How can I transition from a programming career to a more laid-back, independent lifestyle?
August 9, 2008 4:13 PM   Subscribe

I want to quit the corporate world, grow a head full of dreadlocks, make a living selling handmade beads, and just kind of...hang out, y'know? How do I do that?

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but here's the deal. I'm a smart and successful web developer, but I've been working white-collar computer jobs since I graduated from high school (I'm 31), and I'm seriously burnt out on it. I'm passionate about web technology, and I'm pretty damn good at it, but I'm a hacker in the classical mold, and the corporate/business world is poison to me. I've been trying to make it work for over a decade, and it just doesn't. It's slowly killing me—I honestly feel like I'll be dead at 50 if I don't make a change.

I'd like to switch to a completely different line of work—something not in an office, maybe even something outdoors; something relatively independent and/or low-pressure and/or with a flexible schedule, which leaves me with enough enough freedom and energy to pursue, y'know, a life. I've always had a very strong work ethic and sense of personal responsibility, but I'm ready to be an irresponsible, unproductive parasite on society, at least for a few years. (I'd be maintaining my technical skills during this time; part of the reason I want to do this is so I can enjoy computers again.)

I'm willing to tighten the belt a bit to make this happen, and I don't have any debt or other significant obligations. But—here's the problem—I can't think of any line of work that doesn't involve a huge (i.e., crippling) reduction in pay. I'm making a decent salary as a programmer, but computers are all I really know. I'd be climbing any other career ladder from the bottom—and anyway, the whole point is that I don't want a career. I picture myself working in a bookstore, or a greenhouse, or something like that—and, of course, that's gonna be shit pay.

(For what it's worth: I'm great with writing/editing, I have a natural head for science, and I enjoy both. I'd be okay with something more career-y in those areas, I think.)

So, yeah—it's the classical dilemma of the Starving Artist. I feel like I have to choose between financial viability and my soul. I want freedom, but I don't want to starve.

So I'm just looking for general advice on how to make this happen. Suggestions of jobs that are worth looking into? Anecdotes from personal experience on this path? A third path between the two extremes I've described? Anything? I need a plan.
posted by greenie2600 to Work & Money (24 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Great book, practical, perfect for this dilemma: Your Money Or Your Life.
posted by xo at 4:16 PM on August 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

I know somebody that gave up life as a Linux admin to become a surveyor. He's outside all day doing whatever it is that surveyors do. I don't know his financial situation but I don't think his lifestyle really changed much so I'm guessing the pay change wasn't drastic.

I have no idea how he made it happen - I think he may have known somebody that helped him get his foot in the door. Of course, most job changes in our out of your field usually start with an inside connection.
posted by COD at 4:35 PM on August 9, 2008

What do you consider a livable salary? As a mentor once put it, the less money you can live on, the more options you have.

My off-the-cuff ideas:
- field biology positions (job board). (In addition to the hourly, you can occasionally get hooked up for an away-from-home per diem and/or free housing.)
- Personal trainer at a gym; home study and less than $700 to get yourself certified.
- yoga teacher, eg, this certification program. Bikram yoga teachers appear to earn around $29k for less than 25 hours of work / week, though I recommend non Bikram.
posted by salvia at 4:36 PM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could do what I your butt off, save as much money as possible, quit your job, sell most of your worldly possessions and go live somewhere else (ie. another country) for awhile. Even better if you can combine this period of soul searching with a volunteer opportunity. Figure out what you love and what you want to do with the rest of your life. You might surprise yourself.
posted by pluckysparrow at 4:48 PM on August 9, 2008

It's aimed toward women in particular, but good advice and anecdotes in The Anti 9-to-5 Guide.

I haven't done it yet, but what I got from the book is that it's hard but worth it.
posted by darksong at 4:49 PM on August 9, 2008

Maybe you are just working for the wrong companies?
posted by konolia at 5:06 PM on August 9, 2008

Like you say, it's the classic dilemma of the starving artist. So the good news is that you're not the first person to have this problem. And so, broadly, you can either lower the amount of money that you consider reasonable (or begin to value non-cash assets more highly), or figure out ways to monetize your creative work.

