How can I convince myself I'm not a failure if I give up on my career and just get a "job"?
April 1, 2008 5:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a “career” right now and I’m sick of it and the industry. I want to go back to having a “job” that pays me enough to live. But I don’t think I’ve truly reconciled things in my head. How do I reconcile within myself that I’m not a failure if I give up on my career and chosen industry and go get a job doing…something?

Over the last two years or so, I’ve finally come to realize that having a career does not equal being happy and that lots of money and success also do not equal being happy. This is totally contrary to what I grew up believing, and therefore contrary to what I spent most of my life up to this point pursuing.

I have a “career” right now and I’m sick of it and the industry. I want to go back to having a “job” that pays me enough to live. But I don’t think I’ve truly reconciled things in my head. I feel like if I take a job as a secretary/receptionist [NOT SECRETARY/RECEPTIONIST-IST], I’ll feel like a failure and that those around me will think I’m not “fulfilling my potential.”

In the career I’m in right now, I’m finally making what I consider to be a decent salary (though it is nowhere near six figures or even the high five figures) and I’m able to start paying down some debt, etc. If I decided to take a job instead, my salary would go down a lot, back to where it was when I was fresh out of college. And while I no longer have the desire to be the harried professional making $90K a year, I also have no desire to be constantly worried about bills and rent.

Another factor is that I spent all of my undergraduate and graduate years pursuing the goal of being in the industry and career I’m in now. That was about $120K and six years of my life. What does it mean if I just throw all of that time and money away to have a “job” instead of the career I was working for?

My question is: how do I reconcile within myself that I’m not a failure if I give up on this profession and this industry and go get a job doing…something? How do I defend my decision to others? How do I let go of all the ambitions that I’ve had since middle school and just move on to something else that I might be happier with?

Other info: female, 28, USian, not having a quarter life crisis (I had that a few years ago).
posted by misanthropicsarah to Work & Money (34 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I've had this impulse many times. I call it the "bricklayer fantasy." Not bricklayer-ist, that's just what I call it, a routine, yet satisfying job where when the whistle blows, you go home. I'm not doing it because of the money, right now, but I do think about it and I'm around your age. What I think you should do is think about what would satisfy you in the bricklayer job--if it's reception, maybe you'll like talking to people, being that first face people see when they walk in the door, an introduction to the company. I personally like setting up meetings and really like helping make sure people have what they need to be happy and productive at work, so one of my bricklayer fantasies is working as an office manager, which has these elements. If you think of it as a "joe job," you will feel defeated, but if you think of the positive attributes, you can thrive. I can't help you with the money, though.
posted by sweetkid at 5:18 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

how do I reconcile within myself that I’m not a failure if I give up on this profession and this industry and go get a job doing…something?

You would be a failure if you dedicated your finite life to a profession that you do not want to be in. You must get out in order to have any chance at success. Every minute you spend on the wrong career is moving you closer to failure and, while you can certainly make the most of your experience and use it to get ahead elsewhere, that's really not what you're working toward. Success is completely subjective. If you are not meeting your own objectives, you are not successful, no matter how well you are meeting someone else's expectations.
posted by The World Famous at 5:21 PM on April 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Agree with World Famous.

But, think whether it is truly the industry that makes you feel unfulfilled. Is the firm/company you're with the real reason for your discontent? I would first talk to more experienced people in the industry and see where you might end up if you spend more time in the industry.

If experienced people have a lifestyle that makes you blanch, then you have to make a change.

Just make sure that the work itself is unsatisfying before bailing.
posted by reenum at 5:24 PM on April 1, 2008

I know someone who just did this - they left a fairly high-up management position to work retail in a store they love. No one I know thinks they are a failure - we're all impressed at their guts and kind of jealous.

I also know TWO girls who left their jobs to go to nursing school. One was an engineer, and one had finished a masters in something totally unrelated. So, not only did they "waste" their degrees in other specific fields, but they went ahead and started an entirely new line of education. One has been a nurse for over a year and is so happy to be doing something meaningful...the other is still in school, but seems very optimistic.

Career changes...not just job changes, but total, incredible career changes...are not unusual at all. When we go to college we're usually young and we might think we know what we want, but without life experience, how can we REALLY know? You are not a failure if you use your experience in a career to realize not only what you don't like, but what your strengths really ARE.

