Drowning not waving
October 23, 2012 9:17 AM   Subscribe

I am so overwhelmed and struggling right now that it feels like I have no options and I'm intractably stuck. I know logically that I do have options but I can't sort out what I could do from what I shouldn't, what might work from Just Don't Go There, and getting objective, realistic advice is difficult.

This will be long, I apologize.

I'm 39. I work as an assistant in financial development for a major non-profit. I've worked in similar office-type jobs since graduating college (excellent college, somewhat useless degree) in 1996, except for a 4-year stint as a nanny.

I'm tired of this kind of work. Not just tired...I feel defeated by it. Demeaned, even. I've never wanted to do it, though I am good at it. I just...fell into it. And now I want out. Most pressingly, I want out of this particular job. I've been here 5 years and for 4 of them I've been saying I need to find something else. There is no respect for the business operations personnel, the working conditions here have been rough for a few months and are only going to be getting worse, and I really do not want to try to drag myself through another holiday season feeling miserable and angry. I've managed in the past by telling myself that the pay and benefits are okay, that hey, for 6 months when we're less busy I only work 4 days a week (which ends in November, and then work is hell from then through February), and that I leave my work at work....mostly, except for when on my non-work day I have to put out fires from home. But the stress has been building to the point that I've had to start taking klonapin again to get through the week. I feel guilty for wanting to leave, as I know it will make things difficult for my direct supervisor but I'm afraid if I'm here much longer my mental health will suffer very badly.

I've been looking at other jobs. Jobs I'm qualified for...but I don't want to do. I try to cheer myself up by saying that "this one has a shorter commute" or "that one probably has better benefits" but the bottom line is that the prospect of doing another secretarial/data entry/clerical/reception type job just....I can't bear it. This has been the cycle in the past: hate job, look for job, get depressed, stay at job. I've been forcing myself to apply but it gets harder and harder to try to muster any feelings of enthusiasm and easier and easier to think bleak, bad thoughts. A few months ago I was actively hoping I'd get fired, though I hadn't done anything firing-worthy.

What do I want? I want to work on my own, doing things that give me at least contentment, if not joy. I have a few fledgling shops on Etsy selling supplies and vintage, and a backlog of crafts waiting to be listed so I can see if there's any interest in my work. I find getting this done on the side of my "real" job nearly impossible, as I'm just drained by the anxiety and stress.

I've tentatively considered having a part-time job, walking dogs or something, so I'd have more time to devote to the work I'd prefer to do. My mother, with whom I actively try to avoid discussing any of this as she naively (in my opinion) thinks that getting a new job is as easy as just sending in a resume and that I can do anything I set my mind to because "you went to Impressive College!". And then maddeningly she says that I ought to be doing work that challenges my brain...and then of course says that I'm neglecting my art when I am doing "brain" work.

I'm getting a small insurance settlement (under $5K) soon and have had wild thoughts of quitting, withdrawing my 401(a) (~$10,000, ~$8,000 after taxes) and trying to really make a go at my craft work, while working at something low-key part time. I don't actually think I'll have the luxury of retirement in my life so using that money now seems acceptable to me. Yeah, doing this would cause major strife with my mom but I imagine we'd work it out eventually.

I feel like I need permission to do this. Or for someone to smack me upside the head and tell me that this is foolish, wrong thinking, I'm too old for this kind of nonsense, etc. 15 years ago I would have just jumped without a second thought...thinking on it, nothing truly bad ever happened - when did I become afraid of taking risks?

My therapist has been supportive of my idea, but I am currently therapist-less as she abruptly disappeared over the summer - I knew she was going to have to give up her practice but what happened was sudden and surprising, I believe it just had to do with her changing circumstances and I don't feel like she abandoned me. I haven't had the heart to find anyone new since.

Is my idea completely silly? I have done some brainstorming about the potential pros and cons and it seems like worst case scenario outcome is that I end up back in this same kind of job.

