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Looking for ideas re: what to do next with my life
July 8, 2014 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Some traumatic experiences in the past 2 years made me realize how desperately unhappy I was in my "old" life. I have a good education & strong job experience, but also have mental health issues to manage and I'm kind of allergic to corporate life. I'd like to change this trend in my life, but I'm having trouble visualizing how to do this without going back to how I was living before. Feeling stuck on how to move forward & requesting AskMe's wisdom on the matter.

Background: I've been a lifelong sort of crunchy-punk mildly-queer type. I'd always felt that I could make the most difference by devoting my skills to a field that best matched my ideals & interests. I chose to focus on something environmentally-related, but due to my weak math skills, I had to choose a less hard-sciencey path than what I preferred.

I have an AS in IT/networking, and a BS in geography with an emphasis on geo-technology, plus a minor in environmental studies (aka ecology-lite). I completed two years towards an MA in geography, with an emphasis on environmental GIS and planning, but didn't complete the degree due to financial and mental health issues, to my lasting regret. I've done a lot of work with environmental outreach & advocacy groups; done tabling, done IT work on the side, helped run events, conducted tours, etc. I can deal with people to an extent (and I'm good at it in small bursts), but I'm super-introverted & it wears me down after a while. I had a GA in my uni's sustainability office my second year of grad school. I'm really good with data-wrangling, becoming an expert user with complex software, visual display of data, problem-solving, and teaching. People tell me I am friendly, patient, good w/ organizing complex data, & a dedicated worker. So I feel like I have a good basis for some kind of stable career, and to date, I've just gone about it wrong. I got hired post-school as a GIS Analyst in the environmental & civil engineering industry, and while I enjoyed the work itself, I hated the field I was in and the clients who hired us. I felt like a complete sellout, but I didn't know how else to get experience in my general field and that's who was hiring at the time.

The problem: This is where the "feeling like a spy" comes in. I hated everything about corporate life...hated where I lived, hated having a long driving-commute, hated the office-lady clothes, hated office politics, business-speak, office-behavior, all of it. It felt like a performance & I sucked at it. I felt like I was living a double life, and after three years in the working world, I became extremely depressed, began to suffer panic attacks at work, etc. The stress of having to work so hard to appear "normal" & blend in was killing me with the anxiety it caused. I was constantly afraid of being "found out" (yeah, good ol' impostor syndrome) and never felt like I was "doing it right." I made some really bad choices in my personal life, tried job-hopping to terrible ends, and things just spiraled out of control. I was basically on a "let's destroy everything that feels stable and normal!" bender. I've been unemployed for the past year while trying to recover from the Very Bad Things that happened as a result of my self-destructive phase. I've been in therapy & working it aggressively since last year, because I don't ever want to repeat this phase of my life. I understand why I got into those situations, and I'm more stable now than I was a year ago. I ended up having to declare bankruptcy, and last year I was ultimately diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. (Apologies if this is burying the lede, here.)

Current: I've made a lot of personal positive changes this past year. I gave up my car, and rely on public transit, bike, or walking now, so that small change has made me a lot happier than I would have ever expected. I shop locally, have a community garden plot, and am living a much more eco-friendly lifestyle. I've made a small group of friends who share my values, and that helps.

I'm terrified of going back to work only to find out that I can't do it, or committing time & mental resources to a new career only to have another breakdown. I don't know how to get to "job/life stability" from here. I think that I want to go back to work, but right now, I'm only supposed to be working part-time. Some days I feel okay, and others I feel like applying for SSDI would be the better option. I feel torn between "I need to take care of myself right now," versus "I don't want to give up on everything I worked so hard to achieve." I understand now that I have to work within my limitations, and I want to be useful & productive, but not at the expense of my mental health. I was in Go Go Gadget Overachiever mode before, and while I love throwing myself at an in-depth problem...are there jobs where I can do something like that, but in a lower-stress field? I tried working with Occupational & Vocational Rehab last summer, but found it confusing, and they didn't seem to know what to do with me. I found it more frustrating than helpful.

TL;DR: I have a hard time fitting into corporate culture and seem to do better with small companies where employees have more leeway in terms of personality and appearance. I have a good skills base, but I don't know what to do with it. I'm interested in lefty progressive causes, non-profits, community- or environmentally-focused. I have mental health needs to manage, and I need to find a career path that will allow me to support myself but not burn out again.

