I don't want to stick it to the man, I just want nothing to do with him.
April 25, 2007 4:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm a bright, creative, productive computer programmer close to the beginning of my career. I'm currently employed at a startup I really like, with relatively interesting work, and generally feel positive (or neutral) about going and spending time at the office each day. But, for a myriad of reasons, I despise having a job. I absolutely cannot imagine doing this for the rest of my life. Other than turning to a life of crime, in what ways might I support myself without having a traditional job?

The things I hate most about a job:
  • The constant carrot-and-stick manuevering of primate hierarchical structures.
  • Conforming to schedules decided and defined by other folks, with priorities and motivations I find frequently find laughable or counterproductive.
  • The concepts of vacation, sickdays and "personal days". As if I somehow belong to the company, and must ask permission to go where I wish.
  • The idea that somehow monetary compensation makes up for behavior I would never tolerate from a friend.
I'm not interested in "paying my dues" and moving up in said hierarchical structures; having my boss's job sounds worse than mine.

The obvious answer is to start my own company. While I'm certainly considering that very strongly, I can't say that I'm particularly interested in business--I'm an engineer. Furthermore, I have a net worth measurable with four significant digits, and seeking outside investors just results in a new set of folks to whom I'm beholden. And, of course, if it goes somewhere, and I wind up with employees, I'm back in the same damn boat--I'm just the captain.

I've done a bit of consulting work. I find it even less tolerable than a regular job. Not only am I doing mercenary work in which I'm not invested,

Is my only option just to buy a cabin in Montana and become a hermit? My girlfriend probably won't like this much.

(Answers such as "suck it up, that's how life works" will be regarded as the repititious mantra of the unimaginative.)
posted by Netzapper to Work & Money (39 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry. I was interrupted by a phonecall and hit post thinking I'd done editing.

It should read: Not only am I doing mercenary work in which I'm not invested, I'm either working for non-technical folk with whom I can barely communicate about technical projects, or I'm just a temporary employee.
posted by Netzapper at 5:01 PM on April 25, 2007

My boyfriend is a bright, creative, productive computer close to the beginning of his career, who also runs an ad-supported website to teach people about programming. It makes good money (although it took years for it to get to that point) and took only the cost of registering a domain name to start. He can work on it whenever he feels like it, he has no employees or investors, and at this point it doesn't take up much of his time, unless he wants it to.
posted by phoenixy at 5:10 PM on April 25, 2007

Er, I meant to say that my boyfriend is a computer programmer, not a computer (even if I do sometimes threaten to replace him with a robot).
posted by phoenixy at 5:14 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have you considered going back to school, getting your PhD and becoming an academic?

That could be a solution for you - you can remain in your field, interact with other intelligent people with the same interests, maintain your independence, and avoid the corporate world.
posted by monarch75 at 5:16 PM on April 25, 2007

Well, now that we know all of the things you don't like, is there anything you know you do like? You won't be happy with anything that avoids all the stuff you don't like unless it also involves something you like.
posted by mendel at 5:21 PM on April 25, 2007

Not only am I doing mercenary work in which I'm not invested, I'm either working for non-technical folk with whom I can barely communicate about technical projects, or I'm just a temporary employee.

To get a bit philosophical, what you're experiencing here is what Marx called the 'Alienation of the Worker'. You're working in your craft, but you don't have any stake in the output. It's perfectly normal.

Fortunately, there's thousands of opportunities for you. I have a good friend who has divested himself of the rat race, moved to a rural area and makes a simple living. Thanks to his tech skills he can pick and choose his paid work and due to his thrift, he can take the rest of the year 'off'. He gardens, volunteers, all that sort of stuff, and is the happiest guy I know.

You don't need to work the rat race for the rest of your life. Make a plan, figure the cost, save up. When you make the number that you've set out to make, it's time to chase the dream.
posted by unixrat at 5:25 PM on April 25, 2007 [5 favorites]

Let me be the first to say, bah, you get used to it. And also, you're kind of overanalysing "the man" here. Not many structures will hold up to this line of how-am-I-being-screwed analysis. After all, we humans also let our friends treat us in ways for which we would likely punch out a stranger.
posted by desuetude at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Going back to school, getting a PhD, and becoming an academic is entering into another, although different, hierarchical structure. Academia has committee meetings, and you move up from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Full Professor, etc. (eventually becoming a Professor Emeritus). Your life is mapped out for you much moreso than if you were to just do, say, consulting work.

Many things I hear about consulting is the freedom you have. You can pick clients, drop clients, set your own schedule, etc. However, in practice this is much different than 'in theory'...

