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Tough Decisions: Immediate Money Vs. Long-Term Opportunity

Sooner or later, just about every working person encounters a career decision that takes a familiar and universal form: take the money on the table, or hold out for the promise of more?  Take a paying gig that's not perfectly aligned with your long term career goals? Or accept an unpaid internship or underpaying but high "prestige" position hoping to score a better opportunity down the road?

There's been much recent talk of the "marshmallow test," a kind of psychological exam for young children in which the subject is left alone in a room with a single marshmallow on a plate. The child is told that she can eat the treat, but if she chooses to wait, she'll be rewarded with TWO marshmallows later on. Researchers suggest that the children who wait will demonstrate higher levels of patience and self-discipline later in life, and will consequently reap the rewards that come with those traits. Based on this experiment alone, our decision at the crossroad should be easy: always hold out for more. Take the internship. Don't settle. Opportunity is worth more than money. And so on.

Real Life Isn't a Marshmallow Test

Unfortunately, adult career decisions aren't so simple. In the real world, maybe a second "marshmallow" will appear at the end of the test, but maybe it won't. And maybe, in a more likely scenario, by the time you've passed up your immediate reward and waited years for something better, your circumstances will have changed. Your life will move on, your interests will evolve, and the prospect of a second marshmallow just won't hold the same appeal. In which case, leaving the money on the table will mean just that: leaving the money on the table.

If you're faced with the option of grabbing a small payout or holding out in exchange for a larger payout in the uncertain future, ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the odds that the larger payout will actually happen? And what are the odds that the promise will dry up and amount to nothing? (Here's a hint: take a look at who's making the promise and what they have riding on your decision. In exchange for the empty promise of a "second marshmallow," corporations will be happy to accept your free or underpaid labor, and unaccredited degree programs will be happy to accept your tuition fees.)

2. How big is the payout, really? An expensive college degree may boost your earning power down the road, but by how much? If the degree will pay for itself within a few years, great. But if not, think twice. An extra grand or two per year may not be worth decades spent digging out of a mountain of debt.

3. How much satisfaction will the immediate payout bring? If you truly believe in the golden promise of your unpaid internship, don't pass it up for a minimum wage job that you'll keep for three months. At 10 dollars per hour, your immediate reward will amount to about 4,200 dollars for the summer. Later in life, 4,200 dollars may not mean as much—or seem as large—as it does now. You may find that you've overestimated the value of a few dollars and underestimated the value of your time.

A Resume Is Always a Great Investment

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