I’m glad I chose passion over money – even if I’m poorer as a result

“Even dream jobs involve a ton of compromise and grunt work. Tedium. Dread. Anxiety. Moments of self-doubt. And cold feet. If I made career decisions based on how “passionate” I felt, then I’d probably be broke.”

On a dull and quiet afternoon at work, I came across this Medium article by Jessica Lexicus on the Dangerous Myths of Passion. The passage above jumped out at me. Yes! I thought – my dream job in social justice had started with immense passion and excitement. Yet here I was on yet another sunny Bangkok afternoon, stuck behind a computer, unmotivated, wondering if I was actually accomplishing anything.

I’ve been mulling over that passage ever since, wondering if I should have chosen a career that served me better financially. If I’m already feeling disenchanted and rather cynical about my field of work in my mid-thirties, would it have been any different working in a well-paid corporate job? I might have even saved enough to quit work and travel the world by now…  and so on and so on went my little monkey mind.

But after some time, I realised there’s no point for me – or anyone else for that matter- to feel doubt or regret about the life and career choices we made in the past. The most important step is to acknowledge and appreciate what we’ve learned from life so far, and to build on those lessons to craft the future we want.

Everyone’s path is different  

When I first discovered the world of financial independence, I came across the inspirational stories of so many people who had used their twenties to make good money and chart out their financial freedom. By their early thirties, they were free of the tyranny of salaried work, and could live out their passions on their own terms.

By comparison, I had also spent my twenties working hard and building a career. But I was focused on building a career in international development, with smaller non-profits that had low prospects for leading to a very-paid job. By pursuing this career abroad on Thai-level salaries, I was further derailing my prospects of buying a house in a desirable part of London, tending to a rooftop garden, and cuddling with puppies (which is how I often imagine my dream life).

But I realized most of us who finally discover financial independence probably kick ourselves about our earlier choices. Maybe you also discovered it a little bit too late and have racked up huge commercial debt. Or maybe you’ve succumbed to lifestyle inflation, and wonder how you’ll manage to pare back your family expenses.

Looking at financial rockstars who’ve built up a sky-high net worth can feel disempowering when you feel so far behind. But comparison won’t get us anywhere – rather we should learn from these rockstars and start implementing advice and tactics that make sense for our own lives. It would be worse to just get stuck in a cycle of despair and regret and fail to take any action at all.

Why I’m glad I chose passion over money

I think that the question of whether you should choose either passion or money can be a false dichotomy. I’m sure that the founders of Google followed their passion, and are definitely being paid handsomely for it now. There is no correct answer as to whether you should choose money, or passion, or both, nor any correct order in which to pursue them. Passion is also not synonymous with career – you can indulge in a whole range of passions that have nothing to do with work.

In my case, however, choosing my field of work was a conscious choice to follow my passion and reject money, as I hadn’t yet honed a healthy money mindset. I’m definitely poorer for making career choices I have, but I definitely would have been worse off if I had succumbed to consumerism, credit card debt, and whole host of other destructive money habits. A person making £200,000/year is poorer than me if they’re spending £200,001/year.

Instead of wasting time mulling over what could have been, I decided to turn it on its head and instead seek some gratitude for the choices I’ve made so far. Here’s what I came up with:

My work has given me an appreciation of money

I realize that by pursuing a career revolving around humanitarianism and social justice, I’ve always had a keen understanding of my own relative privilege and the value of money. By earning little and somewhat inconsistently (at least before my current job), I’ve learned how to live on less. This means that I can make necessary adjustments and embrace a level of discomfort more easily than others who may need to start tightening their belts. I realise that while I really need to work on earning more, my values and experience have given me a framework that is conducive to financial independence.

I’m already partly living the dream

Although I am mostly stuck behind a desk Monday to Friday, I often use the numerous Thai public holidays and my annual paid leave for trips abroad, plus I sometimes have work trips in the region. Over the past years, I’ve managed to visit most countries in South-East and East Asia. Being able to frequently travel to diverse countries has been an incredible privilege and a benefit of living in Thailand, even if I occasionally feel resentful for having to show up for a 9-5 job. Living and travelling in South-East Asia is a dream for others, so sometimes I need to recognize how lucky I am to have lived in a fascinating country and explore others.

I recently came across this timely reminder from the sadly departed Anthony Bourdain:

“To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it.”

