When you got everything, you got everything to lose.
January 11, 2013 9:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm 23, and I've had an objectively great programming job for six months. Part of me wants to quit and become a barista or something. Am I crazy?

I started programming midway through college, when I had an idea for a web app and quickly figured out that the only way to get it built was to build it myself. I loved making my idea into a working application, but I'm no longer so sure this meant I loved coding. To be honest, I hated every technical roadblock, and my glee upon fixing nasty bugs was 90% "FINALLY, I can move on!" and only 10% "Ohhh, I get it now!" I think I might be a non-nerd--if my code works, I don't care about why. If it doesn't work, I just want to reboot my computer and have it magically fixed. I'm sure that sounds incurious and spoiled, and I'm also sure that most programmers feel that way sometimes. But... I basically feel that way ALL the time.

And that's kind of horrible. I have a real job now, at a small company where the only other developer is my boss. There is SO MUCH to learn, but I only care about any of it for extrinsic reasons.* Some days, this is enough--I'm on task most of the time, efficient at writing simple code or cobbling together the solution from Google, and/or lucky enough to be consulted on product matters where I actually have thoughtful opinions to give. But most days, I'm fucking around on the internet and doing the bare minimum to look like I'm trying. Unless I seriously change my attitude (and please, Jesus, advice on that if you have it), I am never going to excel at this job.

I've always had a terrible work ethic when I'm doing something that 1) requires mental energy that 2) I don't want to give. When something is intellectually difficult and uninteresting, concentrating on it hard enough to understand it often feels as impossible to me as benching twice my bodyweight. (I was always a mediocre student.) And yet... I focused intense mental energy on my app almost every day from the beginning of junior year until graduation because I wanted to see it built.** I'd have coding breakthroughs while hanging out with friends because the app was almost always the top problem in my head. On school breaks, I'd sometimes code all day long, only pausing to eat or jog around the block.

I wish I had even 10% of that drive now. I feel so much guilt--primarily, over screwing over my hardworking, amazing boss with my spaciness and apathy. But also over stagnating intellectually. As it stands, my real motivators are my paycheck, fear of letting people down, and the near-certainty that by quitting, I'd be throwing away an amazing opportunity I'm currently too young, stupid, and privileged to appreciate. My mom is finally proud of me. My boss has invested an insane amount of time and effort into training me, and it would be a serious dick move to quit now. Also, my mom actually got me the interview because her friend is very high up in the company (though the technical side actually made the decision to hire me). I don't want to burn the bridge between me and this amazing connection, or cause any resentment or conflict between my mom and the connection (though that part's minor, since I doubt the connection would actually fault my mom for something I did).

So what do I WANT to do? I'm not sure. But having this job is making it hard to find out, because it's not a 9-5/M-F. Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does. Currently, I sort of really want to be a comedy writer--I've got a hilarious web series pilot in my head--but I feel so drained most of the time it's hard to dabble, much less dedicate myself. (Yes, I know my chances of making it are slim-to-none no matter what I do.) I also frankly miss my app but I REALLY can't bring myself to code in my spare time. Part of me just wants to quit and become a barista or something--struggle with the learning curve for a few weeks instead of FOREVER, develop some small talk skills, have most of my mental energy to focus on creative pursuits, know I could quit at any time if some exciting opportunity arose. The other part of me is screaming, "NOOOOOOOO YOU SHITBAG DON'T RUIN YOUR LIFE!!!!!!!!"

I have $50,000 in my bank account, no student debt (my dad died when I was 8 and he had life insurance), and health insurance through my mom. And I know I'm so, so lucky to be where I am now, but I also really want to be lost and aimless for a while. Because right now, I've got all the direction in the world, and it's breaking my privileged little heart.

Insights? Verbal kicks in the pants? Throwaway email: likeastagnantstone at gmail dot com. If it matters, I'm female.

*I know extrinsic rewards are totally legitimate reasons to work, and realistically the primary reason anyone has a job. I just can't seem to convince my Intense Focus Brain of that truth, and I speculate that in a less intellectually demanding job, perhaps that'd be more OK.

**The app never did get fully built (I knew literally nothing about coding beforehand and it was HUGE for a first project), but I guess I got maybe 65% of the way to a decent beta launch.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (57 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What about being a barista is attractive to you? Working at a coffee shop (like any retail job) can involve long hours on your feet, low wages, working weekends & late nights, dealing with the public- a lot of things that can be frustrating & exhausting, in other words. You might find yourself with less energy leftover at the end of the day then you think. And even if you only work part-time, the $50k you have saved up won't last forever, so at a certain point, you would need to figure out some way to support yourself. Perhaps you should look at other development jobs that would be less demanding then the one you have now?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:12 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

If I were you, I'd spend another year there -- really commit to doing the job, but save as much money as I can, and start planning on a 3-6 month break at the end of the year to 'find yourself'. If you find your groove on the job by the time a year rolls around, you don't need to leave. If you don't, then travel, move to LA and try to be a comedy writer or whatever.

If a lot of people hadn't worked hard to get you this job, I'd have told you to quit now and follow your dream, but I think given what your mom did to get you the job, you should at least give it a solid effort.

But yeah, 23 is too young to be stuck in a career you don't like. Give it a year, and if you still aren't happy, GTFO.
posted by empath at 9:14 AM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Six months in a new job is not really that much time. Maybe give it another year and see how you feel then? I always find that the first year of a new job is pretty awful, even if it turns out to be a job I love.
posted by barnoley at 9:16 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just want to add -- you're 23, I assume you don't have kids or responsibilities -- there's almost nothing you can do short of developing a crippling drug addiction that is going to ruin your life.
posted by empath at 9:17 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Back when I was 23 I was thinking about quitting and working in a coffee shop. I'm so glad I didn't, because looking back now, I realized that my excuses about stagnating intellectually were just ways for me to cover up the reality: the difficult parts of the job were difficult and I wanted to run away from them. I'm glad I didn't, because now I'm not one of those people who struggles every day due to lack of money and no viable career prospects. Dodged a bullet there."
posted by rr at 9:20 AM on January 11, 2013 [30 favorites]

But having this job is making it hard to find out, because it's not a 9-5/M-F. Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does.

