Guide me; maybe I'm just lazy
December 6, 2011 5:43 PM   Subscribe

The truth is that in 50 years or so, I'll be on my deathbed, and I can guarantee you that I won't be spending the experience ruminating about my time at the office. What kind of job should I get?

I am smart, I am a professional, I've always been very good at the jobs I've held, and I hate working. Not necessarily because of the jobs themselves, but because of how time, itself, is now a scarce, commodified resource: my vacation or personal hours are always rationed or under negotiation, and often I find myself engaging in a lot of informal or emotional labor related to my work, frequently outside of working hours (i.e. usually by helping counsel other employees, or by planning holiday parties, or by revising manuscripts for publication, or by bitching about work to my SO, or by helping move to new offices).

I want out. I want my time back. I want it back so I can: nap, work on my photography projects, tour with my installation work, visit friends, volunteer at the adult ESL program, ramp up my freelance writing gigs, etcetera.*

In two years, I'll be back on the job market. Assuming all goes as planned, I will have the following qualifications, and will be looking for a job with the following characteristics:

- I will have a PhD in Communications (emphasis in cultural studies),
- with 6 years experience in business writing,
- and 6 years of experience of instructing at the university level, along with
-1-2 years experience acting as editor (supervising undergrads) at a university-published newspaper, in addition to
- experience as a photographer,
- a modest publication record (both academic and in technical/trade magazines),
- a growing exhibition history,
- basic/introductory experience in video production
- and two summer internships/volunteer stints in art museums (one fine arts, one modern art).

- I yearn to find a professional job in which I will only work 20-30 hours a week,
- though I may be willing to be flexibly on-call, if necessary,
- that offers at least partial benefits (I'll pay my own health insurance, if they'll give me paid vacation time...or some other combination thereof)
- and consists of professional, engaging, and (hopefully) creative work,
- that pays $45,000-65,000 ($100,000 would be nice, of course, but I'm being realistic) a year in my non-coastal, mid-sized city.

In a perfect fantasy world, I would be paid that much to be a special exhibitions curator at one of the smaller museums in town, or would be a program director at one of the community galleries. But I've also thought about editing positions, working for an arts non-profit, working for a community service non-profit, or one of many other hundreds of things that have, at least at the time, sounded good (I have adhd. obviously).

In some ways, what I do doesn't matter, it's the life I want: to be able to make a living in a creative or community-building field, while having enough time to just live. I'm not even going to justify this with babies – don't have them, won't have them – because I'm done apologizing. I want my time back. I want my time back so I can pursue all the projects that I've had to neglect while working for the man. I want my time back because I am going to be dead one day and don't want to spend whatever life I have left in an office.

Is this possible? Insane? If nuts, what realistic configuration can I aim for?
What should I do to position myself to make this a reality, if it's possible?
What would you do if you were trying to achieve the life I dream of?
Are there any jobs that I'm not considering, that I should?
If you are like a couple of my friends and reply with “consulting,” tell me how. How does one successfully get into consulting? (they had no answer for me...)
Or should I just give up and go down the typical road for a young, newly minted PhD?

*Also: walk the dog, make out with my partner, smoke Gauloises at Parisian sidewalk cafe, do stage design for local bands, help market the artist's co-op, deliver muffins to the Occupy protestors, host ridiculous costume parties, contribute research the neighborhood development program, sometimes adjunct, and host guerrilla urban picnics on the sidewalk downtown.

(anonymous because I am keeping my job planning under wraps)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I am so, so with you. I feel exactly the same.

I'm not really qualified to give you career advice but I think you are on the right track, because you seem to know exactly what you want and have some great skills. In my experience, knowing what you want and having goals is HUGE. In fact, it might be the hardest part.

Please don't give up, and "go don't the typical road". I just read a short passage recently about how most people go down the expected road, but fail to realize that if they chose their own path, they may have a higher chance of success because that path is much less crowded.

You have two years- I think that is plenty of time to make your plan. Write down a list of all the possible jobs you would like and can do. There are plenty of people who make good livings as freelancers- I think that a lot of people are just afraid to try that path, but it's definitely doable.