That said, if you still have consumer debt and no savings, you might want to stick it out in the corporate world a little longer. Pay off your credit cards, amass a little cushion for yourself. And really think the logistics out. I would give myself a couple years to really mull this over and prepare for a sharp salary cut, especially since it doesn't seem from your post that you are considering leaving to pursue a passion, but rather because you are sick of the corporate world. That isn't to say that it is not justifiable, I just think you probably need to think about what you REALLY want to do.

Whatever you choose, you will NOT be a failure!
posted by tastybrains at 5:26 PM on April 1, 2008

You'll see that you don't have to defend your decision to others. Some people on here will tell you it doesn't matter what other people think, but that's ridiculous.

Depending on your friends and colleagues, most of them will think that "wow, you are lucky" or "I wish I could something like that", or "good for you".

I just recently quit a fairly lucrative career for one where the best salary I could hope for is around what I made right out of college. Those reactions above were exactly what I found.
posted by sandmanwv at 5:27 PM on April 1, 2008

My question is: how do I reconcile within myself that I’m not a failure if I give up on this profession and this industry and go get a job doing…something?

Work to live, don't live to work. That's the slogan you need. What's the meaning of life? To be happy. Work, where you devote a massive percentage of your time to making profit for someone else, performing tasks that have no personal value to you, is a waste of a life. And what do you get out of it at the end of it? Even if you have a career, will you be remembered for it? Will your name be entered in the annals of history? In most cases, unlikely.

We only have a few decades on this planet. You've got, what, five, six left before you die? Probably you are going to spend way more than half of that - more than half of your remaining life - keeping someone else happy, making a profit for someone else, wasting your life performing tasks that do nothing to enrich your own life. What a sad, pathetic existence! Grab hold of your life. There are millions of people out there, people who spend their working lives doing simple "jobs", who will be remembered in their communities for the incredible things they have done outside of work. There are millions of other people with "careers" who have a shiny name plate on their door and a big salary, who, in the end, won't be appreciated for much at all.

Sorry to be morbid, but you might need a bit of snapping out of this rut.

How do I defend my decision to others?

As above. The ultimate criteria is happiness. People ask "why are you doing this?". You reply "Because I was unhappy, and by doing this I am now happy. You wouldn't want me to be unhappy, would you?"

How do I let go of all the ambitions that I’ve had since middle school and just move on to something else that I might be happier with?

As I said, life is short, and a fair chunk of your life is already over. But the world is a big place, and there are lots of things to try within it. Why limit your entire existence to doing just one thing with your time - what sort of ambition is that? Why not have the ambition to try out as many different things as you can. Explore the opportunities. Think of your hypothetical grandchildren. Do you want to tell them "I spent 40 years of my life doing this", or do you want to tell them "I did this, then I did this for a few years, then this came along, and after that I did that, then I traveled here and did this...". What an exciting story! That's a positive ambition, to live a full life, to leave something behind, to have a story to tell.
posted by Jimbob at 5:31 PM on April 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

We make the mistake too often of equating our work with our lives. They are not the same things. The unfortunate reality is that most of us have to work for 8 hours of our day in order to make ends meet. One-third of the day. Half of our waking hours. That sucks, but it's what we've got to do to survive.

The key is to look for joy and fulfillment in the 8 hours that you don't spend at work. That's the really important stuff. Figure out what matters to you (and it sounds like it's not "career" -- for which you're extremely lucky) and put your energy into that.

You're actually in a really good spot. You're in your late 20s. Lots of people don't figure this out until they're in their 30s or 40s and saddled with kids and other obligations.

Look for a job that you can feel good about doing, but that you can leave there at the end of the day. (And office work -- it has its own joys if you become the person in the office everyone relies on. That's a good feeling.)

Congrats and good luck. You're very lucky for having figured it out now.
posted by mudpuppie at 5:42 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

As an Admin Assistant, I feel the need to warn you that you might be romanticizing the 9-5 just a smidge. There's a lot to be said for having an opportunity for advancement and more $$. That being said, there's also something to be said for being able to go home at the end of the day and just leave the job behind.

Have you considered something short of actually ditching all of the time and money you've put into building this career - maybe there's an odd, less lucrative but more interesting offshoot of your particular specialty? Maybe you could teach? Maybe work for a non-profit?

Also ask yourself - what happens if you ditch your career for 5 or 6 years and then decide you want to go back? Will that even be a possibility? Will you have screwed yourself?

