Lately I have been struggling with career burnout. Or maybe it’s existential grief, or bad burritos, gas, and too many reality television marathon binges. Whatever it is, however, I noted with some interest this article by Matthew Mengel (@mengelm) over on the Packet Pushers website. Matthew is pushing aside his career in the networking industry to pursue his true passion in astronomy, after winning a scholarship to complete a PhD program in the subject.
It is fair to say that I read his article with a fair bit of jealousy. After 22 years in the computer industry, I nurse nightly dreams (or delusions) of moving on to other things. I said as much on Twitter, and found a surprising number of other folks in my cohort who felt the same. Long careers and hours had taken a toll.
More surprising, however, was what happened when the discussion turned to just what exactly we would all do, given the chance. There were a few outliers, but far and away the answers were all in the fine arts or generically creative space: art, film, writing, and woodworking were mentioned. And the number one reason why was that these were all pursuits that were started during the naïveté of youth, before we all realized that the money was no good.
I know that I never dreamed of a career in computers when I was a child. My dreams were all rooted in writing, art, and music. I fully expected to be a musician, famous artist, or reclusive, well-read writer. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
I don’t know when I realized the impracticality of the arts as a career, but at some point in my later high school years I decided that the law would be a more practical profession. Luckily, my uncle (a very successful attorney) talked me out of that, and I accidentally happened into the world of professional computer-wrangling.
I had been programming and hacking since the age of eight, so when someone offered me a job at what seemed like incredible pay back in 1992, I didn’t think twice. In retrospect, it’s amazing how low the asking price for a person’s soul turns out to be. Fast forward to the present, and we’re back to the conversation about burnout and choices.
In talking to the good folks on Twitter, and friends and coworkers, it seems as if there are a tremendous number of people who would do something else, if the money was left out of the equation. One of my best friends and I were talking over the holidays on this very topic, and it seems as if we’re all victims of our own success. “I’d move and change careers, “ he said, “but I can’t afford to start over.”
And there’s the problem. The same problem everything always boils down to: money, or, more realistically, food and shelter. In all of human history, we’re still slaves to our own ability to survive. It used to be a climate, or food-source, or shelter that drove us to wherever we ended up in life. All we’ve done in the whole of our species is manage to abstract that concept in the form of money.
Maybe I’m reading too much in to all of this, or being too dramatic, I don’t know. All I do know is there are a hell of a lot of us out there, it seems, doing things for money that we wish we didn’t have to do any more. I don’t know what that means, and I’m hesitant to project my own anxieties on the rest of you, but I think it at least begs a couple of questions:
(1) If the money was equal to what you do now, or what your career will ultimately bring you in terms of earning potential, would you do something different?
(2) When were you the happiest in your life? What were you doing? Was it what you do now?
Feel free to send me answers and feedback via my twitter handle (@someclown) or here in the comments.