The Kansas City Chiefs paid its quarterback Patrick Mahomes $59.3 million this season, the fourth year of a 10-year contract that is scheduled to pay Mr. Mahomes a total $450 million. His annual income from football is 1,000 times greater than the $56,000 average salary of a Knox County public school teacher.
There are plenty of reasons this massive disparity exists, none of which are that being a very good NFL quarterback is more important than being a very good schoolteacher.
As tempting as it is for high wage earners to fully credit hard work for discrepancies in income, the reality is far more complex. I don’t work nearly as hard as a garbage collector, yet my income is higher. Of course, hard work does affect income levels, but mostly within an industry, not across them.
Some industries simply pay better than others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19 of the country’s 20 highest paid occupations are healthcare related. Surgeons top the list with an average annual salary of $434,000. (At $217,000, airline pilots made the list at number 17.) Even the laziest surgeon earns more than the hardest working garbage collector.
Higher income levels are associated with jobs in highly profitable industries that few people can perform – either as a result of highly specialized training, a rare required skill set – or both. For example, I egotistically think I can accurately throw a football further than 90% of American males – which means there are 14.6 million guys who can throw better than me. My quarterbacking skill is hardly rare.
Selling music and concert tickets can be a very lucrative business, and no one does it as well as Taylor Swift – which is one reason her estimated annual net earnings of $150 million is three times that of Patrick Mahomes’. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce earned $12 million from football this season – which is less than the $13.6 million his girlfriend generates from a single concert. Ms. Swift is the only act in history to sell $1 billion of concert tickets in a single year, or almost twice the entire Kansas City Chiefs organization annual revenue.
Massive individual success usually results at the confluence of several factors, including the intersection of a person’s natural aptitude, passion, and an internal drive for constant improvement. The possibility of massive income often requires the presence of these factors within a high-profit industry.
The odds of both massive success and income are also vastly improved with luck. After being the last player selected in the 2022 NFL draft, San Francisco 49er quarterback Brock Purdy earned a paltry $870,000 this season, or what Mahomes earns for each quarter he played this year.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.