I've fallen down a well and can't get out
August 5, 2016 4:15 AM   Subscribe

I was a high achiever during high school and college, but after 10 years of working in the real world, I'm stuck in a mediocre career with few options for advancement. How can an achievement-oriented person such as myself find happiness in mediocrity?

I'm in my mid-30s and work in a low-paying, dead-end job. Based on the advice of "Follow your passion," I chose a college major that ended up limiting my career to a declining industry where layoffs are common, salaries are unimpressive, and promotions are rare. I want to make a career change and am considering taking a three-month programming bootcamp in order to become a software engineer.

Software engineering is better than my current career, but it still doesn't fulfill my need for achievement. I'll just be one of many software engineers. It'll be very hard to become a star employee. I'll be competing against people who have computer science degrees and have been programming for their entire lives. How do I deal with being average to below-average? When competing against such large amounts of talent, is there any way to distinguish myself so that I can get promoted?

There are other reasons why my desire for achievement is unfulfilled. Accomplishments in school seem more "concrete" than accomplishments at work. If I received an 'A' in a class, that grade appears on my permanent record. Work accomplishments seem subjective and imaginary. First, success at work is hard to measure. I may think I did a great job on a work project, but my co-workers may disagree. Second, I can do great work on a project, but this won't translate to a pay raise - so the project wasn't really an accomplishment. Third, I can get a promotion, but the promotion can be taken away at any time. And the promotion might entail doing much more work while only receiving a small increase in pay. Work achievements often come with caveats. Work just doesn't give me a strong feeling of accomplishment. How do I change this mindset?

I also find myself comparing myself to others my age. I don't have any of the trappings of success, such as a six-figure salary or advanced degrees. I'm almost 15 years behind my peers in terms of career and finances. My peers have enough money to spend on fancy homes, fast cars, and extensive international travel, and I'm extremely jealous. How do I stop envying others? Is there a way to be happy with being mediocre?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Can you follow your passion in a way that is NOT connected to work? Like, say - your day job is software engineering, but on the weekends you make robots or something, and you have a blog where you show them off? Or you teach kids how to make robots, or you reach out to some kind of local event organizer in your community and you make a robot for the next parade or something?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:35 AM on August 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Take care you're observing your "peers" accurately and not using a small sample to disillusion yourself, in an accurate observation you'll almost certainly find you're much closer to average.

If financial success is important there are always options, some that require long training periods may not be practical but research your options. If you can write code software is one option but the really high end jobs need some training, others like sales need less specific training but can be lucrative.
posted by sammyo at 4:44 AM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I work with software engineers, and I can tell you that a computer science degree is no guarantee of high achievement. Many of the highest achieving developers I know were self taught or came through nearby fields (other engineering specialties, physics, math, gaming).

But it CAN be difficult to be high achieving its you aren't excited about what you do. Not impossible, but people who are excited about their work bring a certain spark and are often willing and able to happily dug into thornier problems or drives themselves harder than people who are "just doing a job".

All that said, comparing yourself to others is no way to live. Someone else will always have more than you, be farther along than you, be cooler or hotter or whatever than you. What makes you might up? Can you put energy into that, regardless of whether it's a career or not? My life turned around when I quit a dead end job and fled the country for 6 months, learned another language, met people really different from me, saw a wider world, and then came back and started a new life. What have you always wanted to do but never been beaver enough? Can you find a way to do that?
posted by spindrifter at 4:45 AM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was a very high achiever in high school and was extremely frustrated when I graduated and did not receive a decent scholarship to the colleges I applied to (except the local community college which gave me two years free, for which I am NOW forever grateful; back then, not so much). I had spent all this time doing the work and putting in the time to get the rewards, and it didn't matter, because no one noticed.

That was a really painful way to realize that grades and achievements don't necessarily mean rewards or happiness in the long run. There are plenty of people out there with great careers and high salaries who are miserable. They meet their quotas, they get promotions, and they hate their lives. That's not the kind of person I wanted to be.

