Finally my midlife crisis is appropriately timed - coming to terms with mediocre life prospects
September 11, 2012 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I think I need to give up on my dreams and sell out. I don't feel like I can get on board with it emotionally and I think it's interfering with my chances at any kind of success.

Frankly this is the question I created this account to ask. Help seems like a long shot but I do need it. I'm honestly not back-handedly asking to be talked into believing in my dreams again, so eschew delivering that sort of advice if you can.

I'm sorry I'm so wordy but it would take me five times as long to put it in half the length: I am a one-time high-potential type went onto a solid but undistinguished undergraduate education in a technical field. Plan A was to go straight through a PhD, after 4 years I hated school and wanted out. Plan B turned out to be a decade of several 1 to 3 year stints in office work of various types. Always very unhappy with work.

"Dreams" were creative endeavors (specifics not important). I can't say I absolutely did all I could trying to make a go of them but I did put a lot of work into them, made substantial efforts to be recognized and get footholds into some sort of ladder of self promotion. Though I always found a the odd enthusiastic supporters nothing every really caught to even a minimal degree to think I had real potential to make a career of it. I have a regular creative practice that I am reasonably satisfied with as an outlet.

As my spouse and I had our first child I chanced into a decent part time job I could do at home and I did this many years. It was a contract basically and I finished the work a little under a year ago. Child is in school now and I have been job hunting for several months. My heart is absolutely not in it. The urgency of it is wholly driven by financial necessity born of bad debt a year of bad luck in terms of unexpected expenses. The money situation is getting bad. We're not in trouble yet but I feel like trouble knows my name these days and could develop an interest in me at any time. The stakes are so insanely much higher than the last time I was seeking employment (house, child, living without health insurance an absolute disaster waiting to happen).

Seeking employment in this job market under this duress is one of the worst things I've experienced which is saying a bit. I'm losing hope that selling out even under particularly favorable terms is going to be an option, though really we would do fine with me in a lowish level clerical job like I've worked many times in the past. However these jobs have traditionally been a slow process of going crazy for me.

Final complication is that my spouse is in a very demanding corporate job now. If we had made better choices we could live on this income but that ship has sailed and mere personal austerity will not bridge the gap. As it is we have become very dependent in a day to day lifestyle sense on my everyday homemaking efforts to make her life more supportable. I'm sincerely worried that trying to make up all those hours I put in on child-rearing, attending to schooling, cleaning, cooking etc. is going to put a terrible strain on all of us. Also I cover all sick and vacation days of our child and am with him several hours on school days and the prospect of losing most of that time with him is breaking my heart. I know many people deal with this and much harder schedules but it doesn't change how it makes me feel.

I feel terribly disappointed in myself given my dim prospects as of my early forties.

There is a strong impulse to take whatever work will pay as soon as possible to relieve the constant background radiation of money anxiety. But this is how I've taken every job I've had since college and its gotten me nowhere and made me very unhappy in the past. I've been trying to leverage the decent recent experience I got in a technical field related to my education but it was in kind of a niche and a little weird and so far it is not getting me anywhere. I know the market is very tight but I can't afford to wait a year. I fell like another stint in office work is going to doom me to that for a long time. It feels like doom.

I feel like my best play of a bad hand is just to make the best deal I can, hunker down, get the financial house in order, take a decent vacation once in a while. But emotionally I hate everything about this. I daydream constantly about some magical success with my creative things even though I intellectually don't believe in it at all. I go off on mental tangents with flavor-of-the-month get rich quick pipe dreams (think things like apps, kickstarter). I'm so tired of these thoughts. I don't feel like I'm bringing my A game to the job hunt and in these times it absolutely needs it. 15 years ago I wandered into some mindless clerical temp work out of sheer financial necessity and now it feels like I'm absolutely back a that square one.

What's the question, right? I'd most value related experiences that turned out reasonably well. How did you keep your heart in chasing what very much felt like the consolation prize? Where did you find a good attitude to bring to your job every day? (I've been a rotten employee during a couple periods in the past and I don't ever want to feel that way again). Did you find ways to shut up the intrusive crazy fantasy daydreams? Or just have to let them babble in the background while getting on with it? I guess generally I could use someone telling me from experience that this scenario can have an OK outcome because I can't get myself to believe it right now.

