Help me figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.
August 24, 2015 8:53 AM   Subscribe

After almost 30 years I think I need to get out of IT and corporate cube life. I want to work with my hands. At the end of the day I want to be able to point to something tangible and say “I did that!” I want to… do something. I don’t know what that is. Help me figure out what it is I want to do. Help me brainstorm.

I’m good with my hands. I want to build or fix stuff. Not computers. Nothing to do with computers.

If I had to pick my dream job it would be building model buildings for an architecture firm or maybe creating interactive displays at a kid’s museum. I wouldn’t even know where to begin getting started with any of this.

Here’s my vitals:
  • I’m in the Boston area. Lots of schools and hospitals around here. Lots of other industries. I cannot relocate. I have a family and an established life.
  • I can afford to not work for a short time but I can’t afford to go to school for something for a year or more unless it was for something really amazing.
  • I’m pushing 50 so I can’t do anything too physical, like construction work or heavy carpentry. I don’t want to do anything with a high probability of injury. I enjoy having ten fingers.
  • I’m creative but not artistic. I couldn’t make jewelry or do anything crafty. I’m not skilled enough to be a fine woodworker.
  • I know a little bit of everything but I’m not a master of any one thing. That could be good in the sense that the world is wide open to me. I’m not limited.
  • A mix of sitting, standing, and moving around would be nice. A mix of solitude and interacting with other humans.
  • I want to work mostly 9-5ish, Monday through Friday. 40ish hours. I want to be able to take time off when I need to. An academic schedule would be awesome.
  • Pay is not the most important factor, but pay is nice. Maybe there’s some little niche market making widgets for the XYZ industry that pays a bunch. Ditto benefits. Health care especially.
Things that interest me: Metal fabrication (though I know nothing about it), small mechanical things (things like clocks), scale models, having a workbench with all my tools handy, being a jack-of-all-trades, building things using a variety of materials (building a wood case to hold a bunch of electrical and mechanical things that I also built). Measuring and cutting. Precision. I like tinkering with bikes but don’t really know much about them. I like modifying things.

So I’m just brainstorming here. I don’t even know where to start. I don’t know what I want to do. My entire world for 30 years has been fixing computer problems. Tell me what I haven’t thought of. Maybe you’re familiar with an industry that needs someone like me. Maybe local colleges need a guy to build things. Maybe you’re an architect and you can’t find anyone to build you models of houses you’re designing. Tell me about these opportunities.
posted by Tubesox to Work & Money (29 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
what do you do already (in your free time)?

i changed to working half-time. software engineering pays for my food (and my meds). but every other week i do whatever i want. have you considered something like that? i was surprised how much it helped.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

There are multiple options in the Boston area to make things -- including Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, Cambridge Hackspace, and The Eliot School in Jamaica Plain. If you manage to create some free time for yourself, you could fill it by investing in one of these communities. That is bound to create some connections that might lead to the kinds of career shifting opportunities you are looking for.
posted by cubby at 9:19 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm just past 50 and have pretty much turfed my software career in order to build something (I was finding that in the later years of my career, I was too far away from building something tangible).

I'm still working things out, but fine carpentry (specifically cabinet making) is my goal - I've been a year learning and it's rewarding. Although, I must say, going from a high salary to no salary is a tough transition.

I don't think there are many answers (that I can give anyways :) aside from wishing you all success - I am of the opinion that there is no rule book - you just have to make the plunge, as it were.

Talk it up with everyone - good luck.
posted by parki at 9:30 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you want to work regular 9-5 type 40ish hour work weeks, architectural model building is probably not the right career for you. In my experience, the window for building the model is squeezed in between the design team making all of the decisions they need to make, and an immovable deadline (a Fedex pickup, a presentation, etc), and invariably, the model maker bears the brunt of that schedule compression.
posted by misterbrandt at 9:42 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm a computer programmer, and I totally know how you're feeling. I really crave(d) having a tangible thing that I could pick up or point to that was a direct result of my efforts.

Knitting is my perfect solution to this.

