Help me plan my career
July 27, 2008 5:38 PM   Subscribe

Another "Help me plan my life" question...

I have a wide variety of interests, and tend to like/enjoy most things. This complicates decisions career-wise, because I don't have an intense passion for anything, the way some people do. Also, I have a very driven, "always want to be best", overachieving personality, which has led me to my current position in investment banking. I've realized over the past year that this is only going to lead to unhappiness long-term, because like many perfectionists I am never satisfied. In the field that I am in, nearly everyone has this personality type, and everyone is very smart and talented. I don't want to work in an environment like this, because I end up prioritizing work over everything else, and I can see myself waking up in 10 years realizing that I've neglected family and friendships in pursuit of a career.

What I'd really like is a career that is intellectually stimulating, yet not uber-competitive. I'll try to explain. It seems that most jobs I've considered are EITHER filled with very competitive people, OR consist of mostly highly repetitive, boring work. For instance, I've considered med school - but the environment is similar to finance, both to get admitted and once you're in. I've thought about going to grad school for a Phd, but again, there is intense pressure to publish if you hope to get a job after school. I'm not worried about the difficulty of the programs - it's that when I put myself in situations where everyone is very driven to be the best, I can't let myself be "average", and I end up stressing myself out and neglecting other areas of my life. I have dealt with depression and anxiety, and my perfectionism fuels this. Neither of the career paths I mentioned as examples are "40 hour a week" jobs, where you work during the day and then go home and forget about it until the next day, which is what I think I need. Salary is not as important to me as having work that is fairly interesting/stimulating, although it would be nice to make enough for a middle-class lifestyle. I am willing to go back to school for training. Can you suggest careers, companies, or industries to look into?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Can you list what interests you have? I too have a wide array of interests and that competitive obsession, and thought that for my future long-term career, I will go freelance. There are, of course, risks to that, but if you can pull it off, you can earn a decent salary and not stagnate in your work.
posted by curagea at 6:01 PM on July 27, 2008

This seems like a difficult question to answer without a greater understanding of your interests and abilities. I know that you say you're interested in a variety of areas, but there are so many careers out there that might be what you're looking for that it's hard to say what would be best for you. For example, I work in publishing, and while it can be very busy, the work is varied and interesting, and at my company, at least, it definitely isn't super-competitive. I'm sure there are people working in almost every industry that can say the same.

Can you afford to take some time to try out an internship or two in a career you think you might be interested in? If not, perhaps you can set up informational interviews at some companies that appeal to you -- that might help you to get a better sense of the day-to-day work in those careers.

Good luck!
posted by cider at 6:02 PM on July 27, 2008

The obvious suggestion is research science. There's a certain amount of competitiveness, I guess, but nothing like what I hear about in banking or med school -- by and large, we're all on one team, trying to decrease the total quantity of ignorance and darkness. For intellectual stimulation, it's hard to beat. Is there intense pressure to publish? Sure, but publishing comes quite naturally if you're excited about and good at the work. And we get paid fine (unless your view of what constitutes "middle-class lifestyle" has been distorted by hanging around I-bankers...)
posted by escabeche at 6:06 PM on July 27, 2008

your basic assumption - most jobs I've considered are EITHER filled with very competitive people, OR consist of mostly highly repetitive, boring work - isn't true generally. there are often niche positions within professions that are otherwise boring/repeptitive. those are the people that do the interesting work in that field (and it has to be pretty boring for there to be no interesting problems).
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 6:51 PM on July 27, 2008

@escabeche: in my experience, research science (or any kind of academic career) is not the 40-hour-a-week job that you can leave behind you when you go home. Unless I'm misreading, that's what the OP is looking for. An exception might be lab technician: the kind of job that is necessary, that often involves new challenges, but doesn't involve a lot of high-pressure responsibility. Otherwise, research can consume every waking hour, especially if someone has a competitive personality.

To the OP: in addition to technician positions, executive secretary/assistant positions might be worth considering. People with high-pressure competitive jobs need reliable, smart, creative staff. The work can be interesting and challenging, but it's not the kind of thing you need to worry about after hours, for the most part. Many ambitious people see such jobs as stepping-stones to something bigger; if you make them your goal and stay on long-term, the executive you assist ought to be very grateful! You must know some executive assistants in the investment banking world: ask them what they think about their jobs.