You're not a failure for giving up your career if that's what you want - but I think there might be a few options besides just tossing it out.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:42 PM on April 1, 2008

"Work to live, don't live to work" is all you need. Jimbob speaks the truth.
posted by Max Power at 5:44 PM on April 1, 2008

I think you'll love this documentary. Your anxiety about how you are perceived by others is perfectly normal (and, to some extent, deliberately programmed into us) - but it's also incredibly sad. You could waste your whole life that way.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:47 PM on April 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

Why not start your own business? In your twenties it's easy to think that money isn't everything, but money will help you provide for your children, and will also make sure you yourself are provided for when you are older. A joe-job ain't going to do it, and money problems will cause problems later when you are married (assuming your future spouse has dropped off the career track, too).

But if you are not enjoying your job, you should move on. Just make sure you focus on making a decent living whatever it is you end up doing.

As for me...

I initiated a complete career change about four years ago when I returned to Canada after living in Japan for ten years. I'm in my mid-thirties, I have an education degree (creative writing before that!) and I am completely out of the education field.

I was self-employed as a translator, copywriter, speechwriter and labour market researcher during most of this transition. About a year ago, three years after I had started my career transition, I finally was hired by a government agency as a "manager", and now earn a decent salary with good benefits.

I must say, almost a year in, I'm not thrilled with my "professional" job. I'd like to be self-employed again.

But there has to be a way where I can still afford to go to the dentist, and can actually take time off of work (instead of taking time off between contracts). So, until I can figure out how to do it, I'm staying put.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:50 PM on April 1, 2008

Been there. I worked at a "career" for 17 years, and at the end was making high 5-figures (which is quite a bit, where we live). I had lots of "play money" but after spending 10 hours a day (plus a night or so a week going in after hours to fix something some idiot had broken) sitting in a cubicle doing boring, thankless tasks for people who had _no_ idea of the complexity of some of it, I had neither the time nor the mental energy to get much enjoyment out of the money. I mostly bought "stuff" with it (because having lots of "stuff" means you're successful, right?) via eBay and Amazon, and then worried about where to put the "stuff" and how to keep it from being stolen. One day, I had a meeting with my manager for a "performance appraisal" (which they seemed to really like there). Although I had just spent a couple of months pulling 70 hour weeks (and working at home on weekends) on a big programming project in order to get it done on _their_ schedule, I was upbraided about "my attitude" (I apparently made to many "editorial comments" in mind-numbing meetings) and not _once_ thanked for my hard work (unpaid, as I was on salary). I said, "Well, I think I've had about enough of this," and stood up to leave. My boss thought I meant of the "appraisal"; he didn't realize I meant the entire job until I walked to my office, put on my coat, and left. It scared the hell out of me for the first week or two; then I volunteered for (and later was employed by) a non-profit community organization, using my computer skills and knowledge to help Iraqi refugees. The pay was about 1/3 what I had been making, but I _loved_ it! My advice to you is not to wait until you're ready to take hostages before you get the heck out of a soul-destroying job. Sell most of your stuff. If you have debts you can't afford, sell your car or house or whatever and get a less expensive one that you _can_ afford. Look around and pick some things to volunteer at; find the one you like best, and apply for a job doing it. Then turn in your resignation at your old job, hold your head high as you walk past the drones and wage-slaves for the last time, and go do something you love. I grew up being taught that money=success=happiness. It took me over 40 years to break myself out of that bit of brainwashing and do what _I_ wanted to do. It's _your_ life. _Live_ it!
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 5:53 PM on April 1, 2008 [11 favorites]

what is your career now? to give up something where you make a lot of money but the work itself is just as meaningless to you as any job is not failure. If you are working as some kind of business or office person, with no real interest or drive in the work aside from the salary, reconsidering your path is a great idea. What you do for a living can satisfy a number of different aspects of your life.

Ideally, it should fulfill needs in the short term and the long term: you should enjoy it on a day to day basis, and also feel over time like it was worth having done, so you can look back over projects you helped to complete and feel proud that you were part of them. These are the internal positives of a job. The external positives are also available in short term and long term: a good salary & benefits, and the possibility of recognition or status. So of these four areas (-enjoyment, -accomplishment, -money, -status), you can think about which matter to you the most, and reconsider other potential jobs or careers which emphasize the elements you're concerned with.

If enjoying the day is most important, money is next, (so the short term goals) and a sense of accomplishment & an interest in recognition don't rank very high (potential long term considerations), then looking for job-jobs that pay decently is probably what you want. Most people still need a sense of purpose in some area of life, but you could look for that in the personal arena rather than bringing it to anything you do professionally.

