What should I do with my life?
May 8, 2008 6:12 PM   Subscribe

20-something INTP, bored to death in his corporate gig, asks: What should I do with my life?

I'm in my mid-20's. I studied philosophy at a very good school. I'm now working in a corporate job that would probably be a great job if I didn't completely hate it. It's well-paying, humane, and I'm surrounded by smart people. I think the problem is just me. I find I'm unable to work hard on stuff that I don't find intrinsically interesting. I get bored quickly, and I'm not motivated enough by money or approval to overcome it. Some people are able to profitably rent out their minds; I'm not.

I spend most of my time reading papers on the Internet, dwelling on philosophical, social, and scientific problems, and writing lengthy emails to friends and acquaintances about Big Ideas. I don't purport to claim any of this is productive or valuable. But what's clear is I'm not a good fit for my employers, my employer isn't a good fit for me, and I'm just wasting everyone's time and money. It's been this way in my last two or three jobs as well. The stuff I'm good at -- deep thinking, complicated problem solving, coming up with new ideas and working out their implications -- just doesn't seem to overlap much with the job requirements of most jobs.

The question is what to do instead. I've applied to law school for the fall and have gotten into some great programs. I think I'd be good at law. I'm an analytical thinker and I actually take pleasure in working through dense thickets of language. But I'm afraid if I wind up in law, I'll run into the same problems I face in my current job, only worse: I'll be stuck in an office all day (and all night), working on problems I don't find interesting, wishing I could just write and think and work on interesting problems instead. I don't know though -- if I totally hate the practice of law (I'm pretty sure I'll like law school), I could always practice for a few years, pay off my loans, then get out, with a lot more "options" available to me than I have now.

Alternatively, writing/journalism and academia both seem like decent choices. At least with those, I could write, think, and have a lot more control over my work day and the projects I pursue. But they both have their drawbacks: while I'm not out to get rich, I don't look forward to a life of instability, unease, and relative penury that seem to await many people in those fields. I do value security and comfort.

As you can see, I also tend to talk myself out of things. I'm a thinker and an over-thinker. In the process of trying to figure everything out, I just wind up taking the path of least resistance. Hence my current situation. So, before I plunge $180k into debt, please advise me: what should I do with my life?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
"Corporate" does not always equal "soul-draining." Depending on your job, if you stick with it, you can tackle big ideas in your industry.

Obviously, there are many people who have stuck with it and come out with drained souls. However, don't immediately dismiss this avenue. Look 3 or 4 rungs up the ladder and see what you think. It sounds like you could be very valuable to a company if you and the Inc figure out a way to apply your skills to a problem.
posted by Pants! at 6:23 PM on May 8, 2008

well, if you don't KNOW you want to go to law school, don't. i wouldn't spend $180K on anything i wasn't sure about.

but that said, why not go back to school and pursue academia? if money doesn't matter, it would be a great fit.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:33 PM on May 8, 2008

Well, make sure you find law intrinsically interesting before you commit. You can do this before going to law school. If I agree to lease you an apartment to watch a parade, but the parade is canceled, can you get out of the agreement? Is that a problem intrinsically interesting to you? Or does it just seem like arbitrary moral-intuitioning? Because this the entirety of law (well not contracts but those types of problems).

Also, not sure what you mean by the 'options' that would be open to you after ~6 years of law school and practice versus 6 years of experience.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:42 PM on May 8, 2008

I, too, am an INTP. I considered law school, but I ultimately decided against it and am very glad I did. I took a law class as part of my grad program in environmental science and management, and I quickly realized that it's pretty helpful to be a details person (Sensing), which I am not at all (I am a full-blown iNtuition).