Extensive counseling for non-major depression and anxiety has been part of my big picture but never made a dent in my lifelong career woes issues. Feel free to suggest more of the same but that consideration is in kind of a separate track for me and the pragmatic issues remain immediate and pressing.
posted by Luke Skywalker to Work & Money (36 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I got my dream job after college in a creative field. Literally the day I graduated. I lasted two years before I quit.

Because I had no time to be truly creative while paying my bills as a creative artist.

I've worked an office job for years, it pays my bills, feeds my family. Hell I even started my own company to do this 'drone' work.

I have a lot more time for my creative endeavors and money to self-fund them. I have more creative and artistic freedom than I ever have.
posted by French Fry at 9:49 AM on September 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: One can still be creatively fulfilled while also having a non-related uncreative day job.

So stop looking at it as "selling out". That's not a helpful thing to think about. You're supporting your family and that is not selling out anything.

If your creative pursuits mean anything to you, then you'd do them even if you made no money. So do it on the side for now and, if the dream scenario comes along, you can jump. But don't look at it as if only making money validates it.
posted by inturnaround at 9:51 AM on September 11, 2012 [16 favorites]

Totally agree with the other posters. If you think you can get paid and be creative to the level of which it makes you happy, think again. In order to get paid, you need clients. And well, clients ruin all creativity.

Find a creative outlet on the side.
posted by stormpooper at 9:54 AM on September 11, 2012

Can you find a "sellout" career that you would actually enjoy and have a reasonable shot at?

I mean, not everyone can be a rock star, but there are plenty of recording engineers, music store managers, piano teachers, etc etc etc.

Or even if you know you can't find a job that is in the same vein as your creative pursuits, can you find something you'd like more than what you already do? Maybe you're meant to be a pastry chef or run a wine bar or teach kindergarten?

Have you considered starting your own business? If you could have any business, what would it be?
posted by Sara C. at 9:54 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few years back, I took the first job offered me not in the field I trained for, paying half as much as most of the jobs I had applied to. There were things I liked about the job. It helped me through a really difficult transition and helped keep a roof over my head. I think it helped that, although it was an entry level job, it was in some respects a good fit for my mental leanings. I stayed about five years. My main focus was on other things. Having a job I didn't "bring home", either literally or emotioonally, was very much a god thing during that period.

I don't regret it in the least.
posted by Michele in California at 9:56 AM on September 11, 2012

I got my creative dream job after years and years of struggle and hated every second of it. Hated the company, hated the people I worked with, hated the work I did. Wanted to kill myself every morning. One of those "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" situations.

Now I work a freelance drone job that pays the bills and leaves me enough time and money to do my creative stuff on the side.

I found depending on my creative stuff to pay my bills was even more stifling than working for The Man. I can work on things that I think are fun or awesome even if they're not commercial (I've had agents tell me "This is very well written but I don't think it'd sell"). I can put stuff out for the sake of having it out there rather than needing it to make rent.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:58 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It feels like you're defining yourself by your work, or at least that you intend to define yourself by the work you eventually find. Understanding why you are doing that might be the key to happiness.

I've worked a very long time in a job that has nothing to do with my major, my creative interests, or "where I saw myself in 5-10-whatever" years. But I'm good at my job, my company isn't completely evil, and more to the point, the work I do for them is not evil at all. And get this - it pays me pretty well, and doesn't demand 80-hour weeks, so I'm free to dabble and pursue other interests that are creative and that say a lot more about who I am and what I love. I've told every boss I've ever had that I'm not career-focused, but I'm very job focused. I've been promoted and recognized several times and I don't feel at all that saying "I'm not in it for the corner office" has harmed my work life in any way.

Short answer - your job can be a MEANS to an end, not the end itself. If you figure out why your entire identity seems to be wrapped up in what you do, it'll go a long way toward bringing you some peace about any job decision you make.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:00 AM on September 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

Like Fry, I got my creative dream job right out of college, and I even was paid a higher rate and was in much greater demand than others who had been doing it longer. Whoo!

Then I lasted 18 months, quit, and never look back.

Now I do a boring job that doesn't pay all that well, but it is extremely secure, and I have a side hobby-business that takes very, very little time, but it is based around my creative dreams. And it's working!

(Plus I have kids and a stressed-out wife, just like the OP).

