Which work isn't working?
June 4, 2012 5:57 AM   Subscribe

Would you leave a well-paid but badly-fitting job to do something you really cared about but for less money?

Background: In 2008 I went to work for a regulatory organisation, very corporate and totally different to my previous experience. Until then I'd worked in not-for-profits, mostly public and community sector plus a year at a national museum. I was generally very happy but the pay wasn't amazing and I wanted to save enough for a house deposit. My current job pays very well but it's been really hard culturally and I've become somewhat removed from myself as a result. Things came to a head earlier this year when I realised I'd stopped crying on a regular basis - I was now too numb to care. I'd become very isolated and anti-social so, at my SO's urging, I saw a counsellor and started pursuing creative activities outside work. My mood outside of work has improved a bit but the gear shifting is hard and it's actually making it more difficult to go through the motions when I'm there.

Having said that the job has stabilised my finances and developed my experience. I was promoted, reached my savings goal and finished an important project so I've got to the point where I can realistically leave on good terms. I'd like to go back to museums and have put out a couple of applications. My SO is relieved - he thinks I'll be much happier in a different job. So what's the issue?

I've basically lost perspective and it's making me second guess my job search. I've adapted so well to working in an industry I've come to actively despise I literally cannot imagine how working somewhere better fitting will be an improvement, especially if I'll be taking a 25% pay cut. The UK's dip back into recession is also giving me pause for thought - am I romanticising the joys of working with like-minded people over the cold hard reality of work in a struggling economy? My current job is soul-destroying but it's safe and well compensated, in a great location with a fair bit of flexibility. I'd be returning to short-term contracts in a shrinking, highly competitive sector and although my heart leaps at the thought my head is telling me to exercise caution. But then I think of the smile I have to paint on every morning and the extreme energy it takes to fake the requisite level of engagement and motivation and I just want to lie down and never get up.

TLDR version: Has anyone been in this position? Did life get better when you left a well-paid job you hated for something you cared about passionately, or was it less of an improvement than you'd expected? If you did choose to stay did it get any better? Anecdata very welcome.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

Life's pretty fucking short. Do you really want to start your life at 65 when you retire? Do what you love, always, every day. This isn't a dress rehearsal.

I walked away from a awesome, fast paced job in silicon valley to become a teacher. I knew in my heart that this was something I needed to do and I was lucky enough to have my SO support me in that decision. It was the right decision.
posted by JimmyJames at 6:09 AM on June 4, 2012

Does it pay the bills? Surveys have shown (not sure how to find them, someone else help me out here) that money does contribute to happiness - up to a certain point of comfort. If you can pay the bills, have a reasonable social and leisure life and a comfortable house with either job, then yes, go for the one you'll be happier in. If it would be a significant struggle financially, then you may just be robbing Peter to pay Paul - trading stress in your job for stress with your money.
posted by fearnothing at 6:17 AM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Life isn't about accumulating the maximum amount of money. Figure out if the new job will pay enough money, for whatever metric you use to determine sufficiency. If the answer is yes, then take the new job and don't look back.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:21 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I actually had the reverse experience.

I was working in Telecommunications, going back and forth between telecom companies. In 2000 I ran away from a great paying job at MCIWorldcom, because I just kept getting these terrible vibes. (Justifiably as it turns out). I went to AT&T as a Data Engineer just as the Dot Com wave crested. There were about 20 of us doing the same job and just not that many customers to go around. I was scraping by, but not doing as well as I had historically. Then a few weird things happend.

1. The AT&T building was on one end of a small, business airport. One of the planes didn't make it onto the runway, choosing instead to land on the street in front of our building.

2. 9/11.

After 9/11 no one could sell anything to anybody, not only that but the Dot Com bust hit the data industry hard. Basically, I was thisclose to losing my job. Feeling that aircraft falling from the sky was some sort of cosmic sign, I made plans to leave my job.