You should also definitely work as a paralegal or take some law classes before deciding to go to law school - if I haven't dissuaded you already ;) Several of my friends thought they really wanted to be lawyers until they actually did something law-related.
posted by kookaburra at 6:43 PM on May 8, 2008

I think you should go back to university and immerse yourself in the intellectual culture. I've been putting off university for years and years and now, at 29, I've finally decided to pursue a BA - not because the world needs any more BA's but because I want to be exposed to new and, hopefully, interesting ideas in a more structured environment. I am effectively self-educated (failed absolutely everything at school and never did any tertiary studies), which is all well and good, but I feel that I'm missing out on something that could potentially be life-changing. Up until recently I was very cynical - or maybe skeptical is a more appropriate word - about the idea of university because I was still labouring under the impression that it would be just like school: rote learning, memorization of fundamentally worthless facts and figures, and toeing the line. But after discussions with my highly-educated eldest brother, I have formed a completed different impression. And I'm excited. I just cannot wait.

I guess what I'm saying is it would be a shame for you not to go back to academia because a) you're certainly the fit for it and b) you sound like precisely the sort of person academia needs.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:43 PM on May 8, 2008

Oh, wow, that was totally self-indulgent. Read only first and last sentences kthnx.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:44 PM on May 8, 2008

I'm not sure why you equate academia with instability and penury. If you get tenure, you're as stable as it ever gets, and academic salaries are respectable if not lavish. Certainly a comfortable middle-class life is possible on a professor's salary.

What do you mean by "unease" in academia? The stress of trying to get tenure? Playing university politics? Pressure to publish? In my experience, variations of those problems exist everywhere and academia on average is no worse than the corporate world on average. I have no personal experience with law school or the legal profession, but one certainly hears horror stories ... (Then again, I know a very nice lawyer who seems quite happy with what she does, so YMMV.)

On balance, though, I'd say academia sounds like a good fit for you.
posted by Quietgal at 6:45 PM on May 8, 2008

Nthing on academia. I'm an INTJ with a weak J, and all types of work—even those I used to find fascinating—has managed to bore me. It wasn't until I got into a college that I discovered I had a passion for research work—for something that involves heavy problem-solving and thinking. See if it fits you.
posted by semi at 7:10 PM on May 8, 2008

Academia might be a good fit. BUT
-if you're prone to dwell and never want to finish one piece of thinking in order to get on to another,
-if you're prone to be unhappy with your situation and think about how much greener the grass is,
-if you're prone to overthinking all the possible angles to the point where you convince yourself it's impossible to just settle on one,
grad school will give you plenty of rope to hang yourself with.

Graduate school in philosophy is not for the inquisitive generalist, and it's not for the person who is nostalgic for their undergrad liberal arts experience. It's not the same thing. It's very, very narrow and specialized. This can be great for some people, but it can be terrible for some people who did well as philosophy undergrads, hence the warning.

With academia, the low-pay problem is real (though not unsuperable) and the no-choice-in-where-you-live problem is even more pressing. If you think you would really like to read philosophy journal articles all day, consider it, but if you're mainly a good thinker and writer who wants to find an interesting career and thinks grad school is appealing because it's a well-defined path, then set it aside for the moment and try to think of other options.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:18 PM on May 8, 2008

Eg, as you say in your tags, journalism of some stripe.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on May 8, 2008

Perhaps you should ask the INTP forums? IANA-INTP but my partner is, and he recommends it highly.
posted by arnicae at 7:22 PM on May 8, 2008

But I'm afraid if I wind up in law, I'll run into the same problems I face in my current job, only worse: I'll be stuck in an office all day (and all night), working on problems I don't find interesting, wishing I could just write and think and work on interesting problems instead. I don't know though -- if I totally hate the practice of law (I'm pretty sure I'll like law school), I could always practice for a few years, pay off my loans, then get out, with a lot more "options" available to me than I have now.

You are very likely correct on all counts but one: Contrary to the line of total bullshit perpetrated by law schools and the media, a law degree does not give most nonpracticing lawyers "options"--if anything, it contracts them, because people will forever be wondering why you are not practicing law. Were you not good enough? Were you disbarred? Yes, there are a few people who go on to have exciting careers outside the law, but in almost every case the law degree was not essential to the subsequent career. Anything you want to do outside the law can be done more quickly, easily, and cheaply than it can by going to law school.
posted by HotToddy at 7:36 PM on May 8, 2008

The reason why law is better than academia for an INTP is that there are external deadlines. I do think of law as a stereotypical INTP job (with some E being helpful for oral argument).

