Burnout Redux

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.

  • thepacketologist

    I would probably pursue a career in sports as an analyst or something. I fell in love with sports (mostly basketball and football) well before sitting in front of my first computer. However, I know nothing about being a sports analyst and I feel like I've already wasted enough time doing other things so I'll continue with my second passion which I am mildly decent at.

    • _SomeClown

      I don't know if most sports analysts actually know anything about analysing either… you might be better! 🙂

  • Having jokingly said I’m going to buy a backhoe, I’m probably one of the outliers. In reality I really enjoy tech. Sometimes the baggage is frustrating. Challenges like unrealistic expectations and workload can start to take its toll. If I had my way, I’d still be in tech. I’d just have less structured (required) work. I’d spend more time helping others get a foothold and writing about cool things I figured out.

    • _SomeClown

      That's a bit of where I'm headed, I think. I've been doing the IT Manager/Director thing for 7 years now and I think that on top of 22 straight years of network engineering with no break is what's getting to me. More writing, more analysis, more mentoring is definitely helpful. Ultimately, the stress of a 24/7 worldwide network can get crushing. May move back to pre-sales at some point to take the edge off.

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  • Great article. I recently moved out of the day to day Operations Network Engineering field into more of an architect/consultant. I have had been doing the Network Engineering role for 15 years. I definitely don't touch devices nearly as much as before, but I feel I get more time to do other things in my career ( more research, reading ) and more time in my life outside my career. I definitely felt the same way you do. That 24×7 stress does definitely take its toll over time.

  • Priscilla

    Originally I was going to be an artist or a writer. Then a teacher. I still seek opportunities to do all of these, especially teaching. I still love tech and am still wicked fast on a Cisco CLI, but I'm really glad that I don't have to do day-to-day network operations. I don't have the patience anymore. I'm so grateful for the people who do that kind of work!! I know how hard it is.

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