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! :)

  • http://www.packetu.com Paul Stew­art

    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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  • http://twitter.com/jmbeltrame @jmbeltrame

    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 24x7 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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