Sick of feeling like a rat in a maze
July 25, 2011 6:57 AM   Subscribe

How did I go about making an awesome life and avoiding the rat race?

Some useful information: I’m 22, a soon to be university graduate , working in downtown Toronto commuting 2 hours each way to a job I hate and will never want to do again in my life. However, the money for a student is amazing and it would not of been possible for me to go for Norway for a year without this job. I’ve sucked it up for the summer and done the best I could with what I had, and learned lots about what I DO NOT want in life in the process. That being said, I will be very happy to leave.

What drives me crazy is seeing lots of people who are fundamentally miserable with their lives and jobs, stuck commuting to a cubicle farm in a job they dislike, just for the sake of the money. I don’t want to be this person! I’m happiest living out of the city, surrounded by nature and loving family and community (I’m an outdoors lover at heart). In a perfect world, I would love to get into ecology or environmental sciences doing field work, either in the Arctic or with indigenous communities and environmental issues. I would also love to live in a small community somewhere rural, close to outdoor activities, travel like crazy, build an amazing family with my boyfriend (hopefully then husband), with lots of free time and a slower pace of life. From informational interviews, working for an academic and talking to people in my field I do know that a master’s at some point is pretty much mandatory (which I am super excited about!)

I fear that I will end up, due to my student loans ($45, 000) needing to live in an area I hate and sliding into the consumerist trap that is the GTA and the life of a cubicle dweller. I see people giving up spirituality, family time, personal wellbeing, passions and what seems like their whole being for the sake of a job and it scares me. My parents were also fundamentally miserable commuting to jobs they hated for the sake of money, and it had devastating impacts on my family.

So, my question as a soon to be university graduate, what can I do now and over the next couple of years to set myself up for a fantastic life? What do you wish you would of done differently when you graduated college and started the next part of your life? How do I best avoid the misery that I see in my office on a daily basis?
**I whole hardly understand that life likes to be crappy sometimes, and that things aren’t always the way you want them to be. Also, I do see that some people are happy with kind of lifestyle. The people I work with are miserable with it on a daily basis, and this type of life is not for me.***
posted by snowysoul to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
If you are willing to make other lifestyle sacrifices (living with roommates, not having a car or having a real beater for a car, not going out and spending lots of money), the student loan debt shouldn't curse you to a life of living in cubicle-ville.

Figure out what compromises in your lifestyle are worth having work you love, or less of the work you hate. Don't get yourself into debt that would require a higher income. The less you spend, the less you have to earn.
posted by xingcat at 7:02 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: You've hit on why so many people end up in a job they hate, waking up every morning dreading another terrible day: money, money, money. They get in over their heads and end up stuck in job hell, working paycheck to paycheck, having pushed their dreams aside so they can make that next credit card payment.

I understand acquiring student loans, but do not take on any more debt. That's my first tip. My second is to never compare yourself with someone else. The moment you start comparing your lifestyle and assets is the moment you start saying, "Well, Jenny has this, I should have this, too." Trying to "keep up with the Joneses" is a snowballing nightmare. Be yourself, don't try to be someone else.

Financial freedom is THE key to being able to follow your passion. I wish you the best of luck!
posted by Falwless at 7:09 AM on July 25, 2011 [10 favorites]

Read Life Work, by the poet Donald Hall. Learn to be happy through experiences you have and the people with whom you have them rather than things. And for goodness' sake, do not take any job that requires you to work 50 of 52 weeks each year. That shit will kill your spirit more quickly than anything.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:13 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

(also, what Falwless just said.)
posted by LooseFilter at 7:14 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: If you want to live/work around nature and in the Arctic, look for jobs up in the territories. You'll likely make good money (thus paying off your student loans quickly) and from the sound of your question, you'll enjoy the lifestyle.

Obviously, you'll need to have skills that they're looking for -- what is your current degree? -- but it's definitely worth a look, especially if you want to make a life in that kind of community, instead of playing "take the money and run" after you've paid off your loans.

Yukon is pretty well developed, especially around Whitehorse, and so you'll be able to enjoy city life while still getting all of the outdoors and nature that you want. Nunavut is pretty much the frontier of civilization, so if you want something that may be a bit harder, but more adventurous, that may be the territory for you. NWT is somewhere in the middle, depending on what community you choose.
posted by asnider at 7:17 AM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

You used the word commute a lot. It's really the only concrete negative you presented in this question.

You're several years from being able to afford a place "away from the rat race", so try the job without the 4 hour daily commute - ditch the car, get a moderately priced transit friendly place.
posted by sleslie at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2011

There's no simple answer to this question, but as others have said I think the bottom line is that the less you spend the less dependent you'll be on money and the earning of said money. How To Be Free and How To Be Idle are very interesting and enjoyable reads, although the author (imho) has a tendency to romanticize poverty (and the past) and I think they're more useful as philosophical guides than as practical blueprints.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:24 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know the people you describe - they're all over New York.