I ended up in software engineering not because it was my passion, or because I was really good at it, but because I found it challenging. It was really scary to not be leading the pack in college, to not understand stuff easily, to have to really work hard not for the A but so I could understand what I was doing. But I found out that I really loved that. I've been working in software engineering for 4 years now and while I'm not the very best engineer at my company, I am happy to go to work every day and figure out the new problems presented to me. Your career doesn't have to move to SE -- but you should find something challenging enough to really enjoy. I get a lot of satisfaction from fixing software bugs.

On a side note, probably a LOT of your peers are in debt up to their eyeballs, trying to keep up with the Joneses, not happy, and have no way to get out of what they're doing. Anyone can post about the happy stuff on FB. No one is going to post about having a $1 in their bank account the day before payday, or fighting with their spouse about money.

I think what I'm trying to say is try to compete against yourself, not anybody else. Don't depend on external praise to be happy, because there's no guarantee you'll get it even if you are the best person in the room. You have to give that to yourself.
posted by possibilityleft at 4:48 AM on August 5, 2016 [20 favorites]

What do you really believe is important for people to do? What makes you really respect people? If it's external signs of success (fancy car, job title), what do you believe they represent about the real person? It's possible that the external signs map imperfectly to the qualities you really value, like "being a person worthy of respect" or "raising children who will be excellent caretakers". It's also possible that the "successful" people you see are less secure than you are, or have less freedom in some way.
posted by amtho at 5:04 AM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you want the opportunity to achieve and feel like you're not going to get that within a traditional career track due to starting late and such, might I suggest you consider the idea of starting a business of your own? It's obviously nothing to be done lightly and carries quite a bit of risk, but you'll certainly have an opportunity to shine and your rate of advancement will not be limited by somebody else's corporate structure. I don't have any specific ideas for you beyond that, but I wanted to put it in your head as something you might want to begin exploring. Lots of people own businesses, have started their own businesses. Why not you?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:22 AM on August 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

It sounds like therapy might help you sort out these feelings and experiences, and it might be easier to first find some happiness before chasing the material markers of success.

Half the people in any field, software included, will be below average. You might be much happier in a new field and I tend to think that change is good, but there are no guarantees of promotion or riches. I've known a couple of people who became suddenly wealthy from stock options and I read about high salaries, but everyone else I know who works in IT earns a middle class income, and isn't living the high life of cars and travel.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:23 AM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Most people don't have have six figure jobs. And many people who appear successful are not truely happy.

You work for a paycheck. Larger paychecks really don't buy happiness. What type of work would make you happy? Does your current job? Can you volunteer and work your way up that organization?

Achievement is a meaningless pit that can never be satisfied. Maybe see a councelor to help you identify what is really missing. Maybe a sense of challenge or recognition?
posted by Kalmya at 5:25 AM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think I dealt with this for a while. And there wasn't really a sharp turning point. But now I don't have those issues anymore. It took me about one year to flail through the following stages:

1. Fangirled over people who I considered amazing/talented/successful (this class includes people I know about through reading and people who are actually in my life)
2. Clarified what 'success' meant to me
3. Got honest about what was realistic for me, and what the best case scenario for could be, based on what I've done so far
4. Decided what I wanted to reach for in life
5. Worked towards that

I guess it sounds like you're not really sure what you want, so you are measuring your worth negatively, by what you don't want, and you aren't celebrating your achievements because they don't bring you closer to a goal you feel passionate about!

For example, I realized that I really people like Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and Meryl Streep. I liked them because they respectful, hard working, and held themselves and their art to a high standard.
Once I realized that those qualities were the ones that made me glow with admirations, other things (grades, recognition, money) didn't seem to matter anymore.

It also helps to always be making progress. I can't help but feel anxious and dreary when I am idle and not working towards anything I care about.

Your mileage may vary, but what worked for me: clarifying what I truly wanted out of life and striving towards it! Good luck :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 5:27 AM on August 5, 2016 [15 favorites]

The real world doesn't really reward hard work like school, where if you put in a certain amount of effort you'll get more right answers than someone else and have a nice letter grade and rank for your work. It's not really that linear.

