Yet Another Career Question
October 13, 2007 7:56 PM   Subscribe

In short, I feel I have reached a career dead-end and am unsure what to do.

I've owned a computer and have tinkered with them since I was 9, but unlike a lot of kids that used it to ignite a career in engineering and/or programming, I mostly used them for entertainment. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about them -- about operating systems and hardware and interfaces -- and have created a career for myself in technical support. For the last fifteen years, I've worked in computer support. (I got here by, first, entering the printing industry then running my own support business. Now, I work for a Lexington, Mass based company performing technical support for a few dozen companies. After I sold my Boston-based business, I went to work for this company in order to move to Houston.)

About two-and-a-half years ago, I began to feel a lot of anger and my work started to suffer. I hope it doesn't sound too much like a boast, but I am very good at support. I suppose because of both my technical and customer support skills, I became very successful. Nevertheless, I was very, very unhappy. I identified it as burn-out and, in response, raised my rates, cut down the number of jobs I scheduled per day and went on a program to improve my health.

Nearly everything improved, except my mood. Life intervened when my wife and I decided to move to Houston to be closer to family. Within eight months, I sold the business, we sold our house, I took a job with my current company, and we moved to Houston. Now, about a year later, I am severely depressed and quite hopeless and, well, have considered some severe ends. Fortunately, I am in counseling.

Right now, I work 9-10 hours a day doing a mish-mash of support and mangement at a company that, in my opinion, is chronically understaffed and has a lot of trouble turning new hires into productive team members. The owner leans on me for business experience and gives me a lot of power, but also a lot of responsibility. I am not handling the stress well at all. I just spent an entire week on vacation in Arizona and the job never left my mind. I couldn't relax. My sleep has been disturbed for months. (For what it's worth, I've always been emotional, so I can't claim someone else in my position would feel as I do.)

When I look at the opportunities out there -- the things that I qualify for -- I see things that don't spell any kind of bright future. I see support jobs for $38k (quite a bit less than I am paid now) and the folks expect you to be available 24/7, including weekends, and travel at least 25% of the year. I don't know much about development, but I hear the anguish of folks who can't find jobs because their jobs are being outsourced (indeed, the same is happening in support as well). So, I wonder: Do I need to change careers?

Technology is the only thing I've ever really loved with any longevity. But I never finished college. I started on a Computer Science degree, but shied away from the math due to some troubles I had in high-school. I have always been a late bloomer, though, and I think I could actually get through those Math struggles and into a CompSci or EE degree. When I think about hardware and embedded systems and Linux, I am quite excited. When I think about getting out of fixing Word template issues and learning a programming language, I am electrified. But to what end? If so much of the industry is going to China and India, what would I come away with at the end of two-to-six years? And should I get a complete degree or certificates that focus on topics?

I am curious: What do you see as the future for this industry in terms of career opportunities? And what do you think of school as an option for me? And certificates or a full-diploma?

Or should I be looking at something different?

(I've got to get out of this job. Oy veh.)
posted by tcv to Work & Money (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First, I would question that you need to get out of this particular job. It might be true that it is the job, but I wonder if you'd do well for a while in something different until the same dynamics that make you miserable now reveal their ugly little heads. Then you are back at square one, but now feeling hopeless about two different careers.

So, what to do? First, it's great that you are in counselling. That will help more than anything else, I would wager. But you have to stop struggling first. Advice at this stage probably feels a lot like commenting on your breast stroke while you are drowning, so lets have you stop drowning, eh?

Without knowing anything really about you and based solely on what you wrote, I'm gonna guess that you have worked well above your comfort level for a long time now. You've let other people's expectations of what they need from you set the bar and now you feel like you're living a lie and will let someone down soon. That's untenable. You are right to feel burned out. So first thing, act like your own best friend and give yourself a break. I am sure that if you lowered your own standards for your performance and responsibility, you'd still outperform everyone's expectations. You need to set some boundaries. Do your job well, but only as much as is necessary to do your job well. Don't do what someone else would love to have you do to make their life easier.

Once you've relaxed the pressure you are letting happen to you (and you are the one letting this happen), you'll be able to see things a bit clearer. You will likely then be able to understand what the next steps should be, new career, school, etc. Don't just change for change sake, without understanding the basis of your problem. You're depressed and depressed people make pretty crap decisions. Not your fault. Give yourself a break, work under your own standard of excellence even if it disappoints others (boss, clients, co-workers) and focus on your therapy. You might even consider going more than once or week if you aren't already.