I think the main decision you have to make is, erm, spiritual, I guess. There are a lot of outwardly successful people who have convinced themselves that their job is Super Important and worth all the quiet misery they put themselves through. They get caught up in money and status and the admiration of people who are similarly self-impressed, and they assume there's no other valid way to live.

The justifications of this lifestyle can stretch out endlessly in front of them if they're not careful. The jobs burn them out long before people should feel too tired to go outside, or read a book, or meet new friends. Soon it's easier to spend 12 hours at the office, finetuning some report or project, than venturing outside the cubicle to take some social risks. I have known people who only really see their children on the weekends, and one has to wonder why they even bothered to have the kids in the first place.

You can really love your work, or you can not-love it, but there's this weird American preoccupation with defining your entire life by your occupation. Americans are often baffled by, say, Scandinavian cultures, where one's occupation often has a lot less meaning in social circles, where income is less varied, and parents work jobs more for the benefits like long maternity/paternity leaves and health insurance as they do for some sense of self-fulfillment.

People whose values center around family time, vacations, and multi-generational relationships will almost necessarily see jobs as simply a means to live comfortably enough to bolster those values. If that's your bag (it's mine, too) then it's actually really unlikely that you'll consciously waste your life commuting and slogging away more than 40 hours a week at a meaningless career. Your first and most important step is already complete: you recognize that a job is just a job, for the most part, even if it's an awesome job, or even if people think it's somehow beneath you. If you're like me, you use a job to help you live, not to define who you are. That's what your family and friends are for. As long as you keep that knowledge close to you, and as long as you don't fall prey to the pressure of being a Super Important Successful Person, you're going to be just fine.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:26 AM on July 25, 2011 [24 favorites]

I did a co-op work term in downtown Toronto and I felt the same way you do. I commuted in on the GO Train. It was something about those thousands of silent zombies CLOMP CLOMP CLOMPing with their fancy shoes out of Union station into the underground city at 8 am that got to me. You're not alone.

My solution was to move to Vancouver. It might be a good compromise position for you. You'd live somewhere where you'd be paid a fair wage (most probably), but you'd be right next door to the mountains and nature. People in Vancouver also struck me at the time as a bit more work-to-live, not live-to-work.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:28 AM on July 25, 2011

Seconding looking for jobs in the territories. You will also get paid a northern living allowance up there, which may help with your finances.

In the short term, though, you're going to have to choose what is most important to you right now: living in a rural area or the Arctic, getting your Masters or traveling. UNBC and Nipissing are among the few rural-ish universities with graduate programs, and there are none in the Arctic. Traveling is hard from rural areas or the Arctic due to a scarcity of airports/flights. A Masters program keeps you very busy and rather broke, so it's hard to travel during that unless you get funding to go to conferences. Choose one thing you want right now and work toward that. Once you have it, figure out your next goal and how to achieve that, etc.

The Wealthy Barber is the Canadian personal finance book to read.
posted by kyla at 7:43 AM on July 25, 2011

You seem hung up about your commute. Commutes suck. Get rid of the commute, and the increased personal time you have helps so many other things in the rest of your life. My commute is one of the most stressful times of my day. If I could get rid of it, I would, but living that close to work would be socially isolating, and I'd spend most of my weekends driving.

My parents were also fundamentally miserable commuting to jobs they hated for the sake of money, and it had devastating impacts on my family.

Did they really do those things for money? You have $45k in student loan debt from what is presumably a Canadian university, so did they really spend all their lives chasing money? It doesn't sound like it. It sounds like they managed to put together a decent middle class lifestyle, rather than making the kind of huge amounts of money necessary to pay college tuition in cash. Give you family some credit-- they worked hard to put a roof over your head and sound like they didn't have much to spare.

You know what helps? Having a job with flexible hours where I'm not micromanaged, a commute that's 40 minutes or less (I still don't like the commute and would rather have something shorter, but it's not so bad), and (this is something you're missing) not having to worry that much about money. Making money doesn't cause stress. Having debts and obligations that force you to make that much money and keep hoping for raises causes stress.

Want to avoid a stressful rat race? Only mortgage at most twice your income. Don't finance a car, and get a reliable one. Don't carry credit card debt. And (you're going to hate this answer, but it's true), get a job where you make a decent amount of money.
posted by deanc at 7:44 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and on the point about the Master's: Kyla is right. You'll most probably not be able to live in the arctic while pursuing a Master's, since there are no universities in the north. However, there are some online schools which offer quality graduate degrees, depending on what field you're in (is it ecology? I'm not totally sure, from your original post).

Athabasca University is one such school. It's a public, non-profit school that is fully accredited. (Disclosure: I am starting an MA at AU in September and I work for the Graduate Students' Association there).
posted by asnider at 7:51 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: I feel, as someone who has had some decent success in this, is that your life is actually a compilation of the small individual choices that you make while living it. This sounds sort of like a platitude but hear me out.

