Quarter-Life Crisis Ahoy!
November 9, 2010 12:00 AM   Subscribe

What should I be when I grow up? I'm 30 years old.

You know how some people are "born with" passions? Well, I don't think I was. Most of my friends have a passion for art, music, graphic design, social services, writing, etc. and most have jobs relating to these things.

When I read articles on careers or ask people, I receive the same answer: "Well, what do you like?"
After a good minute or two, I come up with novelty type things... like hanging out with my family, smoking, watching basketball and Andy Griffith, sleeping, hiking, Japanese stationery and reading books.
How I would find a career in any of those things is beyond me.

I guess to REALLY answer the question, I like figuring things out. I like looking for and finding answers. People have suggested science and math. I am horrible at those subjects and they are beyond my brain power.

I guess I would like a job researching something.
My favorite job I had was identifying markings on small electronic components in order to come up with a part number, manufacturer and date code.
Other parts of past jobs I enjoyed have been researching information for managers on the internet.

I've also always thought that the experts on tire/shoe markings on the forensics shows were pretty cool. But I don't know how realistic it would be to try and obtain education/employment in something like that. Plus I don't think I could handle crime scene photos. Although, I do currently work for a massive DOE science agency... so maybe it would be easier for me to obtain a career in forensics.

Another job I always thought would be interesting is obtaining background checks for individuals. But I had a friend who did that and she made about 12/hr.

I am also sort of drawn to anything computer-related. I starting using the computer when I was 4 back in the DOS days, but technology went WAY out there, and I fell behind. I guess I wouldn't mind going back to school for programming or hardware. I don't know. I'd really be starting from zero on the programming aspect, though.

What kind of career/education can I obtain with this simple interest of researching/problem solving? Or what kind of computer technology fields pay a decent wage and aren't completely saturated?
posted by KogeLiz to Work & Money (35 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
If it makes you feel any better, we're the same age, and I think there are lots of us with the same question.

When I asked the question phrased very differently a couple of months ago, I got a whole lot of responses which might answer yours perfectly. Consider nangar's answer in the context of what you're looking for.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:10 AM on November 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

KogeLiz: I like hanging out with my family, smoking, watching basketball and Andy Griffith, sleeping, hiking, Japanese stationery and reading books.

On the off chance that what you like smoking is weed, I would point out that for a sizeable percentage of the population, significant amounts of smoking saps focus and motivation. You might look at whether this is a factor for you.

One career I always think is underrated is being a PA. If you work in a busy office for a busy person, it's pretty much 50% computer work (run reports, write documents, log expenses) and 50% problem solving (research suppliers, research software, organise events, schedule things, move people). Possibly I am fortunate or it's my personality type or the sector and size companies I worked in, but I have always been able to grow into those roles as much as I wanted, taking lots of responsibility and leadership on tasks and projects so that I could use exactly the skills you're talking about.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:27 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a teacher, and I definitely never felt a "calling" to be a teacher. Don't get me wrong -- I work hard at it, and I think I'm pretty good at it, but I'm the first one to roll my eyes when I hear fellow teachers tell me about their "calling" or their (dear God, gag) "passion" for teaching.

A job's a job. You need to have one, but you don't have to let the job define you completely. For example, I wasn't all that happy teaching in my native country of the US, so I moved abroad. Now I get paid to do something I'm pretty good at, but I'm also enjoying the ex-pat lifestyle and taking vacations to places in Southeast Asia that would be very hard for me to get to if I was still based in the US.

So in short, I'm trying to say that instead of thinking in emotional/romantic terms of your "dream job," you can also think in more pragmatic terms of "what am I good at that sets me up to make enough money and have enough free time to do what I really enjoy." For me, teaching is a means to traveling around the world. And that's a pretty good trade-off.
posted by bardic at 12:39 AM on November 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

Don't ask yourself what you like to do, as yourself what you like to create.

I'd really be starting from zero on the programming aspect, though.

