I’m in my mid-twenties and I’ve found that whenever I start a job, after a few days or so, I start feeling trapped and stuck.

I fear the regular routine of the job, being stuck in the 9-5 (or whatever my hours are) and being forced to work for the money versus doing something I love with a mission I care about. I’ve tried working for things that I believe are doing great things for the world (kid-focused startup and working with kids, which I’ve learned I’m not good at) and I still feel like that. Any kind of job with routine (even varying retail jobs and the like) scare me and thinking about applying to a job with more challenge in it (not getting that out of my current job) but that same routine worries me that I’ll be stuck there for a year or two working on building my skills for the better but still trapped inside a prison even if it is at a well-funded startup.

I’m an INFP programmer who loves logic and hopes to start my own startup someday as I get frustrated with not being able to make my own decisions. I’m not sure if I should go forward with my plan to find a job with that routine while I get great to build my skills for my own startup someday or if I should try to find something without that routine and if so, what? It doesn’t feel like most people have that same reaction to the stability of doing the same thing every day. About the only thing I know is I’m sick of not having money and I need to find something that allows me to have that. What should I do?

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15 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    First, as a reference point for everyone else, here’s a link to the personality traits of an INFP:

    I see it is important for you to avoid routine, but it is not likely that you will enjoy running a startup. The tasks of a startup founder are routine, dull, administrative and a lot of brown-nosing. The people who succeed as startup founders are people who have no problem doing that or people who partner with someone who has no problem doing that.

    I know it seems to you like everyone wants to do a job with deep meaning, but actually only very few people really care about that. So you are special in that regard, and you are very limited. People do not get paid a lot of money to do very meaningful work, because there are so many people who will do that work for free, on the side, to feel good about themselves.

    You probably need a job where you are helping people directly. Teaching, social work, something like that. Or you need a job where you create deep meaning through art. None of those jobs pay well.

    I think your biggest problem is that you feel that because you’re smart you should be making a lot of money. But that’s not how the world works. We can really only succeed in jobs that will feel fulfilling to us. And some people feel fulfilled doing jobs that pay a lot. It’s sort of a luck of the draw.

    You are not going to feel fulfilled in a role as a programmer. There is not enough goodness in your everyday life. You need people and kindness and helping and values. If you focus on getting that kind of work instead of running a startup or making a lot of money then you will feel better about what you do with your days and other things will start to fall into place.

    I hope this helps.


  2. Chi
    Chi says:

    There are a lot of different life solutions. Programmers and designers are coming up with new ways to “do good.” How do you want to set up your life? You could freelance as a programmer for 25 hours a week and then volunteer on the side.

    You could work at http://www.khanacademy.org/careers or http://www.warbyparker.com/jobs or http://www.minervaproject.com/ (three that I quickly looked up)

    I encourage you to look more into social enterprise, B Corporations (http://www.bcorporation.net/community/b-corp-jobs), impact accelerators/civic incubators/etc. (http://praxislabs.org/) and more. There are all sorts of organizations with good missions, not just non profits. You can feel financially secure AND help people.

  3. Cassie Ranae
    Cassie Ranae says:

    I’m an INFJ going through a quarterlife crisis, and a lot of Penelope’s reply rings true for me, too. I determined a few months back I was heading down the wrong career path, and set out to find a better fit. I did all kinds of self discovery exercises and research and sought career counseling and feedback from loved ones.

    My new plan is still taking shape, but a breakthrough occurred when my boyfriend pointed out that I kept saying I wanted to make a lot of money, but that through all this exploration, the consensus was that I’m a creative type more interested in people and life than business. (And creative types–particularly those not drawn to business–aren’t, ya know, known for their high incomes or anything.)

    He told me I needed to choose what to sacrifice: a big paycheck or career satisfaction. That moment changed things for me, and I let go of the financial goal. I had always associated my intelligence and work ethic with being paid a lot, but as Penelope says here, that’s not the way it works.

    Best of luck to you!