Is this crazy thinking? Have any of you done this? What do you wish you'd done differently?
posted by noxetlux to Work & Money (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like I need permission to do this.

Here it is: Do it.

Even if it doesn't work out, you will have one less regret in life and I promise you will have learned something about yourself in the process.
posted by mattbucher at 9:31 AM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm in a similar work situation to you, but I have an exit plan that may be an interesting compromise for you - except I have a question first.

What fields have you done your secretarial work in? Have they always been really boring corporate Dilbert-esque places? If so, I'm wondering whether it's that that's the issue rather than secretarial work itself, and that if you were doing secretarial work at a nonprofit you really cared about, or for Etsy, or for a craft store or something, whether that would be much more suited to you. I actually prefer secretarial stuff for "the day job," because it really is something I can leave at work, but I woud much, MUCH rather do that for an arts institution or a college or something I give a shit about rather than finance.

I'll be more financially secure in a year, too, so my exit plan is to switch to admin work in a field I actually care about; that may be a compromise for you to consider as well; when that insurance settlement comes, start looking for admin work in an industry that you actually are interested in. Unfortunately most arts organizations don't pay as well as the big corporate ones, but that is what the insurance settlement will cover.

Of course, if the thought of secretarial work even at a place you like makes you shudder, then disregard what I've said - but at least think about that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

you need permission? here it is. you only live once. try doing the most attractive yet terrifyingly unknown thing, work hard, and see where it takes you. even if it doesn't work out like you planned it, you will definitely learn about yourself and you never know who you'll meet/what other opportunities open up just from getting outside of your familiar routine.

sometimes lists of pros and cons are maddening and you should make the intuitively attractive choice. of course be realistic...and careful with money...but it seems like you are that way anyhow, so that's good.

also, consider tapping into Impressive College Alumni Network to find other people who left their "stable" jobs with large organizations for more independent, creative or entrepreneurial fields. they can give advice and be sounding boards if you can find them.
posted by zdravo at 9:37 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seems that without change, things won't change.

They sound unacceptable where you are, so your choices are to change where you are or to change THINGS where you are.

Before you jump ship, you have nothing to lose trying to improve your job. Look around. Is anyone doing what you want to do? Can you ask to do that, under the implied threat of departure for better grazing?

Prudence suggests leaving when you have a destination of some sort. Personally, I think that's either a new job with at least ONE, preferably FIVE improved characteristics OR your own business that you start and test as you progressively decline in performance at your current one. Quitting with NO plan is a BAD plan. Once you do leave, don't be afraid to leave again. Just do it faster next time, after looking inside for jobs you DO want to do. At the level you are working, I don't think you'll have to worry about it affecting you too much. And, if it does screw up your hiring prospects, you'll be well motivated to succeed at self-employment.

You are in The Big City. Jobs are available. Don't just apply for ones you have already done; apply for ones that stretch you and are risky for the new employer. Stretch.

No you aren't crazy, and yes, it's normal to get dissatisfied with jobs and mates after 5 years. Humans kinda love change. Forget what mom says. She's living her life, not yours. What do you want?

(We all get a little afraid of risks with aging, so that part is normal, too. )

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 9:38 AM on October 23, 2012

You might take a look at Overcoming Underearning to see if there's some way you could find more satisfying work and, if you start a business, to make sure that you charge a decent amount. The book helped me see how I was seriously under-valuing my skills and accepting depressing jobs.
posted by ceiba at 9:49 AM on October 23, 2012

I'm all about jumping around, but let's be practical.

Rather than address your actual work, since anything you're doing for money is going to be great in some ways and suck in others, is to talk about your work-place.

Shall we reference the famous (infamous) Hawthorne Effect. It doesn't really matter what you do for work, if you're happy in your work environment.