Do you have ideas about what gives a sense of meaning to your life? If you already have projects or causes to fulfill that, then shifting the burden off of your career seems doable. If not, then I would guess you'd get antsy after some time and want a goal to pursue. So take the time to think about where you're heading before you make any choices...
posted by mdn at 6:17 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's an argument I think I read in a book called "The Tao of Leadership," which, despite being a trendy airport book sold to businessmen around the time the movie "Wall Street" was in theaters, was actually pretty decent reading. Anyhow, the argument as I'd paraphrase it went something like this: Give up your pursuit of money. You have more hope of succeeding -- in terms of personal growth, in terms of wealth, and in terms of happiness -- if you pursue your dreams. Most everyone on this board has, I think, argued for this same point in different ways.

My favorite examples of this philosophy truly lived come from literature:

1) Charles Bukowski -- I know people who love his writing, and people who hate it, but there's no disputing that he lived life pretty much on his own terms. He was destitute for most of his life but achieved substantial success (which he accepted but never really desired) in his later years. His comments applicable to this subject are pretty well encapsulated in the following paragraph:

"I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I didn’t particularly want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything. The thought of being something didn’t only appall me, it sickened me. The thought of being a lawyer or a councilman or an engineer, anything like that, seemed impossible to me. To get married, to have children, to get trapped in the family structure. To go someplace and work every day and to return. It was impossible. To do things, simple things, to be part of family picnics, Christmas, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day . . . was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep."

2) Stephen Dunn -- Pulitzer prize-winner and professor at a small, liberal arts college in New Jersey (and easily my favorite living poet). This is an excerpt from a poem about working at a snack manufacturer.

Would I be willing
to take on this? Would X's office, who by the way
is no longer with us, be satisfactory?
About money, will this be enough?
I smile, I say yes and yes and yes,
but -- I don't know from what calm place
this comes -- I'm translating
his beneficence into a lifetime, a life
of selling snacks, talking snack strategy,
thinking snack thoughts.
On the elevator down
it's a small knot, I'd like to say, of joy.
That's how I tell it now, here in the future,
the fear long gone.
By the time I reach the subway it's grown,
it's outsized, an attitude finally come round,
and I say it quietly to myself, I quit,
and keep saying it, knowing I will say it, sure
of nothing else but.
posted by Bixby23 at 6:18 PM on April 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

I quit my investment banking job three years out of college and planned to get a "normal job." Unfortunately, when I got that "normal job", I hated it after two months and started to yearn for the rush of my old job.

Turns out there was a reason I busted my ass to get my previous job--at the core of it, I actually love what I did. There were just too many other factors that made it miserable, but none of those had anything to do with what I loved about the work. So I decided to figure out how I could get to a position that maximized the work I loved and minimized the bullshit. I tracked down an old boss of mine who I had enjoyed working for in the past and joined his team at a new firm. The work is slightly different from my old job, but it allows me to do more of what I love and less of what stresses me out. It isn't the perfect job, but it gets me back on the track to get where I want to be.

However, I'm slightly younger than you, so this is still a work-in-progress for me. I wanted to embrace the "work to live, don't live to work" mantra, but it just didn't stick. If I'm going to define myself by the work I do, I figure I might as well go hard after it.
posted by mullacc at 6:20 PM on April 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

i quit my "career" about 13 years ago. i have never once regretted it, and i cut my salary by 4/5. (and since i was a teacher, that meant i was down well below the poverty level.) but i learned to live on very little, and learned what really mattered to me was never what i could buy, but how i spent each and every hour of my day. life is too short to wait for retirement to have a life or enjoy yourself.

"failure"? oh yeah, there's not a doubt that some people in my family or certain acquaintances saw it that way. it helped that i was quitting to "be a writer"--though some people thought that by saying that, i was saying that i'd be pumping out fiction like Danielle Steele in a year or two. not having done so has made it difficult for my mother to brag about me, but there's a point in life where you have to get over that sort of thing. happiness matters. while some people literally don't have a choice but to spend their lives doing something they hate, there's no prize you get for solidarity in doing likewise if you *do* have a choice.

i quit not just because i wanted to write, but because i wanted a life. i didn't want to live my life only during vacations, weekends, or between 5 and 10pm. if we sacrifice our lives for work we hate, then we end up really embittered when we get hit by cancer at 50. i don't want to be that person. so i got a couple "jobs" that by extension gave me plenty to write about. i still have a job. i do a job to pay me the barest of money so that i can spend the rest of my time doing exactly what i want. (it helps that i have really inexpensive tastes. )

the only caveat i have is that a lot of your worry will go by the wayside if you begin your new life more or less debt free. i hesitate to say this to anyone who is years and years away from that point, no matter what stuff you sell and how bare bones you make your budget, but it really does relieve your worry. there was a time there where i could barely pay the bills, but when those bills amounted to only five hundred bucks total, it was a lot easier to reason my way to "staying the course."