  4. Michael C
    Michael C says:

    Hey there,

    I know your pain. I’m an INTP who spend 14 years in IT. I think I’ve been through similar situations and arguments with myself to those that you have descripted.

    An approach that worked for me was basically, to do both what you love and what pays the bills. I did this by volunteering and using my IT skills to help a couple of organisations that needed the help, whose ethics I agreed with or that I just found fun. In my case I helped out a couple of local, volunteer radio staions, as well as the local branch of Amnesty International. As an IT guy with heaps of experience, I could see solutions to problems that they weren’t even aware they had. Such as knocking up a quick database to use as a library system for reference material at Amnesty, or taking a scrapped, ancient PC that had been scavanged, dropping in an equally ancient modem and turning it into a fax server for a radio station (radio stations *still* receive dozens of faxes per day of press releases!).

    I have other friends that volunteer their time developing or maintaining websites for charities, or work with a local city council to refurb ex-government PCs and giving them away to pensioners for as little as possible.

    Once you start looking you’ll be able to find something where you can use your skills that will still give you that ‘buzz’ you need, without sacrificing the job that pays your bills. It’s also a great way to network.

  5. Kat
    Kat says:

    I have a similar situation/question. I am (I think) a highly creative person, a writer…went to school for writing, but also grew up EXTREMELY poor…basically I often feel like my one motivation in life is to not/stop being poor. Kind of hard to do when my only talent (literally) is writing… extremely introverted, can’t deal with office politics/micromanagement, and can’t even really deal with rote/repetitive tasks anymore.

    So I’ve been told my whole life I can’t make a living writing, need to get a day job… and the kind of creative writing I do, without giving too many identifying details…it’s esoteric/experimental/ a ‘dead art’… i.e., not commercial fiction or any fiction.

    Also, because my health is very poor (chronic stuff that’s unlikely to change), can’t do physical and/or loud things like waitering, working in retail, etc. just to pay the bills. I’m easily stressed & overwhelmed, need lots of alone time to recharge, etc….to kind of an extreme degree, which I think people sense & withdraw from. It’s a lonely life.

    I’m somewhat new to your blog but liking it & wondering if you are familiar with the whole Highly Sensitive Person way of thinking. I definitely am a HSP, and definitely on the autism spectrum. I don’t say this to wallow in labels but because I think knowing those terms about myself has helped me not go off the deep end entirely. Also I mention this because in one of the books I have partially read (I do have trouble finishing what I start, but so do we all), it mentions how while no one adores drudgery, it’s especially bad/ toxic for a HSP because they identify with their work so heavily…which I explain better below…I don’t work linearly. Maybe that’s a helpful bit of info.

    Basically not knowing what I can do in this world, going nuts, and feeling very stuck! Been unemployed/underemployed for years living w/ family, that’s not going well or very good for me, they’re not supportive people (not ambitious, but also i don’t think they’d know where to begin in terms of “being supportive”) & I have pretty much alienated everyone with my issues over the years (reinforcing my extreme introversion). I definitely have self-worth issues outside of the what-to-do-for-a-living business growing up and being as an adult as desperately poor as I am, but, like a typical American, I (rightly or wrongly) see my work as an extension of my *self,* and want to be fulfilled in my work, proud of what I do, etc.

    If I feel my work is meaningless or not rewarding psychologically (or monetarily– no one likes being exploited) I will quickly deteriorate in terms of my mental health, plain and simple. I am a bit more fragile than most people in this regard and would rather “cut my nose to spite my face” rather than endure a bad work situation (learned from a few bad work situations I’ve had). I’m in my late 20s and because of this in-work/ out-of-work jumping around I have a lot of education but not enough work experience to be seen as ‘hireable.’ Other people my age have about 7 years of work experience and I have barely 2 years (I was fortunate to have scholarships to not have to work through school–went to local public college– because there’s no way I could have mentally handled work + school, so I’m hesitant to go back to school for something more “practical,” picking the wrong thing/getting in debt, and still being unable to find work).