To have the success you want then you should probably look forward to not becoming a "star employee" necessarily, because that's just the baseline (sometimes). You'll also have to play politics, do image management, and manage your career like a personal business. It helps to already have a high-end degree from a top school, an excellent network, and have been born to a well-established family who've supported you your whole life.

The lifestyle you're talking about is extremely competitive, and you'll be competing against people who value power and material success more than anything else in the world, and these are not the nicest, friendliest, or uhhh ... most empathetic people to deal with. It's going to be a cut-throat path if the high life is what you're looking for.

I know plenty of people who have the life you want, and grew up with some of them in my family. They are, simply put, the most miserable human beings I have ever encountered in my life. Not just how they live their lives, but their inner quality of life, too. You can't really fill that hole inside of you with the markers of success that something outside of you has defined.

It's one thing to do this for the thrill of new challenges and the pleasure of personal accomplishment, and it's something entirely else if you're looking for self-worth out of it. It's cliche, but define your own success, and don't let the lives of others put you off, because sometimes things aren't as great as they look on the surface.
posted by gehenna_lion at 5:42 AM on August 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

You are only living a mediocre life if you choose to see it that way. There will always be someone more accomplished than you. Here are four things you can do:
  • Find activities that give you flow experiences. When's the last time you did something that made you lose your sense of time? (Work or leisure?) Do that more often.
  • Really commit yourself to the bootcamp. Work 'till you drop. Rediscover your sense of achievement and confidence. I say this from experience - I too was a good student and got a lot of confidence out of going back to school as an adult and really applying myself. No excuses, no self-sabotage. This can be a turning point in your life.
  • Re. software engineering, have some fun with it. Participate in hackathons. Build something crazy for the hell of it. If you just see it as a boring, necessary career change you're right, you'll be miles behind many other software engineers because they actually get satisfaction out of problem solving and writing code.
  • What is your unique combination of strengths? You may think you are like everyone else, but you are not. You could take a test like StrengthsFinder, but you may be better off asking friends or just looking at your past successes. What sets you apart from others in your same career? Do you have a different perspective? What can you bring to software engineering from your current career? Think about how you can build on that.

posted by beyond_pink at 5:53 AM on August 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'll be competing against people

No you won't. You'll be working with people.

Despite what you may have been led to believe, life is not a zero-sum game. If you get up in the morning looking at every situation as a competition and every person as a threat or an obstacle, you'll expend a lot of emotional energy and won't likely end up happy.

Often it takes a big karmic comeuppance for people to realize that work isn't life, and your work isn't you (that was certainly the case for me). If you can get comfortable with that idea without having to go through major trauma to get there, all the better.

As the kids say: You do you.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:15 AM on August 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

You have to find a passion outside of work. Yes, change careers, but be open to other things. Remarkable people can be remarkable at any age.

I think that you will really enjoy the three month training program. It will give you the chance to be the smartest one in the room again. The frustration that you are feeling is normal and healthy. It is time for a change and you will be very uncomfortable until that change is made.

Try to avoid comparing yourself to others. Their measure of success is uninspired. Why try to have what everyone wants? Make your own rules.
posted by myselfasme at 6:42 AM on August 5, 2016

Accomplishments in school seem more "concrete" than accomplishments at work. If I received an 'A' in a class, that grade appears on my permanent record. Work accomplishments seem subjective and imaginary ... Work just doesn't give me a strong feeling of accomplishment. How do I change this mindset?

This perspective is fascinating to me because I have always felt the opposite (and that's reflected in my transcript).

A few jobs ago, I was working as a writer/researcher. My research made it to a congressional staffer, prompting a member of Congress to draft legislation to improve the situation I identified. That bill passed and is being implemented in ways I can see, and is going to improve people's lives.

My current position is more writing focused. My colleagues have shown my writing to prospective donors to our organization and it inspired them to contribute. A friend of mine who works in a different field recently attended a conference where speakers referred to my work.

Those things feel much more concrete to me than letters and numbers on my transcript and feel way more satisfying.
posted by kat518 at 7:18 AM on August 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

It'll be very hard to become a star employee.