It can be done! Just look at it from a different angle.
posted by TinWhistle at 10:01 AM on September 11, 2012

You need career counselling, STAT. There is some job to which you can bend your resume that will provide the work/life balance your family seeks. Or that is so high paying, you can add a 3rd adult to your mix.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:03 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am you.

My avocation is in a creative field. I have worked with scores upon scores of actors over the past ten years. Out of all those actors -- and we are easily talking a thousand of them - I have known only TWO that have gone on to any level of long-term, lasting success (and only one of those two is someone you'd have heard of, unless you're conversant with Broadway). That means that every single one of those other people has had to have a day job on top of their acting.

That's just how it's done.

One of my best friends, with whom I have been in business IN this creative field for 10 years now, is also trying to do the same kind of juggling-of-time thing, and once advised me, "Look, sometimes you just have to say 'that's it, the next couple years are just going to have to be about making a big pile of money and giving myself some breathing room.'" Theater or music or writing or what have you is always going to be there, and getting on better footing could help you retackle those pursuits with more strength. A writer I read recently calls the "sex and cash" theory of work - sometimes your job is about the "sex" (the awesome work you do that excites you), but sometimes it has to be about the "cash" (the work that actually pays). Even if you were in a wholly creative field, you still would have some work to do that's more about the cash than about the sex.

I also felt like I was giving up and selling out at one point; that's actually what spurred my friend to tell me about getting your house in order and then coming back. And you know what, your life is long -- you can do that. If you've been exhausting yourself in some way (not just energywise, but emotionally or financially -- and let's be honest, poverty is emotionally exhausting), you are simply not going to be as good an artist as you could be anyway. You need to find the balance that works for you.

And I can promise you that paying attention to fixing that balance, and restoring what needs restoring in your own life, pays off. I have spent the past two years worrying about the fact that I felt no real impulse to write, which for me is WILDLY out of character. This summer I decided to use one of my weeks' vacation from my job to do nothing but stay home sitting around the house and deliberately doing nothing, in an attempt to catch up on a sleep debt I've been carrying for the past three years now.

....About two weeks after that, my impulse to write came back.

Take care of the balance in your life, and that will help your WHOLE life. Including the creative parts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:06 AM on September 11, 2012 [13 favorites]

I started working in a field which is not what I want to be doing with my entire life but which is sufficiently challenging, rewarding, and well-paying. The upside is that I leave work at work and it allows me to fund my creative efforts. Those efforts are now powered by, say, a Cintiq tablet, which I wouldn't have been able to afford if I'd been putting the work energy solely into the creative pursuits.

So I do think career counseling is a good idea - you could find something you might not necessarily want to throw yourself into wholesale but also won't half-ass and which will give you time and space on the side to do what you love and try to nurture and grow that.

Making money on creative endeavors is tough, and is only partially about the quality of the work. It's also about hustle, about selling yourself, and how fundamentally marketable your work is. I know you said the specifics don't matter, but they kind of do. If you write (for example) whimsical children's books that are lovingly, painstakingly illustrated, then the answer would be different than if you're trying to monetize, I don't know, erotic My Little Pony fanfiction. Knowing what you do (even just in general terms) would help me give an answer.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:08 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I majored in English and got a job at the phone company. I didn't mind the work, but it nagged me that I wasn't doing what I trained to do. (Which was...what? Read books. Write essays? Hard to define really.)

The union had a thing where you could do tests for ability and interest and accounting came up high on my list for both skill set and interest. I said, "You're shitting me. No WAY am I into accounting." They twisted my arm and got me to agree to let them pay for my MBA.

Now I work as an Analyst and I enjoy it quite a bit. It never would have occured to me that I'd enjoy this work, but I do. So YAY me!

I think that getting assesed in this way might help you pin-point some alternate careers.