You need some J to really survive academia. (I'm speaking as a ph.d. drop out heavy on the P). The risk is that you brainstorm more, and perfect, and enlarge your research forever. But maybe you can get that narrowing and those deadlines from outside yourself if academia is something you want.
posted by salvia at 7:58 PM on May 8, 2008

working on problems I don't find interesting

Have you considered public interest law connected to some big theory you have about the world? (Eg, corruption is ruining democracy in the US and therefore you will work for... uh, I don't know what nonprofits are working on this or what the legal strategy might be. But maybe you could figure one out.)
posted by salvia at 8:02 PM on May 8, 2008

About five years ago I too was considering law school. At a local book store I started reading through How to get into the top law schools by Richard Montauk and that stopped me dead in my tracks. And isn't the internet amazing, I've found the exact excerpt I remember, starting on page 6, which you can see using Amazon's Look Inside. It says what HotToddy said. Law school teaches you to practice law, and nothing else. I think it also said some crazy high percentage of lawyers regretted their career decision, but I can't find that now.
posted by Dec One at 8:05 PM on May 8, 2008

If you're an INTP, you might get great grades at law school but you might never see the inside of a courtroom. If you are serious about philosophy and "big ideas", why don't you think about getting a masters in divinity or theology?
posted by parmanparman at 8:10 PM on May 8, 2008

I'm wondering if you're simply intellectually lazy. You sound like a procrastinator, a non-starter. You said you've been bored and wasting everyone's time at your last two or three jobs. Have you done any introspection about what is preventing you from being motivated?

Why not put your purported thinking and problem-solving skills to use in your corporate environment to streamline processes and locate inefficiencies. Once you have introduced a plan to improve operating performance and costs, perhaps you can become the project manager who implements your suggested changes.

If you sit around work everyday reading the internet instead of giving yourself a chance to do more than what you are paid to do, you will be eternally underachieving wherever you work. There is a lot more to doing a job right than merely performing the job description.
posted by netbros at 8:22 PM on May 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've applied to law school for the fall and have gotten into some great programs. I think I'd be good at law. I'm an analytical thinker and I actually take pleasure in working through dense thickets of language. But I'm afraid if I wind up in law, I'll run into the same problems I face in my current job, only worse: I'll be stuck in an office all day (and all night), working on problems I don't find interesting, wishing I could just write and think and work on interesting problems instead. I don't know though -- if I totally hate the practice of law (I'm pretty sure I'll like law school), I could always practice for a few years, pay off my loans, then get out, with a lot more "options" available to me than I have now.

You might be wrong. There are two aspects to the practice of law, intellectualism and WORK. In many firms the emphasis is on the latter. Bill. Bill some more. Then when you have started getting the hang of it, really bill the hell out of it. Yuck. Not all jobs in law are like that. At its core it is a very intellectual pursuit.

Anyway, right now you need a break. I recommend that you request a deferment from law school admission and take a year to travel and see the world. You need not spend a lot of money on this, but do so if it is within your means. The key is to get comfortable with yourself, the world and what you can do. Think about journalism in that time, and perhaps even seek some employment there. It can be quite similar to law in intellectualism and challenge, but in different ways and it does pay less. Getting to the intellectual part is harder also.
posted by caddis at 8:39 PM on May 8, 2008

IN*P here. I would go against the career advice being given above and consider a non-career lifestyle. Look at what you can do to give yourself minimum earning money time and maximum free time. Use that free time to follow your own interests and work on your own projects. One of these projects may serendipitously turn into a career. Stay out of debt and run full speed away from commitments (mortgage, children etc) that will require you to devote most of your time to earning money.

posted by Sitegeist at 9:15 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

INTP here. I have similar interests as those you've mentioned, but found that linguistics has so far met all my needs...complex ideas, philosophy, culture, LOTS of problem solving...and there are lots of jobs to be had, especially in law!
posted by iamkimiam at 9:22 PM on May 8, 2008

You sound just like me, but saner and younger, and therefore I will advise you as such. :) There's a way to make all three of your desires (to write, to philosophize, and to teach) work: academic law. Fifteen years from now, you could be a very good law professor.

