Action steps every day or insanity. Pick one.
August 15, 2010 6:57 PM   Subscribe

I have decided to significantly alter my career path. There's no urgency except for that which I self-impose: That is, I want to be taking real steps towards change each and every day to maintain my sanity (and therefore my paycheck) in my current career. And then I'll jump ship a little bit before it feels safe to do so.

I have an advanced math/science/tech/programming background and that's mostly what my resume looks like. Doing math/science/tech/programming stuff is slowly killing me.* In other words, I'm working mostly alone on long-term, amorphous, poorly managed projects that 1) are not helping me become a better, more complete, more whole version of myself, and 2) are not helping me exercise my ideological and political agency in this beautiful, broken world.

Several experiences have helped point towards what I want to do, all involving intense, high-stakes, high-emotion dialogues where truth was up for grabs and there were multiple elephants in the room:

1. Jury duty. Yes, this was a toy problem with toy rules. But it was still amazing. Seven hours from stubborn, belligerent deadlock to warmth, mutual understanding, and consensus.

2. An almost breakup. Nine hours. Anger, confusion, crying, multiple elephants, love, no real answers--some of the tools didn't exist before we started--mutual understanding, new language, it all had to be co-created on the spot. Emotions had to be self-regulated brilliantly on both sides to prevent a walk-out, and insight was pulled out of nothing. We seriously worked some real magic between us. Still together.

3. I initiated some groups. It's been amazing to have conversations where I wasn't bracketing myself, "manufacturing interest," dredging up some shreds of genuine something and wringing blood from a stone in order to have a conversation. I was interested. I was expressing myself spontaneously about things that were important to me. It was where I wanted to be. It was fun. People were laughing and smiling. It was actually me, just talking, just being me. Effortless.

I'm 29. I'm in Philly and want to stay here for a while. Moving somewhere else on the East Coast or to Chicago, Toronto, or Vancouver is a possibility within one to three years. (Only USA citizenship at the moment.) I have about four months of savings, taking into account health insurance.


1. Your success story, please. How did you have to change your thinking? What are the physical, visible things you did to make something happen?

2. Eclectic resume upload sites? Surely, networking is the supposed smart way. But the internet often creates real-world serendipity for me, and it'll help me further articulate what I want to do.

3. Where should I go in Philly? What events should I attend? Who should I talk to?

4. Random ideas? Let's assume I'm fearless and brilliant in every way for the purposes of this question.

5. Just for completeness... Just to throw this out there... I don't really want a job, ever again. I want my freedom... I want my life, on my own terms, my interests, my curiosity. Fuck bosses and fuck anyone telling me where to be and how to use my time, ever.

6. Please do not inject any negativity, caution, "being realistic," or reframing into this thread. I'm feeling fragile. (*The reason for this question is that I had a series of panic attacks. I've never had a panic attack before. Yes, I now have a wicked-smart, kind, old-lady therapist.) Thank you.
posted by zeek321 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
5. Just for completeness... Just to throw this out there... I don't really want a job, ever again. I want my freedom... I want my life, on my own terms, my interests, my curiosity. Fuck bosses and fuck anyone telling me where to be and how to use my time, ever.

This doesn't exist. It's not negativity, it's simply the way the world is. We have to organize resources in order to survive. Back in the day, it meant spending every waking moment running from tigers and foraging. Now we have separated all the labor to an extreme degree, but at the end of the day, you gotta eat, you need shelter, etc.

YOu don't really talk about what you want to do?
posted by wooh at 7:10 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

A great realisation for me was that I didn't have to let my work define me - so I didn't have to love it. I immediately redefined my priorities and looked for a job that would:

a) Pay me reasonably
b) Keep close to 9 to 5 hours
c) Be relatively stress free
d) Have the possibility of part time work down the track

And a few other things. I went from being an arts journalist/critic to eventually working for IBM - what most people would view as a romantic dream job ("I'm a writer"), to soulless corporate hackery (I'm in PR!). And you know what? I fucking love it.

Oh not the job, no no. The job, like most jobs is mainly boring, occasionally interesting, and every now and then stressful. What I loved was:

a) Having money to pursue any esoteric habit that takes my fancy, also to travel overseas all the time, and to buy an apartment with my partner, giving me much desired stability.
b) Being able to continue writing articles, where and when the whim takes me, on topics I'm interested in, with the time for research etc that I like.
c) Not having a stomach ulcer
d) Not having to pretend all my work is for some kind of inherent worth or greater good

No, I'm not a doctor saving lives or some such, but no one is pretending I am, or that my work is important. Ironically, the job with less freedom has made me more free. As a writer, I was obsessed with making a difference, writing well about lofty things (when I could!!), etc. Now, I make a difference with my volunteer and charity work throughout the year - both with and without IBM - and I feel so much better.

