My good friend Dave Rael, host of the Developer on Fire podcast, posted an interesting question on the DoF Facebook community page yesterday. He asked:

When you are starting a new gig, or even in one you've been in for a while, what signs do you see that indicate you're not in a good place for you?

I responded to this question as follows:

I think a notable sign of being in the wrong place is if you begin to focus only on how much you are being paid, especially in relation to others. Assuming you are making a reasonable salary, focusing on the money indicates lack of other drivers, e.g. challenge, mastery, autonomy, recognition, etc... you only feel under paid when the job isn't fulfilling in some way and you subconsciously feel that additional money will fill the void.

I think this answer requires some further exploration, I mean, we all want to make money don't we? Why is fixating on money a sign of a place not being a good place for you?

Compensation Fixation is a Symptom

In Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he explores the topic of motivation and, as the title implies, finds a surprising truth about it. He found that once a minimum level of compensation is met other factors, specifically autonomy, mastery, and purpose, overtake it as the strongest factors in motivation. This is well illustrated in the following video:

Fixation on compensation by a well paid and otherwise fiscally secure person is a clear indicator of a lack of more important motivating factors in their job. We know when something is missing in our lives. When our job does nothing to challenge us, or when it feels like we are not working towards something meaningful we start to look for something we feel empty and look for something fulfilling. Unfortunately, we attribute these feelings towards being underpaid and believe more money will fix it. But, any amount of money, except the amount that would allow for an early retirement, cannot solve this problem. Focusing on compensation appears only as a symptom. Like cough syrup to a cold you can relieve the problem temporarily with pay raise, but it doesn't take long to be miserable once again.

In Action

I observed this first hand a couple of years ago with a coworker who was clearly in the wrong job. He regularly echoed the movie Office Space claiming...

Now if I work my ass off and [company name here] ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime,...
- Office Space (1999)

He never fully finished the quote, which is the most important part:

... so where's the motivation?

This developer was, and still is, a very good developer, but he was, for a couple of years, very fixated on how much he was being paid and regularly questioned the compensation model that contained no fixtures for merit. The problem never really lived with the compensation. His fixation on money was due to the very difficult situation he had arrived in where he was too important in his current position, where he lacked purpose and ability to exert much control over the domain (autonomy/master), to move on to anything new.

This fixation mostly cleared up when he finally moved on to a more meaningful project with a considerable level of autonomy. There was still the occasional grumbling, the residue of a poor situation, but his outlook on the whole thing improved drastically. By this time, however, the damage had been done and he finally moved on to another company last year. From what I understand his new gig didn't come with notably more money, but it did come with mountains of autonomy, mastery, and purpose... money was never the issue.

My Recent Move

I recently started a new job. While my starting salary was slightly better than what I was making at my previous job, when you combine benefits I took a considerable hit to compensation. Yet, I'm considerably more happy than I have been in a while. I learned a few years ago when I made a different job switch that few hundred dollars a month has really no meaningful impact on your life when you are paid well to begin with, and it certainly doesn't make you happier. What does impact your life is the experience you have waiting for you every day when you wake up. Tomorrow, when I wake up, I have meaningful, challenging work with a great team waiting for me. It has given me purpose and the opportunity to grow, something I was previously lacking. This is considerably more valuable than the money I left behind.

Had I not learned a few years ago that money isn't the problem, it's a symptom, I may still be going to somewhat miserable situation every day worrying about how much I was being paid to do work on things that are not fulfilling. I'm happy I'm not.

Don't Be Afraid

If you have to ask yourself if the place you are in is right for you then it probably isn't. Don't fall into the trap of focusing on being paid more, just leave. If you find a place where you take a hit in compensation, but it otherwise has the promise of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, just take it. You may be happy you did, just like me ;-)