What I suggest that you do is get an admin-type job, but either in a department or a company that you find interesting and/or fun. Does HR sound like your bag? How about Marketing? Sales? You may not have the formal education for these things, but you'll be surprised how much you learn once you get your foot in the door. And once you get the skills, you can then take them further.

When I was laid off from the Death Star, I took a job for about 1/3rd the money to learn a new piece of software. Now I've mastered it, and Excel and I sit in a cube and fiddle about with spreadsheets all day. It makes me happy.

I have very little stress, I work for a pretty great company, my co-workers are convivial and while there's no "joy" per se, there's no suckage, and frankly, I count myself lucky.

Still do the crafting on the side, and if by some wild chance it provides you with a living, bonus.

$15,000 won't last you three months (with taxes, etc) leave your money alone and be practical. Just be practical having fun.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:08 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm answering this because I did have a vision of working for myself and walking away from an office (and I did do this/twice - the second time it worked and I haven't been in an office environment/setting for 4 years now).

Some ideas for you:

• Make a timeline and plans to implement operation Try (whether it be working on the side and/or quitting to implement your plan) - this may involve listening to small business podcasts, talking to people who have done this, putting products up on etsy and seeing how they sell, etc. I had the vision of leaving my job for ~2 years, and ....listening to podcast about this or working on a small list on the side while at work helped me feel better and stay focused on the actual plan.

• Test parts of your plan. Have you put things on Etsy? Do you know how many you need to sell to earn X or whatever it is you need per month? Do this before you jump. to get a realistic idea. If you find that you need to make 5000 widgets a month, you have your answer (no).Or maybe it would take one large painting a month and you will at least have a realistic expectation.

• Evaluate other plans, too. What if you could do what you do now...from home/seasonally/and select your clients? Make a list of what is a go/no go for you. I suspect that you could pull in more money and much of the stress is gone. You can also list the conditions that you need.I would google freelancer/independent X for your field and see if you can find websites with price listings...you may be able to earn what you do now (or more) with better conditions.

• Can you learn about a small business at the same time you are there? Maybe talk to people who do what you want to do, talk to people at SCORE. I cannot emphasize that I had no idea what to do early on when I had clients who took 6 months to pay/and no one to really talk to about this).

• Is there a place of employment that could give you training for your next step (don't entirely know your field, so it may or may not be applicable). For example, what if you could get hired as an employee at etsy so you can see how they conduct their business, etc.?Notice how I said I tried this twice? Getting employed in the industry that I wanted to work in helped me succeed the second time.

Have any of you done this? What do you wish you'd done differently? I'm putting this at the end here ,because I'm not entirely sure if what I did relates to your field or even you. But I am putting my pros/cons, and what I would have done differently.

How it worked out for me. Well, the first time I tried this, I left a job that I absolutely hated. I went straight to trying to get clients for myself with no experience in the field. I had to take small part time job or two to cobble together money to live, but in the end, I had to go to a workplace fulltimebecause I could not get clients. However, this time it was in a field that I KNEW would give me experience to make it the next time. So pro for the short time: Stressed as hell about money, stressed about getting into a new career field(when in the hell would someone hire me?!), burned through a few months of savings Pro: You try, you try, you try (versus staying in a job and a place that you hate) - also the only way to learn what else you need to do is to try it and do it. At the next job, I had a very concrete plan as to what I wanted. What I would have done differently - this was the only way to learn what I needed (i.e. samples, experience in the field) and it only cost me a few months, so ...although painful at the time, I would have done everything the same way.