I started thinking about what I REALLY wanted to do, and what I REALLY wanted to do was teach. I had an undergrad degree in English Lit and an MBA. I did a few education classes a few decades earlier, but nothing hard core.

I sent a letter of inquiry to our local school board and my phone started ringing off the hook with offers. I took the one at the worst high school in the county, because, you know, wanting to make a difference and all of that.

So on October 12th, I embarked on a career as a teacher. I had no prep time, no introduction, no nothing. I got thrown into a classroom with 36 kids. They ate me alive. I knew by lunch-time that I had made a HUGE mistake. Not only was I making 1/2 of my former salary, but I was having NO FUN at all.

The next two years were spent simultaneously looking for a new job and figuring out how to manage a classroom of horny, undiciplined fourteen year-olds.

I had to sell my house and move to another state to get back to my favorite phone company, BellSouth. I felt like I had won the lottery.

So now I know, while the romance of teaching was alluring, the realities caused my blood pressure to go to 180/120. Not healthy for me.

Another story:

Husbunny used to be a Registered Nurse. He was gifted, caring and excellent at his job. He knew how important he was to his patients and the stress of the work caused him to come to loathe it. I'm talking about missing a day of work once per week. He tried doing administrative nursing, but the conditions of his job were disgusting (flying ants were the least of it), then he tried telephonic nursing, he felt like a telemarketer and he hated it.

This is no way to live. Husbunny is also a math genius, so we explored options in that arena, turns out he was a good candidate for actuarial science. I arranged for a job transfer to an area with a school that had Actuarial Science classes, and he quit his job to return to school full time.

After 2 years, he had the education to become an actuary, so he did. He loves his job, there's very little stress and the worst that can happen is that they have to re-run the database.

My point is, there is NOTHING that is worth being miserable at work. If you can afford it, you have to find something that you are more suited to doing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:22 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

If I could afford the cut in pay, I would definitely do it.

Whether you could afford the 25% pay cut is the clincher, though. But that's a question only you can answer, and that is going to take an examination of your finances and your spending habits to see if there's any corners you could cut. Do you make a habit of eating out every week, and could you cut that back to once a month? Do you have a second home or a second car that you really don't use and don't need? Do you travel a lot outside of the country? If so, it's possible to let these things go, and take the job you want; you may be cooking from home more often and your holidays will be to budget-friendly places, but you'll be happier overall. But, on the other hand, if you're already close to the bone as it is, cutting your finances an additional 25% would be a big stressor, and may not be worth it.

So it comes down to whether you can actually realistically afford the pay cut. If you can, I'd go for it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 AM on June 4, 2012

Stop focusing on the difference in pay. You're talking about the 25% figure as if it's the single most important factor in all this, but actually it seems to be distracting you from what really matters. If you take the new job, the fact that there will be other people out there in the world who are making 133.3% of what you're making, and that you could have been one of them, will not harm you in any way. The only important question is how well off you will actually end up being — including not just money but everything about your life.

Is a house deposit worth giving up your happiness? What's the point of even having a house if you're not enjoying your life there?
posted by John Cohen at 6:26 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Every job that I "stuck with" because of money or security was an absolute joy to leave when the exit was forced. In retrospect, I should have quit each of them earlier (one I quit, the other I was let go due to poor performance, due to how unhappy I was in the job). When people say "it's like a weight was lifted off your shoulders" I always thought it was figurative, but when I left my first soul-sucking job, it was exactly like that. I had a spring in my step, I stood taller, and even though I was stressed out by the problem of finding another job, I was totally relieved of the stress of the crappy job.

Think of it this way: you have stuck with the unhappy job until you were financially secure, and have reached your savings goal. That's your exit strategy -- that's your window. You're taking a 25% paycut due to the fact that you're next job will require some adjusting to fit, but you're current security will balance the difference out until things adjust themselves. There will be promotions and raises there, too, and remember that if you're happy in your job, the time until those payoffs manifest themselves will be much more tolerable. And if those payoffs never manifest, keep in mind that it's hard to measure the financial gain of happiness. Measure your job's worth by something other than income.