there are loads of people out there who quit their careers to pursue something else. hopefully that something else is more than a beer gut or bong hits twice a day. it's not that you *need* to have a higher goal, but there's something good about having that goal in mind, even if it's kind of extraordinarily difficult to reach. it's also okay if that goal changes with time.

yeah it's a cliché to "follow your dreams", but the alternative is drudgery. it ain't worth it.
posted by RedEmma at 6:45 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Everything in the past should be considered sunk costs. You can't change it and you can't get it back. What you've invested up to this point should not define your future choices. Free yourself of making decisions based on sunk costs.

You need to do some thinking time. Do you really hate your career or is it the particular job that stresses you? How would you feel about the loss of prestige in addition to the loss of money? You obviously thought you'd enjoy this work at one time. What changed? Why is that no longer the case?

I've done some big career changes (quit working and went back to school) and some iterative ones (a series job changes that took my career from one functional area to a completely different area). Neither the big changes or the incremental ones are easier than the other.
posted by 26.2 at 7:37 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Why are you so sure that you have to leave the entire industry you are in and the career you have built instead of finding a different company/slice of that industry to work in? I thought for a while that I would never be happy in my industry until I worked it from a different focus. I don't know what you do, but if it is at all broad I would be surprised to find out that there is no job within your field that would not make you happy. Take some time off and evaluate your options before making drastic steps. It is amazing the difference a company with a better fit for your personality and interests can make.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:38 PM on April 1, 2008

You twice noted that you are not only disgruntled with your job, but with your industry as well. Before you jump off the bridge to follow your new dream to be a receptionist, I might suggest that you find another job utilizing your current skill set, but in a different industry. You might be able to make that move for a job that pays nearly the same, or perhaps just a little bit less. This may seem like a minor change to you, but I doubt that it will be. Your learning curve at this new job will not be so easy as moving to another job in the same industry, and it may be that little extra boost you need to get over this hump.

If my first suggestion doesn't feel right to you, then how about trying to obtain a new position in your current company where you will be learning entirely new skills. You have a track record of success with them, and you know their industry, so they will likely go along with you on this if you willingly take an appropriate pay cut.

Based on how focussed you have been for so long...since middle school you said, I think you just might be suffering from a bit of early burnout here. Twenty eight seems a bit too young to give up on that old dream, at least without exploring some moderate changes first.
posted by LiveLurker at 7:42 PM on April 1, 2008

As an Admin Assistant, I feel the need to warn you that you might be romanticizing the 9-5 just a smidge.

This is true for me at least part of the time. And having left big pay for smaller-pay-more-meaning, only to find out that it wasn't so meaningful after all, you start to think: I used to have a bad day and go home and say "well at least I have the money"; now I just have a bad day.

Pay is no replacement for something you love. It's incredible how invigorating that is. But watch out for the grass-is-greener. Make sure this isn't something you just want to try, but do, day after day. It isn't what others will think that will burn you (much). It's what you will. And if you're asking us if YOU can live with it, well... that's really for you to figure out.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:19 PM on April 1, 2008

I think that a lot of people here are missing out on the fact that misanthropicsara is posing the hypothetical of being an admin assistant as an alternative to their current career.

It seems that a lot of people think she is just looking to "get out of the rat race" entirely and seek loads of free time while reducing personal expenses. These are fine and noble goals, but it seems to be not what she is asking.

So I have to point out that being an admin assistant is not going to really be a short hours job, it's going to be 40 hours a week I assume. Being an admin assistant is not going to get you away from office politics, it most likely will actually embroil you more deeply in them. If you can manage to face disrespect from people who feel that they are above you and go home and forget about the day, I respect that. However, if such people may get you really down, if you are going to go home and fret over your own perceived social status, then this may not be right for you.

I would like to first echo what others have said about exploring different options inside your own current career track. I am personally contemplating a huge move out of my career, but for slightly different reasons than you. But I work in a field that some would consider to be high paced and high pressure (research computer science), but in my situation it is certainly not. I work 40 hours a week, not any more (with extremely rare exceptions), and I get massive amounts of time off every year. I can quite feasibly forget about my job when I go home, because the place I work at has low expectations (hint: government). On top of that, I make really good money.

