Help me stop coasting
November 17, 2005 6:41 PM   Subscribe

If you have a happy career help me! So I'm trying to figure out what to do with my life. Why is it so hard?

I've started and not finished (or done anything productive) with so many careers/majors/hobbies in my 20's. I turn 30 very soon. I have coasted thru my 20's. When do I grow up?

To the folks that have happy careers, did you just take a chance?

Did you do those self help "find yourself" books?
Did you always know what you were going to do?
Are you just lying about being happy at your job?

My options at this point are:
* Go back to school @ 30. oh that sounds like Soo much fun. I am drawn to cognitive science, but I am afraid that I am too old.
* Start a business that I am virtually assured success at, but is so so boring, would leave me married to the job, but would potentially leave me very well off in about 5 years.
* Keep on coasting.
posted by the giant pill to Work & Money (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Do something that helps the world. The world needs it. Do something that you'll be happy to have tell your grandkids you did 30 years from now. Do something so that when people say, "god, those assholes at the turn of the century really fucked up big time" you can at least know that you tried to make a difference, even if it was just being a small part in a small way of something much bigger than yourself.

I'm 41 years old. I had a hot shot job with Apple computer all through my twenties, but it wasn't me, and I knew it.

Then I tried a bunch of different things in m thirties, some tech, some not, I applied to law school but then didn't go because I thought maybe I could get rich at a dot com.

For the last couple of years I've been working at a non-profit, doing environmental advocacy. I'm getting paid less than half of what I was before. I have to be careful not to go out to dinner too much. There's the same bureacratic nonsense and frustrations that there are at every job. Some of my coworkers are stupid and some are smart. But fundamentally it's different and better because it has meaning that goes beyond myself.

So that's what's worked for me. At 41 I'm happier with my work than I've ever been before.

Good luck. Keep plugging away. I'm sure you'll get different advice from other people (things about finding out what excites you, what turns you on, and that's true and it's been important for me getting to this place, too). You'll find it.
posted by alms at 7:05 PM on November 17, 2005

My one bit of advice is sit down and think about it for 2 hours or so and don't do anything else for that time. I really don't want this to seem condescending, it wasn't obvious to me that this would be as helpful as it was.
posted by I Foody at 7:33 PM on November 17, 2005

What do you enjoy doing? Is there a way to get someone to pay you to do that?

I find that there are a lot of compromises, personally. More money, but boring job - or dismal amount of money, but interesting job?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:40 PM on November 17, 2005

You aren't going to get an answer without doing some work at it. I bounced around a few jobs in my 20s, never feeling satisfied. I had lots of talents, but couldn't focus. For me, two books made the difference: What Color is My Parachute -- not the main book (which wasn't all that helpful on its own) but the workbook, which presents you with choices and brainstorming activities and preference tests and such in a more fun way. I worked through the whole thing, really worked at it, and by the end I had a startlingly clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life. I am still on the general path that I discovered through that book.

The other one I found helpful was I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What it Was. This book made sense to me, as someone with a lot of interests but an unfocused career.

So, do the self-help books help? Yes, but only if you pay attention to the "self" part. The books aren't magic: your dedication to developing a satisfying career is.

The tone of your question indicates a corollary problem -- you sound defeated. Don't fall prey to limited thinking. You say: My options at this point are: [3 unappealing otions]. That statement is false. Your options are unlimited. There is absolutely nothing that you can't figure out or overcome once you know what you really want. Start getting excited about your opportunity to be alive.
posted by Miko at 7:48 PM on November 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

My job has become progressively less enjoyable as I've moved up the ladder in my field. When I worked in a cubicle and went home every day at 4:30 I loved my job. You want to know what I loved most? THE PEOPLE! I worked with cool, laid-back people!

Now I've moved up a few times. Most of the people I work with now are very serious and political. I have to take my job very seriously. I have to deal with ego-maniacs. I make more than twice as much money as I used to, but my job isn't fun anymore even though I enjoy the actual work that I do. Again, it's the people.

So - It's my opinion that the people you work with will determine happiness to a great extent. And, it's my experience that people in the middle of the organization are a lot cooler than those at the bottom or the top.