Non-profit work is another line you might consider. Given the salaries, highly competitive people tend not to go into non-profit work, but the work can be very rewarding.

And finally, you might want to rethink your dichotomy. I think there's a continuum between mindless repetitive dronework and creative work that takes over your life. Have you talked to a career counselor about your strengths and interests?
posted by brianogilvie at 6:56 PM on July 27, 2008

Holy hell, are you me?

I quit my i-banking job a couple years ago, thought hard about going back to school and then tried to find a "normal" career. It didn't work.

I moved over to the buyside and I'm still working on getting myself exactly where I want to be career-wise. But I'm much happier now that I'm in a better work environment and have a good idea in my head of what I want my future to look like. It helped that I took some time off--I may not have found a way to prioritize life over work, but the reading and thinking I did was well worth it.

If you're thinking about other things to pursue in the finance world or want i-banking specific advice, feel free to memail me.
posted by mullacc at 6:58 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Many jobs in the tech sector are collaborative rather than one-on-one competitive. Software development in a good shop can be intellectually fulfilling and fun. Although the downside might be occasional overtime.

How about teaching?

How about content creation?
posted by storybored at 7:15 PM on July 27, 2008

Research science. I work at a lab now. If you can get into a government lab, you're set. It's not super easy getting in, though. Bonus points for getting into one of the lesser known labs. It is very much a 9-5 that people leave behind at the end of the day, at least at this one, as well as the last one I was at (both DOE National Laboratories).
posted by zhivota at 9:11 PM on July 27, 2008

Look into community development finance. (The Opportunity Finance Network is a place to start.) In a broad sense it's sort of a nonprofit version of what you're doing now. People work hard, but there is definitely more of a sense of work-life balance (with a commensurate pay cut). The culture does vary from organization to organization, but I think it's consistently less driven than i-banking and the like.
posted by yarrow at 6:22 AM on July 28, 2008

The tech field is generally considered to be quite collaborative. Although firms obviously compete for business, in my experience people were enthusiastic about sharing what they knew and helping others out. Despite this, someone I knew, although in the industry, tended to be very closed off and suspicious of others in the business. In the end I think this hurt him professionally. My point? You bring yourself into whatever career you're in.

Just because you choose a career that doesn't emphasize competition, that doesn't mean you're not going to try to compete unless you let go of this tendency inside of you.

There are non-professional courses out there that focus on things like letting go of the ego, finding peace inside yourself, etc. You are probably going to find them extremely hokey but they might be necessary or useful to you to let go of your need to be the best.

If you think you would be a good doctor, and you want to heal others, medicine might be an excellent choice. My family doctor owns a clinic in the downtown of my hometown. As far as I understand it he doesn't deny care to anyone, regardless of coverage or ability to pay. His clinic serves both poor and affluent alike, and he is an excellent doctor. I'm not sure if he's able to work a 40-hour week, but he is one of the most relaxed and centered doctors I've ever met.

Just a note about salary: unless someone's really really rich or really really poor, they almost always think that they are in the middle just so you know a "middle class lifestyle" may be a bit more humble than you imagine, especially if you made a lot in investment banking.

I worked for a while at a non-profit and I noticed that most people routinely left work on time rather than burning the midnight oil. So if sticking to a 40 hour week is important, a job in the non-profit sector is probably a good choice.

I can tell you from personal experience that you shouldn't take a tech job if you want to make a clear division between home and work, or at least don't be responsible for whether or not the server and other programs are working correctly. When I was at the non-profit, the only guys I heard about working non-standard hours were the main tech guys...
posted by Deathalicious at 8:51 AM on July 28, 2008

I'm sorry, I was focusing on the "not insanely competitive" aspect and missed the "I want to be done with work at 5pm" aspect. On those grounds, research science (at least in the academy) is indeed not going to be your bag,
posted by escabeche at 9:46 AM on July 28, 2008

Work in a team situation, where you're competing with other companies, but working on the same side with other talented people. I was going to recommending getting into a technology startup, but that doesn't fulfill your goal of having a 40-hour-a-week-and-forget-it job. In generally, many jobs in the technology or Internet industry are pretty collegial and collaborative, but are not 9-5 jobs.
posted by lsemel at 11:17 PM on August 2, 2008

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