- Knitting has solved all my "I did that!" woes.
-Plus, my skills in programming jive with knitting insofar as it is very structured, it is written in code (more or less), and you can make some pretty impressive things if you just follow the instructions. It truly has a lot of parallels with coding, but in a good way. If your brain already thinks that way then you're way WAY ahead of the game. It took me no time at all to get quite good at knitting.
- I love having hats and mittens and shawls and blankets and slippers and socks that I've made.
- I love being able to make things for my kid and other people. (In IT I rarely actually experience anyone appreciating or benefiting from the work I do.)
- I like having things to show for my hours of work. I like having things out there that get compliments and comments that I can then reply (with appropriate modesty) "Actually, I made it myself!".
- I like getting public recognition for my efforts, something that is almost entirely absent from my IT work.
- I like that it can be as structured or not structured as I want. I like following patterns, but I also like being able to adlib things and make patterns up on the fly. (I recently made this set up. Just winged it as I went and the end result is pretty effing killer, if you ask me. )
- I love being skilled in something that is relateable to others. I can be good at writing code but that has zero meaning for people. Show them an awesome hat I knit and even if they can't knit they can at least appreciate the quality, the warmth, the utility, etc.

In addition to all this, knitting is a killer stress reliever and can be very meditative and relaxing.

Take up knitting.

NOTE: Knitting is NOT going to create a new career for you. It is extremely difficult to make any sort of livable amount of money off of knitting. This is about having a productive hobby that satisfies everything you want so that you can continue with your current job without complaint. Know what I mean?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:50 AM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just to nip this in the bud: I'm not looking for hobbies. I'm looking for something to do as a job / career. Something that will earn me income. I already have several hobbies, most of them tangible but none of them that I could or would want to turn into a career. My life outside of work is very fulfilling. It's the eight hours at work filled with meaningless TPS reports, emergencies that aren't really emergencies as far as I'm concerned and soul crushing boredom that I want to change.

If you want to work regular 9-5 type 40ish hour work weeks, architectural model building is probably not the right career for you.

If this sort of thing were sporadic I could probably manage it. I don't mind working the occasional weekend. Mostly I would like to know ahead of time when I'd be working though.

what do you do already (in your free time)?

Mostly I tinker with things. I would like a job where it feels like I am tinkering with things but "tinkering with things" isn't really a job. As I said, none of my hobbies are things that could turn into jobs though I have acquired various skills (using tools, working with various materials) that might be valuable to somebody.
posted by Tubesox at 10:01 AM on August 24, 2015

Here's a list of community bicycle organizations in Massachusetts. Don't expect to make money at these places, but you can probably learn how to build a bike at most of them as a volunteer.

Buy an ancient treadle sewing machine, fix it up, and start sewing things. Haul the sewing machine out to events and mend clothes for people. With sewing, you have the freedom to make a whole bunch of one thing (job) or just do tons of R&D and always sell new things.

There's a lot to be said for urban farming. There's not money in it (unless you want to put in far more than a 40-hour work week) but you can grow a ton in a relatively small area. Sell your produce through a weekly farm stand, farmer's markets, or a CSA box. Sell seedlings in the spring.

Were I you, I would get started by volunteering at kid's museums.
posted by aniola at 10:02 AM on August 24, 2015

Just some ideas, can't speak to lifestyle aspects, training, possible entry barriers, or pay:
- Precision welding (Indeed results here), although I think it's one of those behind-the-scene jobs, where you spend most of the time bent over your work (I think that's probably true for a lot of these :/), and not so much with a public.
- Dental lab technician - it's not generalist work, as in it's all tooth-related, but within that, there is a range of stuff to do, and there's definitely a creative aspect to it - dentures have to match people's other teeth, the fit and texture have to be good, etc. (I don't know how possible it would be for you, as a beginner at this stage of life, in your area, but it's at least theoretically possible that you could eventually own your own lab.)
- Orthotist/prosthetist; prosthetic device designer or technician
- I found some jobs in the assembly of medical devices, but again, I think these are back-stage manufacturing jobs.
- Running an antique shop, maybe with a niche angle. (There's a guy in town who's got one - he sells a lot of different things, but loves lamps especially - he spends a lot of time rewiring them and otherwise bringing them up to selling condition.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:07 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

You haven't gotten specific re: money - i.e. what you'd need to make, or how you'd cover the gap during your transition.

If money's not a consideration, then follow your bliss, period, and, I don't understand your hobby/work distinction.

If money is a consideration, then it's something we'd need to factor in to properly address all facets of your question: 1. the time you'd require to retrain, master skills, and find work, and 2. the field you'd want to choose to go into (if you need a lot of money, I'd suggest IT).