From where I sit, this is a terrible goal. "Star employees" are some combination of people who "do as they're told", don't have family or personal time (or will willingly sacrifice it), or are friends of the boss, or kids of their friends. They're almost always unlikable. If you're good at your job, you'll either always be making other people look bad (including your boss -- because most people just really don't give shit, most of the time, including your boss) or you'll get passed over for promotion because you're just too valuable and competent to move out of your current position.

I suggest you strive to, in the words of Steve Martin, "be the me-ist me there ever was!" That can carry you through even the most mediocre jobs, and sometimes lead to something better.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:24 AM on August 5, 2016

I suggest you take a serious look at a sales career. If you want to make a lot of money, that is possible, if you are good at what you do. Sales offers tangible financial rewards for your work. It is competitive and it is possible to be a "star employee." You will need some background in whatever you are selling, but most of it is soft skills-- creating a rapport, listening, influencing, etc. You'll need to do some research-- talk to some sales people about what they sell, how they got into the role, what their income is like. But you might find it more rewarding than software engineering, if your main goal is to accumulate wealth.
posted by tuesdayschild at 8:01 AM on August 5, 2016

Seconding Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The's entire comment. Being a mediocre business owner is better than being even the best employee.

Software development is a good path for this, because the barriers to entry are so low. With the right idea, you can start a business in your spare time. I've also heard from developer friends who work at Google that hiring managers are more likely to be interested in a developer who has launched their own business, because even if that person is a lousy coder, they're aware of all the different challenges in getting an app to market, and they've proven they can figure out solutions. That's apparently more valuable than writing good code.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:21 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you do decide on software engineering, I've seen people be happy by first starting out as a cog in a machine (that has good learning / training opportunities), and then later moving on to their dream job / founding a startup etc. This gives you the opportunity to level up your technology and business skills in a helpful environment, before embarking out on something more meaning, but more demanding.
posted by Phredward at 8:23 AM on August 5, 2016

The phrase for this kind of experience is "mid-life crisis".

Your problem isn't that you need a career change. Your problem is that you're looking for external validation and the trappings of "star status". You're not looking to earn more money so you can accomplish your dream of traveling the world, opening your own restaurant, or retiring in the Bahamas--you want it so other people can see that you're rich. You don't want to earn an advanced degree or rise up the career ladder because you have a passion for the subject matter, and ideas that you want to bring into reality--you want them so you get promoted and recognized and seen as being a "star". And you're looking for a field in which you can learn so you can become a "star", as opposed to having a talent for something and looking for a way to apply it in your career.

Do you even have "star potential"? In anything? Or are you just a regular person?

The thing about being a "high achiever" in high school in college is that grades don't mean anything. It's easy to get an A. You have a defined rubric and as long as you do what the assignment requires, you get an A. If you get a bunch of As, you get a high GPA and maybe make the dean's list or get scholarships or whatever. And then you leave school, and nobody gives a shit what your GPA is, because it doesn't matter and isn't an indication of your potential or your ability. It's just an indication that you can follow directions.

Following directions at work doesn't give you recognition, it's true. That's just doing your job, even if you do it really well. If you want to be recognized for accomplishments at work, you need to think of how you can make an impact outside of your defined role. Create a process that saves the company a measurable amount of money. Research and present a tool that you currently don't use but which would make your work a lot easier. Take a look at the competition in your industry, and see where they have failed and *why* it's in decline, and what would be a rejuvenating factor--better technology? Embracing the Internet as a means of communication?

Think of a new way to do what you do, and perfect it, and talk about it. Even if you're just writing a blog and promoting yourself on Linkedin and Twitter, people use those media all the time to establish themselves as authorities in their fields of expertise. Make a Youtube channel about your work, and create video presentations on topics that are important to your field.