Don't know if that's helpful or not. But take it for what it's worth.
posted by crapples at 7:54 PM on November 17, 2005

Facing a similar dilemma at age 24, after much research, meditation, and consulting the I-Ching and Tarot (I was 24, OK?) I finally took my mother's advice and went to Nursing school (which seemed really wierd to me at the time).
But having recently had a tonsillectomy I realized that:
A) I wanted to learn more about healthcare as self-defense in case I ever got sick again, and
B) at least I'd be helping people and
C) I'd never get laid off.
So two more years of school set me up for a reasonably satisfactory career. Plenty of cognitive science realworld application.
My only regret now at age 53 is that I didn't really prepare for retirement. You don't get rich doing it, but I did send two kids to college.
posted by dkippe at 8:08 PM on November 17, 2005

I hear you, tgp. Being a music junkie, I've had every job imaginable trying to keep my music habit alive. I even tried to convince myself that I had to give up music to be a 'normal person.'

Around 30 I realized that that just wasn't going to work, and so I started practicing every day ( I play a couple of instruments and sing, but nothing on a professional level). I still went through a few more jobs, but finally decided to go back to school, get a music education degree, and work as a high school band teacher or something like that.

By accident, I ended up learning about a program called Music Together, and I now work as an 'early childhood music educator,' which is a fancy way of saying that I sing, dance and act silly with kids and their parents–for a living! I never would have imagined that I could have done what I do for a living on my own (put up a shingle, tell folks to bring me their children and to come sing and dance for an hour, and to pay me for the priviledge? Not gonna happen…).

My job is absolutely perfect for my interests and disposition, but I didn't even know that something like it existed until I stumbled on it. I stumbled on it in the process of following through on what I really wanted to do with my life, even though I didn't half believe that I would be able to support myself doing what I love.

There are probably many failure stories out there regarding following your heart, but it's worked for me, and I highly recommend it, even if you can't visualize the result. There are more possibilities in the world than you can conceive of at any one time, believe me.
posted by al_fresco at 8:13 PM on November 17, 2005

I used the criteria of "Find something you would pay to do, then find someone to pay you to do it." I was working in a library, and I was at the point where I needed to get an MLS or do something else. I've always loved American history and doing research, and the idea of dealing with real historical documents fascinated me. So with some prodding from friends, I got a MA in Public History and got a job in an archive.

I now get paid to read Thomas Jefferson's mail. (well sometimes I get to deal with some Jefferson stuff, not all the time though) I'm 42, I've had jobs I've enjoyed, but this is the first one I've loved. I'm very grateful and try not to forget it.

Keep the "what would you pay to do" thing in mind as you consider your choices.

Or: a more long-winded way of saying what PurplePorpoise said.
posted by marxchivist at 8:18 PM on November 17, 2005

I didn't even know that something like it existed until I stumbled on it.

This is important advice, too. It's uncomfortable to be questing, but sometimes just following your instincts down a path you're attracted to will lead to suprising results. There are so many opportunities you don't discover until you get involved in a field.

As to the money vs. satisfaction concern: it is important to think about. Eventually, I had to admit that my priority is the latter. I can more easily live a simple life and thoroughly enjoy my work, than I could live a luxurious life and despise most of my waking hours. However, don't assume that by following your gut and doing something you like that you will necessarily consign yourself to poverty. I support myself comfortably and use a mix of skills to make extra money on pickup work in writing, proofreading, speaking, music, and the like. Again, if you're very passionate about something, you'll find a way to make it work.
posted by Miko at 8:43 PM on November 17, 2005

Do the boring business thing, make the $$ and invest it. Five years is nothing and after that you can do whatever you want. Money is THE limiting factor for most people so if you have the chance to make it, seize it.
posted by fshgrl at 8:49 PM on November 17, 2005

I am very happy with my career choice, and happy with my job. I think those are two different and not necessarily related things.

To the folks that have happy careers, did you just take a chance?

Yeah, I took a big chance. I spent $40,000 on a college education for a career I thought I might want. Lucky for me, turns out I was right.

I chose a career in web development. It started out as a hobby, but while I was in school I realized I was naturally good at it and that people would pay for my skills. I got a college degree that complemented my career choice, and now I have a job doing what I enjoy. For me, the key was to find a career that involved problem solving, a little bit of creativity and would never get stale and boring.

Finding happiness in a job is a little bit trickier. For me, the job is not only about my job description and work, but also about the environment, the company, and the people I work with. I've learned over the years that if I don't like all 4 of those things at my job, then I won't be happy. I've had several web development jobs, including being self-employed, and I hated a lot of them. My current job is the best web development job I've ever had, because I've satisfied all 4 of my criteria. The only reason I'm not "very happy" with it is that I wish I made more money. But for me, the money isn't a deal breaker.

