What Does Your Salary Mean?

The value of work is more than just a dollar figure.

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I grew up and live in St. Louis, Missouri, which by definition means I am a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan. Always have been. They don’t call this Cardinal Nation for nuthin’. In the long, glorious history of the St. Louis Cardinals there are two amazing players who stand out above all the others. They are Stan Musial and Albert Pujols.

Just to give you an idea of how much Stan Musial means to St. Louis Cardinals fans, I’ll tell you a story about my dad. He died at the age of 79 on March 18, 2009. He suffered from a horrible disease called Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), which essentially robbed him of his mind and his muscles. In the last six months of his life he no longer knew my name or my siblings’ names. The therapist suggested we show him picture books to stir his memory. We would go over family photo albums, and he would barely stir. Then I showed him a baseball hall of fame book and when he saw Stan Musial’s picture, he sat up and said, “That’s Stan the Man.”

What does your salary mean?

At the height of his playing career in 1958, Stan Musial at the age of 38 signed a one-year $100,000 contract. It was the highest salary in the history of the National League. Recently Albert Pujols signed a 10-year $254 Million contract. It is the second biggest contract in Major League Baseball history. At the age of 38, he will earn $25.4 Million.

So what do these two contracts tell us? Is Albert Pujols two-hundred-and-fifty times more valuable than Stan Musial? Is his batting average two-hundred-and-fifty times higher than Musial’s? How about his average number of home runs or average number of hits? Did the Cardinals under Albert win two-hundred-and-fifty times more often than under Stan? Obviously not.

So what is the lesson from this story? Your annual salary is a function of a number of factors, many of which are outside of your control. It is dependent on your performance, your experience, your industry, the era in which you work, the overall economy, the marketplace, and a host of other factors.

Salary and Self-Esteem

The reason this is so important to understand is that if you think the value you contribute to society is directly related to your salary you will constantly weaken your self-esteem. Self-esteem is not the value you have to offer to other people. Self-esteem is the value you see within yourself. It is subjective, not objective. It requires looking inward rather than accepting what others say about you. If you correlate your self-esteem with your salary, you will constantly see less and less value within you because you can always find other people who make a lot more money than you do or who live in a much bigger house than you do or drive a fancier car or go on a more exotic vacation. Don’t waste time playing that game.

Let’s say you earn $80,000 a year. That’s a pretty darn good salary. But if your neighbor earns $800,000 you might feel rather insignificant. And if your neighbor has a business tycoon friend and that person earns $8 million a year, then you both might feel like chumps. John Lasseter is the creative head of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios. According to celebritynetworth.com he has a net worth of $100 million. Steve Jobs, who owned 50.1% of Pixar when it was sold to Disney, became the single largest stock holder of Disney stock with 7%. His net worth at the time of his death was reported to be $8.3 billion. Should Lasseter feel somehow insignificant compared to his good friend, Jobs? I don’t think so. I think they each have contributed real value in their work.

The Real Value of Your Work

The real value of what you contribute to society can only be measured by you. To what degree are you fulfilling the purpose you think you were put on this earth to do? To what degree are you applying your strengths and your passions toward fulfilling that purpose? I encourage you to think much longer and harder about those two questions than about how your income compares to someone else’s.

To this day, some of the most influential people in my life were my high school teachers, my college coaches and my parents. None of these folks ever made more than lower middle income salaries.

John Lasseter was interviewed on December 2, 2011 by Charlie Rose and Lasseter said, “I love animation. I love the way it can entertain people of all ages. I think it’s what I was put here to do.” Lasseter was just as focused on animation back in 1994, the year before “Toy Story” catapulted Pixar into the financial stratosphere. Albert Pujols was just as focused on baseball in his rookie season as he was heading into a record contract.

Rather than driving yourself crazy that your salary isn’t the same as Pujols, why not turn the argument around and focus on the value you contribute with your life. I’ve heard people say, “That guy has a great job.” What does that mean? For them, it means he’s earning what they consider to be a boatload of money. My question is, “Is the person fulfilling his purpose in life either through his work or through what he accomplishes with the money he earns?” If he is, then I would say he truly has a great job. If he isn’t, I wonder if he’s just kidding himself.

Avoid the Grand Illusion

I encourage you to read the words to the song, “The Grand Illusion“, by Styx. It was one of my favorite songs back in the 1980s and it still is today. I think the words have stood the test of time quite well. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your value as a person is equal to the size of your salary, otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life ignoring the real value you bring to other people.

Dan Coughlin

Dan Coughlin Dan is a business keynote speaker and seminar leader on leadership, innovation, and branding. He is also an executive coach and author of four books on generating sustainable, profitable growth. His books include "Accelerate", "Corporate Catalysts", "The Management 500", and "Find a Way to Win". His clients include McDonald’s, GE, Toyota, Prudential, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, SUBWAY, Kiewit, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

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