Or, if you're totally sick of your field and want to explore a passion in something else, then start digging into that field and do the same thing. Note, I do NOT mean "attend a software engineer boot camp because you think more people will think you're cool if you program for a living". Because you're right, you may technically learn how to program well enough to get an entry-level job, but it will take you years to acquire the expertise and professional reputation of people who have been doing it for years--to say nothing of the actual stars in the industry. You would have to be the undiscovered Rembrandt of programming to get up to their level in only a few years, and if you're 35 and only just thinking about getting into software engineering, it's probably safe to say that isn't you. Then you will be like every other software engineer in the world, putting in 60-hour weeks building and testing code, competing with the *millions* of highly educated, talented engineers out of India and Asia, working from contract to contract and not having a whole lot of job security anyway. And you'll be right back where you started, wondering why you're not hanging out in Silicon Valley, getting millions in venture capital for your start-up like all the "stars".

Either come up with a brilliant idea that can become your life's work and feels like an accomplishment to you, or accept that you're destined for a normal life and explore things because you find them personally interesting. Join a club, make a bucket list and start doing the things on it, pick up a new hobby. In a year or so, you would become decently proficient in whatever you decided to learn. (Someone made a Youtube video that spanned the year or two where she taught herself how to play the violin, and she went from "SCREECH What am I doing?" to playing a pretty complex song in that time.) But don't do it because you want external validation from others. That's not a good reason to do anything, much less making a major career change and starting over professionally. People do that when they either have no other choice, or because they have a virtually guaranteed ROI that makes it worthwhile. Not because they're trying to keep up with the Joneses and maybe this will be a better way to do that.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:11 AM on August 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

This speaks to me a lot. I worked in my last career for 12 years or so. I could see the tangible results of my work, but everyone around me was so negative, every minor issue was a catastrophe. Before I left, I started writing down a list of my own tangible accomplishments so I could recognize them, but ultimately, it was draining working in a career with no or very little positive recognition. Sometimes a shitty career path is just a shitty career path.

I switched to software engineering, basically by learning to code kind of haphazardly over 6 or 7 years. I could have done it faster, but that wasn't practical for me. I don't make anywhere close to six figures -- I'm only 6 months into my career -- but I'm so much happier in that I get recognition for my good work. It's a good fit for me. I have no idea whether it will be for you.

The thing is, you can be quite mediocre at software engineering and still be better than most of the recent college graduates, at least the one's we're interviewing. You can build a pretty good foundational education by yourself in your free time, without a bootcamp, if you're motivated as I believe you are.

You don't actually need a six figure salary to be successful. It's not necessary or sufficient. I know people who made over a million and left their jobs because they hated it. My brother makes six figures or close to it, but he's so miserable living where he does that I can't really envy him, and he's been trying to leave his job for close to a decade. There are many metrics of success, but having a career that doesn't make you unhappy is probably a pretty good step.
posted by Llamadogdad at 9:31 AM on August 5, 2016

Specifically about how to change your mindset: Read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Research-based and incredibly insightful. Not woo-woo self-help. It's not going to say, "Here's how you deal with just being OK" but it'll make you reflect on a whole slew of things that I think you'll appreciate. It's a great book.
posted by adorap0621 at 9:52 AM on August 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

A thing about your idea for learning programming that might help is that even if the new career is lackluster, in your spare time you can use those skills to create things that you think are great, put them out into the world (or just use them personally, custom built for you) and get a sense of accomplishment that way.

So in order to help figure out if your plan can scratch your itch: Are there any projects or ideas (that could be done by one person in their spare time in a few months to a year) that interest or excite you and you want to take a shot at? If you haven't thought about that, let the idea percolate for a while. If on the other hand you really feel no interest in using code to create your own things outside of work, well... that's not a dealbreaker but I'd be more cautious about putting all your eggs into that basket.

(Also, I'm not sure if this is you but just in case: If you don't like who you are now, success won't change that. Chasing success will only waste your youth by squandering it on not addressing the actual problem.)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:36 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Why specifically programming? Is fiddling with computers something you enjoy already?

I ask because as someone who made a career change to IT from another field, if there's not something specific you enjoy about programming, or if it's not something you feel simply at ease with, you're going to have a hard time getting through your work days after a while. This holds true for any career – if there isn't something about it that grabs you, well, you can have the highest IQ in the room, but your motivation won't be there.