My advice to you is to look at your past job experiences and make a prioritized list of what you liked and what you didn't like. Compare that to a list of careers you think you would want. If making a lot of money is #1 on your list, obvisouly a job at a non-profit isn't going to do it for you. If you like being active and busy all the time, you probably won't want a job that keeps you trapped behind a desk in an office. Etc.
posted by geeky at 8:52 PM on November 17, 2005

This is a question I've been trying to deal with lately, let me know how you figure it out.
posted by drezdn at 9:16 PM on November 17, 2005

My advice to you is to look at your past job experiences and make a prioritized list of what you liked and what you didn't like.

That parachute workbook I linked to above actually has a cool comparison grid for doing stuff like this.
posted by Miko at 9:22 PM on November 17, 2005

"You'd PAY to know what you REALLY think." --Dobbs 1961

Repent. Quit your job. Slack off.
posted by airguitar at 9:24 PM on November 17, 2005

Jeez, my OP sounds like such a whine.

"take responsibility for yourself"
"work isn't supposed to be easy, that's why they call it work"
"school is the priority"
"when am i going to get some grand babies?"

fucking voices.
posted by the giant pill at 10:20 PM on November 17, 2005

"take responsibility for yourself"
"work isn't supposed to be easy, that's why they call it work"
"school is the priority"
"when am i going to get some grand babies?"

fucking voices.
I don't know if this is helpful, but the voices are really just voices. Are they your voices, or those of your 'loved' ones? Not everyone is skillful in telling us that they would like to see us happy and fulfilled.

Nothing satisfies those voices like doing what you believe in. Either the voices will see that you are doing what you believe in and accept you, or your own resolve will cancel out the negativity in the voices (whether they come from within or without). Make sense?
posted by al_fresco at 10:37 PM on November 17, 2005

Nothing anyone else says or does can put you in the good light or put you out. It all depends upon what you do. And until then it's all peaches and gravy.
posted by airguitar at 10:56 PM on November 17, 2005

Your OP doesn't sound like a whine at all. It sounds like you're wrestling with something that just about everybody has to wrestle with at some point or another (unless they're lucky enough to hit on their perfect career, or unlucky enough to be utterly lacking in self-reflection.)

Anyway, to answer your questions:

I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was in 7th or 8th grade. It took me a while to figure out what kind of writer, but the basic idea has been unchanged. So, I never needed a self-help book, myself. But I think I'm in the minority; most people don't know what they want to do from such a young age.

To the folks that have happy careers, did you just take a chance?
Yes. Writing is a pretty risky career and there have been periods where I have been severely underemployed, and have had to dip deeply into my savings.

And this leads to an important point: if want to take any risks with your career, save as much money as you can, and live as frugally as you can. Every month's expenses that you have in the bank means one more month you can hold out on taking some pays-the-bills-but-doesn't-satisfy kind of job. Basically, my attitude has always been, "I'm willing to take any crap job to avoid starving to death or sleeping on the streets, but I'm not willing to take a crap job to buy a bigger TV set or a nicer car."

Along those lines, if you do decide to do the 5-year lucrative-but-dull business route, it's important that you have a 10 year plan. If you start a business in 2006 and you expect your income to be (say) $100,000 for that year, then allocate $40,000 of that for your 2006 expenses--and invest $60,000 in a fairly conservative investment for your 2011 expenses. (Hey, doesn't the future you deserve a raise?)

If you get used to living like you're only making $40,000 a year, it'll be easy to leave the business behind in 2011, especially if you have enough in the bank to support you for the next 5 years. But if you get used to living on $100,000, you'll never leave it.

I am afraid that I am too old.
It probably seems incredibly uncool to quote Ann Landers, but she always had a great response when people said something like, "I'm 37. If I go to law school, I'll be 40 when I get out in three years." The answer was always, "And how old will you be in 3 years if you don't go to law school?"

Don't look at it as a choice of what to do now; look at it as a choice of who you want to be in 4 years. You can either be a 34-year-old with a college degree, or a 34-year-old without a college degree. Which one sounds more appealing to you?

Rising life expectancies mean that, as a 30-year-old today, you have more years of life ahead of you than a 10-year-old in 1960 would have had. Stop and think about that for a moment. By the standards in force throughout pretty much all of human history, your life is quite literally only just beginning. You'd be nuts to count yourself out yet.
posted by yankeefog at 4:30 AM on November 18, 2005

Excellent post, Yankeefog.
posted by godawful at 5:25 AM on November 18, 2005

The time to grow up is right now. Stop looking for a perfect solution. Honestly assess your needs and skills - you're almost 30 - you ought to know what those are by now. Pick a career path that fits those needs and skills, and then make the sacrafices necessary to fight your way in. It's not supposed to be easy.