Also, have you thought about returning to school for a different career? Nursing. Radiology. Sonography? Those spring to mind, but I'm sure there are others.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:12 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does it really make more sense, financially, for you to find a job rather than freelance work in terms of child care?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:22 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm you too.
I'd like nothing better than to work full time to my novel, but of course I have to eat, and unfortunatey, publishers don't buy novels-in-progress.
10 years ago, after a long spate of contract writing jobs, I went freelance, hoping I'd make enough to spend 1/2 my time on my own writing. But more accurately, I retired and called it freelancing. Long story short -- a few clients paid me high rates, but there weren't enough of them. The resulting financial anxiety undermined many of the advantages of freelancing, but still, I dreaded going back into wage slavery.
But gradually -- in a situation different in details from yours, but still rooted in finances -- I realized I might have to overcome that dread. When the 08 crash came, I knew I had already overcome it. And back I went.
I got a job with a highly respected company that works me too hard -- but it pays me well, offers a flexible set-up, and puts me in contact with wonderful coworkers. I threw myself into it and earned great reviews. The pay climbed a bit, the workload eased up, and things are working out, generally speaking.
I see 2 takeaways:
1. Whatever the drawbacks of my desk job, my (our) financial anxiety has evaporated.
2. I need to take more control of my life, and make the novel happen. But even if I've bitten off too much -- it's a big novel -- it's still a labor of love.

Good luck. You can do it.
posted by LonnieK at 10:26 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you could try to look at the time you've spent with your kid as time well spent, which it sounds like it has been, maybe you could be a bit less hard on yourself.

Getting assessed is a great idea. But could you provide some more information on your degree and work history? AskMe has a ton of informed people and you might get some great specific job suggestions.
posted by Glinn at 10:27 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like my best play of a bad hand is just to make the best deal I can, hunker down, get the financial house in order, take a decent vacation once in a while.

On this, you've only got the first part right. You make the best deal you can, you hunker down, you get the financial house in order, those are all excellent.

What you're missing, there, is the idea that you've reached the end of your journey, sort of a reverse happily-ever-after. Once your financial house is in order, you're not're just beginning. Having your financial house in order will alleviate a lot of that pressure and stress that you're feeling, and that's one of the reasons you should be doing it.

Once you've reached that sustainable place, however, you're allowed to pursue things that make you happier. That doesn't have to be your "dreams", it can simply be continuing to do the same work, but for more money and surrounded by people you enjoy working with. A place where vacations are nice, but not as a release from epic amounts of stress. It isn't a "dreams-or-depression" proposition; it's more about getting your house in order, then building it into something you really like to live in, even if it doesn't look like the dream house you fantasized about all your life.

Ultimately, that's it; lots of fantastic, talented people don't achieve their dream because of luck (or lack of it, rather) coupled with the realization that the day-to-day effort required to achieve that dream is a huge emotional drag, and so they move on to something they can live with on a daily basis. Being content or above on most days is achievable and, actually, makes for quite a good life.

Just...try not to fantasize so much. You're setting an unrealistic expectation for yourself. If you are poor and your goal is to be middle class, because you've decided that being super-wealthy isn't something you can achieve, then you shouldn't be reading magazines for millionaires and watching the stock market. Look at all the good things you have, look at the really bad thing you have -- the financial issue -- and focus on fixing that.

At the end of the day, you're not looking for work to pay the bills; you're trying to pay the bills so that you can be free to pursue happiness, in the job and outside of it. It's just a stage, not the end state.
posted by davejay at 10:28 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would suggest that you drop the "sell out" language. You are trying to provide for your family, that's a good and honorable thing to do. Stop beating yourself up about this decision, and you may find it easier to look for work.

As for the actual job, I think you need to stop thinking of work as fitting into two categories: (1) mind numbing clerical work and (2) rewarding creative work. There are lots of jobs that are at least somewhat interesting, and many creative jobs are actually horrible. In the short term, you may have to take whatever you can get right now. However, you should do look into career counseling and aptitude testing (see if a government employment agency offers anything along these lines) and see if you can find something interesting that can pay the bills.