The long story short is: It's easy, when dissatisfied with your life to imagine saving amputee crack-addict puppies in the Guatemalan jungle, but you can build a wonderful life and legacy without having to go all Siddhartha style, stop wearing clothes and sitting under a figtree for a few decades.

My advice to you is to get in touch with some local and/or international charities and do some volunteer work - especially mentoring work with youth; if you're in Philly I imagine there are lots of kids there who would find your life of higher education and white collar jobs as far fetched and impossible as anything in the Guatemalan jungle.

Don't build up a false dichotomy - you don't need to tear down one aspect of your life to build up another.
posted by smoke at 7:35 PM on August 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

When I was 23, I realized that I wasn't thriving in the job I was in, and that it wasn't the kind of environment in which I could figure out what I wanted to do next. I had what I figured to be about 6 months of savings in the bank, so I decided to take a huge, scary leap of faith by quitting and take that 6 months to figure it out. (Long story way short!) Since then, I've lived in four cities, run my own business, learned a lot (formally and informally), and taken a few freelance or p/t (always because I wanted to, never because I had to) and one (short-lived) f/t job (I'm 30 now). I consider myself incredibly lucky because the financial aspect has always managed to work itself out (due to the work I've done in my business and various jobs/random windfalls/sometimes assistance from life partner/parents). I would say at least 90% of the time (a way conservative estimate), I've felt that I was, indeed, living on my own terms, following my interests and my curiosity, and I, like you, do not enjoy professional superiors dictating where I go and how I use my time. So I guess I disagree with wooh above. HOWEVER, I almost feel irresponsible telling you that because obviously there is no guarantee that things will roll my way for you. Therefore, I would recommend a contingency plan in case the money does run out (which I've always had no matter what harebrained scheme I've been involved in at the time). Having that in place from the beginning might afford you a little more freedom to pursue whatever it is you want to pursue (which would be helpful to know).

Please MeFiMail me if you want more info/details/to discuss.

(Sorry for all my parentheses. Apparently I'm way parentheses-happy this evening!!)
posted by hansbrough at 7:38 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Upon a little more reflection, I also want to share that even though I've been doing what I want to do the past 7 years, it hasn't always been easy or fun. There are unique challenges that come along with a job-job-less lifestyle, including emotional and psychological challenges that can feel particularly isolating since most people cannot relate. Especially since you are feeling fragile, I would strongly suggest you not make any hasty decisions in your current state. I thought and planned for many months before leaving that job when I was 23.

Also: you make your own life no matter what. As smoke said, you don't have to tear down one aspect of your life to build up another. Tearing down is one way to do it, but there's always a price for that. You may be able to get what you are missing without having to do something super drastic.
posted by hansbrough at 7:47 PM on August 15, 2010

Go ahead and write this off as "reframing" if you'd like, but might your solution involve using your math/science/tech/programming background in a different, better environment? I'm guessing you write code in some sort of capacity; would you still hate doing it if you were working on problems you find interesting? In a collaborative, supportive, and well-organized environment?

It's unfortunate that the Code For America deadline is in ~4 hours, though, but in general, getting involved with an organization that does Gov 2.0 work might be the sort of thing you're looking for. This isn't just about web development; there are opportunities in (at the very least) applied statistics and data viz.

I know, I know, this is probably going to be one of the more boring, uninspirational, and concrete answers in this thread, but yeah, making your day job (at least sort of) fit what you care about might be possible.
posted by thisjax at 7:51 PM on August 15, 2010

"Yes, this was a toy problem with toy rules."

You know, jury duty, which has a history a millennium old in common law, is one of the handful of ways that Americans get to participate in actually running their government, and it makes a profound statement about the philosophical nature of truth that we think twelve average Joes can find it, and about the philosophical nature of justice that we believe it's something citizens can deliver to other citizens. Don't go writing off crowning achievements of Western civilization -- especially ones that you found "amazing" -- as "toys."

You exercised your ideological and political agency. Why are you denigrating what you did as a toy when it is something that was both profound for you, and is a profound act of free citizenship in the United States?

