Trapped in the wrong career, fallen behind, and struggling/suffocating
February 9, 2018 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I have fallen into a very technical niche in my industry that I am not naturally interested or talented in, and the more I've managed to advance career-wise, the deeper I go into the niche. The deeper I fall into the niche, the less I actually learn/absorb/truly understand and the less I manage to accomplish. I now find mysel fallen completely behind, trapped in a constant state of fear and anxiety.

My feelings are a web of such anxiety and despair that I feel almost incabale of articulating my issue in a coherent manner, so I'll try to summarize with bulletpoints:


- I have fallen into a very specific niche in my industry surrounding technology, data, statistics, etc.
- I am not naturally interested in any of these things, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was able to pick up a 101-level understanding of it at certain points in my career.
- This 101-level stuff was in really high demand at one point a few years ago, and I was able to "climb the ladder" in my field. I was quickly positioned as an expert by virtue of merely understanding the basics. This felt good, so I stuck with it.
- It's been about a decade in this career and 4 or 5 years in my "niche", and every year I feel like I "know" less and less as it gets more and more complicated.


- 2 years into my latest job, I am now in a mid-senior level position, and tasks/projects have escalated very quickly from 101-beginners level to 202 advanced-level. I have no direct experience nor do I feel like I am mathmatically/technically minded to handle any of it. Back in school, I would have seen a tutor if I struggled with something; now as a working professional there is no "tutor" for how to work with, for instance, a given tech or data vendor.
- I sit in meetings where people are able to talk and talk and talk about their given subject expertise and I have nothing to offer or contribute, and I can barely pay attention to these meetings through all of my knowledge gaps and anxiety. It feels like being slightly proficient but not fluent in a foreign country's language, so I can make small talk but not engage in any meaningful debate or conversation - except my job involves multiple "countries" and "languages" on a multitude of projects.
- I am asked to make presentations and give points of view on technology that I have never worked with before and on extremely tight timelines; I have no resources for learning these things as they are very niche (that is to say, it's not like "coding" where you can just google how to code different things or do a CodeAcademy course - you kind of just have to Learn By Doing or by working with this or that's like a catch-22, you learn by doing but nothing here ever gets done.) No one thing/solution/workflow is ever concrete - it is always a caveat on top of a caveat on top of a caveat.
- I have no mentorship, no help, no assistant, and a manager who is constantly traveling and non-responsive. My only real support is my therapist, who tries to teach me cognitive strategies for coping as well as executive functioning strategies but after a certain point everything becomes too unbearable.
- I juggle between 5-15 projects a week and can't keep track of any of them. Meetings get placed on my calendar faster than I can prepare for them. I attend the meetings and come out more confused than before. I have been told they are trying to hire help for me, but there are a lot of internal politics around hiring since I work for a giant company so it's in a holding pattern. On top of this, I'm concerned that whoever is hired to help me will actually be more knowledgable than me and come to replace me entirely - my company will almost definitely like them better if they can provide more straight answers than me.
- My goal for every day is no longer to accomplish anything real; it is just to survive and make it through without getting discovered as a fraud or repremanded in some form. It feels toxic and like my career has come to a halt - there is no more learning, accomplishments, "wins" - just pure stress and anxiety burning up my thoughts and my stomach all day, every day.
- Some of it is imposter syndrome, yes, but some of it is real - and I can see the disappointment on my coworkers faces when they ask me a question and I simply do not know the answer, or need more time, or have to delay another deliverable yet again because the truth is I just don't know how to do this and feel completely depleted and despondant.

The future:

- I don't know what to do or where to go. I don't feel like I've truly built any real skills these past few years except for faking things just well enough to get through the meeting or through the project or through the day without getting fired. You know the phrase "everyone only knows what they are doing 50% of the time?" For me, it feels like 10% of the time.
- I make enough money to afford to live in a very expensive city where my friends and family are located. I don't know how I would handle starting over in a new industry and taking a paycut back at the junior level of a new job - I have a rent to pay and retirement/emergency savings that I need to be on track to accumulate.
- Even if I did start over, I don't know where I'd move on to. I've never had a career plan and never truly known what I've wanted to do. Quitting outright and waiting tables or something while I burn through my nest egg of savings doesn't seem like a feasible option.