Also: listen to your SO. When I came home and told my wife that my sucky corporate job finally fired me, I expected disappointment or anger, but she was damn near excited; she believed in me, and I freelanced for a couple years and worked odd jobs to balance out the shortfall in slow months, but I was a much, much happier person doing it, and my wife was supportive the whole time. If your SO think it's a positive move, when they're in the same "sinking boat" that you're imagining, then the future may not be as dire as you think. Let them bolster your confidence until you get to where you're happier.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:27 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Save as much as you can now, and give yourself a little cushion.

I left a job that paid more than I think I will ever get paid again and am now making maybe 25% what I made those years. But I was so damn miserable there that I spent most of what I made trying to make myself feel better.

My lifestyle has changed quite a bit, and sometimes I miss being able to eat in my favorite fancy restaurants basically whenever I wanted, but it's been over a year and STILL every day I think, I'm so glad I left that job.

Do it. Get out. Life's too short to cry in the bathroom at work.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:40 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am currently on stress leave from a high paying, high performance job and considering the same questions as you. Here is some of the anecdata I am using in my agonizing:

- a former co-worker left a couple years ago for a job that pays about 40% less, and actually requires more hours of work, and she is SO DAMN HAPPY.

- a different former co-worker left around the same time for a job that pays about 20% less four fewer weeks vacation every year and he is pretty damn happy.

Part of what I take away from this is that happiness and rate of pay aren't related--friend 1 makes significantly less than friend 2 but definitely has more job satisfaction. Also probably a better attitude about life in general, so there's also that.

The other thing I focus on is that there is no rule out there that says you always have to make more money. There is an expectation that one's salary will just go up and up and up so a pay cut gets framed as some kind of step backward or failure. But taking less money for more job satisfaction and general all-round happiness is an excellent trade.

(With the caveats mentioned above re: not being financially strapped.)
posted by looli at 6:48 AM on June 4, 2012

I was in your SOs position not to long ago. My wife was in a job she hated as well, and she knew she hated it about 2 ago. This was to the point where she would cry on Sunday night because she had to go to work on Monday. Sometimes she would burst into tears when she got home from work because of stress and having crap days. As time went on, the crap days became more and more common. Watching her cry would tear me up and I would always urge her to apply for other jobs. She would apply once in awhile but never really put in the full effort to change her vocation.

The problem? You said it yourself. You make too much money. The jobs she applied too once in awhile were in the range of 10k - 15k less than what she was making. And while she hated her job, it was easy money. It was the stress and enviroment that was killing her.

I always found it as an interesting case of psychological inertia. Me being her SO, wanted her out of that job as much as anything, because a miserable SO makes the other SO less happy. Especially when I couldn't do anything to help her. Eventually I figured the only way she would quit is if she was fired or something else big happened. Luckily, we had our child 3 weeks ago, and since we are in a good financial position, it is a perfect excuse to quit.

You probably need something big to make you get off the fence if you can't reason yourself to quit. But its true. You need to quit ASAP. Its a fact and having you even ask this question is a testament to that fact.

posted by amazingstill at 7:02 AM on June 4, 2012

What does quality of life mean to you? If it means more and better stuff at the expense of doing things all day in an atmosphere that you hate, then stay with your current job. If it means having a day to day life which excites and enriches you, then go to a lower rate of pay. Just remember, as stated above, life is short. If you had a year left to live, would you stay at your current job?

I left a life as a financially comfortable stay at home Mom to go to graduate school and become a single mother/librarian and the relief I felt after landing from that scary leap was palpable. As someone said above, a weight felt literally lifted because I started to live a life that was true to myself.

For me, one helpful side effect of this change was that I left a peer group for whom acquisition was the primary priority to one which cared about creativity and compassion. This helped me in my decision to step off the treadmill of a consumptive lifestyle.

