The Stability / Stimulation Tradeoff

I’ve talked to four different people in the last two weeks about this fundamental dilemma in their career:

Stick with a stable but uninteresting job or move to an unstable but interesting one?

My theory is that many of the most stable “activities” (which includes a job) are often the least interesting. If you go to work for a huge corporation or big law firm and labor away for 20 years you can pretty much bet that in the 21st year you’ll both have a job and it will be well paying. In exchange for this predictability you have traded away some intellectual stimulation.

Starting a business or being one of those “floating consultants” who do various odds and ends may provide more and better stimulation but you can’t count on a regular paycheck. In the end, we need to pay the bills, so intellectual stimulation can’t trump everything or else we’d all be living in the mountains studying philosophy!

The very best activities, I would argue, combine both an element of stability with an element of genuine intellectual stimulation.

Here’s my question: In the end, most of us try to get to “stable/interesting”. Do you think it’s easier to go from an unstable/interesting activity to a stable/interesting activity or to go from a stable/uninteresting activity to a stable/interesting one? In other words, is it easier to turn a start-up into a stable business or to re-invent your law practice after 20 years to find new intellectual stimulation?

How have you seen this tradeoff manifest itself in your life?

13 comments on “The Stability / Stimulation Tradeoff
  • This is a fantastic way to look at launching your way into life. I sometimes feel out of place simply because I’m so passionate about finding and working towards the stable/interesting balance you speak of, that all of my “working career,” has been spent in the unstable/interesting category. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, and always been able to pay my bills (although no big home runs yet), but most importantly I’ve always been involved in things I love and am interested in.

    So many of my friends raced for financial and job stability out of college, but now long for more fulfilling and interesting activities…only to feel that the stability is too good to give up. When you think about this very long term, as in 20-30 years of your life, you can see that the stability is really not all it’s cracked up to be, and in reality day to day fulfillment should ironically lead to more financial stability.

    good stuff.

  • I have seen instances of people making the leap into becoming an entrepreneur. All that takes is courage.

    I have never seen an instance of an entrepreneur who happily returned to a conventional job at a megacorp. That would take a near-impossible level of self-abnegation.

    The shift to entrepreneurship is a one-way trip.

  • Chris — to connect your comment to this post…What you seem to be saying is that the “stimulation” of entrepreneurship always outweighs the decrease in stability. The problem is many people never taste that stimulation and are stuck in megacorp. For those who do, the tradeoff is easy.

  • Until recently, my approach was to the stable job but pursue an interesting life outside it. When the boredom started to get to me, I would remind myself that enjoying your job is a relatively recent concept. (There’s a really great article on that somewhere that I can’t seem to remember!) These days people are increasingly defined by/ pressured to be fullfilled by their jobs. A century or so ago, though, work was just work. There’s been a paradigm shift from “work is supposed to suck” to “work = complete fulfillment”.

    But now I think that with all the advantages I’ve had in life/all the opportunities available to me now, I really have nothing to lose by pursuing a more interesting line of work.

  • I’ve been thinking about this very thing today and have been finding it hard to see where success can come from work that does not stimulate. Think to college and to life where you find the truly passionate are often the most successful. The kid who is truly interacting with the professor and probes him after class on the topic because he loves it and not because he wants the grade is often the kid who can also transform this intellectual passion into a stimulating and fulfilling career. In looking at the world entrepreneurially there must always be a way to turn one of your intellectual passions into something that can sustain you. If you have no “intellectual passions” perhaps you need to be more introspective and self-examining or need to expand your horizons. I often encounter people doing mindless work who seem like they have fallen into a trap of living for the weekend or living to make money for a hobby. It brings about questions such as does an individual operate best with a work -passion balance or do truly successful people come from total immersion in one’s passions?

    On another note, I have often found great satisfaction in turning what would otherwise be mindless work for a college class into something stimulating and fulfilling by focusing the paper on a related topic that interests me even though I may not be interested in the subject matter as a whole. Perhaps this is the way some who feel stuck in their jobs can find away to reconcile the stimulation- stability balance. Anyway I’m new here and rambling a bit but found the post hit home with this soon-to-be college graduate who is struggling with many of the same topics.