If you want it all (big income plus capricious career choice), that's obviously unrealistic.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:13 AM on August 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd learn welding, plumbing, become an electrician? I've done all three in a prior lives - it pays the bills very well and yep you can see (and feel in your aching back) the tangible results of your work but working with your hands ain't all it's cracked up to be and it's what convinced me engineering was a much better way to earn a living. Electrician is probably best for you because it's a job the requires skill and so you're not working with ex-cons everyday. Welding pipe is mindless work and it sucks, but it paid well.
posted by three blind mice at 10:41 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

If I had to pick my dream job it would be building model buildings for an architecture firm or maybe creating interactive displays at a kid’s museum. I wouldn’t even know where to begin getting started with any of this.

Call up museums and ask to talk to whomever does this sort of thing already. Talk to these people, maybe they would be interested in someone on the coast, or know of someone on the coast. Repeat as necessary. Network.

Are you thinking self employed or working for someone else? World of difference, esp. for someone just starting out. Regardless, money is likely to be short while you build some traction and get a rep. Plus, you have the age factor working against you. Failing to demonstrate serious passion (i.e. treating it like a nine to five) is also not attractive to would be hirers.

Have you ever done clockwork? Basics of clockwork can be picked up with this entertaining project.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:42 AM on August 24, 2015

You might also try your hand at becoming a machinist. Nowadays this means CNC operator - which is essentially a programming job. I've never done it myself, but worked with a lot of machinists and I see the appeal in watching a cutting tool whittle a piece of 6061 aluminum into nifty shapes. It's a high skill job, well paid, and you don't go home sweaty and exhausted every day.
posted by three blind mice at 10:48 AM on August 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Bookmark jobs sites like this one ( and apply for anything that comes up and looks interesting. Science/kids museums are everywhere and likely recruit a lot of contract labor for exhibit pieces, and you can be proactive and ask these folks now wht they'd need to see when a contract comes up seeking a model build or what have you.

I'm also engaged in a long-term process (with my partner) of trying to figure out how to be our own bosses. Our big goal--affordable housing + small food service endeavor--is a very long term thing, and in the meantime I've been aiming to simply pick up a side hustle. That means, for me, a hobby I can sustain myself with creatively (seriously, why cringe at that word?) that also produces something tangible I can sell. I've been quilting since I was little (thank mom), so I make quilts whenever I can find free time. The process has been instructive: taking a complex artistic skill and forcing it into a process that can make a number of simple, sellable pieces in a short time span. When you view your hobby through the lens of a side hustle, you get a taste of how feasible it'll be to leave your bread and butter career for something more physically present. It also reminds you things like how much it sucks to do detail work with your hands and fingers when you're sick with the flu, but c'est la vie when it comes to tangible labor.

Good luck!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:06 AM on August 24, 2015

Props artisan. Or museum exhibit construction.
posted by seraph9 at 11:47 AM on August 24, 2015

Find a bookbinder to work under.
posted by BibiRose at 12:11 PM on August 24, 2015

Theater lighting tech. It leverages IT skills but at the end of the day there's an actual show to see. Of course it's hard to break into and pays poorly.
posted by miyabo at 1:01 PM on August 24, 2015

What about being a building manager for an individual or company who provides rental properties? I think tinkerers/handyfolks/jacks-of-all-trade are exactly what those folks are looking for. (And bonus -- your housing might be included!)
posted by nosila at 1:49 PM on August 24, 2015

Definitely look for something that leverages your computer skills. I'm thinking something involving 3-d printing, or perhaps one of the new tabletop CNC machines.

You might search for small companies and startups around MIT or another university. If you see a product that intrigues you, you should be able to get a few minutes of their salesman's time talking about applications.

Another thought is photography. I have a friend who is trying to get a photography business started. His first step was to get attached as a volunteer to a local political campaign.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:50 PM on August 24, 2015

North Bennett Street School has lots of classes that might interest you. I think they only do full-time programs, but they also have classes and workshops that might help you narrow your focus.
posted by chaiminda at 2:45 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

What about being a building manager for an individual or company who provides rental properties? I think tinkerers/handyfolks/jacks-of-all-trade are exactly what those folks are looking for. (And bonus -- your housing might be included!)