My question is: can you share any ideas for career paths or specific jobs I could investigate that would work with my needs, and/or can you speak to the mental health-versus-career angle regarding my next steps? Thanks!
posted by cardinality to Work & Money (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This suggestion won't necessarily lead to a full-time career path, but may be something to explore for part-time work. If you have access to GIS mapping software now, you might consider doing some volunteering or project-based consulting for non-profits. There are a lot of things non-profits might want to map (people served in their programs, where resources are or aren't located in their cities with a race or income overlay, what neighborhoods do complaints filed with cities or regulators come from, etc). Existing GIS mapping services tend to be prohibitively expensive for non-profits that just want a few maps for reports or internal analyses, so could be a good opportunity for you to dip a toe back into the working world.

From my experience with non-profits, they should meet your needs for self-expression/appearance/etc, but a lot of them will chew you up and spit you out even more violently than the corporate world unless you're really careful to set and maintain your boundaries vigorously (and you may be penalized professionally for doing so). That said, there are some non-profits that are really great places to work, so trying them out on a project-based or volunteer basis is a good way to find the ones that could be a good fit for you for a longer-term or full-time job.
posted by snaw at 1:48 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

The 'stable and normal' part were what jumped out most for me most about what you may be aiming for right now (whatever they are ofcourse ;).. but just an observation.

What would that look like for you?
posted by tanktop at 2:01 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

Have you ever heard of Netsquared? Looks like they have an affiliate called Bagels and Bytes in Pittsburgh, if that is correctly your area. Why not go to a meetup and check it out and start networking? Part of TechSoup.

Maybe you can get some freelance work, or start out volunteering-to-freelance. Sounds like they would be right up your alley.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:09 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

I think you're on the right track here but always have a note of caution when people talk about working in non-profits as an escape from corporate hell into a world of blissful self fulfillment.

While working in a non-profit working with a client group I totally connected to and for a cause I was passionate about and was by far the most interesting and fulfilling job I've ever done, it was also a complete pressure cooker.

Working for a cause you believe in can be very fulfilling, working for a cause did have the effect of to some extent took over my life and my self perception to an unhealthy degree.

While it was great to work with passionate people the fact that I worked an environment with other people like meant that none of us could really detach from our over investment in work made the working atmosphere very emotional and emotive and led to a general lack of personal / interpersonal boundaries which allowed very unprofessional behaviors to flourish and magnified personalities and relationships and led to lots of interpersonal drama and conflict.

This combined with the usual issues of running a charitable org, never enough money, time, competing demands, complex clients, poor management and constant uncertainty about the future made working there incredibly difficult and fed into the "sick systemness" of the it all.

While I wasn't truly aware of it at the time the toll this took on my physical, emotional and mental health was phenomenal, driving me to sleepless nights, constant rashes, anxiety, depression, and ultimately the edge of my sanity.

I appreciate this might sound dramatic, but the one lesson this has taught me is that non profits are far from the cuddly stereotype I had when I first went into them and can actually be as, if not more challenging than the corporate world. While as a person just coming out of my own emotional struggles feel that working in non profits needs to be considered quite carefully lest you find yourself jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Having had my experience I'm very wary now of working in those type of workplaces, so decided to change gears and took a year off to do a dull generic but totally stress free job in local government, which though hardly pulse-racing has at least re-calibrated my expectations and attitudes to work to something far more reasonable. Perhaps this might be a good idea for you?
posted by Middlemarch at 2:36 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]

What's the startup scene like where you live? With your skillset and non-corporate leanings, you might find a happy niche in a small quirky tech company. You would want to watch out for work-life balance (e.g. not getting sucked into 12-hour days routinely), but I bet you can find a company that is humane.
posted by nacho fries at 2:40 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

What about government work? I work within an IT department for a state agency (U.S.) focusing on environmental quality and there are several people on staff who work with GIS mapping. It is a very laid-back (but still professional) environment and quite diverse. Before I was in the public sector, I worked within a fairly formal corporate environment. It was a bit jarring to go from one to the other at first (wow, Coworker is wearing *shorts* in the office??!?), but ultimately it's been a nice change.
posted by medeine at 3:43 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

I think middlemarch's warnings about the nonprofit sector are good and you should take those into consideration, but speaking as someone with a combined ~11 years working for four different enviro groups, I think you should give it a shot.

The nonprofit sector is big and diverse and there are good NPOs to work for and bad NPOs to work for, just like in the for-profit sector. Generally, the environmental advocacy world has just as much of a particular culture as the corporate world, but it's a lot more casual and quirky and accepting of people who express themselves in non-mainstream ways. And your tech skills will make you very employable.

I'm having a hard time parsing exactly what your skills are (probably because I'm not a techie) but if you'd like to pick my brain about opportunities, please feel free to memail me.
posted by lunasol at 11:06 PM on July 8

I can relate to your misgivings about corporate culture, and I appreciate your reluctance to embark on significant retraining, given your past experience and uncertainty ahead. What I'm thinking, though, is that a lot of jobs that tap into your current skillset would mean being an employee, working within a hierarchical structure with little autonomy and many of the issues you've identified.