Please don't give up! I have very similar goals (albeit with different qualifications) and I plan to try!

oh, and you might want to check out "The Four-Hour Work Week". It's kind of a controversial book but I think the author has some useful points.
posted by bearette at 6:02 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why not just get a part time job at $whatever, live off of $15k and do all the things you want to do. If you make money at some of the things you're doing when not doing $day_job, then sweet. You sound like you want to life like a 20-something art school dropout, but you've become completely overqualified.

Isn't "consulting" just euphemism for working contract jobs? If so, that's what I do. I'm planning on taking the summer off and go freaking nuts outside. I play in a local band (that tours nationally), I've lived in Paris, I have an art studio with a few other artsits, I ride my bike everyday and when I want to take 8 hours and do a hike outside (like today) I do.

I also hate work.

There's downsides to this. I'm also basically and pretty much homeless. But come summer, I'll be homeless, living out of a backpack around the country, riding bikes for 100+ miles everyday (eh, kind of like last summer), so it's not like I'm yearning to have like, a comfy couch.

Just one take on all this.
posted by alex_skazat at 6:04 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

In some ways, what I do doesn't matter, it's the life I want: to be able to make a living in a creative or community-building field, while having enough time to just live.

But you contradict yourself. It doesn't matter what you do, but it should be in a creative or community-building field?

I want my time back so I can pursue all the projects that I've had to neglect while working for the man.

Anonymous, I've been self-employed as a "consultant" for about half of my working career. As far as working for "the man" goes, I am the worst employer I ever had. I do not pay myself regularly, I sometimes demand absurdly long hours, I haven't given myself a raise in 10 years, yet set impossibly high standards of performance.

On the other hand, I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule and only mildly scold myself for taking a sick day now and then, or for taking a day off for no reason whatsoever. I take the entire month of July off and sometimes a few weeks in the winter. My absolute top priority in life is to spend time with my wife and kids so the balance I want is there. I don't have as much time as I'd like, but I have far more than if I was a regular employee.

And I have a bottle of scotch on my shelf in full view which is a source of pride (and comfort). How many people working for the man can boast of that? So my boss is not a complete dick.

How does one successfully get into consulting?

Easy peasy. Quit your job. Start a "consulting" firm and hire yourself out as part-time, flexible labor. Join the ranks of the temporary workforce. That's what being a consultant really means.

The trick for me (as alex_skazat suggests) was to adjust my lifestyle to the type of job that would make it possible for me to do that. So no car, modest flat, old clothes, no savings, a hand-to-mouth existence, and basically living in austerity all the time, scratching to make my bills every month. And NO loans - except a very manageable mortgage.

With regard to that whole deathbed thing, I am really very concerned that I do not provide much for my family's future, but this is the price of providing for the present and I hope they will understand.

You don't even have a family to worry about? What the hell are you waiting for?
posted by three blind mice at 6:12 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

You don't even have a family to worry about? What the hell are you waiting for?

posted by alex_skazat at 6:18 PM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you have 2 years, it's more than enough time to get that dream job.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:21 PM on December 6, 2011

I suspect the issue for you is boundaries. If you work 30 hours a week and still say yes to all the extras, you'll be working as much as you are now. Are you terrible about saying no? You choose to say no to your personal time when you say yes to organizing the office holiday party. A 40-hour/week job where you actually work 40 hours a week is really not that bad.

Barring boundaries, how about waitressing? It doesn't meet a lot of your criteria, but you make decent money if you're good and find the right place.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:35 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

How does one successfully get into consulting? (they had no answer for me...)

I'm a consultant. Solo for about a dozen years now, and successful by most standards. If you just look at my hourly rate and billed hours, it wouldn't sound too far off from your dream list above -- but that doesn't count all the non billable time I have to spend keeping up to date with what I do, staying visible to clients, writing proposals, bidding on projects that never come through... and I pay for my own health insurance out of pocket thank you very much, and there is no such thing as paid time off. It's nice not having a boss, and being in control of my own hours, and I would never go back to office work -- but be clear: "consultant" isn't code for "get full-time pay for part-time work". Your time will still be rationed, you'll still have a lot of extra busywork to get through, you'll still be bitching about work to your SO. Probably more than you do now.