Another option is to become a professional blogger. Write things that are so convicingly original that advertisers want to advertise on your blog, and pay big bucks for it. Take the money from this and stash it away. Invest it. Retire early. Live in Montana.
posted by dvjtj at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2007

Re: [monarch75]'s comment: Two of my in-laws are PHd academics and they tell me academia isnt what it used to be and that its very difficult these days to live the kind of life that people think academics live.

They tell me that competition for faculty positions can be very cutthroat and extremely political. That the system is saturated and therefore much more competitive. That while you wait to get your foot in the door you are paid a pittance and that once you do get through the door the pressure to publish and produce revenue for the university is very demanding.

I guess you can work for a low key institution but you'd be paid little.
posted by postergeist at 5:30 PM on April 25, 2007

Well, if you have lots of bright ideas, it seems like you could be a serial entrepreneur. Then you could develop your idea, build a product or algorithm with a team or partner, or even on your own, patent it, and sell it to a bigger company. After the first time, you would hopefully have sufficient capital on hand not to need investors the second time around.

Of course, this depends on your having great ideas floating around in your head all the time that translate into intellectual property that big companies might actually want to buy. Still, I have friends with parents who made great money this way.

BTW, I don't think academia is the answer you want. As a computer science professor (which is what I assume you'd be) you'd still have to bow and scrape to all kinds of bastards to get the funding you'd need need to do research (and you'd have to figure out a way to spin your research so the DoD or whomever will want to throw you a pittance). And the politics can be insane, from what I hear.
posted by crinklebat at 5:31 PM on April 25, 2007

As someone who doesn't have a job in the traditional sense -- I write a weekly column, do a little paid blogging, review video games, and collect checks from Google ads -- I was all ready to say "Don't let the Man get you down! You don't have to play by society's rules!"

However, reading the entirety of your question, I have to amend that. You do have to play by some of society's rules. I have a dream job, but I get the sense that you'd still chafe at some of the restrictions I face, like heavy deadlines, or Google telling me that some of my Web pages are too "adult" for them, even though they're less racy than say South Park.

I think there are a lot of opportunities for you other than a standard nine-to-five. I think you can be your own boss. But if your goal is to not have to deal with anyone treating you differently than a friend -- not employers or investors or customers or clients or partners or collaborators -- I don't think that's going to happen unless you have a really awesome novel in you.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 5:33 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

You could become a crab fisherman, work on a boat for just a few months in the year and make $60k+. But then you have to be comfortable with the idea that you might die at any moment doing it.
posted by postergeist at 5:34 PM on April 25, 2007

...becoming an academic is entering into another, although different, hierarchical structure.

This is true by the strictest measure, and departmental politics are one reason I'm not a uni prof, but not so true in the ways that may be most important to Netzapper.

What a uni prof gets in exchange for having to teach and deal with the Dean's bullshit, is freedom to think what they like and pursue what interests them. Nobody timeclocks a prof, except for their teaching hours, and you get to hire and build your own team. Being a prof in the sciences resembles being a private consultant with the benefit of cheap labour and some "free" facilities (until you realize how much of your grants you don't see). The major downside is finding funding, and doing what you have to do to find grant money.
posted by bonehead at 5:40 PM on April 25, 2007

Would it help to work outside the commercial sector, like a non-profit or hospital or school?

I have a typical web programming job but in a hospital IT department. I would be frustrated if I worked for some company just out to line their pockets, but knowing that my efforts help doctors to treat sick people - that is pretty fulfilling.

(Admittedly it still has a lot of the same factors you're describing, but the fulfilling aspect definitely helps to balance them out for me.)
posted by cadge at 5:41 PM on April 25, 2007

A quick followup in an attempt to be more helpful: I think your best bet is to be a genius. I talked about writing an awesome novel, but there are other alternatives that are more engineering-related: you could create a Web page or an application that everyone needs but doesn't know it. You could invent and patent something so useful that it sells itself and companies just send you checks to license your patent. You could write a book about some technology that becomes the de-facto standard in the industry, invest the money you make, and live frugally without having to ever write another.

None of these are going to completely shield you from other people's selfish demands, but if you make one completely great thing then that will probably be easier than being merely competent for the rest of your life.

I'd also emphasize frugality. The less money you want, the more leeway you have in getting it.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 5:53 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I marvel at the number of posts like this on MeFi. Few people seem REALLY happy at the careers in which they find themselves.

The feelings you describe are pretty common and understandable, and I believe they are a byproduct of our society allowing what is basically a feudal institution to exist (i.e., the company). It's not a democracy, and other than a small amout of legal restriction on behavior, businesses can do what they choose. Most of them EAT people or at least their spirits!