    First I thought many years ago my path would be teaching, but I dislike the bureaucracy/ restrictions/lack of freedom in the public schools, and I lack the experience to teach adults (which I wouldn’t mind, but it’s very competitive, and if it wasn’t painfully obvious, I’m not a competitive person). Then I thought my path would be just a string of general admin jobs…but can’t deal with office politics/ backbiting etc (most of my bad experiences clustered here). Then I thought my path would be publishing or publishing-related…given my interest/background in writing…not giving up hope on that but it’s also super-competitive and I’m a little old to be competing with college-age kids with more experience than I have…and not enough experience to apply for anything not entry-level, and no experience in publishing per se. (Have basically jumped around different kinds of nonprofits over the years.) So I really don’t know what to do. I test as INFJ or INTJ usually.

    I don’t think I have the guts to “be my own boss” as much as I fantasize about it, because I would like the stability of a regular paycheck. I like to eat regularly & I don’t have a problem with regular hours per se, but I am really at a wall. Any advice would be appreciated as most advice I get is usually “think positive” and “suck it up and get [any] job” & I don’t think that advice is helpful, but I get branded a “pessimist” if I dare say so (and, a little tangentially, it’s really hard to overcome that “reputation” of being a “pessimist” just because I have more needs than some people).

    I apologize in advance if this is posted in the wrong place; I think I have a similar fear-of-endless-misery as the OP. And sorry for the long post, but I wanted to lay out the difficulties I’m facing in stark detail because when I try to spare people of the details I usually get back ‘bootstraps’ replies like ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself.’ I am not laying about, I volunteer (no jobs there) and network (no leads there & I suck at it), and I do know the value of time and of the fact that I’m running out of it & I am very considerate of the fact that I can’t rely on my family forever. I wish I could just relax and ‘go at my own pace’ but apparently my own pace is too damn slow! And I’m really motivated to break out of poverty though I’m often discouraged at how it never seems to happen! So I hope you and others could comment constructively.

    • Paulina
      Paulina says:

      Wow, I could’ve written this myself. I’m hopeful that this will be addressed by someone because I suspect this is a widespread problem. Thanks for being brave enough to type all this out, Kat.

    • D
      D says:

      I could’ve written that, weird. Love from UK. 20 something graduate who has to do mundane jobs to keep the flow but would really love to work on my passion. The problem here though, is being too tired from the 9-5 to think about anything else.

  6. Cassie Ranae
    Cassie Ranae says:

    @Kat – I’ll admit that as I read through your comment, I thought to myself, ‘Wow. How negative. And wow, excuse after excuse.’ But I can relate, as I’m constantly told to “focus on the positive.” My advice is to stop seeking advice from people who don’t understand you, because they’re always going to confuse your honesty for pessimism.

    I explained to my mom the other day that she’s mistaking a lack of passion and a discomfort for doing work that goes against–or at least doesn’t support–my values and beliefs for pessimism. I told her, “When I express my frustrations to you, it’s not me being negative, it’s me feeling “dead” about my work. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is not what life’s about. These things don’t actually matter in life. I’m supposed to be doing things that matter. That contribute positively to people and the world. How do people do these mundane, meaningless tasks all day and not think twice? Why do you people care about this shit?!'” Again, I’m just being honest, but she calls it negativity.

    I recently wrote to Penelope about some of my frustrations, and she agreed the source of my dissatisfaction is that I’m not doing work I care about. And that’s the key (and the challenge)–figuring out what I can provide to the world that’s both of value to others and actually matters to me. I think this notion may be helpful for you, too.

    Good luck!

    • D
      D says:

      Cassie love how you put the pessimism thing across in comment above, your right negativity is not necessarily negativity.

  7. Karen
    Karen says:

    I know exactly how you feel. I’m also an INFP/J (with almost no preference between P and J). I’m 36, and my career has never really left entry level because I end up with work that feels meaningless. I usually end up wanting to do or try something else, which means starting over again at entry level. I like working with big ideas, but much of the time it’s hard to get paid to just work with those ideas without putting up with minutia. My background is in social work and law – both areas that encompass huge, meaningful ideas, but really deal with fine details in the execution of jobs you can actually get paid for doing, and are highly stressful.