As for the need for you both to work, is there any chance that you could work until you get some debt paid down and then switch to being a one-career family for a while? With the cost of child care and the marginal tax rate, the difference may not be so great.
posted by Area Man at 10:33 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your situation is very stressful. Do not underestimate the stress that debt and uninspiring job prospects can put you under. There is a level of survival here, you are thinking of your entire family. When we are young we have the freedom to pursue our dreams, what fancies us, as we don't have others to think about nor likely much debt to worry about. Those are good times but we have to move on. Even folks who end up continuing in their field of choice are under tremendous pressure to perform, as there is always new, young talent coming along. A couple of years ago I found myself is some very unexpected financial difficulty along with a very unexpected lay off after my post-doctoral position ended. My daughter's father refused to pay child support when she was six moths old, so I had to charge her daycare ($900/month) while I was not earning much as a post-doc. After three years of custody court, my credit cards topped out around $30K. I had always had stellar credit and would never dream of not paying this off, but once I got laid off I really had no choice but to file chapter 7. Prior to filing, I went to credit counselling but their answer was to pay higher monthly payments but for about half the time (10 years instead of 20, or something like that). I explained to them that I had just been laid off so I could not make higher payments (!). I had been seeing a therapist and she recommended bankruptcy. I followed through and I am so glad I did. Having that massive credit card debt removed gave me a new lease on my financial life. After three months, I found another job that paid higher than my previous job. I can now afford to pay daycare and live credit card free. I had been paying $1000/month in credit card bills for many years, so in a lot of ways the credit card debt made me need to use the credit cards. I very vicious cycle. I realize that bankruptcy is a nonstarter for many, but really, if you are so buried in debt it is causing you to feel so bleak, why not, if you qualify. Granted, having bankruptcy on your record can affect your employment, but it hasn't mine so far. I'm a scientist, but if I were in the financial work world I'm sure it would hurt my prospects. I know a few other people who have done it and would definitely do it again. Best of luck.
posted by waving at 10:42 AM on September 11, 2012

Wait, it sounds like you enjoy being a homemaker. I am not sure if "enjoy" is the right word but it sounds like you get something out of it and find it fulfilling in certain ways. Have you ever considered starting an in-home daycare?
posted by cairdeas at 10:58 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A couple points of input in response - I appreciate that the language of "selling out" is counterproductive and inaccurate. Put there more to reflect my internal state. I understand that "how do I stop thinking this way, how do I stop thinking these sorts of thoughts so much" are difficult to answer. I've had a lot of experience countering intrusive thoughts coming from anxiety and depression issues but the old tricks aren't working as well.

Many have suggested career counseling or assessment, any practical advice on where and/or how to do that would be appreciated. Many years ago I went through What Color Is Your Parachute and frankly ended up in a good-on-paper job that was horrible and ground me up for a year and I've had a certain prejudice against it I'll admit.

In a nutshell, FAMOUS MONSTER, I mainly write verse. Call it poetry or lyrics if you like. I've set some to music but I'm not very good at making music. But honestly I'm not interested, here, in strategies for the creative side. Maybe a question for another day. I need to be making reasonable money in a pretty tight window.

could you provide some more information on your degree and work history

I've put some pretty specific questions like this out there under my main profile and gotten pretty useless response - maybe the niche I'm in, maybe not. I may take another stab at it later but I'm not so much looking for pragmatic career strategies right now as for mental adjustment and better ways of looking at my situation.

As for the need for you both to work, is there any chance that you could work until you get some debt paid down and then switch to being a one-career family for a while? With the cost of child care and the marginal tax rate, the difference may not be so great.

I'm a reasonably smart fellow and decent at math, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around these figures. I have a good idea what child care costs under different scenarios would be. If anyone knows good tools to help figure out what your tax rates would be under different scenarios, tools or just guidelines/examples to work out your household income after accounting for these various costs that would be useful.

I appreciate all the responses so far. I'll go through shortly and mark some best answers that are particularly resonating with the sorts of mental blocks I'm struggling with.
posted by Luke Skywalker at 11:00 AM on September 11, 2012

Dude, not everyone gets to be the writer-artist-actor on a hill, being paid for coming up with Big Ideas and making Art. In fact, very few people get to be that. The vast majority of the population realizes that at some point you need to balance pursuing your creative interests with paying the mortgage. It's not "selling out". It's growing up.

Getting a boring office job doesn't mean you're dying, selling out, or crushing your dreams. It means you have acknowledged that in order to pursue a big dream (like the wonderful creative job you've always wanted) it takes a lot of big work. Part of that big work is establishing the stable financial base that will allow you to look for the job that you ultimately want to do without freaking about how you'll pay for next month's rent. After all, the time you spend stressed out about next month's rent is energy that is being taken away from your ability to stay relaxed and create.
posted by Anonymous at 11:01 AM on September 11, 2012

Working with an actual career counselor is completely different from reading What Color Is Your Parachute?.

So, you write poetry. That makes things easier, in a way---you know from the start that you have zero chance of ever supporting yourself with your creative work, unlike your musician, novelist, and painter peers who chase the tiny chance.