I know a lot of, say, painters who support their post-postmodern non-representational room-sized canvases by doing the occasional portrait of somebody's dog, or ceramicists who would prefer to do installations, but also make the occasional batch of coffee mugs to help pay the bills.
posted by box at 5:07 PM on August 9, 2008

I can't think of any line of work that doesn't involve a huge (i.e., crippling) reduction in pay

Learn how to fix cars. Self-employed, specialist auto mechanics make just as much as computer programmers, with the added advantage of being able to work with your hands all day, and when you're finished with something, being able to point to a physical, tangible object and say, "I made that!"

I knew a guy when I lived in Boston. Maybe 60 years old. All he did was fix old British roadsters from the 40s, 50s and 60s. The work was dead-simple, though finding the various correct bits was a challenge. Anyway, all he did was sit around drinking beer and smoking cigarettes all day while various rusty parts bubbled away in his electrolysis de-rustifier. Then when he was finished, he got to test drive the car (you know... just to make sure it works). Jaguar E-types, Austin Healeys, MGs... you name it.

I always thought that must have been a pretty wonderful life.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:08 PM on August 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

A recent Metafilter thread I posted might be of interest to you.

'The Life Less Traveled: How Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Things…And How You Can, Too!'

There's a lot of stories there about people making life changing decisions and getting awesome jobs etc. Well worth reading for you, I think.
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:09 PM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is ridiculous. A plan is exactly what you don't need. The guy you want to be wouldn't be asking the same questions that you are asking. He wouldn't be talking about "career changes." The idea that you have to choose between "financial viability" and your soul is a total myth. In the Virgin Islands and Alaska, there are tons of people that gave up the workaday world, gave up drywall and plastic, and traded it for a far richer life. If "financial viability" is your priority, what are you going to talk to people about when you sit on your blanket at a festival and try and sell your handmade beads? The stock market?

I knew a woman than did henna tattoos outside of bars or at the beach and regularly made $300 a night. This isn't someone that is "starving" to death. When I lived in Vermont you couldn't tell the millionaire from the pauper by the trucks they were driving. Many of these kinds of people aren't driving Audis not because they're oh so ever so poor, but because their priorities aren't in displaying your wealth.

Set your priorities, and live them. If you want to express yourself artistically, then do that. Or if you want to stop working, just stop. Oh, but the crippling, right, oh the crippling. Crippling you how? You can't get three caraffes of wine at the Greek restaurant every Thursday? Or you can't afford to buy a new shirt every time the whim hits you? Such luxuries are entrapment. They are the trinkets offered by industrialized society in exchange for your soul.

Sorry to rant, but you need less of a plan and more of an action. The only thing standing between you and your goal is you.
posted by letahl at 5:09 PM on August 9, 2008 [24 favorites]

greenie2600 this might be obvious, but you need capital. Your own capital.

Without capital of your own, you'll always be one step behind, chasing the next big thing to sell or make or whatever it takes to pay the bills.

You're relatively young, probably a higher earner and it seems like you've got your head on straight based upon this statement -- "I'm willing to tighten the belt a bit to make this happen, and I don't have any debt or other significant obligations.". So here's what I suggest:

Make a plan to acquire as much capital as possible for as long as possible. If it's only five years from today, then fine. Ten years is better, but for however long it takes, save as much money as possible. Learn to invest, and get that money working for you.

I'm in my early 50's and achieved financial independence about ten years ago. This is defined as the time when income from passive investments (i.e, NOT a job) is sufficient to pay all living expenses. Financial independence gives you options, many more options that being highly skilled or highly paid or living cheap on a lower income grants. For example, I'm taking a year off work to pursue another degree; I simply couldn't have done this if, like many other people, I would have to live off savings.

I think there are two ways to pursue a dream. The first, more common approach is the way you're thinking now: take a lower paying job and degrade consumption to match income. Sure it works.

Another approach, the way I've done it is to save save save until you've got your own capital and have invested that money well enough so it pays your bills.

So yeh, make plan. Total your current assets, liquid and non liquid. Subtract your liabilities. Construct a budget so you know how much it costs you to live. Subtract this from your income so you'll know how much you can save, best case. Then figure out how much capital you'd need to feel comfortable just quitting, to give yourself some space.