I get paid to learn and try to make the world a better place

Catch me on a bad day and I will come across as a cynical curmudgeon, railing against the failure of progressive activists to create change. But the path towards economic, social and ecological justice is a long, hard slog. Despite getting frequently frustrated about it, I’ve also developed an appreciation and admiration of the people who keep at it.

I’ve also learned so much through my work. Apart from when I have to stare at budgets and reports, an important part of my work is to keep up to date on what’s happening in the world (which supports my Guardian addiction). I’ve also had the privilege to learn directly from people and communities on the ground trying to forge change – and this knowledge and experience is far more valuable than anything I could learn from reading books or newspapers.

Ok my job is kinda awesome, but I’m quitting

Writing the above has made me realise I do have my dream job, and that I’m lucky I ended up here. But even this dream job comes with office politics, repetition and a feeling of being stuck.  While I have lots of autonomy in terms of what I do in a work day, I have less autonomy over my time and location – I feel I have to be in the office during regular hours – and that daily frustration builds up. What’s more, this job is on the other side of the world from my friends and family back home, who I’m missing more and more (the main downside of living abroad).

I realise no job will ever be perfect forever, because I’ll continue to evolve as a person, and my needs will change. Social justice will continue to be hugely important me, but I’m also aware that I can pursue this passion outside of a profession as well.

I’m happy with what I’ve achieved in my career so far, but I’m also open to stepping away from it to explore new horizons. I don’t know what kind of job/work awaits me when I come back to the UK later this year, and (apart from when I’m totally freaking out about it) I’m kind of excited about the possibilities.

Over to you: Did you choose passion over money? Or are you pursuing another route? Sound off in the comments below!

Why I'm glad I chose passion over money

Redesigning my financial blueprint

 

In the summer of 2014, I was perusing the bookshelves of the Hong Kong AirBnB apartment we were renting out for a few days, curious to see what millennial Hong Kong-ers were reading.

I spotted a thin book, titled Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. As I was really early into my financial enlightenment at the time, I slightly recoiled at the title, and cringed even further at the affirmations written at the end of each chapter, which the reader was encouraged to read out loud. My inner world creates my outer world, and all that cheesy nonsense.

Still, it was a short read, so I ploughed through the book in an hour, reading T Harv Eker’s thesis that we all have a ‘financial blueprint’ that is often developed in childhood, and that we can all re-programme our minds for financial success. I put the book back on the shelf, sceptical about the contents, and headed out for more noodles.

Four years later, I still often think about that book as I consider how my own financial blueprint has undergone a serious redesign.

Blueprint 1: Wealth is unimportant

At some point in early adulthood, I realised I wanted to ‘save the world’. Wealth and riches were incompatible with this drive. Wealth for me meant wearing a suit and going to some corporate job. It meant making the deliberate decision to not make an effort to save the environment or help the poor (and no, just recycling and giving to charity didn’t count).

As a child of ambitious first-generation immigrants who had already fought their way into UK middle class territory, I was set free from real pressure to get a ‘useful’ degree, or to go into some boring, but stable profession like law or accountancy (no matter how much my parents insisted).

Instead I was in a privileged position to follow my passion and curiosity by embarking on an interesting (but ultimately useless) 4-year humanities degree, spending a few years not making much money, and trying to crack the field that would marry my values with a career: International Development (i.e. saving the world and getting paid for it).

During this time I was relatively sensible with money, as I never had very much of it. I would always make sure I had enough in the bank so that I could also afford to spend long periods volunteering, and still have enough money for important things, like rent, food, wine and travel. But beyond saving enough money for a few months ahead, money and long-term financial planning meant little to me, and wealth I secretly felt was for corporate sell-outs.

Blueprint 2: Wealth is unjust

Shortly after graduating university, after deciding to ‘experience’ international development with my own eyes, I secured a 5-month internship with a big national NGO (non-governmental organisation) in Bangladesh. For the first time, I was truly seeing not only poverty, but the huge wealth gap between those who had tons of money, and those that lived (literally) in the shadows of their mansions. Wealth started to signify for me great injustice in the world, and I was even more keen to get into a career dedicated to tackling these problems.