  • If someone put a gun to your head and said “Your money or your life” would you give them the money?

    If you have to choose between earning good money but giving up your life to a job you hate which would you choose?

    Make the most of your life in whatever way you can but don’t give it up for the money.

  • Ben:

    I figured I’d weigh in with a personal story. I graduated in 2003 from Princeton and serendipitously went to work for a startup in NYC ( straight out of school. My reasoning was not focused upon stability/stimulation, but upon discovery – I wanted exposure to marketing, finance, biz dev, software dev, etc and I could think of no better way to figure out what I loved than landing in a startup where I’d wear a ton of hats. Of course, in the process I implicity acknowledged a certain degree of instability and opportunity cost by not taking the standard investment banking/consulting route straight out of school (which I do believe would have generated an equal amount of stimulation but much less control, which I think is a key variable in job satisfaction).

    After a year and a half with DrJays, I learned that I loved startups, wanted to work with more business models and operate at a 30,000 foot level to see the lay of the land. So I pursued a job in VC and landed at Chrysalis Ventures (more stable, at least as stimulating, I would say).

    To address your question, I’m a firm believer that one should never live “a life deferred.” In other words, don’t choose a stable/uninteresting/no control job thinking you’ll get a stable/interesting/lots of control job down the line. You’re far more likely to stand out to a potential employer (an increasingly difficult task) if you’ve done something of interest and you can talk about it with enthusiasm than if you’ve “paid your dues,” and you’re far more likely to generate your own stable/interesting/lots of control job if you’re used to thinking that way.

    In other words, forget stability. Define your own path (which is bound to be interesting) and if you’re good, it’s going to be stable.

    PS. I’ve enjoyed your blog for some time now and would say you’re following my last paragraph to a tee 😉


  • I had a stable job for 13 years. I loved it for a long time, but my love for it went downhill along with my mental health. I was forced to go on disability and to redefine my life. I’ve had a life list of jobs I always wanted, ranging from being a park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park to being an ESL teacher. I even wanted to work in a factory, just to see what it was like, and I’ve done that. I always wanted to be a high school librarian, and when I took that job, it was wonderful, except for the salary. So after two years, I quit. I had a plan to substitute teach, work as an online reference librarian, and teach at the local community college. It didn’t work out well last year, and we were extremely poor. This year, it’s all come together. I’m so happy to have a variety of jobs at once–subbing, answering reference questions, and teaching ESL classes–that I can’t quite imagine going back to a 9 to 5 existence, even though it would mean security. I love that I have time to volunteer with the 5th grade band. I love the challenges and the flexibility. I love having time to blog and to read blogs. We’re still a little too poor, but overall, things are improving daily.

  • I completely agree with the “forget stability” feedback submitted here. The best approach in my opinion is to pursue what drives you with unbridled passion, and — assuming you are successful — know when to sell out. In this way you may not have to worry about needing to take a “stable” job ever again. One or 2 successes building your own business and you will be free to continue being a creative risk-taker with much less of the risk. Life is too short to be timid — at least in my case, I know that down the road I would seriously regret not pursuing startup ideas that excite and challenge me.

  • Ben,

    For better or worse, entrepreneurship is like heroin. It’s risky, it’s dangerous, and you may end up in the street, but it’s almost impossible to kick the habit.

    (As one of your commentors’ story indicates, there is the methadone equivalent of working at a VC firm).

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  • I think, the instinct to shift from Stable /Uninteresting to Unstable/Interesting or vice versa, is not a spontaneous reaction ; It’s a function of constant prodding from within over a period of time which shows you the (either) way to go. If you are meticulous and resonate with your conscience, you have all the time in the world to make that transition without much trouble. Just provide ( for resources, perseverance, singular focus and keep chipping away at whatever you think is interesting ) for the initial period of instability and move on till you hit Stable / Interesting turf. It works for me.

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