Array indexing starts at zero. You've already started!
posted by secret about box at 12:42 AM on November 9, 2010 [11 favorites]

posted by secret about box at 12:43 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: On the off chance that what you like smoking is weed, I would point out that for a sizeable percentage of the population, significant amounts of smoking saps focus and motivation. You might look at whether this is a factor for you.

oh, i meant smoking cigarettes. Well, cloves to be exact.

Excuse me if this is a stupid question but what is a PA? Public Attorney? Physician's Assistant? Purchasing Agent? Paralegal?

Speaking of Paralegal, I've thought about that path quite a few times. My memory is crappy and I don't know if I could pass any of the testing requirements/classes if they require a lot of dates/names. But that's a whole other issue.

Purchasing Agent is another thing Ive looked into. Not sure if most of those jobs require sales type personalities... that's way out of my league.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:43 AM on November 9, 2010

PA is a personal assistant. In my office there are two, of two different kinds; an office manager and a private secretary. They're both very skilled (though not formally trained) workers and have much better job security and job satisfaction than most. It's a good suggestion.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:53 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps Library Sciences? You could very well end up researching things, or rather, helping other people to research things properly. The various people I know who have gone into LS are all highly detail-oriented folks.
posted by Mizu at 1:03 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Congratulations, you're right on schedule for realizing you're not a kid anymore, and it's time to do something about it. You don't appear to have educational things you can fall back on, so maybe you'd better go for experience instead. Join an aid agency, go to a third world, help medics, teachers, engineers do things until you know how to do them yourself. If you think you're better than that, join an oil crew, a mining company (north-western Australia is always looking for staff), being a woman doesn't exclude you from these things. Then, after 3-5 years, come back and show us all how it's done. Good luck.
posted by alonsoquijano at 1:12 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

KogeLiz- You sound like me. I'vebeen thinking about posting a question just like this for the last few weeks.

Advice? All of that BUT IM BAD AT MATH AND SCIENCE AND TOO DUMB TO PASS THE PARALEGAL TEST is bunk. Okay, you're not gonna be a doctor or a Nobel Prize Winning physicist. But you could pass that test. And with some drive, you could teach yourself Algebra, Geometry and basic Physics. You have access to the widest, most diverse, most incredible body of knowledge the world has ever seen. Use it.

Take yourself seriously.

As to what I'm going to do? Weeeeeeeeeeeellllllllllll... Go on adventure. I started teaching in Korea and it's bankrolled my adventures for two years. Not bad for someone who doesn't have a plan. Try WWOOF, or a working Visa in New Zeland.
posted by GilloD at 1:18 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

... like hanging out with my family, smoking, watching basketball and Andy Griffith, sleeping, hiking, Japanese stationery and reading books.

Why not transform the things you like into hobbies that might become a business or job?

Hanging out with family - start doing some volunteer or freelance family history research at your local library ( or genealogy library if you have one). Ultimately aim at becoming a professional researcher. Where-ever you are, there are people from there, who no longer live there, who want to know about their background and will pay a researcher to do it for them.

Smoking - with a view to running a tobacco or cigar store (or import/export business) start researching and tasting and rating different cigarettes, cigars, tobaccos etc. Publish a blog about it. Establish a position as an authority, then capitalize on it.

Similarly with watching basketball (I'm sorry but I don't know who Andy Griffith is). Research, write and publish. Make yourself into a sports journalist in your spare time, and maybe that'll give you a platform to become one in real life.

Hiking. There's always guiding, but I think the niche for you might be something more particular. Why not set up a planning and packing service for other hikers? You'll need to look into their specific needs both from a personal and trip point of view, find and keep very detail oriented and up to date info on how to best fill those needs, and then act on it. It'll also have the perk of making you the go to guy (gal?) on all things up to date in the local hiking world.

Japanese stationery - research, history, write, blog, small shop again. Seriously, if you could get a source of some kinds of old Japanese paper, people would find you. I'm thinking a lot of artists would just love to have decent info online about older paper types, manufacturing methods, etc.