Now you have to figure out what your optimal day job is. Lots of poets teach, but these days you need an MFA or better for that gig. Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance exec; William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Phillip Larkin was a librarian; Philip Levine worked at an axle factory before moving into teaching; T.S. Eliot worked in a bank, and then in publishing; and so on and so forth. Maybe hang out on the Speakeasy at Poets and Writers and see what your fellow poets are doing?

And find a good career counselor. Someone who's a member of the National Career Development Association is likely to be solid.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:24 AM on September 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I feel like my best play of a bad hand is just to make the best deal I can, hunker down, get the financial house in order, take a decent vacation once in a while. But emotionally I hate everything about this.

You hate vacations? I think you're glomming a bunch of stuff together here that aren't necessarily related. If you're hooked on the interpretation that your only reality is that of a "bad hand," then yes, everything that derives from that might seem distasteful.

Don't think of it as selling out, think of it as "buying-in," and what you're buying is stability and a certain standard of living, which aren't entirely scummy goals. Strangely, you don't mention getting another contract or freelancing so that you can continue working from home and having the kids around and all that.
posted by rhizome at 12:43 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a reasonably smart fellow and decent at math, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around these figures. I have a good idea what child care costs under different scenarios would be. If anyone knows good tools to help figure out what your tax rates would be under different scenarios, tools or just guidelines/examples to work out your household income after accounting for these various costs that would be useful.

There's a calculator and tables here which should help you figure out your marginal tax rate for the US income tax. If you live in a state in the US that also has income taxes, you can find out rate with google, then consider the SS and Medicare taxes from here. I'm just eyeballing it, but it looks like if my wife started working we could expect to pay more than 35% of that additional income in taxes. Then, I'd figure out how much we'd pay for daycare, an additional work wardrobe, and any replacement services for all the things she does (for example, would our food budget increase from eating out more, would start paying for laundry services?).
posted by Area Man at 1:01 PM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: Strangely, you don't mention getting another contract or freelancing so that you can continue working from home and having the kids around and all that.

Note that there is a 7-8 month gap between when my contract job ended and I started job hunting. I guess I glossed over this and it is part of the issue but that job really did come to me by chance - I didn't put any work into getting it and I came out the other side with no idea how I might get more work. I've never worked for myself.

I did put a significant work and research trying to figure out more at-home options that made sense but didn't make progress. Not to say it isn't possible (though there are real issues of lack of direct educational basis and experience that aren't easily glossed over) -but I couldn't figure it out. I would love it if I could make enough to manage at home but I feel like I already spent a lot of time on that without return.
posted by Luke Skywalker at 1:14 PM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: I won't be able to check in on this again until tomorrow but I do appreciate the input and I will check back in.
posted by Luke Skywalker at 1:15 PM on September 11, 2012

I literally just read this article:
[T]his type of fantasy is common among us wage earners, especially in early September when the daily grind restarts. Now we are “working for the man”, but one day we will make movies, set up an organic prune company, or finally write that novel.

However, it’s usually best to let these fantasies stay fantasies. For most people, being a hack – doing routine work for money – is the happiest, simplest and probably even the most authentic way to live.

At the root of my housemate’s fantasy was a common delusion: that the authentic self is an artist. The idea is that though the actual you sits in the office, the true you is a kind of Picasso. ... Staying put saves them lots of unhappiness. The hack’s life is fairly easy. Your work just has to be good enough. You don’t have to put your soul into it and aim for perfection. You know how to do the job, you hand it in and they pay you.
That may help with the thinking about selling out. Many artists I know are much happier working during the day and making their art on their own time. There's a great pressure to make your art salable, instead of just doing it to please yourself and doing it to your own specifications and satisfaction. Most artists I know who are full-time artists are quite entrepreneurial and business-oriented as well as being creative; they're much more hard-nosed than the folks I know who are talented artists (who also sell work, win awards, etc.) but who routinely support themselves with a corporate paycheck.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:30 PM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

You didn't know how to look for freelance work, you say? That's one of the things career counselors have lots of information about, and strategies to suggest.

It seems to me (novelist who's had lots and lots of day jobs) that you're kind of trying to reinvent the wheel when there are lots of wheels all around you, online wheel forums where wheels share their experiences and suggestions, and qualified wheel professionals in abundance.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:52 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

We're not in trouble yet but I feel like trouble knows my name these days and could develop an interest in me at any time.