Don't want to commute, don't.
Don't want to work in a cube, don't.
Need a masters, get one.
Want to work with indigenous people, start doing that.

So, okay, you can't do all this right now. The thing, I think, is to tell yourself to do these things and then listen to why you're telling yourself you can't do them. As people have said above 45K in debt is high, admittedly, but if you had a 50K a year job and put half of it towards loans, you'd be free in two years. The trick is to not take on more debt and be single-minded [sure, to a crazy degree] about paying it down. And sometimes if you're contemplating something radical you realize that there are reasons that you're not choosing that path. That maybe you're not a slave to your job, but you are in love with living in a metro area with access to awesome food, resources and people doing interesting things. Nothing wrong with that, but for some people it's tough to figure these things out if they're just walking a predigested life path that they feel is laid out for them.

And that, to me, is the important part, making conscious choices about money decisions that you make. Keeping premium cable TV? That's $1200/year that isn't paying down loans. Etc. And, again, this is just to keep you in line with YOUR values. If you like cable, that is fine, but it balances with other priorities. It's an unsteady mobile and it's worth knowing that all the parts are. You can go too far in this direction [I feel that I often have] where you make so many penny-punching decisions that saving money becomes your primary personality trait and that's still maining money as the thing that runs your life and I don't think that's good either.

My personal example has to do with wanting to live in the country so I could get a dog. I moved out of Seattle, bought a cheapie place, did some freelance work and other stuff. Looked back after a year or two, noticed I didn't have a dog, asked myself why. Turns out I like traveling more than I like a settled down home life with a pet. Now, I have other friends who also travel and have pets, but the sacrifices they made [paying for pet care for one] wasn't on my to do list.

So make a list of your priorities now. And try to make choices, smaller and larger, that will get you further along towards that goal. Could be saving money, could be shortening your commute, could be moving, could be getting in touch with work in indigenous communities. And looking back and seeing what you did and asking yourself why.

I live in the country. I have a well-paying job. I never have to get up before 11 am unless I want to. It's nice. That said, I have to drive nearly an hour to a good indian restaurant. The town is asleep by 9 pm. I don't see my out of town friends as often as I'd like. The choices balance and work for me. They might not work for everyone else. I find that I have to explain them to people more than if I'd just stayed living in Seattle and working with technology. Sometimes the most difficult thing about getting off the path is having to constantly remind yourself why you're off of it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 AM on July 25, 2011 [33 favorites]

Best answer: Adopt some sort of spiritual practice to help you escape the desires, judgments and expectations you place on things. Your judgments and expectations are what will make you miserable.

Having obligations and a routine are only negatives if you perceive them to be. There are many paths to achieving and maintaining an attitude of thankfulness and joy in all that you do. Recognize dissatisfaction and discontent as the manifestations of your ego, which they are.

Basically, cultivate the mind that will let you want the life you have rather than yearn for the life you want.

What also helps is this paradoxical realization that life is happiest overall when you give it away to those around you in handfuls and buckets. Each bill I pay (well, *most* every bill I pay) is an opportunity to be thankful that I have the resources to provide for the comfort and care of my family *and* an opportunity to pray for those who do not have that kind of security.

Commuting, for one example, is a perfect time for spiritual practice. If I'm driving, I can "meditate" by focusing solely on driving in a way that makes everyone around me just a little safer. I can practice "giving space" to those individuals who, from the way they drive, appear to be driven by judgments, desires, and expectations that (God be praised) are not torturing me at the moment. Those people need compassion -- judgment on the road really does none of us any good. If I am commuting on public transport, then I have time to wonder at the gift of public infrastructure, to be thankful for the social norms that make the common use of shared space go as smoothly as it does. I can practice making little gestures and sacrifices that make everyone's journey just a little more pleasant (give up the "good" seat, etc.)

And that's just commuting. Then there's work. And the myriad opportunities for deep daily connection involved with a basic domestic existence. I am often glad that I have a family so that selflessness and sacrifice are demanded of me in constant and unnoticeable increments.

But it's all a function of one's focus and spiritual practice. I find that when I feel resentment building up within me, it's kind of like the spiritual "flu." That must be cured with rest and spiritual "hygeine." Kind of like flossing and regular exercise.