Reading books - um... librarian? bookshop? literary journalist?
posted by Ahab at 1:27 AM on November 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not to derail the thread:
north-western Australia is always looking for staff
That's not true anymore for unskilled, unqualified labour, especially if you're not an Australian citizen or New Zealander, or someone eligible for a holiday work visa (which cut out at 30). They need lots of engineers, chemists, builders, tradespeople and so on, but the only unskilled labour at a premium up there is in the kinds of work you really wouldn't want to make a career out of.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:13 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second the personal assistant or executive assistant thing. I started out as a research assistant for a real estate broker and one of my favorite tasks was organizing her Contacts into categories, which included looking people up on the Internet if I only had their work email address. I got to WHOIS some domains, search quickly through bloated websites, sift through lots of articles and society page notes about finance-types, and it was a lot of fun. I still do that a lot of the time, and it actually still is a lot of fun.

Note: Being someone's assistant requires a whole lot of other skills that I don't know you have (because you haven't told us yet) but there are a bunch of AskMe threads about the job which you can read. But if you can make yourself invaluable to the person, you will have a lot of job security.

I also wonder if going back to school to become a librarian might not be a bad thing either, but that sounds like a jessamyn question.
posted by TrishaLynn at 2:44 AM on November 9, 2010

"Not being good at science or maths" is basically a fake idea. It's possible you don't have an affinity for those subjects, or don't enjoy them, or have been taught them poorly in the past, but they're not inherently more difficult than other other field of academic endeavour that requires abstract thought: if you can write a thoughtful essay about Proust, you can definitely pass intermediate science courses. If you've not considered technical avenues because of the fear of the subject matter, I definitely urge you to reconsider: working in science as a researcher is the first really satisfying job I've had.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 2:51 AM on November 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Dude, it sounds like you'd love to program!! I realize you'd be starting from scratch, but in my experience it's 100% about "see here's this problem we've got" and "ahh this is a creative way to handle that.." Are you an organized person? If you've got that sort of compartmentalized, organized, problem-solver brain then you should consider programming. If you're gonna consider programming, I'll be biased and suggest that you look into C# (c-sharp) :)
posted by Glendale at 3:30 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Probably it's hard to know what you'd like to do because you don't have a great deal of experience of doing different things. Of the things you have tried you've already identified plenty of things you like.

So, one possibility you could consider is using the jobs you get as a means to discover new things to be interested in. Find any old job you're qualified for, but find it somewhere very different from where you now work. So if you're currently in retail, find a factory. If you're currently in telecoms, go and work in fashion or in a restaurant kitchen washing pots or on a construction site. If you work a desk job, find an outdoor job.

While you're there, use it as an opportunity both to learn a new job (even if it's menial), and to soak up all possible information about how the business works and what everyone else is doing. Just because your job is "waiter" doesn't have to stop you learning how the kitchen works, or the cash flow of the restaurant.

If you find that you stop learning interesting things, quit and go somewhere else where you will keep learning.

Consider the low pay of these jobs as the cost of your education.

At some point you will find something that you would REALLY love to do - then the job you're in has probably given you some very good contacts and information about how to start doing it.
posted by emilyw at 4:17 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Think about librarianship?
posted by Blake at 4:25 AM on November 9, 2010

Before you think about librarianship (and I LOVE the research and problem-solving aspects of the job, though they don't actually come up that often in a small public library), just be aware that the job market is really bad right not because of an oversupply of library school graduates plus city and state government budgets being slashed plus increasing deprofessionalization of the job.
posted by Jeanne at 4:34 AM on November 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I like figuring things out. I like looking for and finding answers.

You might like competitive intelligence, or market analysis. I fell into this for the time being, and it pushes similar buttons for me: research, but not doing experiments all the time. go do interviews and network with people to get answers, but don't live by quarterly objectives and good-old-boy-ing everyone. I spend a lot of time on the computer, and can justify almost anything as being tangentially related to my work (languages, puttering around on news sites when work is slow, etc). You get to put together what HAS happened, with what WILL (could) happen.

The end goal is to find out where the market will go, or what your competitors are doing, and what you(r firm or client) needs to do to stay on or ahead of that curve. It's pretty fun, with constantly changing goals and some little projects and some big projects.