Start putting value on your personal time right the hell now. Every day you are there, you set a precedent for what you are willing to put up with. Obviously, you should work hard, but if you want personal time, you should make it very clear (with your actions) that said personal time is valuable to you.
posted by griphus at 9:21 AM on January 11, 2013 [14 favorites]

I'll withhold comment on what's right or wrong in this situation but I will say that I've made comments in the past about how awesome/appropriate/necessary/long-term smart it was to work in Yellowstone National Park as a server for two summers (once after my now-wife's senior year in college and once after I finally got my BS in Mechanical Engineering). I had to make time for it and alot of people just didn't understand why I was doing it, especially the second summer...

I also took a good friend along for the second summer who was coming out of his master's program in C.S. and was at a very real risk of burnout and... let's just say that I'm sure he's very glad that he went.

Feel free to memail me for more info but good luck with your decision either way.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:22 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

But having this job is making it hard to find out, because it's not a 9-5/M-F. Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does.

Fuck that. But at the same time, you're not going to start making coffee for people and find that work tremendously inspiring, either. If you're young and unencumbered, you can do anything you want, and it'll probably turn out OK. Just make sure that if you're leaving you have a plan for something *better* as opposed to just something *different*. This doesn't necessarily mean a better job, but a better something, even if that is wandering around the world for a year or whatever.

But if you have no obligations and no debts, you are in the absolutely ideal place to do *anything you want*, do it now while you can. But don't go get a job at Starbucks, I'm almost certain that's not what you really want.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:22 AM on January 11, 2013

In the longer term, you'll certainly be moving on from this job, so don't rush it. There's a valuable lesson to learn there, which is to be able to wilfully focus yourself.

Like you, I have boundless energy if I'm hot on an idea, and none if it's just pick-and-shovel work that I know needs to be done for whatever reason, but that I don't care about--and it's the exact same activity in both cases (which is usually coding). Since becoming a freelancer in 2008, I've had to crush that squirrel-like attention span and learn to just sit down and do the work that needs to be done, because freelance rarely gives you the stuff of amazing ideas executed brilliantly. Here's my list of tips and tricks that keep me working usefully. Try them all, see which ones work for you, and keep trying different things.
  • Procrastinate usefully: rather than bolt myself to my desk, I'm always aware of useful work to be done, and if I don't want to do task A (fix a bug), I'll procrastinate by doing task B (unload the dishwasher). A lot of times, it's the context switch you crave; that's okay as long as useful work is getting done (later, I'll procrastinate about vacuuming by going to fix the bug).
  • Decompose tasks: This is the heart of most GTD methods. It's harder to do things you don't want to do when they're big things and you feel like you're committing yourself to hours of drudgery. Decompose the big tasks into a series of tasks small enough that any one task feels simple and quick--and then do it, reaching for that "one down" feeling. It's easy then to trigger a series of "one downs" that motors you through a long, easy list, leaving you feeling like you've gotten a lot done.
  • Focus on the goal: drudgery is drudgery, but there's always a reason to do it--finishing an assignment, getting paid for freelance work, clearing a huge mental pile... whatever, just focus on receiving or realizing that result
  • Pride in handling the drudgery: every job has a certain amount of just plain labor, and you'll never get through life surfing an enthusiasm high because no one maintains enthusiasm for that long and that continuously. Cultivate a sense of "yeah, I get the ugly shit done too" and recognize that it's worth doing and doing properly.
The running theme of these points is that you need to manage yourself, your brain, your expectations, and your emotions, just like you would manage an employee. Also, these are habitual mental responses, not life-changing epiphanies. You cultivate a habit by doing it a bunch, continuously, in small doses, every chance you get.

So: stick to your current job for a year, learn the ability to manage yourself, and then move on with more savings, more job experience, and being better prepared to do anything at all.
posted by fatbird at 9:23 AM on January 11, 2013 [20 favorites]

You gotta follow your dreams, man. Just try not to screw anyone over in the process.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:29 AM on January 11, 2013

You have opportunities other people your age don't with that chunk of change in your bank account. Have you considered striking out on your own with another app you could build and monetize? Grab a designer friend and another dev who loves the little details you hate working on, and build some dope shit!
posted by thirdletter at 9:32 AM on January 11, 2013

It's sort of a grand myth that everyone's career will be his or her "calling", that if you're not intellectually fulfilled every day of every year, you're in the wrong line of work. Obviously, if you hate hate hate it, you should get out, but it just sounds like you're bored and working for the paycheck (and the weekend).

That's fine. Even at your age (I'm not much older).

It's sounds like you're a work-to-live person, not a live-to-work person. There are a lot of people like that. Probably a majority. Maybe sometimes you get a burst of motivation and enjoy putting in some extra time. If not, don't sweat it. Obviously don't keep doing anything that makes you miserable, but if you're just bored and unfulfilled... maybe stick it out a little longer.

Honestly, for a long time I felt like quitting my research job and taking up dog-walking. Then I got on Wellbutrin. It's helped my mood, energy, and motivation level immensely.

Is it winter where you live? Even if you don't want to get on a mild antidepressant, I would suggest that you not make a decision like this, which could easily be a symptom of depression (even mild depression) in the winter.

Can you get a service job and take a long vacation from your current job?
posted by supercres at 9:32 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you find a coffee shop that will let you work part time for a small # of hours per week so you can see if you actually like something like that? Then you don't have to give up your job and you can test the waters.
posted by thorny at 9:33 AM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm a programmer, about 30, and would definitely have burned out by now if I were working 50+ hours/week. I negotiated a 3/4 time (30 hour/week) position for a few years, and then went freelance, scheduling myself to work about the same amount. The rate is high enough I make more than double what my barista or office monkey friends do, in fewer hours. Despite the fact that I would love to stop programming, I have to recognize this is a blessing.