Netzapper, you may just be starting out, but you are ahead of the curve if you actually do something about this angst. I urge you to try something different NOW, not wait for some day in the unknown future when you are ready.

You can structure a livelihood that meets your needs. It's easier if the needs are modest. You have to decide how much money is worth to you. It is worth misery? Is it worth confinement? Is it worth subordination and boredom?

Try something else now and see if it works. Repeat untill it does or you decide misery is your sad lot and then just go back to work in the salt mines. You'll have lots of company in the hordes who live, per Thoreau, lives of quiet desparation.

What actually, should you try? Start with something you like. You have the internet to aid in your exploration. Each thing that doesn't work narrows the field of those that might, so off you should go! When you succeed, tell everyone how. There is a hunger bordering on desparation out there for wisdom and guidance.

(BTW, I'm following my own advice... engineer + MBA, and relatively old by your standards...a veteran of Fortune 100 all the way down to one man shop. Be brave and do it.)

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 5:58 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Frugality and genius will get you close to your goal. Good advice, L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg.
posted by dvjtj at 6:00 PM on April 25, 2007

If you haven't done so already, read how to be creative; you may enjoy it.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 6:08 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

You sound in the same boat as my dad was 7 years ago when he ran a branch for a multi-billion company. He was miserable, hated managing people, had been called in from family vacations for "emergencies," etc. They fired him 7 years ago, so what did he do? He started his own business by snagging clients from the old company he impressed. Originally, he had 2 other investors whom he bought out earlier this year. He has one other person he "manages," but he doesn't need to manage in the typical sense. As the owner, he takes off whenever he wants and calls his job a vacation. He just bought a cabin in the mountains and decided not to work Fridays anymore so he can really vacation up there every weekend.

I have a another friend who doesn't want to work for the man, so what does she do? She was living in hostels in Europe- she sustains herself on temp work and free lodging by working 2 hours/day for the hostel. She now join the Peace Corps. She also happens to be the happiest girl I know. Frugality's her life story.
posted by jmd82 at 6:18 PM on April 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

DON'T get used to it, friend. Those are all died-in-the-wool employees saying that stuff. You sound like an ideal candidate for self-employment. Sure, it can be tough, but if freedom is important to you, it's a lot tougher working for The Man. You will NEVER be free there. Most of us self-employed types are virtually unemployable (I say that proudly) because we won't trade our precious freedom and autonomy for a measly paycheck.

I was a humble employee for 20 years, rose thru the ranks, got promoted quite a few times (and screwed over a few times). The last 2 companies I worked for went under, and that's when I decided I would have a lot more security having several clients, rather than one employer who controls 100% of my income.

After 7 years I couldn't be happier. I make more money, work fewer hours and have the freedom others can only dream of. Hey, you've got a valuable skill set-- go for it! If it doesn't work out, you can always go back. For inspiration, check out http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/
posted by wordwhiz at 6:33 PM on April 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

On preview, what FauxScot said.
posted by wordwhiz at 6:34 PM on April 25, 2007

There do exist well-paying jobs that don't involve any of the things you don't like about the typical employment situation. Or at least, very little of them. I've managed to stumble into more than one (well, exactly two actually) in the course of my long and illustrious career as a writer of software.

Starting a business could work, if you've got a suitable idea and a partner willing and able to handle the "business" stuff. That too is hard to find.

Or, you could try to become a professional poker player. Or an options trader. Or a musician. Or a farmer. Or any of various other occupations you can no doubt think of that require uncommon amounts of determination and luck, but might work out of you have the right kind of talents.
posted by sfenders at 6:35 PM on April 25, 2007

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create." - William Blake
posted by weston at 6:43 PM on April 25, 2007 [3 favorites]

The obvious answer is to start my own company. While I'm certainly considering that very strongly, I can't say that I'm particularly interested in business--I'm an engineer.

Yeah, so partner up with some young business person. They need technical skills, you need someone willing to put up with bullshit business meetings. You work for almost nothing to get through the startup phase and prove the idea viable, then sell it to some bigger company.
posted by salvia at 6:48 PM on April 25, 2007

Become a realtor.

posted by konolia at 7:35 PM on April 25, 2007

Dump your girlfriend and marry someone rich. That'll take care of your problem.
posted by schroedinger at 7:46 PM on April 25, 2007

Ok. So what none of the other posts have covered: How do to this.