My experience leads me to call out to you to listen to your heart. Stuff is just stuff. How we spend our life, day to day, hour to hour, is what composes it. Make the leap.
posted by Jandoe at 7:06 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Would you leave a well-paid but badly-fitting job to do something you really cared about but for less money?

I did, and I've never looked back. I no longer spend time worrying that I'm in the wrong career path, because I love my job. It's amazing how much brain space that took up, always worrying that I should be doing something else. I used to worry that people would think I was a fraud, or bad at my job, because outside of my mandated work hours I just had zero interest in learning new skills or information related to that industry. With my new career, I love learning whether I'm on the job or on my own time, and I know that nobody will doubt my commitment or skill. I used to spend so much time worrying about "What am I really passionate about" and "How can I adjust my attitude to find satisfaction with this job" and "Is there something I could change about my current job that would make me like it more?" Now I don't worry about any of that; I just go to my job and love it.

Like others have said, don't go bankrupt for this switch. If it's going to be hard to meet your financial obligations, you're just trading sources of stress. But if it means going out to eat less often, or fewer trips to Europe or something, don't sweat it. You will be so much happier doing something you love.
posted by vytae at 7:06 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've done it, and I'm glad, although my chosen labour-of-love is in a shrinking industry and I may find I have to reinvent myself at some point. My advice is: Live on the amount of money you would be making in your new job, and save the balance. Then you'll know what it's like financially and whether it will actually stress you out or not, and you'll have a nice cushion in a year if you decide to leap.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:24 AM on June 4, 2012

My current job is soul-destroying but it's safe and well compensated, in a great location with a fair bit of flexibility. I'd be returning to short-term contracts in a shrinking, highly competitive sector

I'd have to think that there must be some middle ground between these two choices. It's not always, "soul sucking life in management consulting vs. trying to 'make it' in print journalism."

There's nothing worse than hating what you do, and so much of your happiness comes from your job, if you have one that you love. But with the benefit of age and perspective, I would never choose a job in an industry that was shrinking.
posted by deanc at 7:38 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh heck, I've lived in an RV for about a year while going to college to get the degree I needed to do the job I'm currently looking for because I couldn't take one more minute of the job I was doing to pay the bills. I, of course, waited until my kids were grown and out of the house and it was just me to do so... But yeah, after that I walked away with no regrets and it's only in moments of madness that I even consider trying to do that work again -- they pass quickly.

What you need to do is figure out your level of comfort. I was quite comfortable living in an 18 foot motor home in the parking lot of my campus's book store, I was also comfortable renting rooms when the RV fell apart (dammitall). Some people wouldn't be, and that's okay. The point is, what is YOUR level of comfort? Will taking a 25% pay cut keep you at that level of comfort? If so, go for it. If not, then you have to look at why this job is so soul sucking and see if there is a way to make it less so. As posters said before me, life is too short to spend most of it miserable.
posted by patheral at 7:39 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did it. I left a toxic litigation firm, doing work I was ill-suited for, to join a tiny nonprofit working to reform systems of justice. It was about a 20% pay cut, but I have benefits and a reasonable salary (plus some benefits from recent reforms to US student loan programs).

More to the point, I am doing the sort of work I *like* to do (not the only sort of work I like to do, but a sort of work I like to do) in a collegial environment. The improvement in my quality of life (no shrieking boss, not being embarrassed to identify the name of the place where I work, work that I find interesting, not being called on my day off) more than compensates for the reduction in income.

There is no aspect of my life that is not improved by no longer hating my job. Even on rare days when I leave work frustrated or over-burdened, my life is better not hating my job. I feel very fortunate to be a person not trapped in a loathesome job.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:59 AM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Would you leave a well-paid but badly-fitting job to do something you really cared about but for less money?

Yes, definitely. Your job is a huge chunk of your life, and if doing it makes you feel crappy then you are going to feel crappy a lot. No amount of money will fix that.