An "awesome life" requires definition. If you want a life that *others* will look at and think is awesome, well, that's your ego talking, and your ego will never let you be satisfied. If you are able to look at even the most ordinary everyday things with wonder and gratitude, than an "awesome life" is within your reach.
posted by cross_impact at 7:52 AM on July 25, 2011 [17 favorites]

I'd say first, bite the bullet and pay off your debt--you can't be free until then.
Prepare yourself for some kind of freelance career, build a portable talent, so you don't have to work for others.
Teach yourself a lot of different skills--plumbing, carpentry, etc--so you don't have to pay others do do that stuff. It will save you a bunch of money.
A big leap forward would be to design and build your own house, paying as you go, so you'll have a free place to live from then on, or a big asset to sell for FU money if you must. You might have to work part-time while doing this or, ideally, have a working spouse.
I'm not saying this is easy. But I know it's possible because I did it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:57 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are a few things you could do:

1. Check out working from home-type jobs. If you are computer-savvy, and depending on your degree, you could be anywhere in the world for certain jobs. I am a work-from-home consultant (in a different country from my company, and have worked in different parts of the world for the same project - it really doesn't matter where I am as long as I have an internet connection. I also know someone who does research and writing, all from home. Basically, anything that is entirely internet-based might be an option). A future possibility is free-lancing in a work-from-home friendly sphere, but for this you probably need to build up some experience.

2. Make a list with all possible flexible and/or open-air jobs. In your post you mentioned fieldwork: make a list with ALL academic qualification which could lead to field-work jobs, make sure you check which ones are truly an option for you (in terms of your own pre-existing qualifications, which ones have a higher degree of certainty re. finding a relevant job - else you might risk being a geologist who ends up as an admin assistant, but also your own inclination, cause there's no point in being stuck in the mud and hating it, either) and work towards obtaining said positions. But don't ignore all the other outdorsey, non-raterace options: become a lighthouse warden (I genuinly saw this advertised once, in a different country though), check out permaculture options, etc. etc. etc. Allow this list to grow, and thoroughly research new options, whilst doing your highly paid hateful job and trying to pay off your student debt.

3. Three is student debt. As people have said upstream, definitely try to pay this off. Even if it means sticking it out an extra year or two, or having to make sure you go into an alternative lifestyle slowly, or via a job that still pays enough to help you with repaying the debt. You will feel like shackles are falling off once you're done with it. Do everything you can to at least cut it down to a more manageable sum, even if it means being really frugal for a while.

Maybe decide how much time you think you could stick it out in the ratrace job, calculate how much you could pay back in that time if you live very modestly, see if the remaining sum feels OK. Meanwhile, gather as much info as you can on alternative options, and try to prepare for the next step: volunteering, attend any free relevant events, hone useful skills in every possible way, gather as much experience as you can for jobs which are closer to your heart. An acquaintance in the UK decided to become a garden designer in what amounted to a huge career change - she was granted entrance to one of the best programs on the basis of a portofolio as a hobby gardener (including a lot of self-tought theoretical knowledge).

Good luck - you are right, in the long term, this is soul- and life-destroying for many people. Whatever you do, make sure that you keep the light on when it comes to your hopes and desires.
posted by miorita at 7:57 AM on July 25, 2011

As I see it, you have two choices:

1. Suck it up really hard and work your ass off right now to get that loan taken care of as quickly as possible so that you can live the life that you want
2. Try to find some balance between making money and living the life you want
posted by k8t at 7:58 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You ask "what would you different" but what you want to know is "what did you do right?" That question will ideally bring answers related to people who feel they've succeeded in avoiding the rat race. I've done a few things since college (I'm 35) that I believe are huge in my current non-rat-race life (I haven't worked a single day since early May, don't work again until mid August, support a family of four on my income alone, don't work overtime, work three days a week, never commute more than 5 minutes even in heavy traffic.)

1) lower your cost of living. I live in a small city with a low cost of living and close access to much outdoor awesomeness (Roanoke, Va! Move here!)

2) earn passive income. I own two rental properties and live in one of the apartments. My mortgage payments are covered by my tenants. Again, lower cost of living. I used first time homebuyer programs and bought both houses with no down payment (that was before the bubble burst.)

3) find a source of extra income you love. I do a number of freelance jobs which I really enjoy and get paid well for. I don't rely on the money, but it is a source of extra income on basically my own terms.

4) live in the city. I live in a neighborhood that is in the center of the city. Urban decay left this great old house with big rooms, high ceilings and easy access to the whole city just for me. I live maybe 3 miles as the bird flees from my work.

5) be ok wih less. You have to be willing to do without some things. Especially once kids come. Be prepared to want private school so bad for your kids but to know it can't happen (insert a thousand other wants in place of school.)

6) teach. Teach! I teach at a community college. I got the job without a masters degree and earned the masters while teaching. I lucked into this job in many ways, never even thought about teaching, but it is one of the biggest contributors to my lifestyle.

7) find a therapist before you need one instead of after the shit hits the fan. I'll spare the details, but if you're going to build an awesome lifestyle, put the work in to be sure you aren't going to simultaneously sabotage it because of x, y and z when you were 4.

And voila! Intense bliss.
posted by idzyn at 8:04 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

And jessamyn's more nuanced thinking is exactly right.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:04 AM on July 25, 2011

I know you'd rather live in Nature, if you do end up having to work in the city for a time before you're able to live in the country, it's totally possible to live a good life with a good measure of nature AND little to no commute.