Assuming your resume isn't already awesome, I think you should stay in your current position until it no longer looks like a blot on your resume (maybe another six months), or as long as you can stand it (whichever is shorter) and then look into freelancing. Once you're in control of your schedule, you'll be in a much better position to investigate your other skills and interests, and hopefully escape programming.

And good work with the savings. If you don't spend it paying for grad school and your spouse's grad school as I did, this will make a serious buffer for your career change down the road.
posted by tsmo at 9:35 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stay for another year. Get good at the job. It's hard and tiring to learn new job stuff, I know. But serving coffee is hard and tiring too, and so is being poor. If, once you feel like you've given it a really fair shot, and ~18 months have passed and you really don't want to code anymore, then do something else. But it won't be fair to you or your mom to not give it a fair shake.

What you're doing now is developing a trade - skills that people will pay money for, that not everyone else can do -- you're lucky to have the chance to do it, so don't throw it away. Once you've legitimately got the skills and are sure that you'd be happier doing something else, then Godspeed.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:36 AM on January 11, 2013

Following your dreams is great, but in the long run, *most* people have a lot of adjustment trouble in their first couple years of full-time work. If you can stick it out to 2-3? That's usually the sweet spot for where you're considered an Experienced X, and can parlay that to a better job down the road, and you're not trying to fight with new grads for jobs. If you've got a portfolio kind of thing where you can show people real work you've done, even better, but a certain amount of these first couple years is just proving to the rest of the grown-up world that you, too, are a grown-up and can do grown-up things.

It sucks. It totally sucks. But the things you hate at year 2-3 are often totally different things than you hated about the job 6 months in, and if you make the decision now, you're basically missing out on some chances down the road. You're not going to ruin your life, but you're going to lose opportunities, and you're going to find that most jobs, the bloom comes off the rose at about the same point, and you're going to have similar hurdles. The adjustment period isn't easy, but it does pass. And when it does pass, you'll have even *more* savings, and be even better at what you do currently, so it really only gets better. You're not going to miss any vital life experiences by not spending your early 20s being a barista.
posted by gracedissolved at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's funny because I also am 23, and I work in the software industry, and I feel the same way sometimes. I'm lucky that I don't have crazy hours like you, but I can definitely sympathize with many of the things you said.

Honestly, I think you'd feel a lot different if 1. you had normal working hours and 2. you were working on a project that you're excited about. Have you thought about looking for a job while you're still working there? I know it's hard because you don't have too much free time, but take 10 minutes each night before you go to sleep and after you're done redditting or whatever to check out a few different cool companies and send out a resume or two. Make sure those companies are working on things that EXCITE you, and don't have a crazy expectations for working 80 hours a week like many start ups do. These companies do exist - trust me, I work for one.

In the meantime, what helps me is thinking long term. What do I want to accomplish with my life? I know I want to take a few months off at some point and travel. I know I want to go in XYZ direction in my career. I know I need to get into XYZ graduate program to accomplish that goal. I know I need to save up XYZ money for that trip. I think about how the things I am doing right now are helping me achieve those goals. For example - with my current job - I can save up money so that I can put myself through that grad program. These are the things I think about when I have those moments of "MAN if I could just work at that cool coffee shop down the street I wouldn't be stressed out and unhappy all the time". So think about your long term life goals (do you want to buy a house? do you want to retire one day and buy a boat and sail the world? what you're doing NOW is helping you get to those goals one day).

Finally, another note. I have many, many friends who are my age and work in coffee shops, or do freelance photography, and are creative, and design websites and have their own schedules and I am SO SO jealous of them sometimes. I sit in my cubicle while they're all having brunch on a Wednesday morning, or go out for bike rides - and I can't join, cause damn, it's a Thursday afternoon, what the hell? I can't skip work. But at the end of the day, they're always telling me how much they envy me. I make a lot more money then them. I have a car. I have zero debt. I can pay all my bills, with a chunk of change to do whatever pleases me. I never have to worry about the things that they are constantly worrying about. I have health insurance. So yea, they have free time, and they are really creative, and they are free. But those things change - especially when we get closer to our 30s. They will slowly get cubicle jobs. They will start having more responsibilities, and less free time. At that point - you'll be so ahead of them. You're going to be so close to your long term life goals. Think about that the next time you pass your local hipster coffee shop. But hey, if that's the life you want, then go do it.
posted by carmel at 9:41 AM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does. Currently, I sort of really want to be a comedy writer

Man, if I had to put up with that bullshit, I'd want to be a comedy writer, too. Or the writer of shampoo instructions, anything to get the hell out.

On the one hand, coding is no longer the single brightest spark in your universe, because it's a job - it's tedious and frustrating, but it's something you know how to do, and you're good at it. This is just life - your career is not going to be an orgy of intellectual passion. It should, however, be pleasant and satisfying.

On the other, fuck that noise, this is burnout.

You are intelligent and skilled and experienced. You don't need to put in 80 hour work weeks to pull your weight, and your boss is fighting decades of formal study that proves he's being dumb when he demands 7 days in the office from his employees. It's wrung the life from you, and drained all joy and contentment from following a career you seem well suited for.

Set up work/life balance boundaries, and stick to them - if your boss refuses to honor them, or gives you shit for having them, then find another job. Quit straight up. Be a barrista for a while if you want, but I'd recommend finding a coding gig that doesn't suck instead.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:50 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

You really don't have to work long hours just because there's pressure to. Sample phrases
"OK, I can get that done by next week."
"I can't be here tomorrow. I'll meet with you on Monday."
Worst that can happen is you get fired - but if you're getting shit done, that's not going to happen.
posted by teki at 9:51 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can't really speak to the rest of your problem, but I can remark on the coffee-world; Being a barista can be pretty lucrative...if you're willing to make it your main focus and put in about 3-6 years working your way up to a respectable, high-end shop, in a city that tips well. Even then, you're only looking at $10/hr + $3-4/hour in tips (on a REALLY good day). And those shifts are typically 6 hours long. I know many a barista who work at two different shops on opposite days.