This is a kind of job that you can have with a (usually smaller) company that specializes in this stuff, or working for a big company and focusing on their market and their competitors, or subsets thereof. I do the latter.

Good communication skills are necessary, extra languages helpful. If you know and care about the market, that's cool, but you can learn. There are lots of active LinkedIn groups to scour for more information, names of companies, or potential jobs.
posted by whatzit at 4:34 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

You could always be an it tech in a library. IF you go that route make sure your degree in in hardware and not programming. technical colleges have 2 and 4 year degrees in computer hardware. I got my associates at a technical college in Network Tech (my four year is a management of tech degree).
posted by majortom1981 at 4:37 AM on November 9, 2010

You think you would like doing background checks. You like finding things out and looking for answers.

Become a private detective.
posted by inturnaround at 4:46 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess to REALLY answer the question, I like figuring things out. I like looking for and finding answers. People have suggested science and math. I am horrible at those subjects and they are beyond my brain power.

For some reason, "journalism" springs to mind when I read this.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:10 AM on November 9, 2010

  • Japanese stationery
  • Figuring things out. Looking for and finding answers
Why don't you start a small internet business curating and selling a collection of interesting Japanese stationary? You can start as small as you like and see how it goes....
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:27 AM on November 9, 2010

one thing to do is find a city or community college near you and start taking classes. when i was about your age i started taking programming classes, and kept with it and am now in a Masters' program.
Anyway, its a cheap way to find out more and good way to get on a path.
posted by alkupe at 5:30 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am an executive assistant and I see a lot of myself in the description of what you enjoy in life. I've never had any overarching passions, either, except to hang out with my friends and family and read a lot of books. Being an EA is perfect for me, because I get to do a wide range of tasks and I don't have to take any of it home with me. I also like that I am highly respected by the executives I work for, and that I get to know everything that goes on in the company but am not actually responsible for making decisions. In addition to the usual assistanty-type things, I also do a lot of event planning, legal research, sales reports, and data manipulation.

The only issue I see with breaking into a job like this is that you might have to start at a lower level, which I'm not certain I would enjoy - I lucked into working for the President of a company when I was 24 and have been at this level ever since. I would suggest maybe looking at smaller companies first. Temp agencies can also help you get started.
posted by something something at 7:18 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you should work in an antique shop. There's an investigative aspect to it, a reward for being detail-oriented, and plenty of quiet contemplation. I think paralegal is only a calling for those of us who can take some serious shit dished out 9-6 every day by serious assholes.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:28 AM on November 9, 2010

Two options that come to mind are journalist and opposition researcher. They have overlapping skill sets but both are essentially "uncover, collect, distill, and explain factual information in a relevant way." You know what journalists are, but opposition researchers (or just "researchers") work for political campaigns or campaign consulting firms and do comprehensive analyses on candidates and their opponents as well as on specific issues. This is somewhat related to your mention of background checks. Both jobs would contain elements of that. One is obviously political and the other can often be, particularly when you are writing about something controversial and a clash of interests is involved.

There is information out there, some of which people want to hide, and someone needs to go get it and connect the dots and explain to people - in a way they are able to digest - what's really happening. In both jobs, you start with a mostly blank canvas and it's up to you to use tools, sources, and tips to come up with something relevant. You'll pore over loads and loads of information and extract the best bits, connect them, and present a case or story. You'll have to figure out who's paying whom, what really happened vs. what somebody said happened, what the verifiable public record says, what the statistics really show, what somebody's past may predict about their future, etc.

In the case of journalism you'll hopefully be going for complete objectivity whereas in political research your goal will be to make the best factual case for or against somebody or something. Both have moments or periods of excitement spliced into stretches of less exciting work. Both work on deadlines. Both have a-ha moments. Both deliver the satisfaction of having figured something out. In both, the real value comes from your brain, from you figuring out what's important and relevant and presenting it effectively.