The second time I jumped out of a place full time employment, I had 2 years experience in the relevant field. I had a few months worth of savings (if I did it again, I would have had 6 or 9 months worth). I really have to emphasize that I used the other places of employment as my training ground for what came next. I made a point of getting experience and samples that I could use to position/sell myself. I watched how the company worked (i.e. what they charged, how the projects proceeded). Before I jumped, I contacted work colleagues at different companies and was offered projects (so I knew that there would be $ coming in). I've been doing this for close to 4 years now. Cons- Monetary (The first 2 years, the amount of $ coming in was less than a place of employment (although it has exceeded it the past 2 years)). The stress was higher about $ (i.e. now I have a really large 6 month buffer or more at all times, never did this as an employee). I also had to chase my check, especially in the first few years (you learn how to run a business along the way....) Pro: If anyone is stressful (unorganized/jerk/slow payer, you name it), you can drop them as a client. The other pro is I go after projects that I want and interest me (so far it has worked...)- but this may be dumb luck. The other pro is that office politics/facetime is gone and as an introvert, it is far more relaxing. The other pro is that (for me), the amt of time to work to earn an income is far, far less than a work place. What I would have done differently although I'm still doing this now: 1) Had more savings at the start (it all worked out though, but for anxiety reasons), 2) Realized early on that I had the power to get rid of ...bad clients/slow payers etc(life is less stressful/and it is easier to concentrate on just working) 3) Find other self employed people and talk to them about their best practices (to be honest, I never have found this - but it would have helped during the early "let's chase the check" days).

Feel free to memail me - this was disorganized/struggled with what would or would not be relevant for you.
posted by Wolfster at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2012

Thanks for all your thoughtful input and suggestions. Even just writing this took away some of the choking anxiety I've been feeling and helped me to see that I can find a way closer towards what I really want.

@mattbucher - I try to think that way too.

@EmpressCallipygos - I've worked at a university, a children's mental health advocacy, a visiting nurses organization, and this non-profit as well as vaguely interesting tech companies for various temp jobs. I'm actually not currently a secretary - I'm a "development associate" which means processing gifts, producing letters, lots of data entry. I actually don't mind the job so much - my supervisor treats me as the intelligent, sensible, self-motivated person I am and is very flexible and relaxed, the pay is okay - it's all the other factors: the commute, the complete lack of respect for employees from higher-ups, no potential to advance (unless I want to be in HR or Fundraising (NO), the employees who don't pull their weight. I know a lot, if not most, of this is going to characterize any office support job and I imagine that working for a company or institution that I like/care about might make a difference, but at this point...I've just had it with doing repetitive tasks in an office setting.

@zdravo - Actually, haven't been so careful with money but have learned from that mistake. After two more months' payment to my debt management plan, I'll be debt-free. I want that wrapped up before I make any drastic changes, naturally. Thank you for your suggestions.

@FauxScot - Excellent points. Thank you.

@ceiba - I will look into that, I have definitely struggled with undervaluing my work.

@RuthlessBunny - Thanks. I've been looking into similar jobs that would be improvements over my current one in some way. I've even considered whether this one would be less heinous to me if it were part-time.

@Wolfster - Good things to consider, thank you.
posted by noxetlux at 11:10 AM on October 23, 2012

I think you need to raise your Etsy prices if that shop is going to be your sole source of income. Personally, I'd look for a job with an antique dealer or gallery or some place that's closer to your interests, even if it's not as well paid, and then see how you can make your crafts etc., be a 2nd job. But take it from a 20+ year freelancer--working for yourself can be very hard--you don't get paid vacations or days off, and time not spent at work is time to be looking for work.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:04 PM on October 23, 2012

I am you, 15 years ago, and I am exactly as afraid of doing something like this as you are right now. So yeah, the age thing is a cop out.

The thing is, you're scared because there are risks involved. There's a risk that changing the status quo will make things worse. As long as you have your boring, going-nowhere job working for an organization you don't care about doing work that brings you no joy, you know things won't get worse. Or at least they won't get worse in unexpected ways. Every year that goes by hating what you do, you will get more bored and more burnt out. Your work will suffer. You will lower your expectations. The dissatisfaction you have at work will bleed over into your personal life, tainting everything you know. There are costs of taking a risk, and there are costs of doing nothing. Either way, you will pay something. Either way, you are choosing a direction to go, because time doesn't stand still.