Realistically, with no experience you're going to be working at a somewhat shitty shop, making minimum wage + $1-2/hour in tips, unless you know someone who owes you a favor.

If you decided to do this, scale your living expenses down accordingly, and freelance for extra money and savings. It's really goddamn hard to live off of barista wages alone...in fact, in 9 years working in the coffee industry, I've only met one barista who's sole income is being a barista.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:51 AM on January 11, 2013

Work part-time as a barista on the weekends before you quit your day job.
posted by mattbucher at 10:01 AM on January 11, 2013

Career decisions I made from ages 23-25 are not the ones my current 31yo self would have made. I had got myself to a great position and then burned out. I thought I would be happier as a "work-to-live" person. But that turned out not to be true. I went back to a similar kind of work but I was 3-4 years behind because I had taken a detour that cost time and made my "story" more difficult to sell. Maybe things will turn out differently for you, but that's my take.
posted by mullacc at 10:05 AM on January 11, 2013

Currently, I sort of really want to be a comedy writer--I've got a hilarious web series pilot in my head--but I feel so drained most of the time it's hard to dabble, much less dedicate myself.

I work in the entertainment industry and I'm trying to claw my way up to being a writer. Try longer (probably) hours than you work now, lower pay, and less respect. Oh, and no job security. And I still go home and write. So, if you want to write, write, but don't blame your circumstances or think it's an easy life.

Have you worked in food service before? There's a certain dignity in being able to sit down at a desk, not have to do the customer is always right thing, and not end your shift exhausted and covered in food detritus. I'm possibly looking into going back into food service unless I get a better job after my current job - and not get sucked into an endless cycle of dead-end work, but I digress - and I remember how much I hated being a waitress and I frantically go through my gmail contacts and try to see who I can hit up for work. So, I wouldn't quit your day job right now.

It sounds like you need to enrich your life outside work and get better at drawing boundaries at work. Try that before quitting your job.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are a ton of AskMes that are some variations of, "I can't find a career/I am stuck in a dead end, go-nowhere job". I wouldn't be jealous of the people who are baristas or want that kind of life. I'd spend some time reevaluating the kind of job you want and taking the time to transition to something more interesting for you, which will be a lot easier for you to do from your standpoint as a programmer than as a barista.

You yourself say that you didn't get this job of your own initiative, exactly, so I can understand how you might want to do something that you want which you chose for yourself, completely independently. That's a great idea! But don't do something hurtful to your career by having that be a working in a coffee shop.
posted by deanc at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2013

Haha, you sound a lot like me (especially a lot like me when I was your age) even though we work in very different fields.

I'm a writer. When I started out, it was also a hobby -- I wrote a blog. I loved blogging so I thought I loved writing. Once I started being paid to write, I realised I had liked basically everything but the writing: I liked designing my blog, I liked having somewhere to put my thoughts and experiences, I liked the audience, I liked being part of that online community. But writing? Ugh. It's like pulling teeth sometimes.

Like you, I can get obsessed with non-work projects or research or ideas, to the point where I will just not eat or sleep. It isn't a switch I can turn off or on at will. I can easily procrastinate in my office all day screwing around online and not get a thing done until that deadline is breathing down my neck, then come home and just pour over an activity or topic that is totally random and of no use to my life whatsoever. I too was a pretty mediocre student for this reason.

When I was 21 and started my first full-time writing gig, I almost immediately wanted to go back to my previous job as a bartender (the thing that stopped me was that I remembered how little intellectual stimulation the job provided, and that my mum reassured me that it was something everybody with challenging jobs fantasised about -- working in a bookstore, running a teahouse, etc. -- but those jobs aren't actually as easy as they sound and I'd likely get bored again). That first job was much worse than yours sounds -- the boss was a jerk, the pay was terrible, the hours were insane. But I don't regret sticking it out for a respectable amount of time.

Today I love my job. And I still hate writing. As a journalist, I get to meet and interview amazingly interesting people, I get paid to eat things or see films, I can turn any weird question or passing interest I have into a story, I have flexible hours and work with great people. This stuff kicks my "Intense Focus Brain", as you call it, into gear. Writing is just the tool/skill/talent that allows me to do those things. And yeah, that part of it is still a grind most of the time. I even think of it as a penance for all the cool bits of my job sometimes, but really, there are people who have to shovel coal for a living (I assume). It's a pretty small price to pay. (I haven't really solved the procrastination problem, other than to just always have a lot of things on the go and always have deadlines looming. I still screw around at work.).

What I'm saying is: coding can be your tool. It doesn't have to be the be all and end all of your career. But if you know you're OK at it, and you know it can be a means to an end for something you are passionate about (like building apps), you may not want to write it off just yet. First jobs always kind of suck, but if you can stick with it for a year or so, it might prove a good stepping stone to a job where coding is just a tool you use to work on awesome projects you're actually excited about.

(Apologies for length, but I'm avoiding all the things I'm actually supposed to be writing right now)
posted by retrograde at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

From a user that would prefer to remain anonymous:
When I was 23, I inherited a figure similar to your $50,000. And I spent it being young and carefree and enjoying life, with modest jobs I enjoyed and no real financial pressures aka being a poorly paid part time barista equivalent.

For all the crappy and foolish decision I've made, I have very few regrets in my life but what I can tell you is that I regret, pretty deeply, blowing that money. My life didn't work out exactly as I expected it to (who's does?), and that 50K tended properly would have made a real difference to future me - either as a down-payment on the home I bought at 37, or as a base for the retirement fund I couldn't quite imagine I'd need and one day struggle to fund back when I was 23.