This will let you know when you'll be able to drop and do what you'd like.
posted by Mutant at 5:59 PM on August 9, 2008 [11 favorites]

I have a somewhat different take on the situation. I am within a few months of you age and have likewise been working in tech since I was about 16. Recently my small software company was bought by one of the biggest software companies in the world. I am still kind of shocked that I used to work for a 3-person company and now work for a 90,000 person company. I never thought of myself as a cog-in-the-machine type but I am finding that it has some unanticipated benefits that, for now at least, I am enjoying. I am guessing you and I are in similar places, career- and finance-wise

It is safe to assume that you will not make as much money in another line of work. Have you considered stuff you might be giving up when you leave the white-collar world? Said another way, have you considered leveraging the strengths of a corporate job to allow you to pursue other things you might be passionate about? I find that the (relatively) high pay, flexible hours, good benefits and vacation time offered by my company allows me to pursue lots of interesting experiences. If I chose to, I could also blow my paycheck on lots of material goods, but with the exception of expensive cotton shirts I don't really have stuff like that. I fly airplanes, SCUBA dive, play tennis, snowboard and go to NBA games and travel all over the place. Not to mention that I can put cash in the bank and plan for retirement.

My parents are 53 and 64 and still working full-time. I do not want to be in that position.

As much as it pains me to admit it, if I chose another line of work I would be giving up a lot of the stuff that I love. I might be somewhat happier day-to-day, but I would be sad to give up a lot of my hobbies and less able to look forward to a comfortable retirement.

This is not meant to be bragging or corporate boosterism. Just trying to add a different perspective.
posted by charlesv at 6:21 PM on August 9, 2008

This doesn't totally address the question you posed, but the way you described the corporate business world as toxic - would it help to get a similar technology job but in a different environment, maybe one that's more fulfilling (like a school or nonprofit or hospital)?

This might be something where you just need to change your situation, not what you're doing. I find that I like technology a lot more when I'm working with socially-useful organizations who don't know anything about it and who really need it - so much more meaningful than business bullshit of putting more dollars in some other guy's pocket.

This could also be the first transitional step into whatever environment you do want to end up in (like doing web work for an arts organization as a way of getting to know those circles before you quit tech and become an artist for a while).
posted by cadge at 6:27 PM on August 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

You can have it both ways. I'm also a web dev, and had similar urges to your own. My solution? I moved to a National Park that also happens to have a giant arts and culture institution in it. Now I only work four days a week, am surrounded by the Rockies, rivers, elk, deer, people who are obsessed with snowboarding, mountain climbing and hiking. I don't work overtime anymore, I wear shorts and hiking boots to work (we're at the top of a hill). I love it so much that I have yet to take a sick day (as opposed to taking one a month at my old job). Wouldn't you know it, we're hiring!

The down sides? I make almost a third of what I made last year, and I'm 4,000km away from most of my friends and family.
posted by furtive at 7:18 PM on August 9, 2008

Can you take some freelance web development projects, and start to work for yourself? You'd be able to set your own hours, and choose how much time to dedicate to work and how much time to dedicate to other pursuits.

Can you use your strong work-ethic to start your own small business, such as a micro-isv or web-based software company?

Can you get a job at a better (i.e. non-toxic) company? You have a skill that nearly every company can use. Have you thought about working at: a non-profit, a design firm, an ad agency, a web-dev firm, a startup, or a more hacker-friendly company? The worst jobs for hackers are in corporations where technology is not the core business -- is that what your current job is like?

You're also good at writing and like technology - can you get a job as a writer for a site like CNet or TechCrunch?

Can you combine some of the above -- so you work part time as a writer, do web dev projects freelance, and do whatever else you want with the remaining free time?
posted by lsemel at 10:38 PM on August 9, 2008

As you know, there's a vast gulf between the real sabbatical of your fantasies and finding a lower-paying but still fulltime job, but I but I'd encorage you to listen to what's behind the fantasy (even if you're thinking of it as "exaggeration" because it seems unrealistic). Especially if what you really have is an urge for a sabbatical rather than an urge for more permanent change, you could choose to change your lifestyle radically during the sabbatical time.

Look at your expenditures and see how the vast majority of them aren't essential in a strict sense. You might amaze yourself at how simply and inexpensively you're willing to live in exchange for the kind of freedom you're dreaming about. You say you're a hacker in the classical sense; to me this means there's an endless flow of inspiration in you to discover and invent in a self-directed way, so who knows what great projects and ideas might come from you during a period of non-'productivity' in the strictly financial sense.