I'm not asking to snipe -- I'm asking because I'm truly curious what, exactly, you're looking for, if jury duty is about a "toy problem with toy rules." Why are you running down your own profound experience? And in what ways are you wanting to exercise your agency, if that didn't count?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:17 PM on August 15, 2010

"Yes, this was a toy problem with toy rules."

I just mean isolated, difficult to repeat, thoroughly "given," a problem in a box, not a problem of my own choice, discovery, whatever.

You know, jury duty [...] crowning achievements of Western civilization [...] other citizens.

No argument from me.
posted by zeek321 at 8:22 PM on August 15, 2010

I don't want any more isolated problems handed to me from on high, of dubious ethical and pragmatic value. So where do my team/colleagues/tribe and I get to call it like we see it, note that the emperor has no clothes, and then go about doing something about it? I may ultimately have to start my own business or non-profit or something, but I'm definitely not ready to do that, and what I'm doing right now is not working for me.
posted by zeek321 at 8:29 PM on August 15, 2010

I'd suggest spending less money to start. Try to save half of what you make every month.

You want something like your jury duty experience that can save money on rent? Move into/start an intentional community. Lots of discussions that if properly run can lead to consensus decision making.

Also sell your car and commute by bicycle. Regular exercise will improve your mood, your health, and your wealth.
posted by GregorWill at 8:53 PM on August 15, 2010

I agree with GregorWill above that having lower costs in life can mean a life more like one you want. I had a brief, fabulously indulgent period of time where after working part-time, studying full-time, I elected to keep working part-time. It gave me more focus and energy for my work, but also more time to pursue my own interests. Life felt well-balanced.

I made the decision to stop doing this for a period of time while I save to buy a house, although recently when I had a lucrative contract job, I again opted to cut back my work hours. So, thinking through the time versus money thing is useful.

Keep looking for opportunities to be involved with your community. It could be volunteering, running events, sitting on a committee. These things can lead to opportunities - many organisations may have many volunteers, but need a few paid staff (I know, I know, you don't want a job, but what if it pushed all those buttons for you?).

You might like to read Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work You Love. She does lay out some starting points, and is very positive about getting around the hurdles that people put up for themselves, or other people put up for you.

Also, consider whether you can change organisations. I have a fairly new job that on paper is not necessarily vastly different from my previous one, but the atmosphere and scope is far different. It has made me look forward to work again after years of dragging my feet.
posted by AnnaRat at 2:26 AM on August 16, 2010

Well, continuing on the jury idea, does PA allow anyone to serve as Guardians ad Litem, or just lawyers? A Guardian ad Litem represents a child in a case concerning them -- divorce and custody cases, sometimes abuse/neglect cases -- and makes sure the child has a voice in court. In some states GALs are full-time professionals but in other states they are adults in the community who volunteer and do one case at a time, just a few cases a year, and keep their regular jobs. This is very important work where you could do real good for actual people -- relatively defenseless people -- who are caught up in big, scary things in a bureaucratic system that needs to hear their voices.

If PA has the latter system, this is something concrete you could do without leaving your day job.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:44 AM on August 16, 2010

Guardians ad Litem

This looks pretty interesting, thanks.

posted by zeek321 at 1:15 PM on August 16, 2010

It sounds like you want to connect with other people to do challenging things that improve your community somehow. That's awesome, and there are so many ways to do that. I agree that finding some volunteer opportunities or other ways to participate in what's happening in your city will be a big help in maintaining your sanity and making you feel like you're moving towards a change in your life.

Getting involved in community work of some kind will help you pinpoint what kind of work really thrills you, help you meet people who are also engaged and active, help you get a sense of what kind of opportunities are out there, and help you feel fulfilled while you're thinking about where to go from here in your career. Maybe you'll decide to jump ship and go volunteer full-time or something, maybe you'll decide to make a job change, maybe you'll keep working and doing community work on the side, who knows?

A few places to start, maybe: Philadelphia Cares is kind of a volunteer-opportunities clearinghouse. You might get some ideas there. Also, just a thought--you might really enjoy mediation work. The stuff you mentioned re the fight with your partner (challenging process, learning new emotional/communication tools, resolving conflict in a lasting way) could be things you can find in mediation work. These folks apparently train community mediators.

Good luck! Enjoy your search!
posted by aka burlap at 8:50 AM on August 17, 2010

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