Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The million dollar question: valuing my time

A family friend sent me the following email:

I was at a party and my dinner partner was a head hunter. He deals in very high powered positions. I asked him to elaborate. Companies pay his fees, not the candidates. He mentioned a company with a position for a specialist in [the field of my MA]. I mentioned that I knew a recent grad. He told me the position could be @ a million a year. If you are interested in contacting him, give me a call on my cell

I thanked the family friend, but declined to contact him because I'm happy in academia, and whatever the job is, it probably requires 80-100 hour weeks and most of the salary is tied up in bonuses with substantial risk attached. I've turned down lucrative possibilities before: lots of people with my academic background take impressive jobs making money for big corporations, and get paid very well for it. While I find these kinds of jobs interesting enough to read a newspaper article about them, or even an in-depth magazine article, I can't see being motivated by money.

I am very motivated by what I see as the ultimate purposes of my academic work, when I think about it. There's probably some psychology which show that people care more about the day to day realities of their life than the ultimate big goals, but even the intermediate goals motivate me: do research, and publish a paper on any of the subjects that I am interested in, and have the chance to affect others, maybe get quoted in a newspaper. And I have a list of easily half a dozen, but probably a dozen, papers that I can write relatively easily. I have all the materials here. I could get into a routine of a paper every month or every other month. They're easy, low-hanging fruit, and because hardly anyone in my subfield has my particular set of skills, no one has ever done these papers before.

The thing is: I don't do them. Or at least, not as fast as I could. I work for a certain amount of time before distracting myself. Or I get absorbed by my pressing problems, so right now, I'm looking for more postdocs to apply to in case the current ones don't turn out.

I recognize that human behavior frequently doesn't make sense, but I think my behavior here makes even less sense than most: in some alternate reality, my time could be valued at a million dollars a year, and yet if you laid out my procrastination time end-to-end, it could easily fill at least a year.

It might be worth a million dollars a year to me to actually do my real work, but it's clearly not worth a million dollars a year to read blogs and watch youtube. Arguably, I value my time for so little that I'm willing to spend a few minutes here and there because that's all dimes and nickels. If my time was a few dollars a minute, losing an hour here or there really does matter.

[Actually, I'm surprised that's all a minute is worth if you're making a million dollars a year. Post-tax, it's 600,000/year, or 12,000 per week, and if it's a not-atypical 80 hours per week job, that's $2.50 a minute.]

Maybe the million dollar job doesn't really exist, but does it make me value my time any more to think that I could be making an order of magnitude more than I really am? Or does the part of my brain which makes me decide to procrastinate operate beyond all realms of reason?


Carlysle said...

are you a postdoc yet?

I would keep your mind open to whatever comes your way...

JZ said...

Yes, I'm currently a postdoc. I'm in a top-notch project at a mediocre university at a reasonably well-paid position, but I've chosen to do it half-time to spend the other half of my time publishing my previous work.