So my suggestion to you is: if you want to go be a poorly paid barista, by all means, go do that - that is what being 23 is for. But do it AS a poorly paid barista. Save like hell for the next year in your current job, and feel like you've worked toward this time off goal. Then find a flexible job that will let you do other things. Live with shit housemates, eat shit food, make it work on your crappy paychecks, and then go backpack through Europe or America or whatever with your actual employment savings.

You don't have to subsume everything to adult security and full-time career employment, but at the same time, don't undervalue the financial options that money will give you when you're not 23 anymore and are more encumbered with the weight of more mileage on your clock.
posted by mathowie at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: People always pick "barista" in these types of questions because working in a funky, laid-back coffee shop seems like such a fun, amazing time (note: more likely you'll be at a Starbucks or chain store). And it's true, your coworkers can be fun, and you get free coffee, and make chit-chat with interesting people. But at the end of the day you're scrubbing toilets and floors, and you gotta get up at 4:30am because the place opens at 6:00am, and you're pulling in minimum wage because these places are rarely profitable enough to pull in anything else, and you're dealing with shitty customers who don't like how you made their latte, and you have no health insurance, no extra money, and maybe you have free time for Thursday bike rides but it's at the expense of any kind of stability in your life. And believe me, you won't believe how much of that free time can get eaten up by searching for sliding-scale health services or frantically trying to find public assistance when you get into an accident on your Thursday afternoon bike ride and have to spent time in the ER. You won't believe how constant, crippling poverty can suck at your energy.

First jobs are always hard. You're used to the freedom of college and being young. If you quit, then provided you're hardworking you'll almost certainly not go homeless. But you may not find yourself able to find a stable, well-paid position again for years, especially since you're burning your bridges, and when you're 30 you'll look around at your friends who are able to travel and go to the doctor and you'll wish you had some money in the retirement account. I say this as someone who spent their early-mid-20s drifting--including being a barista for a few years of that--and wishes they'd settled earlier. My only comfort is that I'm not interested in having kids so it's OK that I'm pushing 30 and only just exiting the poverty line.

It's important to follow your dreams, but it's also important to make sure you've built yourself a cushion in case you fail. Put in a few years, build up a nice savings account, live simply so if you leave and your income drops you don't burn through all your savings immediately. Then when you have a nice resume and reference to fall back on if everything goes tits up, take 3, 6, 12 months off to go do whatever.

And look: if you aren't finding the time to put in at least a little bit into your comedy writing now, despite the soul-sucking job and crazy hours, chances are 99.99% you won't have the drive and creativity necessary to succeed in it even if you were working in the most funky part-time barista job ever. Breaking into the entertainment business is not for the faint of heart.
posted by Anonymous at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2013

Were you one of those bright kids in school that never really had to work and just sort of coasted through life til now?

Because it sounds to me you're running into your first real challenge, the first Hard Thing you need to push through in life (because life isn't all about finding fun and intellectually stimulating things and the reason they pay you to go to work is because sometimes it sucks) and you are realizing maybe you're not the hotshot you think you are and, for the first time, you have to try and it's hard and your brain is doing the mental equivalent of a kid having to clean up his room whining but it's boring and I don't want to and I'm tired and turning molehills into mountains and dragging its feet to avoid confronting the real dilemma, which is that you are being challenged for what I'm guessing is the first time and that challenges your self-perception. You want to run away rather than wrestle them into submission.

Not to be glib, but you're kind of romanticizing being a barista if you think you're going to come trotting home with tons of energy and intellectual bandwidth just raring to go because you're on your feet all day dealing with people (who are coffee crazed maniacs) and doing 10,000 dumb things that make no sense but corporate thinks they're a good idea. And depending on your management, you may be working the same crazy hours but making barista money rather than what you're making now.

Your dilemma is actually the dilemma of creatives all over the world, both the successful and the would-be successful. The successful, though, made time for whatever they wanted to do even when they were really tired and didn't want to. They mastered the whiny little kid inside.

Now, I agree that you may need to sort out some work life balance things, however, I suspect you're just going through the ramp-up/learning phase at your first job.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:22 AM on January 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

There is a reason that photography remains my avocation and not my vocation - I love shooting and the last thing I want is to ruin my enjoyment of this fulfilling activity by having other people tell me what and where to photograph. I was fortunate in that I had a good job when I first started shooting and that gave me time to decide what I wanted to do. It took a lot of discussions with friends and mentors to decide, "Just because I love photography and have skill in this medium doesn't mean I am in any way obligated to do it commercially." Well, that and I was in a small town with no real photography jobs available.

Point is that you obviously loved your project, and perhaps conflated "coding for my pet project" with "full-time vocation" - and that's an easy thing to do. I hear there are plenty of people for whom that works, this fulfillment in a combination of job + hobby.

Anyway, there's no reason to shift yourself into a mindless retail job (not that I'm trying to talk shit on mindless retail jobs) just because you don't enjoy your current job. I find that even when I'm drained from work my hobby can energize and refresh me - as long as it's not the same as the work I did during the day.
posted by komara at 10:23 AM on January 11, 2013

I want to let you know that there are others in your shoes! I am near your age, also work in IT, am good at it and more successful than most of my peers my age, but I know in my gut this was not what I can do the rest of my life.

I type this from my desk at work right now so I can't offer any first hand advice, but anyone I've talked to who's left the cubicle to follow their dreams and successfully made a living at it have reported ZERO regrets. And you need to remind yourself that just because a different life path may net less $$ in the grand scheme than your current track, you need to equate what holds more value, $$ or happiness. If you're happy and earning enough $$ to stay happy, then you've succeeded!

On the other hand I've heard from plenty of people who ditched a job they couldnt stand with no fall back plan, who deeply regretting throwing their experience and education down the drain to start from scratch... because in not lining up alternative income before leaving their old job, they actually started from a hole of debt and spent a decade recovering from that debt rather than actually chasing a dream. So be wary of spending too much time in wandering mode, and be wary of leaving your current comfort zone without having a solid plan of what you want to do next.
posted by el_yucateco at 10:38 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am the same age as you and have a career type job, and I also have moments of jealousy when my friends talk about their more relaxed and less time consuming jobs.