Living near Cabbagetown, it's a 15-minute commute by bicycle to my job downtown. It's a 10 minutes bike ride to Cherry beach, which is still pretty urban but you can't hear the traffic. Another 10 minutes and you're at the Leslie St. spit which is home to all kind of birds and bunnies and provides a real escape from the concrete jungle. You'd be surprised at the nature and quiet spaces it's possible to find in this city.

It is possible to live a good and even great life in this city. There are wonderful people, real life-giving communities and events. There are butt-loads of people who live without being swept up in the miserable rat-race. If you're commuting 4 hours a day, it would be a challenge to get to know this side of the city, but it's there!
posted by beau jackson at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2011

As cheesy as this sounds, there's a 007 song that goes: "You only live twice. One for yourself, and one for your dreams." And there's a lot of truth to that. You want to start out working a job that is stable and one you'll enjoy...or get to one as quickly as you can while putting up with ones that bring income (perhaps a university job if you can find a place to fit in?). It sounds easier than it is in reality...but you can make it happen for yourself, even it takes a few more years to get there...

Don't compromise or give up on yourself however. You'll get through any hardships if you aim to have a better life and make that your central goal. It might take time, and you have the wonderful opportunity to learn about the things you don't like soul destroying as it's valuable for your personal growth towards something better.

Being someone who is fairly content with his job right now, I'm fine not making as much as I could. The mortgage gets paid, vacations time is generous, and I'm able to indulge in a few hobbies on the side while saving up for retirement. If that's not ideal, I'm not sure what is. The long as its's good (if you've noticed lately, many of those with too much seem to be just as miserable as those with not's the individual that can make things blissful or dreadful via work towards self improvement or general apathy/helplessness).
posted by samsara at 8:11 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Firstly, I've found that consciously enumerating my life goals and staying aware of them has been remarkably effective in making them happen.

Secondly, not all well paying jobs are incredibly grim. My job pays decently, I have a short commute and flexitime. The company is small and the owners have similar values to mine. I didn't start out with such a good job, but I always kept my eye out for better gigs and moved a couple of times when I saw something better.

I live 30 minutes from my job and I can see the national park from my house. I could easily afford to work part time if I wanted to.
posted by emilyw at 8:12 AM on July 25, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all your advice so far! I'm finding them extremely helpful.

A few people have touched on my student loans; They are not actually $45k right now, I'm thinking that by the time I am finished they will be that high (due to lack of family support)
posted by snowysoul at 8:17 AM on July 25, 2011

First off, it occurs to me that perhaps you are generalizing about your coworkers. Part of it is probably your commute (I used to have a commute like that - it sucked), and part of it may be that you are in a particularly crappy workplace, even by cubicle farm standards. This is not to say that you should strive to be like them or consign yourself to a life of office drudgery. By all means, do what you want to do. But don't go writing off whole groups of people in the process.

I have a pretty low-stress life. I can't really give you advice on how to get a master's degree or work with indigenous peoples, but as general guidelines, three things help me:

1) I don't make a lot of money, but I live a pretty modest lifestyle and do not have to worry about my finances on a day-to-day basis. This means: get an apartment you can afford (no more than one-third of your post-tax monthly income), don't amass any more debt, and for God's sake, don't buy things unless you need them. I don't live like an aesthete by any means, but I honestly cannot remember the last time I made an impulse purchase that was not a book or a magazine. Just simply not buying things can save you lots of money.
2) My commute is fairly short, about 30 minutes. You'd be surprised how much this helps.
3) I work a straight 40-hour week in a job where my supervisors pretty much leave me alone to do things at my own pace. I think the slow creep of the 40-hour week into the 45-hour week, and the 50-hour week, and beyond, is one of the great tragedies of middle class life in the last decade or two, at least in the U.S. Try to avoid these jobs, I had one for awhile, and they're terrible.

The last two give me plenty of time pursue my own interests, spend time with friends and family, read, sleep, etc. (Also: get enough sleep! People who go around bragging about getting 4 hours of sleep per night are not better than you, they're insane and overcaffeinated.)

I think the key is to find a job that you don't hate, pays enough to cover your expenses and then some, and doesn't eat up your whole life. Once you've got that down, [young] adulthood falls into place pretty well, and you know what? It's pretty cool to be able to do what you want on your down time and have enough money to have fun and travel sometimes.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:19 AM on July 25, 2011

I am a rural-dweller echoing jessamyn's "I have to drive nearly an hour to a good indian restaurant. The town is asleep by 9 pm. I don't see my out of town friends as often as I'd like." If you dislike a commute now, how are you going to feel about having to spend lots of your free time driving just to get basic supplies? Sometimes "slower pace of life" is an hour-long trip to buy and haul huge bags of salt for the water softener in the basement. The rural parents I know burn a lot of mileage taking their kids to this and that; lots of kids = lots of driving.