    I’ve dealt with this partially by making sure I have a successful personal life – primarily with my family. I prioritize the personal, and it helps me to deal with the fact that my soul gets sucked out by work part of the time. I have small children right now, so there is some social acceptability to this that is perhaps lacking for others. I haven’t always had a good personal life; when my personal life has been bad, it makes work so much worse. I also try to keep to jobs that aren’t incredibly stressful, because high work stress makes my personal life suffer.

    The second thing that’s helped me is defining a primary goal. It’s not necessarily something that’s work-related or pays money. Right now, my primary goal is homeschooling my kids (the oldest is 4 right now) without going completely broke. So whatever I do next has to fit with that big goal. It’s going to require some changes, and it’s scary. Whatever I end up doing probably won’t make me a ton of money. My goals aren’t always the right ones for me. Last year I started a small business that I may have been able to succeed at eventually, but it would have damaged my personal life in the long-run. Since, my personal life is what’s most meaningful to me, I’m killing the business. It took awhile to accept this outcome, but since it also doesn’t match my other primary goal (homeschooling), I’m ok with it.

  8. Kat
    Kat says:

    ACassie–Given that in your own life your honesty is taken for pessimism, it’s disheartening to have you almost repeated that about my own case. I would seriously like to know what “excuses” I have made for myself. I put myself through school. I have physical disabilities plural. I also said I volunteer and actively network, so I’d like to know what excuses I’m making in trying to lay out (in long form, yes) a complex situation (requiring long form writing).

    Poverty *is* a barrier. Not all barriers are excuses. Some people have more barriers than others. I’m all for personal responsibility in this society, but I really dislike how that ideology of “personal responsibility” is used to mask a real philosophy closer to “every man for himself.” How about we take a minute and not perpetuate that? Maybe this is why so much advice I read on jobs falls flat and doesn’t ring true with me & led me to write the post I wrote– because it goes into this “personal responsibility” stuff that really is thinly veiled “you’re on your own” stuff? The reality of the situation is far more nuanced–that NO ONE is on their own, that we all need EACH OTHER.

    In the end, I don’t have to answer to anyone for being wired the way I am, as an extreme introvert, but I would also like to, heaven forbid, find meaningful work that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. This quest– to not want drudgery– and to be told I’m “negative” because of it, is endlessly draining and does affect my search; it affects a lot of day-to-day things to have honesty repeatedly interpreted as negativity: should I kill myself? Censor myself just to get by? But I suppose that’s an “excuse” too, to admit that I am a human being with feelings that get hurt. To put out there that I’m not a work-til-you-die machine.

    In this light, @Karen, your post was *infinitely* more helpful than Cassie’s because it tried to be constructive, so thank you for that. I do know how to give credit where it is deserved, and to be grateful for generosity when generosity was given.

    Like you, Karen, I have had diverse job experiences, the problem with that being that I don’t line up with anyones concept of having enough experience for them. I’m also tired of starting out at the bottom periodically, or, alternatively, being dismissed as “overqualified.”

    All this stuff I read about ‘transferrable skills’– how does one get people to recognize them so that you’re not starting at the bottom again and again? I also have trouble making goals, but with technology we were all told we could have flexibility and have several different careers in our lifetimes–was this just a lie? I’m a grown adult, but I have to start at the bottom again and again?

    There’s got to be a better way. But saying that these days is risky– that’s what “pessimists” say.

  9. Cassie Ranae
    Cassie Ranae says:

    @Kat, I’m sorry my comment seemed disheartening and unhelpful to you, and that you let me know it in a rude way. My response came from a good place (I wouldn’t have bothered commenting had I not genuinely been trying to help), and I offered advice (stop seeking answers from people who don’t understand you) and a goal for you to work toward (figuring out the career that lies at the intersection of something you care about and something the WORLD cares about).

    I understand it’s frustrating to get big-picture comments like that, believe me I do. You want specifics, answers, action items…practicality, as you’ve said. We all do. I can’t give you that kind of advice because I’m trying to figure all that out myself, but I can commiserate and relate, and share things that have been helpful for me. That’s what I tried to do here.