I will say that during my first year working full-time I thought I was too tired and burned out after work to pursue my real interests. Something sort of clicked for me this year, though, and now I'm making sure my personal time is being used to work toward my goals. Echoing the posters above who say that if you really want to be a comedy writer you will start writing now and being a barista has nothing to do with it. There will always be some excuse until you just start. You are in a position of privilege and should take advantage of it while you can.
posted by saltwater at 10:50 AM on January 11, 2013

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for the responses, everyone! One major clarification: I don't specifically want to be a barista. I know it's ultimately a shitty job. Maybe I'm romanticizing the experience of HAVING a shitty part-time job to follow my dreams (and yes, I've had a shitty job before--I worked guest services at a community pool run by fascists for two summers), but I'm not romanticizing the job itself. I just really want the time and mental (if not physical) energy to really try this writing thing. Currently, I just don't have it.

I realize though that quitting after six months would be a major stain on my resume if I ever want to code again, as well as a slap in the face to my boss, my mom, and my mom's friend. As of now, I make $32,000 a year and work 50 hours a week on average (the result of me being as protective of my free time as I think I can be). I also have stock in the company that will fully vest in 4 years (25% per year) or when the company is sold. Before, I was looking at the dilemma or quitting now, or staying 3.5 years/until sale. Now I see some middle ground, but I'm still really not sure what I want to do.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:09 AM on January 11, 2013

12 year programmer/developer here, and I think I have a slightly different take than what most people are saying. In short,


You have the rest of your life to be in a career when you have obligations to yourself, your family, and every other human being on the planet. Right now, there is absolutely NO reason to accept anything less than being free and easy. I was just like you, and I chose the path others are advocating. I kept at it, told myself I was lucky to have the gig, etc.. And now, I find myself in a position where I have a tough time getting motivated, and a lot of time is spent wondering "what if?"

Let me alleviate another myth that I saw above, with the caveat that this won't be popular advice to some: Leaving after six months in the coding world isn't a big deal at all, especially if you're competent. Even if it's a full time gig, you can tell future employers any number of legitimate reasons you had for leaving. (In my experience, I've been a contractor for the last ten years, and I've never been at a gig longer than nine months. NOT ONCE has someone questioned that, even though I don't come out and say I was a contractor on my resume/CV.)

So follow your instincts, make your web series, slum it through a year or two of minimum wage. Or, even better, find a better coding job at an hourly rate. It'll be better money and (arguably) less accountability.
posted by ASoze at 11:23 AM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I just wanted to let you know that it took my 13 months into my first fulltime job to go back to being creative in my spare time. Something about the new experience, the burnout from just being EXPECTED to be somewhere for 8 hours a day, caused me to get home exhausted. Once I sunk into routine, I found my creativity again. I still don't produce as much as I did when I worked in a bookstore, but at least I can afford to eat and I haven't scrubbed poop off any floors in years.

Look, I hear what some people are saying about GO NOW. But you're only 23! Give it another year. Set a deadline -- "when I've been here for 18 months I'll quit." If that 18th month comes and you still really want out? Go. If it comes and you don't? Stay.
posted by AmandaA at 11:31 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

As of now, I make $32,000 a year and work 50 hours a week on average...

Having done both, I will tell you that 10 hours a day 5 days a week is considerably better for your personal time than ~8 hours a day 6 days a week.
posted by griphus at 11:38 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Can you stick it out another six months, then search for other programming jobs? Look for one that pays you in cash, not stock, and respects your time. I'd guess at that point you could get a nice raise and fewer hours all at once. (But as others have said, if you want to start writing, then try to start writing now.)

I worked in a job with long hours right after college and a lot of people burned out because it wasn't really what they wanted to do in life. But the people who said GET ME OUTTA HERE and took some other random job had a much harder time, over all, than the people who figured out how they could use the experience they were getting to get a slightly different job that they enjoyed.
posted by _Silky_ at 11:51 AM on January 11, 2013

Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does.
To be honest with you, I've been working in Corporate America since 1976 (I was 16 years old and started out full-time as a Telex operator at a Fortune 500 company the day after 11th grade ended, then I was part-time once school resumed in the Fall.) I've been at many jobs since then and there wasn't a one that didn't require hours above and beyond the typical 40-hour work week. (The only main difference was that at that Fortune 500 place I was "hourly", so I got time and a half for staying late or coming in on Saturdays.) But even if you happen to strike gold and land a job in LA as a comedy writer for an established sitcom, you'll be required to spend more than 40 hours per week writing and revising and such. And while it sounds like a "Yeah, but at least it's something fun"-type situation, after a while it's still work. And it will still often be mind-numbing, exhausting and leave you no free time.

After working for 20+ years in various office jobs, I finally landed a paying gig doing what I love best and what I'd always dreamed of - writing. Better yet, writing trivia (I've always been a bit of a Cliff Clavin/Sheldon Cooper with a brain full of arcane facts). Nevertheless, 10 years into the writing gig I note that I seem to work even more hours than ever before and sometimes it's just not fun anymore. It's a drag to get a call at 11PM from someone at CNN Headline News saying "we need five trivia facts on XX in 30 minutes" when all I want to do is veg out in front of the TV. In this electronic age, as a writer you'll never be "unavailable" to your boss(es) on any project...they'll call or text you in the middle of the night, if need be. As a barista, you'll end up working weekends and holidays. The same applies to most service/retail jobs. If you're really that disillusioned with your current job then by all means look for something else, but keep in mind that there is a reason it's called "work" - even dream careers have their share of drudgery.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:07 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I make $32,000 a year and work 50 hours a week on average

It depends on your location and the sort of work you do, but I think you're being used. Drop your hours down to 40 and ask for some kind of raise. Use the extra 10 hours a week to explore being a barista. How likely is it really that the company is going somewhere? How solid are those stock options? Have you had a lawyer look at your agreement? Just something to think about. I was in a similar position many years ago. About the only good thing that came out of it was some personal contacts.
posted by DarkForest at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your experience may vary, but in my experience working catering and waitressing, which I think is a similar line of work to barista-ing, working customer service is more mentally draining than I would have imagined. Constantly having to be cheerful and "on", remembering everyone's orders and their special requests, multi tasking between cleaning and serving and taking orders and running the register, the stress of the "rush hours" in food work... you may work less hours, but you may be just as mentally taxed (maybe in a different way) when you get home.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:13 PM on January 11, 2013

As someone who has stuck it out in terrible jobs, the one thing I learned was that my life is not worth the stress. I leave if it's unbearable, damn the resume. St Peter isn't going to want to see my CV.