A year ago I took a dive out of a job I had through the worst part of the recession. I hated it, but I was too afraid to leave and try something else that I might fail at. Am I totally happy where I ended up? Is my life now totally sorted out? No. Not at all. In some ways, I'm more confused about my direction that I was before. And in fact, I sort of did fail, at least initially. But do I regret taking that jump? God, no! It was a calculated risk, but I knew I wanted to pay the price.

Now I'm not saying "follow your dreams" and all that – I'm just saying, calculated risks. Do the math first. Get your finances in order. Figure out how much you need to bring in. Figure out how many hours a week you want to spend on your craft work. If it's too risky to go 100%, go 50%, take a baby step in the right direction. Most likely, things won't go exactly the way you want, and you'll have to think about it again in a year. That's life. That's reality. No problem. But you can't avoid risks if you want your situation to change.
posted by deathpanels at 3:18 PM on October 23, 2012

I'm getting a small insurance settlement (under $5K) soon and have had wild thoughts of quitting, withdrawing my 401(a) (~$10,000, ~$8,000 after taxes) and trying to really make a go at my craft work, while working at something low-key part time. I don't actually think I'll have the luxury of retirement in my life so using that money now seems acceptable to me.

Put very bluntly, draining your 401(k) at the age of 40 and quitting a stable job to freelance in a way that you have not been able to develop any commitment to yet is a great way to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. You cannot afford to do what you are proposing.

I've worked at a university, a children's mental health advocacy, a visiting nurses organization, and this non-profit as well as vaguely interesting tech companies for various temp jobs.

This advice is kind of counterintuitive, but I think you need to go corporate. You need to go massively, massively corporate. Working at small shops or non-profits is a great way to get paid in things like confidence that you are changing the world, interesting co-workers, frequent office parties, long hours, stress, and sadness that you have not yet fixed the world. What they are not great at is paying you in money, and money is what you need to do more crafting and to eventually craft full-time. In your shoes, I would personally pursue something stable at a well-established corporation that does something boring (like sell insurance or bad software, maybe to the government) in some kind of support role, where I could clock out every day at five to go home at craft, save some money, and THEN quit my job when the crafting started to make me money.

I agree that you should leave your current job, but not to craft full-time yet.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:59 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think at the heart of this situation is a very basic question.

What is important to you?

Specifically, where do your values fall? Do you value pay over pleasure at your job? Are you comfortable with ambiguity in terms of your income or would you rather know exactly what is coming and when? Most importantly, do you need your job to be emotionally satisfying to get through it every day?

I don't mean to be the person who dashes dreams or anything, but work is...well, work. You get paid to go specifically because there are elements of it that no one would elect to do if not otherwise compensated for them. Certainly there are people with great vision and ideas that break out of the mold and approach their working lives like a present to be opened every day but I think that's the exception, not the rule. Most people have ambivalence about their careers and would happily trade their current situation to approach a hobby like it's a job if they had the means and circumstances to make such a leap.

I agree with the posters above who advise having a financial plan in place and testing out and establishing the side gig a little before jumping ship into it as a career. I also think there may be an environment that will alleviate a lot of what ails you if you ultimately find that, while administrative work is not a thrill, it's a situation that you can live with to allow you to support yourself. But it all boils down to what is most important to you.
posted by amycup at 4:47 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll agree that you should consider ditching non-profit work.

Non-profit is great for some folks. Those folks are saints, and the world needs more of them. But for a lot of people, you see the inefficiency of non-profit and it eats at you. You see your paycheck that you know is too small, and that also eats at you. Each disagreement with upper management becomes much more personal when it's about the welfare of some disadvantaged groups, and it's hard not to take that home.