Since you're essentially starting from zero -- no debts or dependents -- the math for you can be very simple. That's where I am (since you're also looking for anecdotes): living a very simple life in order to focus on creative work. And I can do this because I have no debts and no children and no specific desire for children. For either me or you, the instinct to have a child might get stronger (we're about the same age; I'm 30), so the opportunity to live like this is precious while we have the chance and the inspiration and the freedom. I'm a classical composer, so I'm fortunate to be in a profession that 'snowballs' more than some (I'm starting to make some significant income from grants, prizes and commissions, and each of those will certainly lead to more of the same as long as I keep applying and pushing forward). But the equivalent snowballing for you could come from building small freelance or consulting projects into bigger ones, or of course from random open source or for-profit projects that explode into something much bigger. Can you imagine giving yourself enough freedom to work during a supposed sabbatical that, as your freelance work developed into something amazing, you wouldn't ever have to go back to a fulltime/onsite job?

(Finally, on the off chance you haven't heard of geekcorps, of course I'd suggest looking there in case they have upcoming assignments that match your skills.)
posted by kalapierson at 10:47 PM on August 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding furtive - you can have it both ways. The key comes with matching your skills / talents / needs with the employer that needs them. Want to feel like you're making a difference? Geekcorps has been mentioned - working at another non-profit / grassroots effort might give you the satisfaction. Pay? Probably not nearly as much, so you may have some persuading to do to balance your needs with what they can offer.

There's the other consideration of simply taking the jobs that comes along that you want to take - a freelancer is a close word, but to me it implies you'll take every job you're offered because you need every job. Put your skill set out there in all the ways you know how.

Finally, it does help to have some savings to dip into when things don't go to plan. You can do it. And don't be afraid to make those handmade beads and sell them around town - that can pay the bills as well as a million other things.
posted by chrisinseoul at 1:47 AM on August 10, 2008

I actually don't know much about it, but check out Geek Corps. Like Peace Corps, but...y'know, with computer geeks. Probably means leaving the U.S., though.
posted by zardoz at 6:52 AM on August 10, 2008

You gotta make the choice-- soul killing job or income sufficient to buy toys. I sat in a cubicle for many many years, and finally decided I couldn't take it. So I took the $30K pay cut (about 50%) instead and have never regretted it for a single minute.
posted by nax at 7:16 AM on August 10, 2008

or income INsufficient to buy toys. Gak.
posted by nax at 7:17 AM on August 10, 2008

Can you take some freelance web development projects, and start to work for yourself? You'd be able to set your own hours, and choose how much time to dedicate to work and how much time to dedicate to other pursuits.

This is what I thought. It's not as dramatic a shift as you might like, but it will cut down on the corporate bullshit factor substantially. You'll be working on different projects (with different people) pretty frequently. You'll have autonomy and the ability to say no to things that sound stupid.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:09 AM on August 10, 2008

Nthing freelance work. That's what got me started when I made the switch.
posted by furtive at 9:50 AM on August 11, 2008

I'd like to switch to a completely different line of work ...
I'm ready to be an irresponsible, unproductive parasite on society

Whoa. How about dropping the attitude. People doing the types of work you mention aren´t unproductive parasites.

I get the impression that you don´t have much in savings. This gives you less freedom for two reasons, first that you don´t have a cushion of savings to fall back on, which can be very liberating -- if you aren´t dependent on money from your job to pay your bill for the next few months, you are far less beholden to your boss and your company. The second reason is that you have gotten so used to and attached to being able to buy all the things that you spend your money on that you are having this problem of wanting to do something else but feeling that you need to make as much money as you do now.

Stop spending your money on things that don´t support what you want to do. Expensive restaurant meals? DirectTV? Prolonging your living your life in the corporate world. You might need to move somewhere with a lower cost of living to find your freedom -- a month´s rent for a small apartment in NYC will pay for a year´s rent in a house in some places.

You are not paying only in money for the things that you buy, it also costs you this lifestyle choice you have made, which you don´t seem to be happy with.

Do get any dental work or medical things you need done while you are still covered under a good plan. Consider how these things will work once you aren´t at this job any more.
posted by yohko at 10:31 AM on August 11, 2008

Why not join a startup? I know of TONS of startups looking for great web people. Have a look at the 37Signals job board for quality company postings. Many allow you to work from home, and the pay is comparable to a big company.

I left the corporate world (Motorola) to work at a startup, and I have never been happier. Now I am running my own startup, and I hope to never go back.
posted by ajcronk at 1:39 PM on August 13, 2008

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