Go into law school, and do tutoring as much as you can on the side. English as a second language is great for this, and there is a lot of market for spelling, grammar and formatting correction in written work, which is something you are naturally fantastic at.

Your #1 biggest problem in law school will be motivating yourself through the tedious horror subjects: "research methods" for instance, which was in my experience, a diabolical exercise in recording in exhausting detail, everything involved in a very artificial and forced approach to the natural and easy process of "finding stuff out". Do not, under any circumstances ever, allow this kind of subject to build up any backlog, or it will kill your career stone dead. I am not exaggerating. Get up out of hospital to do your week's worth of tedium. Share the work, wherever you possibly can do so and not fall foul of plagiarism detection software.

Your #2 biggest problem will be the dull, but not directly horrible, subjects. Fortunately, you have other subjects to do that will be a total breeze, and you can arbitrage your skills. Study buddies and study groups are the key: meet regularly, and keep each other going. You should be in at least two study groups: one in which you are one of the smarter people, because one of the ways you find it easy to learn things is to teach it to others; one in which you are one of the dumber people, because Law Is Hard, and there are Smarter People Than You, and you need to Learn From Them. Ideally, the groups should overlap with a few more people than yourself.

On that point, share notes. Law is a subject that rewards good notes. (I personally got through several of exams by referencing other people's notes.) It will help you a great deal in your understanding of the subject to properly edit, and make your own, a good set of notes for it. Updating last year's notes is the ideal task for you. These notes have trade value. As in a game of Civilization, you can acquire new technologies without developing many new ones yourself, through trading.

Develop friendships. This will naturally happen anyway, but take every opportunity to do it. Friends will keep you going. Develop friendships with tutors and academics too, wherever it's a natural consequence of interest in the subject. Many of them are very jaded from teaching degree-buying students whose primary qualification to be in class is Daddy's credit card and whose only interest in the subject matter is graduation: intelligent questions, and opinions that clearly derive from thoughtful consideration, warm their hearts.

Towards the end of your degree, take as many education-related electives as you can; or if your institution has no education faculty, take a legal specialty. Hopefully your grades are high and you're well-known among your peer group, and moderately well-known among the academics. If your school allows third-years to tutor first-year subjects, sign up. Your school might have a peer-assisted study program or something similar; sign up.

If there's an honors year, or fourth-year thesis, or similar, sign up for that too. Theses will, of course, pose a problem for you; treat them as a series of weekly assignments, and engage the help of your friends and your advisor to keep you productive. Your aim here is to qualify for a masters or doctorate program, so your topic should be one on which you can write as well as possible, not one in which you will try to change the world.

If your school runs a pro bono public legal clinic, get involved, heavily. You will learn, you will get practice, you will find fascinating situations (along with a bunch of dull ones), and you will make academic contacts.

Get yourself properly admitted as a lawyer, and hang out your shingle to do wills, conveyancing, etc. For a masters or doctorate student, this kind of additional income will eb invaluable. Legal temping to learn how to do it properly will help a lot too.

Once you're in the masters or doctorate program, continue tutoring etc, and sign up for any and all junior academic experience you can get. Law doesnt have the same postdoc opportunities as science; you may need to spend some time doing other work (office temping, even) before you can get a proper academic position. Apply for scholarships and fellowships and grant funding wherever and whenever it is available. Be prepared to travel, once you finally get a position somewhere.

