The Story of My First Paycheck

Price is what you pay, value is what you get
— Warren Buffett

Ivan here. Let me tell you the story of my first paycheck. 

I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 2012 on a midsummer’s afternoon in downtown Toronto. Friday. Despite the muggy weather, I was in a full suit enroute to a networking event in the financial district. 

I was 23, a newly minted management consultant fresh from training week (in Baltimore of all places), where I learned important consulting concepts like thought leadership (Googling things and making Powerpoints) and client relationship management (stepping over the lowest bar).  

But I digress. Enroute to this senior executive’s meet and greet, I happened to glance at my bank account on my phone and was shocked by the non-zero balance of $1,800. A decent two week's pay when you factored in Canadian taxes and maxed out retirement contributions. 

A wave of relief washed over me. Coming out of school with no debt and some savings, I chose to delay my start date by eight months to travel and spend time with Jennie. This also meant that towards the end of those eight months, I was reduced to a diet of omelettes for breakfast and lunch and Shin Ramen with American processed cheese for dinner (don’t knock it until you try it).

My relief was soon replaced by a sense of uneasiness. It was a feeling that would stay with me for the next three years. 

Is This It? 

From 2012 to 2015, through a combination of performance bonuses, raises, and promotions, my paycheck went up 5%, 10%, then finally 50%. While I was grateful for the influx of cash into my life, I noticed that the higher my price tag rose, the more uneasy I became. 

I couldn’t put my finger on why. Being a cautious person, I responded by downsizing my apartment and living like an ascetic monk. As a result, my savings account swelled to levels I’d never seen before. 

Yet the extra savings didn’t provide me with any additional feeling of security. The uneasiness only intensified. 

Late one night on the subway, as a colleague and I were heading home from a long day of work, I found myself wondering out loud,  

“Haven’t you ever thought there was more than this? The paychecks, the promotions, the mortgages, the kids. Retirement. I mean, these are all good things, and I’m not complaining - but can this be it?” 

There was a long pause as he looked at me.

“I know what you mean,” he said finally. As the train pulled out of another station, we both lapsed into silence. 

That first $80 paycheck made me feel richer than all the money in my savings account ever did.

That same evening I went home and wrote a short story in one sitting. I titled it Hunger. It’s about an ordinary guy rising through the ranks of a corporation. He was always hungry no matter how much food he consumed.  

Writing that story made me feel better. Better than I’d felt in years. The uneasiness went away. So I wrote another. And another. Then at the end of 2015, I wrote an investment article and published it on Seeking Alpha. People read it and commented on it. Unexpectedly, the site paid me $80 for it. 

Let me tell you, that first $80 made me feel richer than all the money in my savings account. 

You’ll Never Make It If You Fake It

I’m a writer and a capitalist. A strange combination. It means a part of me wants to tell the truth and write about real things magically, but the other part is just a sociopath looking for human weakness. 

The capitalist in me understands that people are always going to get paid less than they’re worth. Because if any of us were paid more than we’re worth, we’d eventually be fired and replaced. That’s the free market. Supply and demand. It also explains why everyone from investment bankers to billionaire hedge fund managers feel like they never get the compensation they deserve. To quote the novelist Haruki Murakami, "we're only compensated for what we have to put up with."

Our salaries are our price tags. With few exceptions, jobs are always scarcer than people. Therefore, most of us will always be sold at a discount.

But there’s something beyond the price tag. What we get out of our work: value. The things in life we would do for free if money wasn’t an issue. 

I knew where I derived my value. Being able to sit in a room, alone, reading and writing everyday was all I ever wanted since I was a kid - but the capitalist in me wanted to keep pretending, to keep chasing an elusive sense of security. Had I stayed, I never would have been able to quiet that nagging feeling, that I was sleepwalking through a series of milestones, waiting for my life to begin. 

Two Steps toward Happiness

Happiness is straightforward and can be achieved in two steps. 

  1. The first part is hard: You try to find something that energizes you and makes you feel good to wake up every morning, one where you don’t stray too far from your true self. 
  2. The second part’s easier: All you have to do is try to keep doing that thing for as long as you can afford to keep the lights on. 

At the end of the day, that’s financial freedom. I’ve learned that’s all money is good for. 

If you’re willing to consume less and focus on building value, for yourself and others, it takes less than you think to get everything you could ever ask for. 

And after that? They can't ever buy you again.