I've worked for many companies that a lot of the liberal set on Metafilter loathe. I'm not particularly wild about the corporations myself. But the ability to separate my work from my contribution to the world has been a godsend. And the ability to just write a check to organizations I believe instead of being a fly on the wall and seeing every small misstep they make has also been a godsend.
posted by politikitty at 5:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I’ve been there, and I’m miles from sorting it out, but here are my thoughts, anyway. (Caution: projection ahead, probably.)

Dogwalking/multiple part-time jobs: Though you’d avoid the stresses of cubicle life, you’d have the new strain of hustling and patching together schedules, and for less money. It’d be like running a business, with none of the perks. You’d probably also have to drastically alter your lifestyle in decidedly unromantic ways. (Roommates, weekends in, lunches-in-tupperware, no pretty things to mark spring when it comes.) All of that will likely tire you as well, if in different ways than you’re experiencing now.

I think it would take a high level of internal drive, clear vision, and strong organizational skills to manage a corporate gig and the psychic split it’d take to survive it. Personally, I’d find it hard to ignore any carrots dangled in front of me. That you say you feel guilt around leaving your boss makes me think you might have a similar temperament (sensitive to your environment, among other things, and oriented towards pleasing others). Of course, even if you’re like that, it’s possible to build the energy and mental toughness required to keep your eyes on the long-term goal and not, eg, stay late, not let your 'team' down, etc. But, I still want to say, be careful… after a certain point, it might be too hard to lose holidays so you can make stuff, and you might get promoted right out of your life. It's as easy to take on a company's 'mission' as it is a charity's.

If you’re not a tough cookie, I think the importance of immersing yourself in a community of people who value (and do) what you want to do can’t be underestimated. I second Ideefixe's idea of finding a stable, 9-5 job in a field that’ll let you learn things that’d support your goals, even if it paid a bit less than your current job. Maybe most importantly, it’d mean you’d gather daily evidence that people can actually make a living at design and craft. I think this would help change your horizon of expectation, especially if the people currently in your life take safe bets. Also, as has been said, you’d gain exposure to a ton of stuff relevant to your larger plan (inspirational, technical, and otherwise). It’s one thing to get it from workshops and evening courses, and another to see it from the inside, in a business or collaborative context. I think this kind of life might actually feed you, and make other sacrifices more bearable.
posted by nelljie at 7:26 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eff me and my dinner. OVERestimated.
posted by nelljie at 12:36 AM on October 24, 2012

I floundered around like you for aaaaaaages until two things happened to me. 1) I fell in love, which made me take my own life seriously for once and 2) I went on a retreat, read this book and did the exercises. This involved listening carefully and respectfully to myself and my deepest, most enduring desires for the first time in my adult life.

I cannot recommend any help with 1) (and besides the guy ultimately turned out to be a douche), but 2) is ESSENTIAL. You seem to be spending a lot of time thinking, anxiously, about your future. I did this too, and got nowhere. ("What skills do I have? What will They let me do that's sort of like my current job but maybe a little better? Am I stupid for even considering it? Will I go broke/die alone/be eaten by cats? Is it too late?"). I found that when I stopped trying to think about my future and started using my imagination, which is a very very different process, the internal answers that had been hanging around for years waiting for me to listen to them immediately surged up with elemental force and crystalline obviousness. Three months later I enrolled in training to be a psychotherapist. Alongside my alienated job. Which is suddenly a lot more bearable now that I know I'm not existentially trapped in it.

Two years later, I could not be happier about my choice, despite its impracticalities and my uncertain future, or more solidly convinced that I'm on the right path. Somehow the fact that I was answering a deep Yes from my core self has made questions like "How the hell will I fund this?" relatively trivial impediments. I could not have arrived at that Yes by just thinking about it.

I guess it depends on how much you're willing for your life to change. It sounds like you want it to change pretty profoundly. There's absolutely nothing silly or unwise about that -- you're already on klonopin just to get through the day. It's your life!

Go read the book. What you do with your life matters.
posted by stuck on an island at 6:12 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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