Life After the City is a worthwhile read. One point it makes is: how often do you really use city what-not? I'm an hour+ outside of downtown Ottawa, and about twice a year my daughter and I go to the National Arts Centre there for a ballet or concert. Which is exactly as often as we'd go if we lived in the city given the ticket prices. So there's that...

However, that sort of rationalization does not help on the 363 days of the year when you are not going out anywhere fancy and the city seems to be teeming with fun free festivals. Make sure you have a good idea of what you want your spare time to look like, because sometimes rural living is a grind just like the city; just a slightly different sort of grind. Toronto's a wonderful city and there are lots of people in it living interesting, non-cube-farm lives; don't hate, unobjectively, on the city.
posted by kmennie at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ex-rat race runner with a currently awesome life here...

Lots of big philosophical discussions that one can only have with oneself, I'm assuming you already have some idea how, in a larger sense, you want to make your impact on the world and live your life, but you are held up by a lot of practical considerations that make living that dream life seem impossible. All I can say is be true to those personal ideals you hold. The world around you wants to give you some kind of job, wants to give you some kind of house, wants you to have a partner or kids. But no one else is going to give you a set of personal values. Make those the center of your life and don't compromise, and the rest will fall into place, I promise. It takes time, for sure, but it is much better to slowly accumulate economic security and a loving family than it is to slowly watch yourself care less and less about your values so you can maintain the facade of "success."

2 specific pieces of advice:
1. If at all possible, don't commute. Commuting is a toxic, soul-crushing, planet destroying, total waste of your time and energy. It literally removes your work from the community in which you are living, and thus makes all the effort you put in at work that much more distant from your real life and the things you hold dear. Integrate work into your real life and you will be happier with both. You can choose to show up at your job in the morning stressed out from traffic and come home at night with an hour less to spend with your family or you can bike or walk and arrive energized and relaxed.

2. Pay off your loans as soon as you can, but realize that the next 30 years of your life are likely to contain bigger and bigger financial obligations. Things like mortgages, child care, retirement funds, children's education. There is no such thing as "I'll work really hard for the next few years" to pay off this one debt, then I'll have the freedom to do what I really want. As soon as your loans are paid off, you're going to sign off those mortgage papers and you will have received your first big promotion at work, thus locking you in for another cycle. If it's not a job and a place you want from the very beginning, don't do it.

I am happy to go into more detail re: my personal history via memail if you want. I went through an epiphany about 10 years into my career and am now quite honestly living the kind of life I'd imagined myself living when I finished college.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:23 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

So much good advice has already been shared. My story is that my first job out of college made a lot of sense considering my degree and probable career trajectory. It was less than full-time, which I loved because it afforded time for volunteering and pursuing my master's part-time. But the pay was terrible, and I found myself not only not paying off student loans, but amassing other debts as well. And then I met the man of my dreams, a bright, adventurous entrepreneur with whom I would love to spend every working day (rather than my coworkers). All the poorly-paid steps I took for the sake of career advancement are now meaningless, because I want to change careers and work with my husband. I rather wish I had worked in a higher-paying cube farm, got the debt monkey off my back, and kept my eyes open to all possibilities. But 20/20 hindsight and all those cliches.

Anyway, what I have noticed is that people with hobbies, outside interests, and priorities and goals on the life side of the "work/life balance" are often happier, and almost always more interesting to be around, than those who define themselves solely by their job title. And interesting, caring, creative, fulfilled people can exist anywhere. And do. Finding them and making them part of your life (even if it's a group that meets once a month) can make up for the corporate zombies that you might have to put up with for a paycheck.
posted by lily_bart at 9:43 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: Another thing I wanted to drop in here:

When the time came for me to make some big transitions in my life, I became very confused about what it is that I really wanted. You know, because everything seems important -- family time, leisure time, nice house, fulfilling job, etc. So I literally sat down with a piece of paper and made a chart. (I'm not the kind of person that usually does these things -- but I did it is an exercise. My plan was to take it to my boss and say, "This is what I want from my life, can you provide me this here, and if not, then at least you know why I'm quitting.")

So anyway, I divided this chart into different categories: Personal-Spiritual, Financial, Family and then I pretended like I could have everything I'd ever dreamed of and wrote it all down. On paper it really became apparent that some things I was working really hard for just weren't nearly as important to me as some of things I hadn't worked on at all. When I was done, I just folded it up and carried it around without ever really looking at it again. But in the two years afterward, whenever opportunities arose, I basically had a written mission statement that I could use to help guide my decisions.