    Perhaps my message had undertones of the “every man for himself” philosophy you dislike, and maybe that’s where our disconnect is coming from. While I agree with you that we all need each other and can and should be able to rely on others for help, I also agree with the idea that we’re each individually responsible for our professional success. Personal life is one thing, but for career, yes, I do think it’s 100% up to each of us to make good decisions (which can include seeking the help of a career coach or others–to me, making the decision to ask for help is still in-line with maintaining ownership of your path.).

    I’m sorry I can’t tell you exactly what to do or give you advice that you find constructive, but for me, discovering alternative ways of thinking about career (via Penelope’s blog) and reading about new-to-me concepts like “multipotentiality” (via Puttylike.com) have given me the tools and inspiration I needed to get out of my rut and into a “I’m definitely going to figure this out” mind-set. But maybe that’s only helpful for me–I suppose I’ve always preferred to be guided over instructed. Since our personality types are the same or similar, I thought what is helpful for me may be helpful for you. Not so, apparently.

    I *was* trying to help, though. I was trying to let you know you’re not alone, as your most recent comment indicates is important to you. But as that received a snippy response, I’ve noted that’s not at all what you’re looking for, and I’ll get out of the way and make room for *infinitely* more helpful comments.

  10. Ryan Chatterton
    Ryan Chatterton says:

    Oh dear,

    The conversation seems to have taken a turn for the worse. I’d like to get back to our programmer friend who instigated this little chat.

    I feel you, 100%. Working in a job that we don’t feel passionate about can be very stifling to us INFPs (I’m very good at faking extroversion though :D). With that in mind, these are some highly actionable tips that I think will help you, and perhaps some of the others in this comment stream:

    1. Do work/activities you care about before you go to work (yes, you’ll have to wake up earlier, sorry): For me, doing the work I loved after getting home from my job was difficult. I found that I had little creative energy and usually just wanted to open a bottle of wine and watch TV. This was very stressful for me because once I have something that I want to work on, it’s very tough to get my mind off of it. So it only got worked on during the weekend. As soon as I read Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield (which I devoured in a Sunday afternoon) I had the epiphany to do my work before I went to my job. What happens when you do that is you flip the tables on your work/life routine. It’s like standing up and saying, “This is my life and I’m in control,” which helps with I’m not-feeling-like-I’m-making-my-own-decision-ness (phew). It’s great having some personal time/work to look forward to every day regardless of what day it is or what’s expected of me. Trust me, it feels great.

    With that newfound time in your day you could work on a hobby, explore new interests, or anything else that you feel is creative or productive. I use mine to work on current projects, but if you’re trying to find a career that’s meaningful to you it would be a wonderful time to research. Even if you don’t currently have a job, this structured time will do wonders for you.

    2. Do what Seth Godin says and, “Just pick!”: Getting stuck in indecision is a very terrible trap. You’re constantly second-guessing yourself because if you pick this then it might turn out to be the wrong thing. If you pick that, well maybe you’re selling yourself short; certainly you are more capable than doing that.

    I like what Seth says about it because the truth is that the exploration of a new thing (career, idea, etc) is the interesting part, not the eventual outcome. You’re never going to be happy with what you pick if you’re expecting that the outcome is the thing that’s worth it. As a fellow INFP I know what it’s like to constantly chase the new shiny object, so trust me when I say it’s far more worthwhile doing something because of the exploration; because you’ve never done before. There are layers of depth in every field; there’s always something new to learn or to master.

    3. Stop judging yourself harshly and stop relying on what others think of you (been here, too): There have been some interesting insights into the classic Ellsberg Paradox where they’ve removed any social context from the experiment. What they find, when people are told that nobody will find out about their decision is, is that participants make wildly different choices. We’re socially driven animals, so it makes sense that social context has such a huge impact on us. However, because of how modernized we’ve become it’s no longer that important of a factor in our everyday survival.