I'm currently making ~12K more a year at a job that is, on the whole, less stressful than one I tried to "tough out" (it's still stressful, however). I've left jobs after 3 months with nothing else lined up, for legitimate reasons.

The best job I ever had was making $10 an hour at a network ops center, monitoring the network, I had loads of freetime so I could just code small stuff all day and then fix network problems when they popped up. Management was sane, my coworkers became my friends, and the job paid okay. That's all you really need.

You could probably even transition into IT, having programming experience on your resume looks really attractive.
posted by hellojed at 12:14 PM on January 11, 2013

Whatever it is you really want to do, keep in mind that at this job you (and possibly) your boss are getting ripped off at this job. Even incompetent novice developers back in 2000 regularly earned at least 40K and often worked normal hours. So, if you decide to stay in programming, at least move to another job.
posted by ignignokt at 12:29 PM on January 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

I make $32,000 a year and work 50 hours a week on average

This is something of an aside, but unless you live somewhere with a super-cheap cost of living, you are underpaid. If you're working 50 hours every week, you should either be well-compensated or find your work fulfilling. Ideally both.

I wouldn't advise you to dump your job and work as a barista regardless, but in light of this info, I think it's definitely not the answer. Do a little research and find out your value. Negotiate for more reasonable hours, compensation, or both. Even if you don't have an immediate way out, build your skills at this job and you'll be able to find something much better when the time comes to move on.

I get the sense from your question that you're somewhat conflict-averse and might not be used to standing up for yourself. It's a vital skill to learn if you want to get anywhere in your career - just as important, if not more so, than learning to slog through hours of tedium.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:38 PM on January 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

But having this job is making it hard to find out, because it's not a 9-5/M-F. Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does.

Start putting value on your personal time right the hell now. Every day you are there, you set a precedent for what you are willing to put up with. Obviously, you should work hard, but if you want personal time, you should make it very clear (with your actions) that said personal time is valuable to you.
posted by griphus

Learn this. This is not just important to your current job, it's a life skill. Your job does not define you - your personal time does. As someone who once worked 60-70 hours a week, trust me, your personal time is very valuable.
posted by azpenguin at 12:39 PM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I kinda gave up my "high pressure" life to become a waitress and while it's not the worst thing ever, I probably feel more unhappy now than before, because I have to deal with crazy managers, catty coworkers, and people who fucking shit a brick if their ketchup is running low. I used to be a barista and my boss was a fucking asshole. Same as when I was a bartender. My current job is about as "cool" and laid back as it gets and it's still full of off-the-books game-playing and such.

So, I'd hold on to the job you have now and guard your personal time. Working an office job can be more demoralizing than waiting tables-- boredom, feeling bloated and fat, time barely ticking by-- but it's an investment in a future job you might actually want. Also, though you're being underpaid, you're making a hell of a lot more than a barista. And money is really nice.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:55 PM on January 11, 2013

Everyone is under tremendous pressure to put in extra hours--I typically work six days a week, and I know my boss would be delighted if I worked seven like he does.

...I make $32,000 a year and work 50 hours a week on average

Holy fuck. I'm a programmer, and I was going to say that unless you're getting a percentage of profits (as in, it's a startup and you have equity) or you're getting paid six figures, fuck six days a week. With your update, the answer is GOOD GOD FUCK THAT. I get paid multiples of that figure and I've come in occasionally on a weekend, but as a regular thing? Nope. You're being used. They're lucky you can type for that money, let alone program and come in on Saturdays*. Do you by any chance work in the games industry? That's a place filled with shitty employers taking advantage of people who will give up their life just to work there. Don't be one of those people, in that industry or any other.

You need to stop going in on Saturdays. Tell them you got a second job, and if you want to, actually get a second job working a saturday shift at a coffee shop for escapism. Better yet, spend your Saturdays looking for a new programming job that sounds interesting to you. If they fire you, so what? You were thinking about quitting anyway. (If you can, I'd stay there til you've been there at least a year, and have a specific activity you want to do and can't while still working there, don't just quit to leave unless the job is making you sick/depressed. But quitting a job you don't want is not a slap in the face to anyone, it's looking after yourself.)

Overall, once you've got a little more sanity in your life in general, you'll have space to think about whether you really want to be a programmer, or if perhaps you'd like to move into a related position like product manager/designer, where you get to plan the app and get to see it all come together without actually doing all the work, or you'll have time to practice your aspiring comedy routines, or so on. Right now it would be very difficult to tell if you want to get out of this job, or out of the career.

*This could be a reasonably good salary if you are unavoidably trapped in a small town in the desert with no other employment opportunities, but I doubt this is the case.
posted by jacalata at 1:09 PM on January 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion that you look into whether your workplace is using you. But here's another thing: I've got a 9 to 5 job, and am also a professional artist. Tried the waitressing thing, the freelancing thing, etc, and it either sucked up all my energy with its bullshit or was too spotty to cover living expenses, or both. Now? I wake up at 5:30 to make art until I have to leave the house, at the very last possible moment. You can do that, too, if you really want to write comedy.
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet at 1:34 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I make $32,000 a year and work 50 hours a week on average

Assuming 3 weeks paid time off, that's $13.06/hr.
If you only worked 40 hours a week, that's $16.32/hr.