I'm leaving because I want to reclaim that time that I am losing every day, that 40 hours of the week. I'm young and have low expenses and I can live on much less. I want the freedom of flexible hours back, and I want to be up on my feet and interacting with people or doing physical work, at least until I set off upon my next adventure. And I'm not interested in this career.

But the questions I see which arise out of your question are these: What reasons do you really have for leaving? And more importantly, how does becoming an admin assistant address these reasons? Are you really sure that it does address these factors? And can't you figure out a way to step back your career to the point of it being a "job" to you, without having to toss out your prior experience?
posted by zhivota at 8:32 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

My question is: how do I reconcile within myself that I’m not a failure if I give up on this profession and this industry and go get a job doing…something? How do I defend my decision to others? How do I let go of all the ambitions that I’ve had since middle school and just move on to something else that I might be happier with?

I could easily have written your question myself, so I'm really enjoying all the insight people have given above. One thing I've found for myself is this: When I find myself afraid that a major life change would signify FAILURE to myself and others, it's because I'm deep-down afraid that whatever I change to will not make me happy, either.

Face it, if you're as miserable in your current job as you sound, and after your jump you're happy, then that's easy to define as improvement. Your happiness will speak for itself, to your heart and to people who know you, about your success. But what if you take that big leap, and find out that you're no happier? What if the grass really is always greener on the other side? Then you're not the brave girl who threw aside society's expectations to find happiness - then you're just the dumb girl who threw away all the good things she had.

That fear, even if it's subconscious, makes it SO easy to stay in a situation you hate. As long as you stick with what you've got, you can always have that dream to cheer you up. Once you go for the dream, and find out it's not everything you had hoped . . . Well, then what?

How do you combat this crippling fear? I've got two strategies.

First, get your facts straight. Make sure you really want to do whatever job you're switching to. Find out what people who do that job hate about it, and make sure you're willing to take on those annoyances. Consider what you love and hate about your current position, and make sure you're moving to something that doesn't duplicate all the things you hate.

Second, and WAY more importantly, remind yourself that nothing you do is permanent. If you quit to work as a plumber and find out 6 months in that you hate it, you can go try something completely different! Maybe you'll get some insight into how you could get back into your old industry, but in a position that won't drive you crazy. Or maybe you'll pick something totally new to try. If you're feeling especially nervous, consider now what you'd have to do to get back into the "career" world, if the "job" world ends up less awesome than you'd hoped. You will ALWAYS have options.

For what it's worth, it was trying to make that re-entry plan that finally convinced me to make the big change. I asked myself how or whether I could get back into a position like the one I currently had, if I did something completely different for a year or five. The thought of going back disgusted me and demoralized me so thoroughly, I finally knew without a doubt that I had to make the move. As my friend said, when I was discussing this with him, "If you can't stand to think about going back to this in 5 years in case your alternate plan doesn't work out, how can you stand to think about going back tomorrow morning?"
posted by vytae at 8:37 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

No snark intended: I suggest labeling "live to work vs. work to live" as an over-simplified dichotomy, and dismissing it as such.
posted by proj08 at 8:40 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you've determined that the career sucks, drop it. (That's what I'm thinking of doing.) I don't know if having a jobby job type of job will necessarily be a lot better for you, but regardless of the way you go from here, moving on is the right thing to do.

Think of it like Thomas Edison trying to find the right filament for the light bulb. He discovered a lot of substances that sucked as filaments, but he didn't get pissed or try to insist that one of the failed substances should be right and then try to force it to work. He was proud of his findings regarding failure. He said that now-cliched quote about how he now knows what doesn't work and moved on until he found tungsten.
posted by ignignokt at 9:25 PM on April 1, 2008

I did this too. I left a job that I worked 55-70 hrs/week and kind of pretty much hated. I have a BA and a masters for this career that I thought I wanted and I made good money but not great money.

I now work 28 hours a week at a union job which pays almost as much for half the time and I don't take my work home, literally or figuratively.

Honestly sometimes I still wonder if I did the right thing--if I've given up my career...but I also strongly believe that I need to have a good quality of life right now. The hours of my days are precious and I felt like sitting in a cubicle for most of my life was sucking the juice out of me. Now I have time to do other things and I work nights so I can actually be outside.

I still feel a little funny when i get the "and what do you do?" but for the most part I am very happy with the quality of my life now and I wasn't before. I think some of my more ambitious friends might have opinions about it--but they're also really jealous when I go to the beach twice a week during the summer!
posted by beckish at 11:14 PM on April 1, 2008

It helps to think of everyone else as stooges who hate their jobs, miserable because they've conformed to society's idea of success. They will be stressed out until the day they die, and they want everyone else to be stressed too so they look down upon those that choose a different path.