In conlcusion:

- I feel trapped and completely fucked. I don't know where to take my career or what direction to turn or pivot. I don't know enough about what I truly want to do to set a course into motion. And I feel like I've fallen too far behind in my industry to truly patch up my knowledge gaps and even do something similar at a different company. There is no way I can see myself doing this in 10 or even 5 years from now - by my own choice or by my company (or hell, any company) laying me off for being useless.

My question:

How does one "come back" from this? Did you hit rock bottom? Did you turn your career around completely or pivot it entirely? How did you even begin to "course-correct" your entire career?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If someone you could hire might be more knowledgeable than you, how would they have attained that knowledge? Can you replicate that method?

Some of what you're saying you're having trouble with sounds like everyone in your position would have trouble with. For things like, "I am asked to make presentations and give points of view on technology that I have never worked with before and on extremely tight timelines; I have no resources for learning these things as they are very niche ... you kind of just have to Learn By Doing or by working with this or that vendor" it sounds like it would be fair to reach out to the vendor to have them provide references to you or to just say that straight up in the presentation.

It might be a good idea to reach out to others in your niche at your level or even further advancement at other companies and see what insight they might have for you. It may well be you're just at a toxic company, or they know of some resources you don't, etc.
posted by vegartanipla at 4:39 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

You should hire people who know more than you about one niche thing or another whenever possible! Then your job becomes to align what they know with one another and with what you know about the project / company / industry so that your team all succeeds together.

To get there, it sounds like maybe you need to get on top of this feeling with cognitive strategies, develop some talking points that will do a better job in preventing the disappointment you see, develop a strategy for persuading this company to hire you some staff, and make sure you have the management skills to utilize the staff. (I TOTALLY understand the fear of hiring someone who knows more, but in all frankness, that's usually the wrong way to think about it.) You may also need to push back on expectations (decline meetings, narrow your focus, whatever) to set expectations that you can meet and get your workload down to a level where you can feel semi-prepared for what you're being asked to do.

But that's my suggestion given the constraints about wanting to stay at the same earning level in the same region. Maybe another way to look at it is, what do you feel good at that's tangential to your current job?
posted by salvia at 6:29 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's a huge company, so do you have benefits you're not currently using? Things like education reimbursement or independent career counseling, but more importantly right now: can you take some time off? You're burnt out; it's very hard to get a handle on your options when you're so overwhelmed and feeling hopeless every single day.

Also, since you're the point person for your area, and the higher-ups haven't gotten around to getting you the support you need, being out of the office for a week or so might make that need more apparent to them.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:38 PM on February 9, 2018

I think you need to start prioritizing tasks, on top of that list should be reducing your levels of stress: see a better therapist, walk one hour a day, anything that will make you feel better.

Do not consider each day like the day where you solve everything, but the day where you made things better within your current constraints. Life is rife with ambiguous and contradictory requirements, that's part of your job, and they're not an insurmountable obstacle!

From 101 to 202 there's the same amount of effort that you already did from nothing to 101. Many of the things that seem obvious and unworthy to you, are not obvious at all and are very valuable to people who call you an expert.

Don't let your anxiety and fears grow unchecked. Whatever you think of it, CBT can at least be a first step in the right direction, and help you separate your fears from reality.
posted by haemanu at 6:46 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is it possible that you understand the concept blocks at a systems-sized enough level that you don’t have to know the details anymore?
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:21 PM on February 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

To give a less abstract example: where I work I could not build what our platform team built but I am able to make large scale architectural recommendations based on the “block level” system-sized concepts that I absolutely do understand. My understanding is based on a loooong history in tech and having built “the world” when it was less complicated. Systems move towards ever more complexity, and as you mature in your career you naturally pull your perspective back and see how the parts interact to form a system and as that maturation happens you will naturally grow detached from the ever-growing complexity beneath you.