About 2-3 months ago, I took this thing out, and was totally shocked going down the list, almost everything I have on that list are things that I can honestly say are the things I put my energy into now and very little else.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:44 AM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm living the kind of life you describe as wanting. In some ways, I got really lucky- my family had some land and after figuring out what I didn't want in my early 20s- that rat-race you definitely described, my partner and I decided to build a small, affordable house on that land (Less than 25K to build and we'll have paid it off in the next 5 years) We homestead a bit (chickens, garden, house heated with woodstove) but we live close enough to a downtown area where there's movies, restaurants, shopping when we need it (20 minute drive.) Our lives are pretty flexible. We have jobs, and we work, sometimes a lot, but sometimes not- so-much. We really work on building our community-- we invite people over all the time, and cook a lot and help people out whenever we can. My partner and I are on the same page about this. We have resources which are worth a lot in social capital rather than monetary capital.

That said, our lives are certainly, like everybody's, a work in progress, and I definitely feel like I'm making a choice to live like this. My career options are somewhat limited by where I'm choosing to live. We don't make a lot of money- jobs here are scarce and don't pay nearly as much as what they do in more urban areas--so always I'm conscious of keeping our expenses low and working odd-jobs to help support myself. We do have student loan debt which we are still trying to sort out, and that's the scariest part. The plus side is that our life style is remarkably simple and free compared to a lot of other people: we have lots of time to garden, host BBQs, take a day trip to a swimming hole, and even travel sometimes. When I hear people complain about how busy their lives are, I actually don't quite relate sometimes. I'm sure this will change when I have kids, but I think people wear their busy-ness like a badge sometimes.

We got lucky with the land, but I know several other people which are living like this and doing just fine working as teachers, social workers, nurses, landscapers, painters, small business owners, freelancers, DIYers, or a combination of this.
posted by Rocket26 at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: Old person here, checking in to give you some practical, rather than spiritual, advice. The most important thing you can do to keep from getting stuck in a job you hate is to not have children or get a mortgage until you are absolutely certain you have found the career/job you love, and you have been doing it for at least two years. Because once you have kids or a mortgage, those financial obligations override everything else when it comes to making decisions about employment.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:14 AM on July 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

Something else that occured to me - would it be an option for you to work abroad for a year or two, in a country where living costs are much lower, but in a job which pays you a US/Canada salary? This would probably be at the low end of US/Canada wages, but in a low-cost country, this means you would be really well off. Meaning you could probably save as much as in your home country, live the same life as everybody else in your adoptive country, and you'd get to see/do/experience many things you never dreamed of, and which might be invaluable in general, and specifically for future career or lifestyle decisions. In my country, for instance, you could live quite well on 400 US Dollars a month, and I have yet to meet anybody who was not greatly impacted by visiting here. I know there are countries where necessary sums are even lower. You could try a teching English abroad program, which would also leave you ample time to do your research regarding your options for the future.
posted by miorita at 1:04 PM on July 25, 2011

Practically speaking, if you want to live in the Arctic:

- Does the idea of not having running water bother you? People go on about wanting rural life, but the reality is that things you take for granted (plumbing) end up very expensive and/or impractical.

- Isolation. You'll end up doing a lot of shopping via internets, and shipping can be expensive and slow. Groceries (especially fruits and vegetables) can be expensive and limited. You'll crave weird things and the closest source will be hundreds of miles away. Visiting friends and family (or getting them to visit) will be expensive and difficult. Depending on how far in the bush you want to live, your internet connection speed may be slow and buggy. I know people who love many aspects of arctic life but ended up leaving because they were single. Finding someone in a small community is challenging ("the odds are good but the goods are odd"), and dealing with the winter as a single person is really hard, psychologically and physically.


- People are unusual and very different. More independent. Everybody seems to do something interesting, and jury rigging is an art form.

- You learn to appreciate things you took for granted, and you'll never look at the passing of the seasons the same way.

- People in smaller communities are more willing to consider aptitude over credentials, so you might get a more fulfilling position with greater variety of tasks than you would in more settled areas. Your best bet is to shoot for a government or university/school position.

If the idea of using an outhouse at -40 seems amendable to you, you'll probably do just fine.
posted by griselda at 1:36 PM on July 25, 2011

Minimalist how to. lots of great advice here about how to adjust your lifestyle. This would be one of the things that Jessamyn mentioned above about listing out your priorities and making them happen. If you aren't practiced in living without amenities, may I suggest some serious camping excursions? It's good practice for living minimally, and people don't look at your crazy. Also, no temptation to turn on the tap if there isn't one.

Pare down enough things, and you can maintain yourself comfortably. It's just about deciding what is "comfortable" for you, as others have said above. Since it seems like commute is a big deal, have you considered a much (much) smaller place in the same town as your job? Or roommates? Have you considered a much (much) lower paying job closer to where you currently live, in addition to a much (much) smaller pace there? Have you checked to see if Canada has any programs that offer loan forgiveness in exchange for teaching or volunteering? Such programs might even have a great need for volunteers/teachers in the NWT.
posted by bilabial at 2:28 PM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: I've been reading this site for a few years, but this question inspired me to finally create an account.