I think that some kind of freelance work could potentially offer a better setup for your health and quality of life, but it comes with its own challenges (well-documented on AskMetafilter), which include defining yourself and your services according to the criteria you struggle with.

What I want to say sounds and might be flakey as heck. I think that, at least for a little while, you could try operating from a safe place, grounded in your values and the relationships you've cultivated, that honours your needs -- from where you're at, right now.

Do you have interest in actually working on the more hands-on side of your sector? I thought, maybe something around horticulture, which in my area only requires a certificate. Or landscape architecture? It might involve another BA, but with transfer credits you could be done in 2 years, and you could test the waters with a low-risk seasonal job before making a commitment.

To my mind at least, something like that would hang together with your background and might not prohibit you from returning to officey work later. (Like it you could make it make sense to people, if it made sense to you).

Or - there are a few small, successful green businesses in my area that capitalize on everyone scaling down -- I can think of one that refinishes/repurposes office furniture, I bet there are other cool and feasible things that people do/can be done. I imagine entrepreneurship sounds a million miles away from what you've trained for, but your research skills wouldn't be lost, and patience and friendliness are assets here. And actually, where I live, your recent diagnoses would make you eligible for a number of small business grants geared towards developing work opportunities for people in exactly your current situation. (It might mean being a little bit public about your history, at least for the applications.) People who've won those grants run real businesses, even if they run part-time, that have returned small but real profits.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:55 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]

You sound like me except i don't have any credentials beyond a BA in English (yaay). Here are some things i think about doing:
city parks dept (an aside: you might like west Phila)
National Foresty Service
PArk Ranger things (
Conservation reasearch and efforts led by Universities (jobs like reasearch assistant, lab tech, etc)
Wildcard: work for a nature skills = leadership organization like Outward Bound, of one of the organizations that uses nature as therapy for troubled youth and such
posted by WeekendJen at 10:17 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]

Hey everyone, thanks for the replies, you are giving me some badly-needed hope. :) I was going to mark some best answers, but honestly, they are all good!

I don't currently have access to ArcGIS, but once I get back to work, I think ESRI still offers ArcGIS@Home licenses for about $100/year (maybe?) for non-profit & educational work. So the volunteering might be a good way to build my portfolio and eventually get some clients. I've done a little bit of stuff like that on the side while I was in college. I've been thinking about doing something like freelancing for a while now, but need to get over some general disorganization first to get a website going. I think I'm past the point where a non-competitive clause would be a problem.

Tanktop, that is good food for thought! I am still working on figuring that out.

Marie Mon Dieu & lunasol, thank you for the viewpoints on NGOs/NPOs, that's a good reminder and something I need to be aware of. The last thing I need is another uber-stressful job so if I do get any non-profit interviews, I'll have to do my due diligence first.

If it helps at all, I've taken the Myers-Briggs before and usually score as INTJ or INFJ. And I forgot to add that I worked in IT for 8 years before doing the GIS thing...I did various flavors of tech support while I was getting through college.

Lunasol: thank you! I will follow up with a MeMail.

Aside from the technical mapping stuff (AutoCAD/Microstation, ArcGIS, GPS, etc.) I'm pretty good with Excel, know a little about Adobe pro products (InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop), and can hack together macros and other stuff in Visual Basic. I was starting to learn Python with ArcGIS 10 but didn't get very far. I'm also pretty solid with research, report-writing, stuff like that.

I've realized that while I really dig GIS & spatial analysis, I think I'd like to be able to do a little more than just be a map-monkey, if that makes sense. Some combination of getting out in the field, doing a little research, maybe interacting with the public in an educational role, etc. I was looking at maybe doing a different master's or just a graduate certificate in something like enviro education or park management. I've noticed over the years that I can function a lot better when I have a variety of tasks to do and don't have to sit in the same place every day for 8-10 hours. I think that I have the ability now to ask for accommodations since I have a valid Aspie diagnosis, but I'm nervous about disclosing it bc I think it'd make places not want to hire me. :(

Anyway, thanks for the replies so far, it's giving me a lot to think about, and I am actually feeling a lot better about the stuff I know how to do. My self-esteem really took a big hit when I "flunked out" of my professional life, but I feel a little more confident now that I can find something that will work better for me. Thank you!
posted by cardinality at 11:36 AM on July 9

I think ESRI still offers ArcGIS@Home licenses for about $100/year (maybe?) for non-profit & educational work
See also QGIS or maybe another open-source option?
posted by FlyingMonkey at 7:43 AM on July 15

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