If you’ve recently graduated from college or you are in your final year, then you have already made one very smart decision in your life: pursuing higher education. Your Education Level is one of the twelve big decisions that I discuss in my new book THE DECISION MAKEOVER – decisions critical to your definition of what it means to be successful. However, now that you have finalized your education decision, you have two more decisions ahead of you. Where you choose to live and the career path you take will make a huge difference in your income over your lifetime. When weighing your options, here are some things to consider:

Decision 1: Career Fulfillment vs. Income?

Your career should provide income and fulfillment. Achieving great results for both rewards is a challenge – especially early. Nearly every graduate will need to (initially) choose income over fulfillment or fulfillment over income—and immediate goals must flip-flop accordingly. Fulfillment is often identified by trying many jobs to discover what we absolutely don’t like doing. Fulfillment is fine-tuned as we figure out that we love specific activities such as solving problems, working with people, supporting a process, writing, auditing, creating, etc. Deciding to build a career track that is fulfilling is usually the best long-term decision because you enjoy what you do and it is much easier to get up every morning and innovate. You will be tempted to trade a fulfillment track for money – yet, be careful pursuing income first. For example, I have friends in finance and law who dove into “deal flow” because it is lucrative – but they hate their lifestyle and the work is monotonous. Hard work should be expected but your interests and joy in various types of work activities will guide you to more fulfilling work. Eventually, the energy you garnered from fulfillment will propel your further expertise – which is why you will be paid more. There is no shortcut to this formula: Your income (value) is derived from how uniquely valuable your expertise is viewed by your employer/clients.

From a decision-making stand-point, money is fuel for a great many life goals, so we owe our Future Self a money-making roadmap. A roadmap doesn’t bring immediate financial windfalls – but it is a plan to grow your value with as high an income ceiling as you can. Do you want to live comfortably? Your career will determine the lifestyle you can afford. What is the income range possible for your chosen work? As you advance in a career, income ceilings will cap your lifetime earning potential. Career considerations must include income ranges for the Average Joe in your line of work. Examples include (2016 national data with ninety percent of workers in each grouping falling inside the range shown):

  • Bartender/Waiter/Waitress: $12,500 – $28,200 

  • Janitorial Supervisor: $19,600 – $51,050 

  • Health Therapist: $20,900 – $72,600 

  • Registered Nurse: $40,200 – $83,400 

  • Technical Sales Representative: $33,400 – $121,800 

  • Financial Analyst: $40,300 – $130,100 

  • Computer Software Engineer: $49,400 – $119,800 

  • Physicist: $52,100 – $143,600 

  • Physician/Surgeon: $45,200 – $145,600
  • Entrepreneur: $0 – No Ceiling

Decision 2: Where will you live?

Your career will take you places. So, when moving from city to city, it’s important to look up the difference in cost of living and make sure the income meets the needed budget. Where is the opportunity highest? Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond?

I would choose to start out in the big pond at all times. There is more opportunity, money, resources, brains, and talent (and spouse candidates) in the bigger pond. Where we live significantly affects opportunity.

Talent and intelligence have been migrating to six major economic zones in the United States for the last one hundred years, leaving rural America and capitalizing upon competitive intensity. Locating within one of these zones will affect many of your opportunities:

  • Northeast Corridor: Between Washington, DC and Boston 

  • Southeast: Between Virginia and Orlando, FL 

  • North-Central: Between Chicago and Minneapolis 

  • South-Central: Between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio 

  • Pacific Northwest: Between Portland, OR and Seattle, WA 

  • West: California, from Los Angeles to San Francisco 

These zones create more wealth and prosperity because of the more intense (due to population) collaboration of smart people to create new works. There are more people, investors, employers, brains, and talent for spontaneous combustion of ideas and opportunities.

On the other hand, you can live a happy life in the small pond, but you’ll need to adjust your expectations and add travel. I live in a small pond—Tulsa, Oklahoma—by choice. The quality of life is very high and very affordable. But, I travel abroad for exposure to what else the world is doing. I spend one week a month in large cities, working my network, seeing clients, and exploring my next opportunity. It’s the best of both worlds, but I am certain it takes more effort to be successful while living in a small pond – especially early in your career.

In a Large Pond, I have found:

  • More people, more people with talent/education, more traffic, painful commutes, dirtier air 

  • More opportunities, more things to do, higher cost of living, more budget pressure to work more hours instead of enjoying time off 

  • Many business relationships, many company headquarters located here, more investors, more ideas
  • Much easier travel by air, train, ride-sharing 

In a Small Pond, I have found:

  • Lower cost of living 

  • Fewer opportunities, less to do 

  • Easier living, less congested, better air, people are 
less worldly 

  • Few business relationships; travel is a must
  • Most trips include two flights each way
  • Higher quality of life, especially when raising children

In short, as I detail in my book, where you live and what you do for a career are two of the top decisions you will make in your lifetime. If you find either decision limiting your future success, you can and should make a change. The risks and rewards only grow larger.


Mike Whitaker is the author of THE DECISION MAKEOVER and Technology CEO of GuestX, Founder of Idea Gateway and Co-Founder and Board Member of RevTech Accelerator, a leading venture accelerator seed fund. He received his B.S. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Kansas and his MBA from Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. For more information, visit www.mikewhitaker.com.


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