The way you get into it is by developing valuable skills that people will pay for, then talking people into paying for them. It's pretty much just that straightforward. The way you develop those valuable skills is, generally, by spending a few years working full time for The Man, getting recognizably and visibly good at something slightly unusual or in demand, keeping track of people who look like they might be in a position to pay you to do those things someday, and making sure they remember you exist when they are in a position to pay people to do things.

It's kind of a full time job for the first decade or so. After that you can maybe coast a bit.

It sounds like 100% of your experience is in academia. Academia doesn't hire many consultants, and except for lecture-circuit and think-tank types businesses tend to be wary of pure academics. I know a couple of people who do the lecture circuit thing; there's decent money in that if you can get it, but it's a more than full-time job and most of it is salesmanship.

I want my time back. I want my time back so I can pursue all the projects that I've had to neglect while working for the man.

Awesome. Go for it. Focus on one of those projects, get really fucking good at it, and work a day job to support yourself in the meantime. Maybe eventually you'll be able to drop the day job and turn the cool project into what you do for a living. But you're going to have to scale your financial expectations back quite a bit, because at the moment your "perfect fantasy world" of creative engaging work at part time hours for $65K plus benefits is... well... yeah. A fantasy.

Dream jobs exist, and you can find one. But recognize that right now you are not dreaming about a dream job. You're dreaming about everything except the job: the time off, the freedom, the pay, and a handful of nebulous adjectives like "creative" and "engaging". Set that stuff aside and dream about the job.
posted by ook at 7:14 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think your wishes are realistic, but I also think Mefites can't really help here. This is your path, your journey (to sound like a hippie--but I really do believe it) and there are tons of variables that we can't possibly predict. What you need to do is simply keep in mind what you want, and be open everyday to gravitating in directions that seem like they are in alignment with that.

In my case, I worked full-time+ as a web developer for The Man, with a long commute and a lonely suburban house to keep up. I HATED IT and finally gave myself permission to try for a different kind of life, much like the one you describe, with more free time, more autonomy, and more creative work.

What that has ended up looking like for me, two years after quitting the corporate world and selling my house, is part-time work as a massage therapist supplemented by some freelance work as a web developer.

Do I have more free time? You betcha. But I am also in a more precarious financial position. Even though I have more free time, I spend more of it doing things like cooking for myself, because I don't have the money to eat out all the time like I used to. Sometimes I forget that I am in a different position, and I do things like spontaneously travel to a different city one weekend for a seminar I want to take, and then I realize that I, um, don't really have enough money in the bank to have done that. Maybe that's just me and you can more easily acclimate to reduced financial circumstances.

Also, if you are not a really disciplined person, those projects you are pining to do might not all get done. I often pined when I worked for the man, but when I have free time and no expectations, I am often undisciplined and don't complete the amount of work I thought I would. It seems that I am more motivated and have a stronger work ethic when I have coworkers to let down if I slide. I don't especially like this about myself, and I am fighting against it, but there it is. You could be totally different. I am just saying that this is something I have found out about myself, and that, similarly, you might find out that aspects of your dream life aren't really as dreamy as you'd imagined.
posted by parrot_person at 8:13 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a freelance marketing copywriter, and my work life sounds a lot like your ideal, except for the partial benefits part. A fellow childfree person, I have as much financial abundance as anyone I know these days (enough for modest treats and home improvements), plus lots of time for my community building projects, which I consider my real work.

One path that could lead to you a life of fame and riches in the glamorous world of copywriting is this: spend a couple years taking community college classes in marketing communications, technical writing, web writing, page layout and business software, etc.

Meanwhile, build a portfolio doing pro bono brochures and web copy for companies and nonprofits that you like. Use this to talk your way into an agency that does marketing communications/PR (tends to be less cutthroat and youth-obsessed than interactive or ad agencies).