Then it's just the tenure track, and publishing. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:51 PM on May 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

I hate to go all LobsterMitten on you, but the decision to go to grad school is not to be taken lightly. Trust me, after being put in a windowless room for five years and being told to `come up with something original or else you're outta here' you will be wishing for a boring, uninteresting, repetitive job. Perhaps you could go to night school? I think this would be a good way of keeping your current job, and getting a little education on the side. Just make sure the classes you take in nightschool are relevant to your current job. That way, you'll be more involved in your job, and you'll feel like you went back to school to get more education as well. It's a win-win situation. IMHO
posted by proj08 at 10:01 PM on May 8, 2008

I'm an INTP in journalism. I never get bored.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 11:54 PM on May 8, 2008

Hello. I'm spinifex23, and I'm an INTP.

I ran into the same soul-crushing question, and it consumed me for years. During that time, I also worked as a software engineer, in a position that didn't seem to fulfill my Great Purpose In Life. I somehow internalized that I needed to have a fulfilling career in order to be a fulfilled person, and as I didn't have that, it caused me great stress. I looked at Grad School, Law School, Engineering, Seminary, etc - and none of them seemed to show the way to that fulfillment that I was looking for. I didn't go as far as apply, but I did check out a few programs.

So, after some introspection, observation, and discussion with friends, I'm finding satisfaction in Sitegeist's view of career and life. I use my job to make money and learn neat things, but I no longer consider that the core of my happiness. Instead, it's my volunteer time at the local Animal Shelter, and the time I devote to drawing and painting. I'm still learning, but I find it much more satisfying to paint a decent sun than debug some code. Approaching this way of life is much less stressful for me, and I'm happier as a result. I can live through the code debugging easier now, because I know that when I get home, I can draw and paint the sun.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:29 AM on May 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

Part of what you're facing is just a by-product of being young and inexperienced.

No matter what field you're in, you don't get to work on the really interesting stuff until you have a lot of proven experience. That applies to being a lawyer as much as it does to academia, business or anything else. So the real test of whether another path is going to be preferable to you is to look at the job you'd be doing after 5-7 years (or more) of solid, consistent high-performance in the entry levels of that job/profession. BTW, that 5-7 years is AFTER any training you'd require is finished.
posted by mikel at 4:27 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm an INTJ, and you sound very, very similar to me. I took lots of philosophy classes in undergrad, even, but not in time to change my major from political science. I wanted to go to philosophy graduate school to be a philosophy professor, but money was too big an obstacle.

It won't be news to you to know that almost any "real" job you pursue will entail a lot of things that are boring and frustrating. In that vein, I think you should seriously consider not going to law school. It's a huge debt to take on when there's a high probability that you'll just end up frustrated by the boring, tedious parts of legal work. If you're like me, what you really want is absolute freedom to think about things and never have to do anything you don't want to. You can't actually get that, but you can come closer than you are.

My advice to you is to get a low-responsibility "punch the clock" job to pay the bills, and work on intellectual pursuits in your free time. You're inclined to do intellectual things in your free time anyway because that is what makes you happy; what you need to do is do something productive with that free time. Write a book about something out-of-the-box you've noticed about a topic; ideas should come naturally to you. It also sounds like writing is something you generally like to do when you have a reason to do it. The actual writing will be the "downside" of this job, but a lot of it will still be fun and it beats the hell out of anything else.

I found myself in a position similar to yours after I graduated. I was trying to pursue a political career because, after all, big ideas have a place in politics, and it seemed like the best place to turn them into actions. But the sheer work hours put into things that I considered boring and unimportant proved that it was not for me. Plus, I had so many non-political interests that I felt I didn't have the time to properly consider those. Then I realized, honestly, not much of anything except writing is for me, because nothing else gives me the freedom and fulfillment I want to just think about shit.

I think sometimes this is difficult for other people to understand; the comment suggesting you use your out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving for corporate problems sounds like a reasonable suggestion to anyone who isn't a similar personality type to INTP, but the fact is that's the sort of soul-draining thing I think you're talking about. You don't want to be solving corporate issues, you want to be doing something you feel that's more important, right? It's just not fulfilling to attend to corporate issues when you have "bigger" thoughts. At best, applying creativity to those situations only makes them bearable. INTP and similar personality types cannot stand the thought that they'll be doing that for the rest of their life, hence the AskMe post for advice on how to get out of it.