Depending on what you do currently, and whether there is something about IT that interests you, there are other careers you could look into. Software testing – which recently is being dubbed "software quality control" – is a great field for people with excellent communication, strong writing skills, and general IT curiosity. I've always been a hobby-geek, running FreeBSD on my DIY home computer for instance, and as a result it's a very good mesh with my strengths. There's also Business Analysis, which is fuzzy and depends very much on what companies hiring analysts need with regard to their clients. I do this as well, since being so curious got me good connections and rich insight into my company's clients. Which also sounds fuzzy, but I'm being generic on purpose. There are few limits and someone with drive, insight, and communications skills can go far and get a good salary. You could easily start as a technical writer and express to your employer that you're interested in a business analysis, for instance. Tech writing and software testing often turn into business analysis.

As the other commenters here have said, I agree it's important that you redefine achievement w/r/t your own self-realization. Career can absolutely be a part of that, but other things in life also are. Hobbies, activities, friendships. If you're the sort who needs to find meaning in work, then definitely look for something that holds that meaning for you. I was an overachiever in school and am still very driven, but it's for my own goals now. Plus, having come from a very different world – literature, philosophy, music – and working in, the horrors, business analysis and management (if you think literature gets a bad rap, just listen to the way lit programs talk about MBAs), I'm also able to have a healthy distance between my ego and my career, which is something that will be immensely valuable for your well-being if you too can work on that. I know full well that whatever I "achieve" in my current line of work could be torn to shreds by a smart sophomore lit student, and their achievement would be just as valid.

The good news is a career change in and of itself absolutely does help develop this perspective, so long as you're open to that happening.
posted by fraula at 10:43 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was a high achiever in high school who wound up working at a dead-end jobs into my 30's, despite everyone oohing and aahing over my special sparkly potential. What helps me put things in perspective when I start comparing myself to others, maybe others who weren't stars in high school, is to remember this: "I got good grades in high school because that mattered to me. Now other things matter to me." Other things being making smart financial choices, helping others, being there for my friends and family, and challenging myself creatively. It bears repeating that the secret to happiness has more to do with making progress toward a goal than owning things or taking dream vacations.

Also, it may be worth remembering the lessons of Death of a Salesman. Being well-liked or well-regarded is not nearly as important to success as keeping your head down and working hard, for a long damn time, without complaint.
posted by Pearl928 at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Sounds like you've given up on trusting your instincts, faced with your market (if the pursuit of "flow" led you to a place you hate, for e.g.), are fed up with what you experience as a low quality of life (comparatively and maybe absolutely), and want both financial security and external validation (as observed by AutumnHeart and Fraula). Maybe, you haven't been given the opportunity to feel the reward and impact of your work on a personal level, or don't feel connected to your organization's larger purpose. (And sometimes even that is just not enough, if what you actually do is a grind or you dislike your environment. It sounds to me like you've known nothing but grind for a long time, and you're looking for a way out, any way out. I hear a need to feel respected.)

If you would really be ok with squeezing yourself into just any job for the sake of a middle-class lifestyle/safe bet, I mean, ok... but that probably won't work well for long. I agree with others, there is probably a realistic middle ground, where you could figure something out that let you meet some of your personal needs for validation, and take a real vacation and buy fancy shoes now and then. Some of the ideas above sound good to me, but it all depends on your particulars. (Maybe ask a question with more info about your particulars? Or spend some more time on research & career exploration, to figure out that middle ground.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:28 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe you should redefine what 'mediocrity' actually is. Does having a six figure salary, expensive house and international travel opportunities really make you a better person? Isn't there something blatantly mediocre about only seeking external validation and basing your self worth on a comparison to other people? Maybe you are mediocre, but not for the reasons you think. Mediocrity means having vapid aspirations and living an unimaginative life. Step away from your need for validation and find something to pursue that is intrinsically valuable. There is a way to not envy others, and that is by devoting yourself to things that fulfill you inside. And learning to recognize what that fulfillment really feels like -- it's not an ego rush or a sense of power, it's a slowly unfolding gratitude for the very life you already live.
posted by winterportage at 5:42 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

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