Value Beyond Salary

It’s easy to see our doting grandmothers as cash piñatas, charity as a conspicuous scam to derive us of horded doubloons, and salaries as a quantifier of our success. Much of what we do is based around what we spend – and the proof thereof – and what we earn. The dream of driving to our school reunion in a svelte and shimmering new car and bumping our old nemesis’ Skoda out of its spot in Mr. Bean style is pervasive, but it’s not particularly substantial.

Focusing on salary can have an inverse effect on our success and career progression. We do it because numbers are easy to apply significance to. The value of one number being greater than another is obvious; however much above a national average we are, the more we’re trumping our fellow man, and when our nearest and dearest timidly reveal their salary figure, we can sit smug in the knowledge that it’s a mere pittance to our own.

A salary is a useful, basic barometer, but is more likely to cause oversight than elucidation.

Our obsession with how much we earn is partly due to our society, and partly something we’ve inherited. Success is about reward – but rewards can be both tangible, as in cash bills squeezed into a wad, and intangible, as in the skills, brand development, knowledge and reputation that we acquire as a result of the work we do. These are equally essential to understanding where we’re at, and recognizing our progression pathways.

An individual may leave a six-figure salary to make their own company. Their salary will be significantly reduced, but their exposure to new skills, knowledge and experiences will be maximised. They’ve exchanged the tangible reward for an intangible not because of foolishness, but because they view the trade-off as a worthwhile investment. Money cannot buy us everything. It cannot, realistically, buy us esteem and recognition in our industry, and skills learnt in a new, engaging and dynamic environment cannot be substituted with more turgid learning experiences in a seminar or classroom.

This is an obvious example, but it’s common in many forms. More of us are prepared to trade our salaries for opportunities and improve our situation indirectly, through new exposure, rather than through a new car or other morsels of materialism.

Technology helps us think beyond salary because our personal brands (independent from our identities within a company) are digitalised for longer shelf life. We’re no longer forced to rely on a kind word spoken over drinks by an ex-colleague to make ourselves known in new circles (thanks LinkedIn). In fact, personal brands are a great deal more permanent than the salaries we earn. Material objects, by their nature, are ephemeral, and the appeal of something new quickly dissipates as it ages. But soft assets don’t suffer the same level of atrophy. In fact, our skills and experience are blocks that continually stack – and their collapse isn’t even guaranteed by our death. Enduring value has nothing to do with the salaries we earn in the interim.

If we’re confident in our skills, the work we’re able to create and our ability to thrive in new situations, the risk of sacrificing salary isn’t really a risk – it’s just a smart choice. Salary should be thought of as a useful tool to moderate external perceptions, but it has little to do with actual worth. Invest in you, not in a figure on a paycheque.