So, I suggest: stop drowning, give yourself a break, then figure out what's next.
posted by qwip at 8:58 PM on October 13, 2007

I started to run into the same thing, so I figured out what part of my current job I liked (Possible points for you: Customer service, business management, operations management aspects) and decided to build a career for myself while focusing on that. I start my new job, complete with 30% raise and no travel or excessive overtime, on the 22nd.

Life sometimes isn't about being a great generalist, which you've done well so far to juggle as many aspects of computers and business as you have. It's about being able to focus in a way that makes you productive and happy.
posted by SpecialK at 9:04 PM on October 13, 2007

This is depression. You sound really talented, and I think whatever path you choose, someone who ran their own business is the way you did is going to be successful.

But I'm honestly worried by the statement that you've "considered some severe ends." Have you thought about harming yourself? This is the time of year when a lot of people do commit suicide. Speaking as someone who's been pretty depressed: the combination of sleep problems, hopelessness, and a bad work environment is BRUTAL.

Chip away at the depression and a lot of these problems are going to seem far more manageable. You may not even realize how depressed you are.

The two big things that helped me with depression are:
* Exercise - a walk outside, in the sunlight, every morning for a couple of weeks. It improves sleep and mood.
* Antidepressants - sometimes you just need to get lifted up out of the depression a little bit so you can see the road ahead of you.

Hang in there. Things will get a LOT better than they are right now.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:46 PM on October 13, 2007

Response by poster: Some answers...

First, the job seems unbearable now. I feel my tech skills slipping away because there's no time to work on issues anymore due to overwhelming demand. This upsets me the most because it's always been a point of my pride to be able to resolve nearly anything. Now I can't cause there is no time and each angry escalation person and each disappointed user weighs on me very badly.

Second, the amount of stress I feel is so constant. It doesn't let up even when I'm not there. I'm thinking about Monday on Saturday night and am in dread and tears.

Third, yes, I'm afraid "severe end" means suicide. I feel so trapped and hopeless that I've thought about it repeatedly. I really _want_ to do it, but I do not have the courage and there are people in my life I do not want to hurt. It would be devastating to them. For what it's worth, these things stop me.

Basically, I feel caught in a bunch of problems I cannot solve and I feel myself sinking further into a sea of disappointment. qwip, my wife says the same thing: I'm likely to find myself in the same position no matter what I do.

If you look into my history a bit, you'll see I wrote a question about a friendship that turned into a crush. I went into therapy after that and found myself just very, very disappointed with work. I was using the crush as a way to avoid that disappointment and an increasingly upsetting work situation.

posted by tcv at 11:12 PM on October 13, 2007

You know, it can all seem like way too much and unbearable when you are in a depression. It isn't really possible not to feel this way when you are this depressed. So don't fight the fact that you are depressed. Admit it and realize that everything you feel is not even close to based on reality. So, since you are depressed and your understanding of that situation is severely compromised, start focusing on getting un-depressed. You can't do all of these things at once.

Have you considered going on short-term disability? A lot of people think that what they are going through is just a lack of will or fortitude, but you are suffering from something that won't just go away with a better attitude. Give yourself the breathing room you need to get better. Take time off of work. Go into more intensive therapy. Look into taking some medication to start easing your anxiety. Take care of yourself first. It may feel like you are giving up or not pulling your weight, but you are obviously suffering. Like on an airplane, you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Focus on getting better now and then you can deal with jobs and other relationships. I can't stress this point enough - you are suffering and you need to take that as a serious indication of your health situation. You wouldn't walk around with a broken leg either.

Once you have remove some of the external stresses from your life, you can give yourself some breathing room. This can get better and quicker than you think, but you need to stop feeling overwhelmed now. Talk to your doctor or therapist and get some time off of work, say 3 months or so. Use that time to start getting your depression under control. You'll have a much easier time making some of these longer term decisions after out from under the anxiety and depression.

If you can't take time off of work, at least start by limiting your stress there by reducing responsibilities, taking longer lunch breaks, working only 3 or 4 days a week. Anything to make it so you can do what you can do and then go home and work on yourself. If someone you knew and cared about was going through this, what would you recommend they do? Do that.
posted by qwip at 11:54 PM on October 13, 2007


Firstly, yes, as others have noted, you are depressed. And hey, Houston is a depressing town. No mountains, no scenic landscapes, terrible weather, lousy food, bad traffic. None of that is your fault.