The best way to get around working for "the man" is to have an income that you can establish at night while having the security of a frequent paycheck, and then you can collect without (much) further work. At first, use this to pay down your debts. Get rid of your car payment, get rid of your school loans, get rid of your credit card, debt, AND DON'T RUN UP MORE. Then take the money you bring in and start saving it. When you have a year's savings, find somewhere that you like that's not a big city, and move there. Then spend your free time building up the income to the point where you can live on it.

You don't have to quit your job and devote yourself full-time to entrepreneurship. Being a small business owner for the first time is something that you can and should do while you still have a day job. You might have to find a job that places less demands on you than a startup, though. I've "heard" that working for a state government or educational institution might be good for that...

An idea for this kind of model: A web based game with a partial subscription program + ads. (Note: You'll need to have a pretty compelling game to charge for it. There's LOTS of free web-based games out there.)

Once your first one's done, though, don't forget that you should probably keep working a few hours a night to develop the 2nd and maybe even 3rd one. These should multiply your income. If one of the "properties" starts to slide a bit, see if you can sell it to someone for a big profit. But always try to keep one year's worth of living expenses collecting interest somewhere... it's your security blanket.

Another option might be developing a big code library and selling it for license fees. Another idea is developing some specialty, like CMS hosting on load-balanced servers, and getting REALLY good at it in your spare time. There's also programmer references for obscure languages and frameworks, and all kinds of other consulting and things you can do. The keys are to provide value, and then charge appropriately for it, and make sure you acquire multiple streams of income from that value. You might want to partner with someone who's got the business and marketing sense (Disclaimer: I'm providing these services on a contract basis. But I'd be willing to help someone who's in a similar spot if you want to bounce ideas off of me.) to get your ideas in front of people once you've gotten them off the ground.

First, though, make sure your employer allows this (It's in your employment contract or employee handbook under 'moonlighting' ... I'm permitted to, I just need to fill out a form every fiscal year. Your mileage may vary.)... you don't want to find out suddenly that everything you produce, they own... after you've produced something worthwhile.

Your goal: Sit down over the next few weeks and dream up something that you can do better than anyone else has done it, and that you can do at night over the span of a year or two with only your own resources, and that won't be out of date by the time you complete it. It may take that long. Then figure out how much it'll cost you to do it, if anything. Then figure out what kind of figures you can expect to receive for it. And then ... launch it, and see if it floats. If it doesn't, keep it going at a maintenance level and start another one.

(And, shhhhhhh! This is *MY* get-out-of-dodge plan. Don't tell anyone, but in 5 years I hope to be living in Eureka, CA.)
posted by SpecialK at 7:50 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

P.S. -- I've been an entrepreneur twice over now; both times I screwed the pooch. I'm still figuring out exactly what to do and I *think* I've got it this time; I definitely know what NOT to do.
posted by SpecialK at 7:55 PM on April 25, 2007

schroedinger: I am the OP's girlfriend. Please don't put any ideas in his head. I already have to consider moving to a cabin in Montana as an option, don't make it worse for me.
posted by nursegracer at 8:50 PM on April 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've invented things, made things, sold things (tangible and intangible) and managed people who did all three. You make the most money selling things, generally, but few highly successful sales people in all those I've known have been disciplined enough to make the money they earned work for them.

Also, in my experience, frugality for the sake of frugality begets poverty, simply because it's hard to do well in the market economy, if you aren't trading in the bazaar much. The world has millions of happy paupers, so there is nothing "wrong" with poverty, so long as misfortune does not find you, or you can be fatalistic when it does. Frugality as a mechanism for creating capital is another ball of wax, however.

Being independent means being financially independent, whether by accumulation or resignation, but if you aren't enthralled with going about a footloose and fancy free mendicant, capital accumulation and the preservation of accumulated capital against loss must be early and life long concerns. Money, being the slippery thing it is, takes watching. To get ahead of the game in America, you need to:

1) Minimize debt expense.
2) Minimize tax burdens.
3) Maximize early savings.
4) Get top of market rates of return, consistent with capital safety.
5) Stay healthy.
6) Be sensible about decisions and actions with regard to family matters.
7) Minimize and sensibly insure risks.
8) Profitably employ others, if not directly, then indirectly.

Buying a home as early as you can on a 15 year fixed rate mortgage is an example of an action that accomplishes goals 1,2,3,6, and probably (under terms of most mortgages) 7, and, hopefully, 4. Hard to beat that as a first swing for a young person, and it is easier to do that while employed, than just after you've struck out on your own in business. Setting up IRA or other appropriate long term savings vehicles, and funding them to their limits accomplishes 2,3, and hopefully 4, if you do nothing but a decent mix of stock index mutual funds and government securities, where appropriate. Once you've done these things while employed, you'll find you've built a base of good financial decisions that makes becoming independent a better proposition.