Of course, it's not 100% true because some people like their careers, and some people just aren't all that stressed by them. And you shouldn't judge people just because they happen to have a career that society values.

But a lot of people are miserable in jobs that society values, and the point is that would be you if you don't do what makes you happy, wouldn't it? Do you want to be the kind of person who does what society wants you to do even though it's making you miserable? Is that really preferable to being happy and enjoying life on your own terms? Clearly, you value personal happiness or you wouldn't want to quit your job. You have to remind yourself that it's worth valuing; you're not the one that has anything to prove, it's everyone else who has their priorities wrong. Basically, you have a choice and you're picking the best choice, so you have every reason to be confident in it.

And I have been there. Ever since high school I wanted to be a politician. It wasn't about prestige so much as it was "worthwhile." (I still think it's worthwhile.) I would be doing something valuable with my life. It's what I told everyone I intended to do. I majored in government, and I spent the four years of college racking up political internships and getting experience. My political resume is pretty great. I was set.

Except one thing: four years experience told me that I didn't like politics that much. It was mostly not an atmosphere I enjoyed, I disliked enough of the people, I wasn't extroverted enough, I wasn't willing to work sixteen hour days and sacrifice spending time with people I love. There were some great people, and sometimes I felt I had made a difference... it just wasn't enough to outweigh the exhaustion I felt, or the absence of a personal life. So I came away with a respect for people who genuinely enjoy it, but I'm not one of those people. Those kinds of people can handle the worthwhile political work, and so can the people that are fooling themselves when they say it doesn't make them miserable. It can sort itself out. Either way, I was outta there.

So instead I went back to writing, which is something I always enjoyed but thought wouldn't be profitable enough. And it probably won't be. But I came to realize having a "lower standard of living" doesn't mean "lower quality of life" if you'd be sacrificing too much otherwise. And it's very freeing and much less stressful. I'd rather operate a cash register and keep my work at work than have a "career."

Yeah, it was embarrassing to quit politics at first. You wonder how you're going to answer to your friends and family who were expecting so much of you. I answered them honestly: I realized I didn't like it, and I didn't want to be miserable for the rest of my life. The people who matter will be happy for you, and the people you're better off without will look down upon you once you're not doing something prestigious anymore. Thankfully my family was happy for me. If yours isn't, well, they have to love you anyway, nyah nyah. (Well, hopefully.)

And yeah, it's awkward sometimes to run into political acquaintances who expect me to still be doing political work. Telling people you're a "writer" is basically like telling them you're a bum when you're not published yet. But really, those people can go to hell. Anyone who judges someone else by their career instead of their character isn't someone whose character I value.

It just takes a while to internalize this stuff, but trust me, you'll get there. Once you realize how much happier you are, it becomes a lot easier to brush off the criticism. Quit your career, savor it, and with time you won't feel at all ashamed anymore.
posted by Nattie at 5:21 AM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh my god! You sound just like me. I spent so much time trying to get into my former career only to succeed and then get burned out on it. I even got a graduate degree in that field and now I hate it.

It's ok. You should do whatever you feel like. You sound super tired and maybe just burned out.
posted by onepapertiger at 7:09 AM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think wondering what to tell people really means "What do I really think of this?" Once you've answered that, I think you've worked it out. No need to give them a really long explanation. People change jobs/careers every day.

I think if you have debt, it is important to work out all your finances before taking a pay cut. The rule-of-thumb I always read is that you should have 6 months living expenses set aside, enough to cover all your fixed expenses - rent, loan repayment, groceries, just absolutely everything you typically spend in a month.

The secretary thing...I highly advise against it. I do it right now, and it's completely unfulfilling. And i look at the older women here who have been doing it all their working lives, and they are either miserable, dim, or all wound up, taking their petty duties super-seriously.
posted by Penelope at 7:50 AM on April 2, 2008

I just wanted to put in another two cents.

I know there's a lot of pressure to love what you do. I don't know why. Once I asked this ChatLive box person on LLBean or whatever, randomly, if they liked their job, which was, presumably, to answer customers' questions and respond to their complaints immediately. She wrote back, "I love what I do!" Unless she had to lie because all her chats are transcripted and evaluated, I'm pretty sure she's either a liar or equating the need to "love what she does" with her self-worth, which is just like equating your self-worth with the amount of money you make.

That's why all the nonprofit ppl are like, "I could make so much in the private sector but I LOVE what I do and I'm underpaid."