Interestingly, I've had some similar problems once I started working here as well. .i.e, company is perpetually understaffed, remaining staff are either lazy or incompetent, the few people who work well are leaned on to do everything, etc. Maybe there's something in the water down here?

The sense I get from your post is that you, however, are an extremely hard-working and competent businessman. You've already owned a business, which is no small feat. You obviously have a lot of experience in IT-related fields (15 years is nothing to sneeze at) and I think you could leverage that -- even if you feel that your knowledge is "falling behind".

My first suggestion would be to begin looking into related fields or middle to upper management positions. I've found that, alot of times, companies will "forgive you" if your specialty field doesn't exactly line up with theirs as long as you've proven yourself to be a competent businessman and entrepreneur. If I had your considerable work experience, I'd literally walk into every high-profile company and non-profit I could find and hand over my resume. You could potentially do anything from Disaster Relief Support to opening up an Internet Cafe to franchising your own restaurant.

Going back to school means that you'll have to cut back on your work schedule, which you should probably be doing anyway. Any kind of degree that you get won't hurt -- and a computer science degree (or equivalent) would look just fine on a resume. It's also something you enjoy, which is reason #1 to go for it.

Bottom line: whatever you decide to do, do it for yourself first, your loved ones second and everyone else last. You have to take care of yourself, not because you owe some kind of emotional life-debt to your loved ones (although we do in some sense) but because you're a good person who deserves a good, happy life. You're not in a dead end. There are no dead ends in life. You're resourceful, resilient and obviously very intelligent. You'll survive and prosper, no matter what.
posted by Avenger at 3:31 AM on October 14, 2007

Response by poster: Guys,

Thanks a bunch. I honestly don't know exactly what will happen, but I do know that I need to get out of this morass. I'll do so. I am very tired of feeling this way and that, aside from everything else, has to end. Once I do that, then, perhaps my head will be clear enough to resolve the external circumstances.
posted by tcv at 12:59 PM on October 14, 2007

You sound actively suicidal to me and it freaks me out. Add me to the list of people who will be devastated if you do it. It's coming up on the 14th anniversary of when my mom killed herself. I was 23 at the time, I'm 37 now. The pain never goes away. It just doesn't. You will be condemning the people in your life who care about you to a life of pain if you do it.

There's a part of you that wants to live and who knows you would be a kick-ass linux developer. That's the part I want to talk to. Your feelings are lying to you - everything feels hopeless and worthless and THAT IS WRONG. Your rational brain is going to have to do the driving here because your feelings can't be trusted.

Antidepressant drugs are the fastest way out of this feeling. Walk into any doctor or nurse practitioner's office and explain that you have been considering harming yourself, plus the sleep problems, and you will walk out with a prescription. You exactly fit the criteria. If you're already on antidepressants, you need a different drug or a higher dose. If one drug doesn't work, another will.

Also, tell your counselor about your thoughts of suicide. I don't mean at your next appointment, I mean call now.

I am gonna be watching your profile because I really care that you're still around. Six people marked this question as a favorite so I know I'm not the only one.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:00 PM on October 14, 2007

Response by poster: I honestly don't think I could do it. Looking at it today, I think a great many things would have to happen before I would have the courage to do it. I'd have to lose my entire support system ... my family, my friends, my extended family. That's a long, long road to come to the end of. So, I think it's pretty darn unlikely.

Still, it is scary, since I more or less believe I have it within me. I've dealt with depression my entire life and have been on antidepressants since I was 14. (I'm 37 now.) For years, I thought I would be dead before I reached 30. I started to feel quite good after I passed that milestone. Every once in awhile I hear a news story about someone who committed suicide. The reporter usually says, "He had a history of depression." I wonder if I could wind up there.

I feel quite a bit better today. I will tell my therapist about it now. I'll have to leave a message, but that's better than nothing and I don't feel I'm in any immediate danger.

I have resolved, once again, to deal with only what's immediately in front of me until I am past the emotional tumult. I appreciate everyone's concern. :-(

posted by tcv at 5:44 PM on October 14, 2007

Glad to hear you say that. My email's in my profile if you ever want to talk.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:06 PM on October 14, 2007

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