always managed to live right up to our level of income. Always. Once you have high pay, going back is brutal.
This means that if you discover two years in you never want to audit tax documents again, it might be too late. Not just to change, but to even see it. You actually become worse at knowing yourself and being honest with yourself if you are paid a lot. You weave stories about how much you kinda sorta like it, or how you’ll leave in five years. Lies. I saw many people do it.
Self-discovery is too important to play servant to your early income goals.
3. It was easier to find new opportunities
Opportunities travel through the grapevine. You have to be sending a frequency that others tune into in order to find them. People have a rough idea how much you make. If you are a young hotshot with a big salary, I can almost guarantee someone somewhere has said, “Hey, she’d be a good fit…but doesn’t she make like $50k right now? This role starts at $35k. Doubt she’d do it. Who else?”
I’ve said it about people many times. Sometimes, the person in question was too senior for the role, but sometimes they were perfect for it but their pay was just too senior for the role. Some of them will be making about the same in five years, where the role I decided not to consider them for could have blossomed into much more than that.
I got some very cool opportunities for jobs and side gigs that I never would have gotten had I started at the $50k job. Low opportunity cost was my secret weapon.
You don’t realize it, but a highly paid young person is like a red flag to people looking for hungry young talent. Salary maximizers often miss out on the best long-term opportunities.
4. It was easier to act on new opportunities
Even if you manage to gain self-knowledge, and you manage to find cool opportunities, if you’re earning bookoo bucks early, seizing them isn’t easy.
Again, the copper handcuffs begin to chafe. You are used to a certain standard of living afforded by your high pay. It can be hard to move to completely different areas and maintain it. I had little trouble early on saying no to bad fitting roles and yes to cool ones with low pay. I started at $25k and we learned to live on that (we had our first child while I was still making $28k for goodness sake!), so new opportunities weren’t big sacrifices.
Focus on what matters
Go in to each job with a mission to be the best employee there. To create the most value, have the most fun, capture the company vision and help build on it, learn everything you can, help as many people as possible. Don’t turn down a job you like over a few thousand in salary. Don’t haggle over an offer to ratchet up the pay inch by inch. Ignore salary altogether if you can. Focus on building value for yourself and others.
I’m willing to bet the entire $50k I passed on in year one that you’ll be doing better a decade down the road than those who maximize pay above all.