Ride that as far as it goes, learn everything you can, keep building your book, make lots of friends, and after 5 or 10 years you should be able to strike out on your own.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:32 PM on December 6, 2011

I also wanted to comment on this:

but that doesn't count all the non billable time I have to spend keeping up to date with what I do, staying visible to clients, writing proposals, bidding on projects that never come through...

I do not respond to RFP's. All but one of my clients have come from referrals.

If you are thinking of freelancing doing intellectual work (as opposed to say, building widgets), I would suggest Googling around to see the myriad reasons why spending uncompensated time writing proposals is a totally shit deal for the freelancer (and not even a good way for the company to choose a vendor). I strongly believe that freelancers should stop feeding the monster.

Here's one to get you started:
posted by parrot_person at 8:41 PM on December 6, 2011

"special exhibitions curator at one of the smaller museums in town, or would be a program director at one of the community galleries. But I've also thought about editing positions, working for an arts non-profit, working for a community service non-profit"

None of those are part-time gigs. The smaller the place, the harder you work. I'm self-employed in a very small niche of show biz, and I never turn down work. I work all the time, and I like it. If I worked for a huge multi-national entertainment corporation, I could slack off a whole lot more, and probably make the same money or maybe more. But I'd be bored to tears.

You can most likely teach English in some far-off foreign land and have plenty of time to wander around, etc. But your skills and experience aren't likely to give you an entree into the world of those who parachute into a company, dispense brilliant advice in 20 minutes and get a big fat check. Sadly, dues paying is pretty much compulsory.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:13 PM on December 6, 2011

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Hi! I just wanted to pop in and reply to something, because it seems to be coming up in a couple of replies, and I want to spare you guys having to make too many assumptions based on too few details: "It sounds like 100% of your experience is in academia."

My 6 years of business writing experience is pre-academic, where I wrote in-house technical, training, and HR manuals for a company in the Architectural/Design/Construction industry.

So, I have technical/business writing experience + all of the other work experience, which is mainly based in the academic setting (aside from some freelance writing gigs, in which I wrote about litigation issues in the design sector, etcetera, bla bla).

I hope that info helps you out!
Also, KokuRyu said, "if you have 2 years, it's more than enough time to get that dream job," to which I say - yes! But I want to get started on planning this now, because I am not foolish enough to just walk off the convocation stage and expect to immediately traipse into my dream gig. Any practical advice on what I can do in these upcoming two years is much appreciated.

Carry on.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:15 PM on December 6, 2011

If you want to be an art curator at a museum why are you getting a PhD in communications? Why don't you just quit your PhD program and go get a grunt job in a museum tomorrow? Or quit and do art full time? There is nothing at all stopping you from pursuing your dream job now instead of in 2 years.

Look at all the stuff you've decided not to do over the years and examine why you're really not doing it. Really look. If the answer is holy crap! I don't know! then quit your program and start on what you want to do. If it turns out, deep down inside, you really want this PhD in Communications then yay- you already are pursuing your desires RIGHT NOW. Roll with it.

People drive themselves crazy with this idea of a "dream job". There's no such thing at all. Even a pig rolling in shit is thinking "i can't wait till I'm done rolling in this so I can do something better I just thought of"

I do not respond to RFP's. All but one of my clients have come from referrals.

if you want public sector consulting gigs then you do.
posted by fshgrl at 10:32 PM on December 6, 2011

You also might have to get out of the city. Living somewhere you can buy a couple acres for $10 grand, throw a yurt on it and raise your own turnips makes being an installation artist a lot more feasible. I have plenty of friends who've done basically this and they live a totally different lifestyle than they did in town. Town is cash based.
posted by fshgrl at 10:40 PM on December 6, 2011

I'm basically attempting what you're talking about. You can become a freelance writer. It's full-time for the first year or two and then (I'm told) slows down. This isn't the only option, but it's absolutely an option.

What to do now if you decide to go this route:

1) Take everyone's advice: Find your niche. Figure out what interest or skill makes you unique. What if you don't have a niche? Ask yourself what you love most. Ice cream, say. There's your niche.

2) Continue living your life. Dedicate X amount of time per day to learning about ice cream.