But as I got to know more Western international development professionals working in Dhaka, I saw those same structures of inequality replicated between expat staff, local staff, and beneficiaries. Many international staff would spend their evenings sipping expensive wine in an exclusive expat club, while in the daytime they would manage poverty alleviation programs. Highly-educated local staff had to survive on much lower salaries than expat staff, struggling to save enough money to send back to their families in the provinces each month. The idea of living a comfortable lifestyle while others suffered offended my basic sense of justice.

One evening an expat colleague I highly respected took me to her modest but beautifully-designed home, in which she lived with her husband and young child. This scene of luxury didn’t square with my impression of her as a dedicated advocate for social justice. Sensing my judge-y looks she said, “someday when you’re older you’ll understand the importance of comfort.” I scoffed at what I thought was a patronising excuse. It turns out she was a very wise lady.

Blueprint 3: Wealth is freedom

About 5 years after that first glimpse into life as an international development professional abroad, I had my first paid job ‘in the field,’ working in a remote Thai border town. While I wasn’t with a big NGO like Oxfam or Save the Children, earning a generous expat salary, I still felt guilty about earning £400 a month, because it was so much higher than what my local colleagues were earning. With a seriously low cost of living, I could comfortably survive on that salary, plus keep up my love of travelling.

A couple of years into the job, this rate was finally increased to about £700, and I hit the big 3-0 around the same time. Turning 30 knocked me off the high horse of righteousness, and as I’ve written before, led to a financial awakening. I had spent years trying to help others, but had meanwhile dug myself into a financial hole that left me trailing behind my peers, who were starting to have children and buy houses. I still didn’t want any of those things at the time, but I did at least want the option.

I slowly came to the realization that I couldn’t sustainably dedicate myself to social justice if I was making unsustainable life choices. I needed to find a way to reconcile my idealistic values with pragmatism. I had to teach myself to master money, and not shy away from it. The more I read about financial independence, the more I was drawn to a third way that transcended my established financial blueprint: not slaving away in corporate job; not working for a cause that would leave me penniless at retirement; but pursuing a path that would give me the chance to live my values and still giving me space to embrace new priorities as I go through life.

Since then I managed to change jobs and move to Bangkok, earning more while still working for an organization hell bent on creating a better world. I gradually built up to a savings rate of about 50%, helping to create a transition fund that would buy me time when I move back home this year to find work I’m passionate about instead of feeling pressured to take any old non-profit job.

Apart from being thankful that I’ve been able to carve out a more sustainable financial path, I’m also glad I’ve developed a more mature and nuanced view about wealth and other people’s life choices. I no longer judge others for choosing lucrative careers, or for prioritizing security over idealism. I totally understand why NGO professionals might need a quiet drink after a stressful workday. I can treat myself to a nice brunch with friends every now and then, and feel ok about renting a nice flat without feeling guilty that others don’t have the same privilege.

I’m still very much the same person underneath –  I don’t ever want to be ‘rich’ in the traditional sense, have the latest gadget, or buy a flashy BMW. My path to financial independence will probably always hinge much more on savings than maximising earnings from a fantastically-paid job. I still think money (or greed more precisely) can be a driver of injustice, but my new financial blueprint acknowledges that money isn’t inherently good or evil. My new blueprint understands that managed well, money can be a tool for securing personal freedom. And that freedom to make choices enables us to live our most important values and priorities from a position of strength, not weakness.

Change your money mindset, financial blueprint

From Blighty to Bangkok – the journey so far!

In late 2010 I packed my bags and moved to South-East Asia. I planned to travel around, take some photographs, and maybe work (but that was not a high priority), while my partner completed a one-year contract with a large firm. A year later, we’d be back home, telling our friends and families of our experiences in Asia, and re-inserting ourselves into conventional living (i.e. the work-consume treadmill).

It’s now 2018 and we’re still here. That didn’t exactly go to plan, did it?

Let’s re-wind

Life in London before I got here was pretty good, but pretty average. During my student years, and for several years after, I had a fun time frittering away my student loans and my meager income on renting in central London, going out, drinking copious amounts of bad wine, and zipping off on weekends away in Europe. I was also a bit clueless. Dinner at home meant an overpriced microwave meal. Investments and pensions were completely foreign concepts, and buying a house and getting a 30-year mortgage sounded like my worst nightmare (although with current London house prices who’s laughing now?)