On the other hand, at least you aren't trapped in a job that is both a poor fit and poorly paid. It's important to have enough money to feel secure and satisfied in the other parts of your life. However, a 25% pay cut from "very well-paid" still probably leaves you solidly in the "fairly well-paid" bracket, which I bet would only require minor lifestyle adjustments on your part rather than actual financial insecurity. So go for it.
posted by Scientist at 8:05 AM on June 4, 2012

I left a soul-destroying job and took a 60% pay cut. No, that's not a typo. I won't say adjusting to the lower income was easy, but we made it. It's amazing how much you can change your lifestyle when you're pretty much forced to.

Anyway, I did it for the same reasoning in your question... I went from being a cog in a machine (making a 6-figure salary) where at times I felt like it didn't even matter if I DID my job, to a career where I got to help people and feel like I was making a difference in the world.

It was one of those 'life decisions' that ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made.
posted by matty at 8:30 AM on June 4, 2012

Would you leave a well-paid but badly-fitting job to do something you really cared about but for less money?

Dear god, yes.
posted by pupstocks at 8:36 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to assume that it will take you at least a few months to find a new job in a non-profit. So, until that point, take 25% of your take-home pay and put it somewhere else. Budget to live without it. By the time you get your new job, you'll know you're fine with this lower pay (or you'll know if you aren't -- which I doubt), plus you'll have the savings from that 25% for several months, so you'll feel confident knowing you have a rainy day fund on top of having met your earlier goals.
posted by jeather at 9:19 AM on June 4, 2012

Whether you want to have kids or not is a big part of this decision. If your SO is solvent enough that this isn't an issue, then no biggie, but if "happiness of providing for kids" > "happiness of new job," then I'd stay.

That said, 6 months ago I took a 25% pay cut to work at a job I'd like better, and it was totally the right call.
posted by OrangeDrink at 9:26 AM on June 4, 2012

Things came to a head earlier this year when I realised I'd stopped crying on a regular basis - I was now too numb to care.

For your mental and physical well-being, get the fuck out of that job.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:57 AM on June 4, 2012

Could you take some kind of career break, leave without pay or sabattical of sorts?

I was in a similar position to you (well paid,well regarded permanent job - but one which I hated and which did not suit my interests or my skills) I stayed there for almost two years before realising there would never be a good time to quit. Despite worries about the economy and all sorts of other things I prepared myself to resign. I would have absolutely been willing to quit, but the career break option was possible for me, and it seemed like a safer bet, so I took that. Ever since I walked out that door I have felt 1000 times younger, happier and healthier.

I am pursuing a new venture, which I can't call a job just yet, but which might turn into one eventually. So I am living on my savings, am at home most of the day, and don't know when i'll have another job. Despite these uncertainties I don't regret taking time off for a minute, and I feel I would be really letting myself down if I went back to that workplace except as an absolute last resort. To be honest I never realised (or admitted to myself) how bad that place was until I was out of there.

So I guess what I am saying is that leaving a bad job is always a good idea. Sure, you may have to save a bit harder or wait a bit longer to meet your goal, but your sanity is worth it. You may find you can channel the extra energy (which you currently use in just coping) into cutting costs or adding some kind of side business to help you keep saving money.

Please also don't underestimate the costs of ill-fitting jobs on your health. You've already mentioned that you cried a lot, and are now to numb to care, that you are isolated and don't socialise much - this level of difficult to me sends up red flags - for a physical or mental health problem down the track. It would also not be easy on your relationship, for your SO to be living with someone who is so unhappy as you described, longer term. So please think about what you are really risking by continuing to stay in the job you're in.

I'd say a 25% pay cut - if you think it is what you want to do - go for it!
posted by EatMyHat at 12:26 PM on June 4, 2012

« Older Which credit card should I keep?   |   How can I stop worrying about the revolution? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.