First off, nth'ing what everyone else said about the commute. I used to commute 40 minutes to and from work via subway, and it made me angry getting to work, then angry again when I left. I now live a 3 minute walk from work, and it is amazing. This article also talks about how long commutes are bad for your health:

Second, for many years I had a series of miserable but well paying jobs, while I fantasized about having a better, happier, simpler life. Six months ago I finally left the big city and set myself up in a small city in a small state, with a job I loved that pays 25% of what I used to make. The way I did it was by: 1) living way beneath my means; and 2) being very cautious about savings. I still let myself have some fun, but I knew that where I was was just a stepping stone to the next place, and I kept my eyes on the prize. Read "The Millionaire Next Door" -- it changed how I think about a lot of things, it basically argues that the folks who have a lot of money are the ones who live simply, and the folks who seem to have a lot are probably just drowning in debt.

One of the biggest debts people take on early is housing, after that is a car. Go as cheap as you can get away with on both of those, so that when you move someplace cheaper, you can afford to have a great place with all your savings. Also, that way you won't get into the habit of extravagant living, which causes you to spend more in a million different ways. Finally, watch that credit card debt, never let it get higher than what you can pay off in a month.

I always tried to balance my life between idealistic dreams and the pragmatic need to be comfortable/secure. I never felt making money to be the primary goal. If I could do it all again, I think I might have gone into a lucrative business like finance (which, morally, I never would have countenanced), for 10 years, saved as much as possible, and gotten out.

Hope this helped.
posted by rkriger at 8:23 AM on July 26, 2011

I was recently directed to David Foster Wallace on Life and Work. It may speak to you.
posted by Oddly at 12:32 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Marry someone who has the same goals that you do regarding money and well-being.
posted by craniac at 2:29 PM on August 1, 2011

Best answer: "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." - Abraham Lincoln

I suppose I may be living the life in which you are interested. I have a well paying job, I access the forest, lakes and rivers of the north every single day. I work in a setting where I get to make a real difference in the lives of people and I work with many first nations people. I am happily married with two healthy, active and in my opinion beautiful children. I am inspired every day when I drive to work by the beauty I enjoy on my simple comute down the mountain side. I even like the northern winters which allow me to spend time creating artistic pieces.

I haven't always been in this place - physically or mentally. I rather expect that over time my opinion of my job, the place I live and perhaps even my family will change - it always has in the past.

Since graduating from University I have lived in 4 different continents and I can't even count how many cities. Some urban, some rural and some that were some where in between. I will confess to you that I hated living in Mississauga and commuting to the city every day. It was a life sucking experience but not an experience that I regret. The time I spent, slogging myself off to work, on early trains and then repeating the process to get home with largely the same people, who were now more smelly and cranky, did give me much time for contemplation. It helped me define what it was that I really wanted for the next job and for the next place that we would live. It also helped me to look a little more deeply at what I was doing to learn how it could benefit me. That was the hard part. I had a boss who I did not care for, I worked in a cubical and the culture of the organization seemed in conflict to who I was as an individual. BUT, every day I did learn something. I found new places in the city, I learned how much stress I could handle, I learned how strange people behave when they are hot and crowded on delayed was like earning the sociology degree I always wished I had. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about it is that I some times miss those days. I miss being anonymous. I sort of miss how low I some times felt as the feelings I had when I came out of that low were so uplifting - I periodically worry that I now take everything for granted.

The largest city in which I lived was London, England (about 8-9 million I believe) and the smallest was Lynn Lake, Manitoba (about 300). They both had good and bad bits. I needed both places to learn and become who I am today.

I have been in debt, I have been financially stable, I've been single and in partnerships. I've had lovely houses and I've lived in dives. I have great memories and not so great memories from all of these experiences and places.

Contrast is important - give yourself some time to experience a plethora of experiences - maybe what you really want will change along the way.

I do recall a moment in my life when I was perhaps 22 or 23 where I looked out from the window of my first home over the rolling hills of rural New Zealand. My faithful dog was at my side, my partner was putting up a fence for the chickens outside and our sheep were chewing on grass and staring back at me. I had a great job as an outdoor guide and played in the caves and mountains of New Zealand daily. I had found what was I to do? For me it simply wasn't sustainable to have set and achieved all of my goals at such a young age.

I don't think I'm caught up in the rat race but who knows - I guess it all depends on what it is that you think is a rat race. My recommendation is that you sit down and watch any or all of the many movies that explore the fantastic and horrible time that you go through after university which are closely followed by "quarter life crisis". For my money, I was particularly fond of "Reality Bites".

Some of the best stories I have are about the times where things didn't work out. I'm not sure if this is my saying or a saying I saw some where along the way "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want". I wish you well.
posted by YukonQuirm at 2:53 PM on August 4, 2011

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