Once you find a fit, there are, as far as I can tell, three ways to be happy in a career.

1) Work as hard as you can to be outstanding at what you do.
2) Surround yourself with people who have the same mindset.
3) Focus on solutions instead of problems.

Following those three rules can make any job bearable and possibly make you quite successful.

I have a job I love, but I didn't always. It took the right combination of maturity, people and skill to get myself to a place where I was happy. Maybe that leads to rule 4.

4) It's not supposed to be one big happy journey. No matter what you do, there are going to be times when it sucks.

Good luck.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 6:36 AM on November 18, 2005

Because there are SO many variables that can affect job satisfaction--and because those variables are constantly changing--there will have to be some trade-offs.

The trick is to identify WHICH of the variables is most important to you and focus on a job that delivers those. Edgar Schein did some work on Career Anchors that you may find interesting.

When I was in my mid-twenties, my career anchors were technical/functional competence and general managerial competence. Then I hit my thirties, my life changed and I was looking for lifestyle integration and autonomy/independence. I didn't want to be a manager anymore and I wanted to be allowed to invent based upon the technical competence I already had. I worked for the same company in the same field during this time and my job satisfaction went from very high to somewhat low because of this change in what I was seeking versus what the company offered. I was willing to give up the manager title, the corner office and some money to get what I wanted. I also wanted to work for a boss that I respected...tougher to find and was willing to give up some things in order to find that.

There are assessments that help you to identify which Career Anchors are important to you now. There are also skills match assessments, communication style assessments, etc. etc. As someone who used to work in organizational psychology, I can honestly say that it CAN be confusing to sort these all out and determine how you should apply them. Every person is complex and no one paper/pencil test will be able to tell you, "Eureka! This! This is what you should do!" I think information interviews are helpful (and questions just like the one you've asked above) because it helps you gather data which will inform your decision-making.

And yes, there will be times when it sucks, as theinsectsarewaiting has pointed out. But it is possible to set yourself up so that the good outweighs the bad quite a bit of the time.
posted by jeanmari at 7:42 AM on November 18, 2005

Cognitive science is fun to study, but the practical careers you can make out of it take long years of post-baccalaureate training.

Probably the easiest way to incorporate a bit of cognitive science into your daily work would be speech or occupational therapy, or audiology; good audiologists are always in demand. There is a small branch of therapy called 'cognitive therapy' but there is almost no demand for it in terms of a paying job.

Other jobs, such as psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, cognitive science researcher, you are looking at a 10 year commitment and a lot of front end investment of time and tuition.

There were a lot of things I wanted to do with my life. Being a neurologist was the thing I couldn't imagine not doing. There are bad days and good days, like any job; when I have time off to reflect, I always think how lucky I am to be in a job I love. When I take more than two weeks off to reflect, I get itchy to go back to work.

My experience, though, is that most people aren't so fortunate as to have a job they feel that way about. They find jobs they can stand, put in 40 hours a week, and have a rich inner life and lots of avocations.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:56 PM on November 18, 2005

It probably seems incredibly uncool to quote Ann Landers, but she always had a great response when people said something like, "I'm 37. If I go to law school, I'll be 40 when I get out in three years." The answer was always, "And how old will you be in 3 years if you don't go to law school?"

This, like most of the rest of Ann Lander's uncool output, is incredibly stupid. I spent my twenties in medical school and residency, stressed out and sleep deprived most of the time, while my friends spent them dating, becoming more emotionally mature, going to concerts, getting laid, traveling around the world, getting married, and having kids.

This was a choice I made, and I don't regret it, but for Ann Landers to suggest that there's no difference between the two is specious and glib. Of course, specious and glib is her specialty, which is why most thinking people find her to be uncool.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:01 PM on November 18, 2005

Um, ikkyu2, though you are normally a smart and perspicacious person, you have entirely missed the point. Ann Landers was not saying "There is no difference between any two paths if you end up the same age." If she believed that, she would probably encourage her questioners to just skip law school (or, for that matter, college), wouldn't she?

In fact, her point was that, while two 3-year paths might be very different in countless ways, one thing that was NOT different was the age you would be at the end of the path. "I don't want to miss out on time I could spend maturing, dating, getting laid, traveling, and getting married" is a perfectly valid reason not to go to medical school. "I'll be 30 when I get out," however, is a pretty meaningless one.
posted by yankeefog at 2:24 PM on November 19, 2005

« Older Nude as The News?   |   Contacts make me sleepy Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.