Money, Mastery, Meaning: What’s your compensation?

Fingers snapping in dark, Courtesy of Alicja Colon from Unsplash.comI recently listened to an interview with Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise and author of A Pencil and a Promise, and among the many great details and stories he had about starting a successful nonprofit organization (or for-purpose as the kids are calling it these days), one thing rang particularly true to me. “I believe there are three forms of compensation: money, mastery, and meaning.” I feel like that has probably been said before in some form, but I always give points for alliteration. So, which is most important? That probably depends on who you are and where/when you are in your life.


This is the one we all talk about, probably because it is the most easily measured and used as a yardstick when we (or other people) want to know how we rank. And let’s be honest, money is a big deal. It plays a factor in basically every part of our lives. It consistently ranks number one on the list of topics couples argue about. Politicians are constantly fighting over the budget, using it as a carrot and a stick, and as a means to stall or speed up other legislation. Money can lead to bondage or freedom. It allows us to provide food, shelter, and education for our children.

Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can often buy you time, or control over the time you have. It can provide peace of mind and flexibility to enjoy your family or your passions. But pursuing it at the detriment of mastery and meaning is not a path to happiness. So say experts and studies. (Honestly, they do. Maybe I’ll put some links in here at some point.)


When you work for someone, part of what they provide is experience. They allow you to learn on the job, especially at an early point in your career/s. We typically see this as the low rung on the ladder compensation. “Yeah, the pay is awful, but I’m learning so much.” Often, though, we feel like “experience” is just a translation for “years on the job.” Those aren’t the same. Just putting in your time isn’t taking advantage of the mastery aspect of your compensation.

At any job I’ve ever had, even those I didn’t care for, those that I viewed as inconveniences rather than stepping stones or launching pads, my mom told me to learn what I can. Honestly, I mostly brushed that off (sorry, Mom), as if to say, “What can I learn stocking shelves at Walmart?” But that is a tragic waste of time and energy. If you feel stuck where you are, try to look for ways to learn. Maybe you despise corporate culture, but what can it teach you about people or organizations? This is especially important for writers. We should always be searching for humanity, for what motivates people, and we should be keeping track of these details in case they come in handy at a later date. Every experience is unique, but it is too easy to take shortcuts and just write life like we see it on television.

Mastery shouldn’t be the young woman’s game. It shouldn’t be a stage to move through as quickly as possible so you can get on with the money-making, or meaning-making. Maybe you have mastered your profession or your particular role in it, but you should still be looking for ways to challenge yourself in order to keep life interesting. Turns out, increasing your knowledge and skills also tends to correlate with an increase in salary and/or fulfillment.


Just as mastery shouldn’t be relegated to the early stages of our careers, meaning shouldn’t be delayed until we’ve “made it.” We generally see money and meaning as opposite sides on the seesaw (let me know if you call it a teeter-totter because that is a weird thing to say). We think you can’t make money doing something meaningful, and you can’t accomplish meaningful work if you’re concerned about money. That’s why we have descriptors like “starving artist.”

I won’t deny that there is some truth to that. It’s easy to compare the salaries of a corporate lawyer with the one working at Amnesty International. I would just suggest that the first can still find meaning at work, even if that means positively affecting the lives of coworkers and clients. And I believe those working in the nonprofit sector can find work that is both fulfilling and financially rewarding. (Individual results may vary.)

Ultimately, we have to judge for ourselves how we want this triad to balance; we have to decide what is the priority for us at any given point. But I do think it is important to give it some consideration. If you find your compensation lacking in either money, mastery, or meaning, how can you look for ways to achieve the balance you want? Sometimes it requires something of others (like proposing a pay increase); sometimes it requires something of ourselves (like learning a new skill). Sometimes it means we look elsewhere for a job or career path that will be more rewarding in one or all three of these areas.

For me, the list probably goes meaning, mastery, money. Or, that’s what my paycheck might suggest. As my family continues to grow, the money part certainly starts to put some pressure on the others. What type of compensation ranks the highest for your right now? Why?

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