    You don’t need anybody’s permission to work in a career you like or to take time to experiment with different fields. Tell people to piss off if they don’t get it.

    In the end, it doesn’t matter if you end up switching careers several times, if that’s what you want to do. The important thing is to listen to yourself, not to what others expect of you. Hope this helps in some small way.

  11. Kat
    Kat says:

    @Cassie– Look, this is not the forum for a kind of comments-competition, and while I didn’t *want* to start that, it had to be said that there were elements of what you said that were not helpful, vs a different post that was helpful. Take that as you want, but –just echoing back what you just said– “there’s no need to get an attitude about it.” Meaning, as I see it, that if I can’t “get an attitude,” you can’t either. Two to tango, etc. Not being good at the interpersonal stuff, I’m not going to dwell on it either, and get to meat-and-potatoes stuff rather than drown in 2D intonations. Aka I’m going to be ‘task-oriented’ here, even though, guess what, this stuff is emotionally charged– I don’t understand people who don’t get emotionally charged about the topic of *what to do with one’s livelihood* and *how to make a life you won’t despise.*

    It’s frustrating to hear general anything and then hear “I can’t give you specific advice.” I think in general–again, Cassie, don’t extrapolate this as being a barb, I did say ‘in general’– people say this as a kind of cop-out and a way of hoarding information, so that people don’t edge in on their markets. Only because I have heard this so many times and read so many self-help books and done so much therapy, as you imply I need things “beyond” this blog or that blog. These are *human* issues, not just my personal mental health whatever issues, I’m perfectly oriented x3, so let’s not introduce red herrings into the content of what I’m saying even if the style is not one’s cup of tea.

    I have done jobs that weren’t writing-related– I’m not going to rehash my life story here. But if I could pick one issue, here it is:

    I *know* now with growing clarity each day that any job that isn’t writing– getting paid for writing– I am going to resent and loathe with every fiber of my being. And I also know that such anger and resentment at my work, since we all spend a lot of our lives working, is liable to create/worsen my existing health problems and I’ll die prematurely. And this also is not because of my alleged mental health issues as you needed to imply, my “personality,” or anything else– but the well-documented fact that stress kills, that stress causes health problems. So I get a mental health label for the crime of being concerned about my life? Can we all take ourselves a little less seriously, please? Really, if my– or anyone’s — tone rubs the wrong way, maybe consider the content of what they are saying. I can think of no more urgent task than *liking,* or *loving,* one’s work. Can you? Or have you (general “you,” don’t freak out) resigned certain parts of your life?

    I have been told my whole life “get a day job,” “good luck with the competition,” etc. It’s only gotten worse with the Internet (which really took off when I was a teen–so I’ve lived life with and without the Internet, a perspective generations after me don’t have). With the Internet, everyone is a self-declared writer. I devoted years of my life to it and I’m competing against people with gimmicks. Could you possibly feel the pain I feel from my craft being de-valued so, that “everyone” can do it? Not everyone can. And I unfortunately feel that I contribute to that de-valuing in a way, having a lot of my work out there.

    So, keeping it really super simple: I know what I’m meant to do on this planet. It’s what I have done for years and yet can’t make a living off of. What does that mean? That I’m not “talented” (whatever that means)? That it’s time to stop fantasizing and throw in the towel– until and unless I too can come up with a gimmick?

    In an economy where there are millions and millions of “writers,” should I also resign myself to a string of “day jobs” and not being happy and an early death?

    That’s not a histrionic question. Stress kills, and I’ve kept it as plain as possible. I think it’s the question on the minds of people coming to this page. I hope my passion and urgency come of as helpful clarifications of a common issue, not my “attitude,” “personality,” or whatever other unnecessary and distracting politicization of my comments anyone can think of is. I actually do have other things to do, as do you, and I don’t want to “get the last word.” I do want *helpful, practical* advice, and yeah, I am too poor for career counseling. I know, poverty is a moral failing, etc. That is bitterness. I’ll acknowledge it when I do it. But I also think people on the Internet could tone down the self-regard by a lot in order to have a real focused collaboration rather than a War of the Identities.

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