I was going to suggest this as well. Building managers / jack-of-all-trades are highly regarded and are constantly working on solutions to all types of building system screw-ups. My aunt does this in Austin, TX for one of Dell's buildings and it pays well with mostly 9-5 hours. She sometimes has to head off problems on the weekends, but it's not every weekend.
posted by Benway at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2015

My brother works in fancy bike shops in the Bay Area fixing and building custom bikes. He is a CS dropout who likes tinkering too. It's pretty 9-5, and pays enough to keep food on the table. City bikes, rental bikes, bike tours, races, etc. me mail me if you have any Q's.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:29 PM on August 24, 2015

You could start a handyman business. There's something rewarding in fixing stuff for people. If you can build some regular clientele you can have a steady but flexible schedule. There's a guy I see in my neighborhood all the time -- asked him if he'd do some work at my moms house and he said he hadn't taken on new clients for a long time due to steady business.

Also I suspect there's great potential in doing this kind of work for seniors - a large and growing market. Probably a ton of need for stuff hubby used to do etc.

You could go half time in your IT job until you get rocking. Market with simple ads and flyers distributed in target neighborhoods. Invest in a nice logo and a website.... It'll pay off.

Good luck! I'm your age and log way too much computer time in my job... I can relate!
posted by ecorrocio at 4:16 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding North Bennett. I've never been, but my woodworking teacher studied there. It is expensive, and the programs are one or two years, but from what I understand, the skills that you learn are readily applicable to jobs, and they have a network that gets their students jobs. We had a guest speaker from there (his named is Will Neptune) who does antique architectural restoration, and the work he was describing was a fascinating mix of hands-on making, math, and historical sleuthing. It's certainly worth talking to people there, even if you can't go full-time.
posted by taltalim at 8:24 PM on August 24, 2015

Set or prop design covers a lot of different skill sets. You can go and study it but I know people who just fell into it because they were good with their hands. Do you have any production companies or a reasonable sized entertainment / ad industry in Boston? Might be worth looking into.
posted by Jubey at 9:10 PM on August 24, 2015

Maybe spend some time on Etsy looking at the kinds of things you might like to build and considering the profit margins.

I was also going to suggest bike repair or custom bike design.
posted by slidell at 9:49 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

This person asked a question about becoming a welder at age 45. Maybe this thread will interest you.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:36 PM on August 24, 2015

I was you and did computer/server/network break/fix for a decade and a half, and I grew to hate it, especially being faced with "The whole organization just stopped because X broke. Fix it!" I seriously considered leaving the industry and even completed an ill-advised semester in school in an effort to make that happen. I lucked into a web administrator position inside a company, which involves some programming, design, infrastructure, security, and internal customer interaction. The job is *completely* different than what I did in the past. It allows for some creativity and autonomy, and is less emergency-driven than pure IT infrastructure. It also pays as well as my old job did.

I know this doesn't answer your question, but for me (with a lot of luck) there was a middle ground between leaving the industry and being able to live and (mostly) enjoy my work.
posted by cnc at 12:14 PM on August 25, 2015

re: architectural models since you've mentioned it twice, I have to tell you to throw that idea out. Very few offices do models anymore, and if they do they have dedicated model shops, and I very much doubt that you could get a gig in one of them without an architectural degree. They pay would also be terrible, maybe $35k? Most offices are a bit age-ist too and would be unlikely to hire an older low-level employee. In general it seems like you want to do something a lot of people want to do (for example, theater props I would guess is a popular job), which means that there's a lot of people competeing for not very many spots in the modern manufacturing economy. Most things you do with your hands are either big enough that you can't do it with a machine (construction) or they're repetitive and outsourced to places where labor is cheaper (China). The remaining hands-one vocations require a lot of skill - cabinet makers, artists, artisans, etc.

I think this is why a lot of people are suggesting finding another hobby that can scratch the itch... our economy just isn't set up for jobs like that anymore. Like, sure maybe there's a few guys making handmade skate boards or whatever, but not many, and I'm sure they're not raking in $$.

Not to be debbie downer, though. I would love the job you describe, I just don't think it exists for most people, and especially doesn't exist when you're not at a place in your life where you can take financial risks.
posted by annie o at 8:24 PM on August 27, 2015

What about working in a science lab as a engineer/machinist? For example, my husband's lab has two engineers with machinist-type backgrounds who build electrodes and other tools for research. I think that both got their start working in machine shops.
posted by JuliaKM at 7:18 AM on September 22, 2015

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