I don't know what your creative interests are, but you write like a writer. This is a sweet turn of phrase!

Nthing the idea that you can just pick up a job that you don't need to care too much about, show up, do the minimum, keep your head down, stay off the radar, forget it when you leave, and do the stuff you really care about on your own time. Tons of creatives have found that this is what's neccessary for them to make it through. You don't have to be, for example, the accountant who wishes they were a musician; you can be a musician who does accounting to make ends meet. Fully legit.

If you can, I REALLY recommend working four-day weeks instead of five. It just makes everything easier to have that extra day- one for the chores, one for socializing, and one that's just for you, to rest/create. I've found a lot of unbearable jobs made a lot more bearable by that extra day, though YMMV.

I don't know how things work in the high-powered corporate world, but if your spouse could also do an extra day off, then that would be TWO full dedicated chore-days and it would just get that much easier. The two of you could sit down and discuss who does what which days etc. I also hope that your kids are helping out if they're old enough. (In my opinion, anyone ten years old or up can help at least ten or fifteen minutes a day. Of course, that's up to your discretion as a parent).

As for the daydreams... I don't think that you should ever stop having them. Dreams get us through the day. I don't even think there's anything wrong with trying a bunch of schemes and finding that they don't work out for you. There's no way you would have known if you hadn't tries! As long as you're not spending your livelihood on harebrained schemes, as long as you can put food on the table and clothes on your kids, keep trying shit. Eventually you'll find the thing that works for you.
posted by windykites at 4:23 PM on September 11, 2012

pick up a job that you don't need to care too much about, show up, do the minimum, keep your head down, stay off the radar, forget it when you leave,

I think that way is a sure path to self-loathing. I say whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. I also think that you've created a scenario in which you bravely martyr yourself and your art for the sake of the family and your bank account, which sounds so noble, except, in real life, you don't actually have a dreary, back-breaking soul-crushing job where you can bleed your heart's blood all over your cubicle.

Every job has it's shit work--feature film directors still have to sign off on budget line items and listen to endless recitations of dull alternatives presented by bean counters. All creative pursuits require structure and planning and adding up of figures and so on.

It's great that lightening struck you and you got a contract gig without having to beat the bushes for it. Now, armed with that experience, why not get out there and drum up some more opportunities for yourself? By the time you're in your 40s, no one really cares what you took in your 3rd semester of junior year. Don't use education/experience and lack thereof as excuses--someone thought you could do this once already--did you ask them for referrals? Is is the sort of thing you can showcase on a website or portfolio?

I think bringing your A game to nearly all endeavors is a path to self-esteem. You don't need to be inspired by the job, you need to be inspired by the chase.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:34 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

One that came to my mind:

One way you could look at having some more freedom is to cut costs in creative ways. For instance me, I live in a co-op. I live with 5 people and we share the costs of food and we each only cook once per week, and each of us only goes grocery shopping once per month, which saves a TON of time also. We get vegetables from a farm share. I have friends who have a family who live in a more family oriented co-op situation with their daughter. That co-op actually shares child care responsibilities as well, which is another incredible time and money saver. I think it's a very sustainable, economical, and quite frankly loving and happy way to live, if you can get in somewhere good with positive people. It saves an incredible amount of money. I spend 1/3 the amount to live that many of my friends do!

There are parts of the country that are more and less expensive to live in, and that have more or less good job situations. Same with other parts of the world -- how open-minded are you?

The point is that as an adult, oftentimes it takes a few years to get to something better than you have now. I, like you, have had a crappy working situation for the past 2-3 years. However, I'm working toward something a bit better and I'm almost there. One way you can keep your head up is to make a longer term plan, 3-5 years away. You're young, you have half your life left. It makes sense to hunker down for a few years as long as you have something in mind for after. A lot of people, dare I say everyone, lives adult life that way at times.

Another thought I had is that you seem to have really beautiful parts of your life that MANY people would envy, and that are arguably the most important aspects of life. A functional family, and a child who is apparently at this moment healthy. Blessings!
posted by kellybird at 8:42 PM on September 11, 2012

Another point -- you say you daydream about get rick quick scheme type stuff, e.g. Kickstarter pursuits.