After I reached the point where I realized most careers would be unfulfilling for me, I was thankful for jobs where I didn't have much responsibility. I just did my job to the best of my ability and that was that; no work to take home with me, no drama, nothing to detract from my free time. I decided to write instead. After a point my fiance began making enough money that I don't have to hold a job and I can write full-time, but most people are not that fortunate. A writer might reach that point independently after enough success, but you are right to assume you might not make enough money to live off of. You might never be able to write full time. But holding down a low stress job and writing is still better than having a job you hate and feeling like you're not doing anything important.

Also, before I gave up politics, like you I would think, "Well, financial security is very important to me, so writing is out." But once you start and see how much happier you are, I think you might come to agree that financial security is overrated. I would much rather live out of my car and be free to write and think about whatever I want than spend my life in a job I hate. You can read books and use the internet for free at a library. Really, force yourself to consider the worst case scenario and how you'd keep yourself entertained, and I think you would be fairly happy even then. Plus, as long as you keep your bills-paying job, it wouldn't even get to that point.

To put it another way, consider the things that make you happy. Then narrow the list down by asking, "Could I be happy without this?" I'd be willing to bet that you eliminated a bunch of things and what's left are things that provide inspiration to you, like books and the internet, and then perhaps people who are important to you. You will still have all those things if you made less money, but probably more time to devote to those core things and less of your time spent on things you dislike.

I think making less money is worth the trade-off, so don't dismiss it so soon. Everyone of a similar personality type wants a job where they'll just be paid a lot for thinking about whatever they want, but I've yet to find it. Sometimes I think you just have to make a choice. If the other ideas seem like they're probably just "more rope to hang yourself with" as LobsterMitten put it, then chances are you are going to have to make a choice.
posted by Nattie at 7:56 AM on May 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

INTP who had similar thoughts to yours about 10 years ago, and adopted the solution you propose to adopt.

Now I run my own law practice, and am (mostly) really happy with it. That said, I decided not to go down the corporate "bill-every-second-three-times-if-possible" mentality pushed by the larger firms. That was as soul-destroying as the position you're now in.

It can be worth it, but I agree that you need to explore some of the lesser-trodden paths if you think you're interested. They can make life worth living. You might still be paying back your loans, but you might be happy doing it.

posted by MadMage at 2:47 AM on May 13, 2008

Do not go to law school!

Let me qualify that advice. I'm an ENTP and I found myself in a similar situation in corporate America a few years ago. So I attend law school for a semester. It was horrible. I ended up dropping out. Thankfully I had a scholarship and I didn't end up losing a lot of money. But law school was NOT what I expected.

First year classes are BORING. Civil procedure, for example, consists of learning rules about the proper procedures for filing lawsuits. Even classes like Criminal law aren't that interesting. What about theoretical debates over the ethics of the death penalty? Nope. Instead, you study stupid nuances in legal jargon. The environment is petty and unfriendly. And the worst part is, I had friends who were practicing come and tell me THEY MISSED LAW SCHOOL BECAUSE PRACTICING WAS THAT MUCH WORSE.

In spite of the fact that my grades and LSAT score predicted legal success, I barely passed my first semester classes. I couldn't focus to do the work because I found it so tedious. I couldn't imagine a life of legal paperwork ahead of me. So I left, and I have no regrets.

I would suggest that you consider becoming a professor. A lot of positions pay more than you would think. You'd have the freedom to manage your classroom the way you wanted, and a lot of time to work on research projects pertaining to topics that interest you most.

Option B is stay where you are, make as much money as possible and spend as little money as possible. Invest everything you can, and try to retire at 45. :)

Law school should be your last option.
posted by The Fashionopolist at 10:48 AM on June 24, 2008

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