Go to He might be a good source of insight for you.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:20 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

The reason there's a lot of "pressure" to love what you do, onepapertiger, is that you spend more than a third of your adult life doing it. That's a lot of time to waste doing something that you feel just ehh, or worse, actively unhappy, about. The pressure isn't (or at least shouldn't be) from some squad of career counselors demanding that you must be THIS happy to count as a productive member of society; it should be a little voice inside your head saying, "gosh, I'm spending a lot of time doing this. Is there something else that someone would pay me to do that wouldn't suck so much?"

That said, I have two concerns about your quit-your-career-for-a-just-a-paycheck-job plan. The first is your debt. I would not take a pay cut until your debt is paid off. It's awful to be tied to a job you dislike because you're tied to a bank you owe money to, I know, but it will be equally awful to have your options constrained for even longer because it takes you years longer (and hundreds or thousands of dollars more interest) to pay that bank off. Do whatever it takes to pay off your debt: work extra hours, cut your expenses, maybe even take a second loathsome job waiting tables or delivering pizza, until your debt is paid off. Then you can tell everyone to go to hell and do whatever you want, because you don't owe anyone anything.

The second thing that concerns me, however, is the fact that you're not quitting your job to follow your bliss; you're quitting your job to escape your job. Yes, we've all seen Office Space and romanticize about our offices burning down so that we can work outside all the time, but construction work isn't actually lower stress than paper pushing. It's not more fun. Being an administrative assistant isn't any less a serious career than most jobs. Could you find a receptionist job where you got to goof off all day? Probably. But I suspect it wouldn't be as much fun as you think.

My suggestion would be to figure out what you actually want to do. What would you do if you didn't have to work to make money at all? Teach underprivileged preschoolers to read? Play sports? Code open source software? Travel around the world? Write novels? Ride horses? Whatever it is, if you're remotely decent at it, there's some job or career path (many of which pay very little money) that will let you do that or something like it at least some portion of the time. That's the thing that you should drop out of your high powered career and take the big pay cut to do. (After, of course, you've paid down your debt so that you don't have to worry about the money.)

And when you're riding your horse around the world with all those preschoolers, you won't care about being a success in the way you've always envisioned it in the past. Because you'll be a success in ways that truly matter to you.
posted by decathecting at 1:41 PM on April 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

I suggest sticking with your high-paying current job until you are out of debt and have a six months emergency fund saved up. That way you will be under significantly less pressure and have many, many more choices available to you.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:33 PM on April 2, 2008

similar to mullac

You might maximise the benefit of this change through research into the areas in your current lifestyle (including the job) that are the furthest from your ideal.

One method of doing this is through the services of a career counsellor, life coach or therapist. Other tools include Myers-Briggs type testing, and books described in this review. Further, some recruitement agencies (such as those that screen graduates/interns for large firms) have sophisticated tools and techniques to find out all kinds of personal detail, and if you ever went through such a process you may be able to get records from them.
Disclaimer: IANA(Therapist), and know little about this area.
posted by wonderfool at 1:35 AM on April 3, 2008

Taking it back to the question, you would feel better about the decision if you had adequate data to show that your current role was not suited to you right now.
posted by wonderfool at 1:37 AM on April 3, 2008

I nearly did this. I was working 70 hour weeks for a Big Consultancy, staying in hotels, sleeping five hours a night, and I was deeply unhappy. I considered lots of things, including taking drastic paycuts, changing career entirely and (once or twice on the quiet nights when I got in at 3am and knew I had to get up again at 6) just running away.

In the end, I realised I loved the kind of work I did, just not the industry (IT) or the culture (work hard play hard blah blah blah, yeah we won another gazillion dollar project but cheap canapes and bad champagne at another shitty networking event doesn't compensate for the fact I don't see my friends or family). So I changed industry and size of company, and now I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm still nominally a consultant, I get to figure out way complex stuff, but all the things that really bugged me about my old job are gone, and even the nominal paycut I took to move has been made up since in wage rises, and infinitely made up in quality of life. I like my work, because I give a toss about it now.

All this aside, I fancy I'll do something completely different in three or four years. I'm debt free for the first time in ten years (aside from student loans, which I'm working on) and saving like an Aesopian ant, and there's a ton of projects and things I want to try out. Who knows? One thing I'm definitely not doing is thinking about a career. I've sort of ended up with one by accident, but heck, the kind of person who would look askance at a CV that said I'd ditched a job to backpack for a year (or whatever) is not the kind of person I'd want to work for.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:08 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

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