Maintain health insurance, even if you are young and healthy. Unless you get married or have other surviving responsiblities, life insurance is an expense and not an investment.
posted by paulsc at 9:02 PM on April 25, 2007 [4 favorites]

working for non-technical folk with whom I can barely communicate about technical projects

If that's how you feel about what non-technical folk like to call "normal people," academia is probably the answer. (I say this as technical folk.)
posted by staggernation at 9:32 PM on April 25, 2007

Find a job which will let you telecommute and work half time (or less) and reduce your needs to the point where that sustains you. (My strategy)
posted by beerbajay at 11:41 PM on April 25, 2007

If you really are talented, go freelance and simply be very choosy about what work you take on. Steer clear of corporate consulting and demanding clients, find other freelancers you can collaborate with, and keep your living expenses down so you don't have to chase cash too hard. Your limited experience may make it a bit tricky to start with though, as you won't have made many contacts or acquired the kind of broad knowledge that's more important when you go it alone.

Genuinely talented programmers are still constantly in demand; some people seem to cling to jobs as if they're one step away from abject poverty, when in fact they have an awful lot of freedom.
posted by malevolent at 12:38 AM on April 26, 2007

What you are looking for (and might google for) is passive income. This is money that just happens to you without you doing anything.

Some people are talking about making a lot of one-time money (brilliant novel, brilliant patents, etc.). What you do with passive income though is you make small amounts of money all the time.

As a programmer, the obvious choice for you is to write programs, and create a website where people can buy them. You probably pick your target audience and set your price points so that your software is decidedly easy to justify, and doesn't require much work on anyone's part to get running. Of course, one problem with this is that tons of people are doing it, and lots of them do it for free. But then, maybe you'll think of something cool or new or novel in some way.
posted by !Jim at 3:02 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Examine the lives of wealthy people. Find or manufacture a need for them, for which your specific set of talents, quirks, and strengths are ideally suited.

Look in odd places to find these - they may not happen where you expect them.

I am an artist by... nature? Education? Well, okay, I haven't made it through college yet. My job? I braid horses' manes. Yeah, you heard that. I make a comfortable living - more comfortable than I would as a college graduate in an entry-level position in my field of choice. It's a quirky job that requires lots of travel, working through the night, attention to detail, a huge tolerance for silence and solitude, an ability to work with difficult animals, and a long attention span - all strengths of mine, some of which make me literally unemployable in "normal" jobs. (I can't show up at 8 a.m. every day to save myself, and I'm bipolar, which means that there are times when I find myself utterly incapacitated and unable to do anything but breathe.) It allows me to work far, far fewer hours than an 8-5 office job, for comparable/better pay (depending on the position, obviously), and gives me the flexibility to not work if I need it.

There are ways to earn money like this in many different forms - you just have to look in unconventional places to find them. For me, it's the hunter-jumper "A" circuit. Maybe poke around some other well-known diversions of the wealthy, and see what you can find. It's worth a shot.
posted by po at 4:48 AM on April 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Have you considered talking to your parents about setting up a trust fund for you? It was really very negligent of them not to do that in the first place.

I kid. Don't give up on the entrepreneurship idea. You sound like you have the exact same mindset I had when I started. I'm also an engineer, am disgusted by corporate politics and dislike typical business dealings in general. Find yourself someone you like who fills in those gaps in your skill set / personality and start a business together. You'll have the freedom to set your own schedule and priorities, and your go-getter partner will probably love going out and doing all the things you dislike (sales, marketing, personnel management, etc).

You probably won't hit a home run right away, but you're young too - you have plenty of time to fail and learn from it. Eventually you'll hit on something that works, and if you're like me, it will be a pretty enjoyable experience overall. Keep your expenses in check and invest wisely, and you'll be free and clear much sooner than you thought possible - don't let anyone tell you retiring by 35 is an impossible goal.
posted by chundo at 8:19 AM on April 26, 2007

Start up your own community weblog. Call it MetaFiltre. Charge $4 to become a member. Watch the money roll in. I'm a member of one of these in which I guarantee the administrators are all millionaires.

I like FauxScot's and SpecialK's answers.
posted by Totally Zanzibarin' Ya at 8:39 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should try reading the Anti 9-to-5 Guide (for people "who think beyond the cube") It's ostensibly targeted towards women, but the advice it gives is really applicable to anyone. Your current situation is exactly what the book was written for; it might help you work through what to do.
posted by Kololo at 2:59 PM on April 26, 2007

Start your own Fight Club.
posted by mattbucher at 8:11 AM on April 27, 2007

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