It might be more productive to daydream about (and get informed about) actual PROFESSIONS that are better than what you have now. There are professions in the US that are high growth (certain types of nursing, for instance... behavioral therapy... certain non-doctor medical professions... etc.). There are other things that can be learned in fairly short order like being an electrician or plumber, or assisting one.

Some of these professions might be better than what you have now, with better features (pay, flexibility, etc.) and they might be achievable in a few years of training. It might be more worthwhile to daydream about a switch of that sort, and learn with a career counselor (or by surfing the internet) about what kinds of professions are growing in the US at the moment.

For example, I live in a city and the woman who applies my false eyelashes can make $100+ per hour. That's nuts! She can do that with six months of training as an aesthetician and a bit of creativity, legwork, etc. Of course, that might not be the profession for you, and you need some luck and ingenuity.

There is a sweet spot between daydreaming about nothing, and daydreaming about get-rick-quick schemes, in which you are daydreaming about stuff that is actually feasible. Go there!
posted by kellybird at 8:49 PM on September 11, 2012

I'm also you. Slightly different circumstances, exactly the same problems.

Don't think about it any more. Write and plan on paper - thoughts will just go around and around in your head, doing you no good. Throw structure at the problem. Imposing structures, timeframes and metrics on yourself isn't a cage, it's your skeleton. It will give you levers, it will help you to stand up.

IMHO get a job first - like you say, Trouble knows your name. 'Selling out' and unfulfilled creative potential are your next problems to solve, but work on this one first, except for one thing: note down the time you're spending on dealing with this issue - the time you spend job hunting, the time spent on worrying about all of this - just track it for a few weeks so you know its quantity while you're looking for the best job you can find right now. Say the time spent is 4 hours a week.

When you get a job, you now have one solved problem and 4 hours you suddenly aren't using. Put that time into other things. Again, throw structure at it. Don't try to write the poem that will launch you from nowhere into the forefront of contemporary poetics, use it in a 6 week program to improve your use of half-rhyme. Training is necessary, and you don't need to feel it for it to be useful to your art. Look for improvement, not success.

Hopefully, some of this is useful to you. In the last couple of years, a number of behaviours I've installed in my life, with no particular optimism or feeling that they were the start of something good, have materially, if not radically, improved my mood, job prospects, and offered a real prospect of getting somewhere with my own writing (exercise seems to be key in my case). Forget about strategy and implement some tactics. Try making a commitment to someone else that you'll cc. them in on 4 emailled submissions by date x. If you do it, then good! Material improvement has occurred! If you don't, then you have failed, and that's also good, because a)it stings, and b) you now know for a fact that this tactic doesn't work for you. Try another.
posted by Ripper Minnieton at 6:35 AM on September 12, 2012

Here's a recent thought process that has helped me get past the get-rich-quick daydreams: I still believe that, somewhere out there, there's an easy way to make lots of money fast...but I haven't found it. So, in the meantime, I'd better find a way to make a living.
posted by SampleSize at 7:02 AM on September 12, 2012

Response by poster: I think this has probably wound down and I want to think everyone who gave me input. Not all things I want to hear but all worth reading. I appreciate your taking time to give your perspective.
posted by Luke Skywalker at 10:47 AM on September 12, 2012

> "I feel like my best play of a bad hand is just to make the best deal I can, hunker down, get the financial house in order, take a decent vacation once in a while. But emotionally I hate everything about this."

I know this EXACT feeling. I turned 40 a couple months ago and feel completely lost with my life. (going through the "mid-life crisis" that I was desperately hoping to avoid). When I was really young I spent about 10 years living/working on a cattle-ranch. During/after High School I spent about 5 to 6 years working my way up through every position (from dishwasher to Manager) in a Restaurant. For the last 15 to 20 years, I've worked in a wide variety of IT/Technology jobs. It's weird to go through all of that.. and unexpectedly hit a point where I feel completely lost about who I am, why I'm here or what I should be doing with my life.

I'm sorry if this comment is not more helpful.. but you're not alone. There's no magic or easy answer to the deep human questions like "How do I find a PASSION that pays well and isn't "selling-out"?"... If it's any consolation... I admire you for bravely confronting those types of questions...because so many people don't. Lots of people live lives of superficial-distraction. At least you're not one of those ;P
posted by jmnugent at 12:19 PM on September 2, 2013

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