3) When you have a basic knowledge of ice cream, start a blog about ice cream.

4) Post religiously to your blog about ice cream and make ice cream contacts online, via other ice cream blogs. Also go to every ice cream shop and ice cream conference, or whatever other ice cream related events you find. This serves two purposes: It gets your writing in the world, and it makes you known to a large network of people who share and respect your passion.

5) Leverage that network. Get paid to write about ice cream. Get paid to do other ice cream related work.

6) Start branching out. Write about other subjects. Or maybe decide you don't like writing so much after all and open an ice cream shop.

That's the plan at least, as advised to me by some smart people, and it seems to be working so far. Feel free to memail me if you want to chat/commiserate.
posted by vecchio at 1:27 AM on December 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

A prescient question for many here I imagine: how to balance limited time (in life) with generating a comfortable income.

If we can begin by looking at the fundamental philosophy of work. Initially, there are two options: 1) act in someone else's employment, or 2) act in one's own employment. And there are associated benefits to the former and the latter.

1) There are many benefits to a job, primarily the fact that job roles are (often) oriented toward stability of all parties. Stability of the company foremost, and then the stability of the individuals involved. There is somewhat of a skills overlap (ideally) between the employees, so that each individual is really contributing to the ongoing existence of the institution, before the ongoing existence of themselves.

2) In terms of self-employment, the stability of the individual comes first (obviously) as there is not the company layer sitting in between the customers and the practitioner. The comment above about consulting basically being temporary labour is quite right.

Yet there is a more fundamental difference in the type of work that should be considered, that being what the goal output of each type of work is. In a job, the goal is quite simply to retain employment. That means focusing equally on both output and navigating the politics. Indeed, the politics can be overwhelmingly more important than the output, depending on the job role.

In self-employment, the goal of the process is the output. As an independent contractor in the United States, for example, the commissioning agent has no control over the process by which work is undertaken. The contractor is solely bound to generate the output agreed upon, and the primary control of the customer is to either hire or not hire the consultant again.

Whilst that is a bit long-winded, I mentioned it because I think many people considering job roles versus independent work get distracted by thinking that it's two roads to the same end -- a paycheck. Indeed it is, but it is much more than that.

And through understanding what your temperament is related to time/security balance, you can build a plan that will help you achieve your goals.

In my mind, there are three overarching scenario that come to mind:
1) Full-time employment
2) Part-time employment/part-time contracting
3) Full-time contracting

The benefits of full-time employment are what you have already experienced. Consistent paychecks, hopefully nice coworkers, opportunity for advancement, broad access to resources (moreso than when you're independent).

The benefits of full-time contracting are what you believe you seek. Inconsistent paychecks, choice of coworkers/collaborators, opportunity to define your role and tasks, limited access to resources.

In terms of having enough time to live, I will tell you my experience in independent contracting and subsequently leave you with what very well may be a good option.

I have been consulting now since 2003 (8 years) and it has indeed offered a phenomenal amount of freedom and time to live life. That being said, when things are rough, things are really rough. For, the last eight years have been more or less a constant interview. Unlike an employee, I do not have the grace to not show up if I am feeling ill. Granted, I can request to reschedule a meeting, however there is no requirement that the client continue engaging me for even the most minor of perceived offenses.

As an independent worker, you are always selling yourself. Even the most reliable of contracts can come up for bid when there is a change on the client side. Even the best results can be lost on a board due to internal politics or unspoken agendas. Thus, there is no permanence.

This is manageable with both 1) personal flexibility, and 2) cash reserves. Indeed the latter will come to define your life as a consultant. There will always be more work out there. The question is do you have enough in the bank to make it there? When you are an employee, that is often somebody else's problem. As an independent, that is your problem.

And as far as the flexibility goes, I would not recommend that you set your own life priorities to first and your career priorities to second. Your career priorities must be first. What I have gained is the ability to complement my work with lifestyle choices, rather than replace work with lifestyle choices.

If I am traveling to China for client projects, I will book three to five days on the back of that to visit friends in Shanghai. However that is only justifiable (in my mind) in that I will also take some business development meetings whilst in Shanghai.