Journalism may have a bit more of a barrier to entry, but entry level research jobs are not very hard to get, particularly as campaigns first coalesce. This work starts well before the campaign is visible because it takes a long time to do all of the research and it has to be ready by the time they start taking their messages to the electorate. The jobs often don't require much of a pedigree. Plenty of people start cold with nothing other than political interest and awareness and maybe some campaign volunteer work under their belt. Smaller campaigns will be easier to start in than larger, but once you have a race on your resume, it's easy to upgrade. A major campaign will hire a research director who will then hire a few researchers. Or maybe a campaign will hire a research firm that assigns one or more researchers. These researchers might be grad students or people fresh out of school. Or maybe they're someone with experience in another kind of professional work who are verifiably competent. They just have to be sharp and resourceful and persistent and be able to write competently. These people or teams produce everything from one pagers to mammoth books hundreds of pages long, depending on the candidate's visibility.

Best of luck you. I'm still searching too!
posted by Askr at 8:18 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of the jobs that are computer-related are all about problem solving, sometimes researching. Everything from tech support (which, in the right environment, can be kind of fun for the problem solving) to programming to quality assurance involves that "figuring things out" that you mentioned. Most of the people I know that work with computers/networks/software don't have CS degrees, either.

There are lots of good askme threads about learning to program, as a starting place.
posted by ldthomps at 8:31 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

When my friends and I were all around late 20's to 30ish, we spent a lot of late nights talking about how to find a career that fed off our passions. Cut to the chase: eventually, we realized that it was better to find a moderately interesting career, a handful of good friendships, and some really cool hobbies.

Trying to find work that perfectly utilizes your aptitudes and passions is kind of like trying to find a significant other that makes you permanently happy. How can only one segment of your life, all by itself, make you whole?

As to what that moderately interesting career might be, some flavor of IT sounds like a good fit - programming, database administration, network tech, web developing? One of the keys to computer-related fields is being comfortable on the perpetual learning curve - your research aptitude would come in quite handy there.
posted by richyoung at 9:07 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you should look into joining the police as a fingerprint specialist - this would get you started in forensics, and you could look into learning other types of forensics skills.
posted by meepmeow at 9:23 AM on November 9, 2010

Pick something that fascinates you, something you want to research, and write a book about it. Rinse and repeat until you want to write more than one book about one topic. The process of researching something in depth may prove satisfying by itself, but so will delving into a specific field of knowledge beyond the surface. If you're curious about it, somewhere out there are thousands of people itching for the book you haven't written about it yet.
posted by phoebus at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2010

Perhaps Library Sciences? You could very well end up researching things, or rather, helping other people to research things properly.

This is what I did as a direction-less 30-year-old. It's worth noting that library science isn't just about researching and/or answering people's questions. I'm now an information specialist, and make a good living at a job that is satisfying (even if it's not -- by any stretch of the imagination -- a passion.)
posted by coolguymichael at 1:12 PM on November 9, 2010

maybe some sort of Technician job? My title at work is "Engineering Assistant". I basically put together test setups (lots of problem solving there), take data (more problem solving), and help with the analysis and report writing. I have even done some light script programming to help with some of the more repetitive aspects of the job. The place I work is mostly a mechanical engineering firm, but I know there are many different types of technician. I don't have a degree in anything, but I do have some technical training from when I was in the Navy (no, i'm not suggesting that you run off and sign up for a hitch).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:30 PM on November 9, 2010

Also suggesting librarian, possibly as a cataloger.
I often get to problem solve how to search for particular items, find answers for reference questions. Cataloging you would analyze how to classify and code books for a filing system. Technical backgrounds are valued.
posted by SarahbytheSea at 8:27 PM on November 9, 2010

Don't worry too much about "finding your passion" in your work. Work has a way of destroying passions; I enjoy photography, but I'd hate to have to take photos all the time.

As far as what you should be when you grow up: life is no more than a series of temporary measures strung together. Just pick something, anything that you can do pretty well and that won't drive you crazy.

Explore the stuff that piques your interest. Take a programming class, or interview a forensics expert about their jobs. But don't worry about defining your life down to a single career path. As long as you've got enough money coming in to pay the bills, you're winning the game.
posted by JDHarper at 8:32 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

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