Your income is not your value

Our beliefs about income can be toxic. People who make more than you are not better than you, and they don’t have a higher value either.

I’m a huge fan of older video games, the ones made before 1990.

Some of those games, like Q*Bert, Ms. Pac Man, and Arkanoid, to name some of my favorites, my goal is simple: to get the high score.

There is something about seeing your name (or initials) at the top of the score board that I just love. Who would want to be at the top?

When you get the high score in Q*Bert. Source: Twitter

The problem happens when we extend this high score pursuit to areas where it isn’t quite appropriate.

Like your income. Which isn’t a score, although we often wrongly think it is.

One of these things is bigger than the other

Numbers are inherently hierarchical. This one is higher than that one.

Hell, even infinite numbers have hierarchy. What, you didn’t know that infinite numbers had sizes? That א-sub-0 is a different size from א-sub-c? Well! Clearly you’ve never looked at Cantor’s diagonal proof then. But I digress…

My point is that if you have been conditioned to view numbers in a score format (top 10, high score, etc.) then it’s all too easy to apply it to other areas of your life that have numbers attached to it.

I’m referring, most specifically to one’s income.

The definition of income

Your income is the amount of money that you earn over a particular time.

Obvious, you say? Of course.

But people add all sorts of other clauses to this definition. Clauses that involve success, worthiness, value.

It is all too easy to believe that earning a higher income is synonymous with virtue and success. Similarly, if you earn less than someone else, that you are less virtuous than them (or vice versa).

None of this is true. None of it.

Where do these beliefs come from? I think it stems from our desire to rank things. From high scores to sports statistics, if it has number associated it, we have to put one on top of the other.

Also, lacking any other references to the nobility of our work and our societal standing, we want to ask ourselves, where do we stand? Without anything else as a measure, we don’t know. So we mistakenly latch onto income.

But believing that income is tied to your personal value, or how virtuous of a person you are, is such a toxic belief that I cannot let it go unchallenged.

Income makes no sense anymore

Most of my life, I’ve worked for software companies. IT. Tech land. Silicon Whatever.

The salaries are, by-and-large, ridiculous. Six figures right out of college. Millionaires before 30. “You know DevOps? You’re hired.

Meanwhile, everyone I know who works in a teaching position is scraping by with median incomes if they are lucky. Therapists have to deal with whatever scraps insurance will reimburse for.

How is all this equitable?

And let’s not even talk about the financial industry. Does anyone really believe that people who work on Wall Street are really earning those multi-million dollar bonuses?

By our kneejerk definitions, Wall Street people are better than IT people, who are better than teachers.

That’s ridiculous.

What is hidden in income

Income as a number also masks other, non-numeric indicators of life.

As a thought experiment, I often ask people, which would you prefer: a $50,000 job where you work 40 hours a week, or a $100,000 job where you work 80 hours a week?

If those were your two options, which one is better? It depends on the job, of course, but I’m just saying, it isn’t obvious one way or the other.

What income isn’t

We want to ask ourselves: where do we stand? Without anything else as a measure, we don’t know. So we mistakenly latch onto income.

Income is just how much you make. That’s all.

It follows from this:

  • Your income is not a reflection of you.
  • If you make a higher income than someone else than you are not more successful or more virtuous than they are.
  • When you have a higher income, you are not a better person.
  • When you have a lower income, you are not any less good of a person.

You would be well-served to keep all of that in mind.

It’s certainly more practical than the Cantor diagonal proof. Or getting the high score in Q*Bert.

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