I have the utmost flexibility of my time -- to a point. To ensure constant contract flow, I must constantly be building my personal brand and increasing my visibility. Thus, when there is a day free from client work, I can either fuck off and go on a hike, or I can redouble my efforts and attend a networking breakfast. If the pipeline is full and things are good, off to the trail. If there is any rumbling from the client side indicating instability, it's off to the networking meeting.

The best advice that I have heard is that by moving from office work to independent work, you have the option of prioritising one thing from your life. If that is community development, then that is your trade-off. You are leaving the office, so that you can spend more time on community development. That does not involve sitting on the beach drinking Corona's on a Tuesday because you asked your boss... and you said yes.

And this may be a bit of a rant, but independent work is not as easy as it looks from the outside -- as dealing with office and corporate politics are nary a thought when joining a company but can become the defining experience.

In terms of how to position yourself for independent work, you can either sell your time or sell your intelligence. If you are selling your time, you will often end up in a simulacrum of an office job -- for in an office job, you are selling your time. If you choose to sell your time, you will find that it is easy to get started, however there will definitely be a cap on the upside (unless your a surgeon or lawyer) as you are existing on the labour side of labour and capital. In this case, you have traded your job security (what there is) for flexibility, and it's a one-to-one trade in most cases. You will end up making the same amount of money per hour, doing very similar tasks, the only difference is that you work from your own premises rather than their premises.

The other option is to sell your 'capital' in terms of a specialisation that is in demand and is worth paying for. In journalism, they tell new students to spend two years digging into an area and becoming the go-to specialist for that specific topic. At one point, my projects were "the intersection of luxury brands and hip hop music." After two years of focusing on that point, we became the go-to group of people to ask that question to. And that knowledge really started selling itself.

If you can amass capital about a topic and spend two years becoming a go-to expert on it, everything I said before becomes invalidated, and now you are in the position of having people come to you -- in which case you can name your price and go sit on the beach drinking Coronas all day.

So I will suppose a dual-track approach for you. As many do. The first option is a part-time job that guarantees your expenses. This can be 20 hours a week, but it pays decently, and is low-stress.

A friend was studying to be a natureopathic doctor. He ran his own vegan catering firm in Los Angeles and worked at Whole Foods 30 hours a week. Whole Foods payed his bills, provided him with health insurance, and social contact. In fact, he was able to generate clients for his catering firm via the customers he served at Whole Foods. This was a great arrangement, for he had both an ensured income, as well as the freedom and flexibility of running his own show.

Similarly, a friend was a market researcher that desired to be a brand strategist. Thus, he spent 50% of his time selling and executing market research projects, and then started doing brand strategy projects with the other 50%. At first, it was slow and the brand strategy projects often took a loss -- thankfully buttressed by a healthy income from market research. Ofter time, the brand strategy projects achieved income parity with the market research projects, until brand strategy became 75% of the work and market research much less. That process took about three years.

Finally, in the independent world, unless you're amazing and have secret sauce that everyone needs, people will predominantly hire you because they like you. Thus networking is key, and successful networking. It's very hard to put the customer first when you have bills to pay and there's no one else on the hook, but if you can always put the customer first and really show that you are interested in their business, you will go a long way toward creating a base of customers that trust you and will continue to rehire you.

On a final note, a cautionary tale about that. There is a web designer in London who literally argues with his clients. He offers them a package for dev charges and then followup work. When potential clients say they do not want the followup work, he argues with them. He is putting himself first in these situations and literally has driven off more business than he has sold.

I took one of his refugees and introduced them to another contractor, who is the straightest shooter that I know. In this case, the clients are literally begging the guy to do more work, for he only quotes them on the absolute minimum work. He's a painter and would be much rather painting. Thus, he is very efficient, he treats his clients well, he never over-charges them, and he's joy to work with. I think I saw him drinking Coronas on the beach a few times last summer.
posted by nickrussell at 2:00 AM on December 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have a look at Making a Living Without a Job.
posted by AnnaRat at 10:50 PM on December 8, 2011

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