Neither did I manage to get myself a proper full-time, well-paid job after graduating in 2005. With an fairly non-conformist mindset, I knew that I didn’t want to work for ‘the man’, so the obvious thing was to work for non-profits. This meant diving into a series of unpaid internships, voluntary work, and temporary roles before finally landing a low paid entry-level position I ended up being over-qualified for, and therefore hating.

Shortly after managing to secure a 40% pay rise on that job, I ended up earning less anyway by deciding to go part-time to study a full-time Masters. Following a painful year of full-time studying and working 3-4 days a week (something I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to a sane person), I was burnt out and ready for something new.

Wanna move to where it’s summer everyday? Yes please!

My partner was also pretty tired with life in London. He’d been eyeing an opportunity to get a one-year placement with his company’s office in Singapore, and when this came through, I jumped at the chance to join him once I finished my studies.

I guess Singapore was my gateway drug to living in South-East Asia. The food was amazing, it never got cold, and it was just easy to get settled in. It also had so much to offer beyond just food and shopping. I would go to all the art galleries, parks, and interesting events happening all over town. It was basically my London life, but without the work, and without the crappy weather. Between frequent trips to neighbouring countries, I filled my time with yet more (unpaid) work with non-profits.

About 5 months into my stint in Singapore, I felt a bit aimless, and definitely a bit poorer. The travelling and exploring was great, but I did miss having a sense of greater purpose. So I started looking for jobs and asked my friends to keep an eye out for me.

Singapore to the Land of Smiles

A Singaporean friend sent a job advert that just sounded perfect. Except it in was in Thailand. Not Bangkok, not Chiang Mai, but some little unheard-of town somewhere in the North. After some deliberation, I decided to try it out for a year. So I packed my bags again and took up a job with a local humanitarian organisation that paid me a princely sum of 400 pounds a month.

After finally finding a job with an inspirational bunch of people on something that mattered, I threw myself into the work with gusto, and soon one year turned into two years, which turned into three. In the meantime my partner had also moved over and started working and getting deeper into life in Thailand.

30 and broke

Important birthdays can unearth some pretty uncomfortable realisations. I turned 30 during this time and realised I just had a few hundred pounds to my name. Enough in the bank to pay for my regular long-weekend trips around Asia, and the odd trip back home, but not much else. Add in my student loans and I was waaaay in the red.

I eventually found my way to personal finance sites I never knew existed, and started reading. I made an effort to de-code complicated (at least for me) financial advice and take action. I calculated my net worth, set up a stocks and shares ISA, and found out how much was in that pension my former employer set up for me (not much). I finally figured out adult stuff.

Hello Big Mango and shiny things

After three years of some serious overwork, I again felt burnt out and tired of small-town living. I left my job, and gave myself three months to do the things I could never fit into a long weekend: going on a meditation retreat, training on an organic farm, and exploring countries further east. During these relaxed months I also sent out a few applications for jobs in a big city. The job I really wanted came through, and Bangkok was the next stop on the tour (just for another year or two, of course).

Bangkok was a huge step up in terms of lifestyle. After living in a house with cheap plastic furniture, I just needed the shiny new condo unit with curtains that were picked out to match the couch. I just had to be near all the fancy supermarkets that sell everything I missed from back home. I had to go try out all the exciting restaurants and bars. My Bangkok life had come with a higher salary, but also a much higher price tag.

Still, I made an effort to save. I doggedly noted every single purchase on an app and updated my net worth every month, happily noting I was making progress. Also, once the novelty of having so many exciting eating and entertainment options wore off, I realised I was quite happy cooking at home and reading a book most evenings.

Once again, time raced by, and three and half years have passed in Bangkok. While we’ve both managed to find work that we love in a city that never gets boring, our move to Asia was only meant to be “temporary.” Each year we had the predictable discussion of when we should finally move back home, with the just-as-predictable answer, “just one more year.”

2018 is that final year

Several more years could have probably passed with us living in limbo like this. But the frustrations of commuting, being stuck behind a desk, and not having the time to travel were building up, even though I love the organisation I work for. Routine and lack of freedom can make even the best job in the world suck.

So 2018 is the year we make our transition out. There are so many life decisions we have to make, like where to live, whether to get a dog or a cat, what kind of jobs we want, and ultimately what kind of lives we want to live. But that series of decisions has to start with finally leaving our comfortable lives in Bangkok and embarking on something new.

Why I moved from London to Bangkok