It is scary, but also recognize that maybe the people who understand the details are as scared as you are because they don’t understand the system. Maybe you’re the person who understands the system better, and maybe you’re being valued for that?
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:28 PM on February 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

I sympathize. However I do think that at least half of all knowledge workers feel exactly the same way most of the time. Don’t compare your insides to other peoples’ outsides.

Definitely hire someone who you believe to be smarter and/or more knowledgeable than you! That’s one of the qualities that companies look for in managers - they want you to grow the team beyond your current capacity and knowledge.
posted by samthemander at 10:05 PM on February 9, 2018

Oh, also: start applying for other jobs. There’s a good chance that this is partly the subject matter/niche, and partly your company. A change of employer, even in the same field, would help you test this theory and allow you to continue saving.
posted by samthemander at 10:06 PM on February 9, 2018

Yes when I found myself in similar situations I got a new job!
posted by wannabecounselor at 3:15 AM on February 10, 2018

You need to get over your impostor syndrome- you may feel overwhelmed by it all but everyone thinks you're the expert for good reason- it's because you are.

You should not be afraid to hire someone younger with more modern technical skills- they will not replace you! You have experience and knowledge they will never have; they need you more than you need them, they are 100% replaceable whereas an old hand like yourself is hard to find. Be their boss, and be their mentor.

Furthermore, you will be moving into a new job- management! Being a manager means you won't be expected to know every technical detail- just enough to keep tabs on what your subordinate is doing. You still need to do a bunch of work but you can delegate the technical stuff and focus on the overall scheme. It's an important job and it takes maturity and experience! Own it.

In summary, you are indeed stuck (I am too! This happens with age) but it's not as bad as you make it out to be. Perhaps someday you will be in a position for a radical shift; you will know when that day comes, and godspeed. But maybe today is not that day. In the meantime, fake it till ya make it- that's what everyone else is doing, I promise.
posted by Admiral Viceroy at 4:44 AM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I think that your organisation is expecting too much of you in terms of workload, and that you might now be suited to a more generalist role. The other people you reference may well be technical experts at higher levels and in ways that you are not. However, work does not get done effectively if everyone is an impressive technical expert. It requires people who have a more superficial understanding looking at things and asking emperors new clothes questions, it requires people who can synthesise things at the broader and less detailed level.

If you work in a large organisation there are probably options to move laterally. But I think you need to take a break in order to work out what your skills, strengths and likes are so that you can find something where you enjoy or at least pleasantly tolerate going to work every day. If you are in a reasonably large city there are probably career coaches who could help you move on. Why not try that?
posted by plonkee at 7:28 AM on February 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hi I hope you're ok. I may have been in a similar situation - the suffocating thing is horrible.
So: "How did you even begin to "course-correct" your entire career?"

1) Went looking for related freelance opportunities somewhere else. But tried to hang onto my current job in a "toxic" environment to me. I began to recognise that my inability to explain the value I could offer was part of the problem.

2) This sounds familiar: "I don't know enough about what I truly want to do to set a course into motion".

So a first step: I figured out my "highest point of contribution"

3) Settled on an area I thought I could own (if they hired some staff) - went to my bosses - explained the situation -
and they didn't really care. Made me redundant as soon as they could.

4) But luckily, a small freelance opportunity came up.

5) And I continued to try and figure out what I wanted to do. For me, the concept of ikigai was useful:

6) Over time my "highest point of contribution" has changed as one freelance opportunity led to another. I set out to package what I can offer in ways that are easy for others to understand. I tested what people would pay me to do - and I became more of a generalist.

7) I now earn less than I did, have more autonomy, am much happier. The improvement in quality of life outweighs the reduction in earnings. And I feel I have a future. All because I addressed the root of my problem: my uncertainty around what I wanted to do.

I hope this is of some use. You are not alone!
posted by Speculatist at 2:04 PM on February 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

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