My First Bonus, Age 34.

I stopped pursuing my passion, so am I earning what I want?

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

My career, until recently, has been largely in non-profit and government work. I turned to the private sector about a year and a half ago to try a new field. (And, to be candid, to combat the burnout and fatigue of being a True Believer in my previous jobs, which is another essay for another day.) I joined the company too late in the calendar year to get the incentive plan bonus for 2017, but just last month, I received a check for the 2018 bonus. This was the first bonus I’d ever received in my working life, which began when I was 16.

It was about the size of one of my biweekly paychecks. I’m an individual contributor in a large company — nowhere near executive level, so we’re not talking huge money. But a double paycheck is a double paycheck.

Even though I knew it was coming, I was flabbergasted when it arrived.

I hadn’t done anything differently. I hadn’t finished any of my large projects. I hadn’t excelled in any way. The structure of the incentive plan is based on the fortunes of the company — profit-sharing, in essence. When the company does well, we get a bonus. When it doesn’t, we don’t.

In almost 20 years of working, I’d never gotten a bonus. While I can understand the concept of profit-sharing, it didn’t feel connected to my work in any way. It felt like a deus ex machina, an appearance of money from The Company. Largess. Not that I was mad about it — I’m always happy to watch my accounts grow, maybe buy that plane ticket to paradise — just confused. What did I do to deserve this?

In my prior jobs, I sought fulfillment in a deep sense. Like many my age, I bought the idea that work should be a passion, a calling, a visionary quest to make the world better. I bought that so hard. I bought it such that I dedicated my life to being a public defender, a choice that burnt me out within a few short years. There weren’t enough hours in the week to meet the basic needs of the job, much less give my clients what they actually needed. That realization began a long period of disillusionment that I’m still recovering from, years later.

When you yearn to make a difference and you realize the need for your work is unending, it feels like you make no difference at all. When you buy the line that meaningful work is the way to happiness in our capitalist world, then identifying with that work is inevitable. Identifying with my work was my path to heartache, but it was the path I knew. Good work feels good, and the reward for work is feelings. Right?

The private sector has taught me something else entirely. The reward for good work could also be money and benefits. My success could also potentially be measured by my bank account actually growing. The idealist in me who wanted to be Atticus Finch is disgusted by this. Selling out, she’d call it. Your income is not your worth, she’d say.

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Photo by Jordan Rowland on Unsplash

My work isn’t my worth either, though, as I’ve come to learn. Work is something we do by necessity. My current role in corporate HR gives me even more of a removed look at work — employees come and go daily. Compensation is just one piece of the work puzzle. It’s a part of the employee-employer relationship. An incentive plan is a reward in addition to that. And that’s what sticks with me.

The reward is a cash blast, sent out to all employees, because the company can’t give us all what we want and need. From more PTO or pension benefits to a wider variety of job duties to a different boss to an office with a window, the potential rewards are endless. The ability to personalize isn’t there, though, so the company gives cash. We use money as a proxy for the actual reward, because The Company doesn’t know that I want a new pair of binoculars but it can give me some extra money so I can buy them. The Company wouldn’t know if I had a medical bill bedeviling me, but cash would offer some relief.

The expedience of it makes sense from a corporate perspective. And I still maintain enough of my True Believer mentality to be a little shaken by the feeling of money for nothing. When I first got the bonus, I didn’t feel like I deserve it. Shouldn’t doing good work feel less like work? Shouldn’t the rewards for good work be intrinsic?

I’ve had the money for about a month now, and I think of it a little differently. I get to choose my reward, and the reward is a benefit of my employment. I’m trading my labor for money, not seeking a calling or finding my passion. And that’s fine. It’s ironic to me that this money, my first bonus, might be doing its part to help me heal from a particularly toxic piece of capitalist dogma — that meaningful work will set you free.

I write for myself, and I answer my own questions. Birds, work, navel-gazing, queerness.

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