The latter could be acceptable if you are in the rural Midwest. In the former case or any other location, you are getting screwed. They are insulting you every hour you work at this rate.

I would second Ghostride The Whip, but you aren't getting paid enough. A 50% pay raise and 40 hours a week would be a good start. You really can work just 40 hours a week. If they won't accept that, you'll get unemployment and have time to find a better job and spend time trying your other interests. And my experience says, if you don't actually finish those other interests before you find another job you'll know its not the kind of thing you want to do to earn money.

Ways to do 40 hours:
1. Leave after 8 hours of work. Just put everything down and walk out. "Send me an e-mail, I'll get right on it tomorrow morning" as you walk out (don't stop moving).
2. Do not come in on weekends.
posted by flimflam at 1:35 PM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, with the update on the salary -- just go whenever you want.
posted by empath at 1:41 PM on January 11, 2013

You need better pay for the hours and risk you are taking. Most startups (like 90%) fail so you can't guarantee that the options will vest, or that the business will sell or that your options will be worth anything after another 10 rounds of funding. But since you have the job, you can cut back on hours, for another 6 months till you make it a solid year and then go get another job.
posted by captaincrouton at 2:31 PM on January 11, 2013

You have GOT to get a better job. I made 10 or 15% more than that at your age in academia, working like 35 hours a week. (I was bored with my job too.) They're dangling the options to keep you dramatically underpaid.

Ten to one that you find the new job more interesting in addition to more lucrative.
posted by supercres at 3:11 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you're not making enough money. Get out of there, not to barista or surf of whatever, but to find a job that pays you industry-standard wages or higher. Yeesh - $32,000/year is nothing, especially in tech.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:45 PM on January 11, 2013

I laughed out loud when I read that salary. Get out of there. There are places with way better work/life balances that will pay you double that.
posted by evisceratordeath at 3:48 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

In a small company especially, everyone knows when someone isn't pulling their weight. Your salary would be hilarious if you were good at your job, but your boss is probably fine with paying a fraction of the usual salary to someone who is giving the work a fraction of the usual effort.

I don't think you're in the right field, so you might as well quit and try the comedy thing. Worst case scenario is that it doesn't work out, you can't find anything in another field, and then you could reasonably easily find another programming job where you pretty much can't help but be slightly less underpaid and will probably have better hours, which will thrill your new hiring manager because you won't have to put on your resume that you spend most days goofing off. Having seen the other side, and matured a little, you'll at least be in a position to tough it out while you figure out what you want to do, and you'll still be young enough to easily do it.
posted by Kwine at 6:13 PM on January 11, 2013

I'm not sure if this was covered above, but I didn't see it mentioned so just for good measure: There are other jobs in software development and the professional world in general that aren't programming.

I was like you at your age in that I enjoyed solving problems and making things to solve my problems, and using google to make the code bend to my will. But when I started out writing code for a living, (which is all doing what other people dictate), I hated it and was terrible at it. So I gave it up and got a job as an administrative assistant. I made a good enough living (benefits, vacation, etc.), I didn't give up the professional momentum I had acquired (very important) and it gave me the time and opportunity to figure out what I was actually good at - the part of software and web design where they figure out what has to get coded and how it has to work for users to be able to use it (user experience/product management).

So please don't think that's all programming or nothing or that you're a terrible ungrateful failure for having these thoughts. There are a lot of non-programming roles in this field that might be a good fit for you, and it's a good field to be in (maybe even the best field to be in).

For your next steps, think about getting one more programming job that has decent fair pay as a foothold. It would be ideal to get yourself a mentor,exposure to the other kinds of roles, and a path to get yourself into one of them.
posted by bleep at 6:14 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have two different pieces of advice:

Career-wise, you're on the steep part of the learning curve. Things get easier and better over time, both because you adjust to working instead of learning, and because you develop the skills that are relevant for what you do. That part can be pretty overwhelming, and it sounds like you could really use a vacation and chance to relax. It took me at least a year to start feeling comfortable and settled, and now several years later where I feel like I'm hitting my stride. From that said, I'd say give it a year and see how it feels then. That said, I did like the coding/analysis I was doing along the way. If it's really not right for you, leaving is also a legit choice - feeling stuck is no good for you or anyone else.

Job-wise, you can do better! Not that it's ever that easy to find something new, but there are definitely entry-ish jobs out there that pay at least twice what you make now, and that even have decent work-life balance. I can see not wanting to leave at once, given the family connection, but the one or 1.5 year mark seem *very* reasonable to me to say "this isn't what I'm looking for" and move on to a different place.
posted by lorimt at 8:51 PM on January 11, 2013

You're a super-bright 23-year-old. My advice is to try as many different jobs in as many different and interesting fields as you can. Wherever you end up, it will make you a better person, and a better worker.

Don't worry about pay right now (in fact be an intern if you have to); focus on learning as much as you can in all disciplines you find fascinating.

Quit your current job immediately - don't worry about your boss, you'll be doing him a favor. There is a whole world of opportunity, knowledge, and experience out there, waiting for you.
posted by Terheyden at 9:51 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh hey, you're me five years ago! Except I quit to work in a bookstore.

But instead of quitting to work in a bookstore, I actually worked at the bookstore on weekends, because my job was so boring working seven days a week was worth the escape. I worked 7 days a week for 4 straight months before I finally quit my coding job.

After moving to NYC and losing the battle against the bookstore-work job market, I started coding again. And it was great! I worked 9-5, didn't care too much about my job, made plenty of money, and learned that working exists so that you can have fun the rest of the time, and programming is a really good gig for that.

So: get a new job, quit your old one, don't sweat it. You are also allowed to be come a barista as long as you keep up with programming on the side, because it'll come in handy when you're looking to fill your wallet.
posted by soma lkzx at 10:39 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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