You Can Go Home Again

October 8th, 2007

Consider the trajectories of our careers. Most of us were committed to and already pretty good at whatever it is we do, by the time we were 20 years old or so. So much destiny determined so early on.

In the few short years between gaining consciousness and moving out of the house, you evaluated dozens or hundreds of possible interests and fine-tuned your natural skills, gravitating toward some career track that promised a rewarding and happy life. And you still had time left over to goof off with friends, watch TV, play video games, and sleep as much as humanly possible.

So what if you made the wrong choice? Most people I know are paralyzed by the thought of having to start over, but it doesn’t take that much work to learn a new trade. It’s the passion and determination that are impossible to fake.

Corey Peterson recently trusted his instincts and gave up a career as a software developer at Apple. Speaking of his years in college:

I quickly realized that EE was not my forte […] but I stubbornly stayed with the engineering part of my degree. There was no HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] program at ISU back then, and if I had known those programs existed I would have done things differently.

OK, to be fair he’s only giving up one career at Apple for another, but he’s achieving his dream of being a human interface designer. It takes guts to pull everything off the table, jumble it around, and start building again from scratch. Kudos to Corey, and good luck!

What amazes and appalls me is the extreme resistance most people have to rocking the boat of their career. I recently spoke with a guy in his mid-20’s who insisted he would stick with Perl programming even though he’s become passionate about Cocoa and the Mac. The reason? He’s a relatively big fish in the Perl pond, and doesn’t want to give up on that comfortable dominion. Sucks to be you, dude. And it will suck even more as each decade passes.

The good news is, unless you’ve lived an utterly single-tracked life, you’ve already got a head start in your new career. Whatever you’ve been quietly interested in for the past 5, 10, 20, 40? years, but haven’t been getting paid for, could be your next big move. You’re pretty darned good as far as a hobby is concerned, and it won’t take much work to fine-tune those skills into something marketable. Take a class. Adopt a practice regimen. You might even get away with honing your skills while goofing off with friends, watching TV, playing video games, and sleeping as much as humanly possible. It’s never too late to start over.

14 Responses to “You Can Go Home Again”

  1. David Young Says:

    I would argue that reinventing your career every few years is not only good for the soul, but essential to remaining relevant in the technology space in the future.

  2. _m Says:

    I was just about to say.. “Sure, but if you’re married, it’s a bit more difficult…” then remembered that you’re married, yourself. And *then* I was about to say, “Well, if you’ve got kids, though…” when I realized the first stop was probably me copping out without putting too much thought into it. While I like my current career, I never quite figured I’d be doing it so long.

    I like your “you’ve already got head start” on it sentiment in the last paragraph… This is a nice little kick in the pants post… Thanks, Daniel.

  3. tim Says:

    Great post!
    But I can very much relate to the Perl guy: I’ve released a non-selling Cocoa application some time ago and I had to realize, that I might have been coding something what nobody needs. Now I am back in my safe money pond.
    I think this is alright for *some* time. Just stay there a little time to refuel the savings. But be prepared to leave this “pond” rather quickly…

  4. Dan Says:

    Well said! I keep running into these guys at meetups who basically learned how to do one kind of work and just keep doing it. It’s weird.

  5. DDA Says:

    I do think it is easy to say that when you don’t have a family (and mortgage) to support. I also think it is easy to spot the “career jumpers”; they don’t have a lot of experience doing any *one* thing.

    That said, it is also smart to re-evalute where one is and what one is doing every so often. Starting over *is* risky and scary but it is still the right thing to do in some cases. Just not *all* cases.

  6. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    DDA: I think my main point is that you can put a new career on the side-burner and get moving on it pretty quickly if you’re really passionate about it. (That is – without even risking too much in your ‘safe’ career).

  7. Jack Says:

    I like the idea of changing careers. There’s just no way we could have figured it all out by the time we picked our classes in college. To be fair though, the idea utterly scares me and I’m still firmly in my early twenties.

    But yes, I think passion can always be found and grown into something worthwhile. People may say “don’t quit your day job” but no one is telling you to stop.

  8. Ash Ponders Says:

    That’s certainly the case for me. All my life I thought I wanted to be a university professor. I got into a good school, in a small field where I knew I’d be able to contribute, and got accepted at an amazing university for grad school.

    And then I realized that I don’t really like Academia that much. It was just something in which I had a bit of talent. So I got a job fixing computers at the Campus computing, and started learning a new trade.

  9. Diego Says:

    The following is a book exactly about this topic. Very interesting to read (for example) about people that go from being a lawyers to a crayfish farmer and find happiness, peace of mind.


  10. Ted Says:

    I’ve found myself in a similiar situation, not once, but twice. I started in graphic design in the early 90’s. When the web emerged, I had always dabbled with it and HTML. As the 90’s progressed, I found myself doing more web design and less print. By the end of the decade, I was focused solely on web design. I sort of hit the pay ceiling around the time of the dot com burst (2001), so I shifted gears and focused more on web development. This was my first exposure to programming.

    When OS X came out, I decided that’s where I wanted to be. I’ve dabbled with Cocoa over the years (and attended two WWDCs), but never found enough time to commit to getting my ObjC skills strong enough to pursure it seriously.

    Now I’m at a job (UI Engineer) where they would like me to learn Java, so I’m hopeful that skillset will “build a bridge” for me to spending more time working with Cocoa. Having a wife & 2 kids makes it tougher to devote a huge chunk of time to it, but persistence usually pays off, so I’m remaining patient.

  11. Nerg Says:

    I’m in a similar situation myself, I’ve done the work but need the opportunity. However this article made me realise I hadn’t made a mistake

  12. Scott Guelich Says:

    I enjoyed your post, and I’m all for motivating people to explore their interests instead of sticking with what they know. I’ve changed trajectories so many times over the past 15 years, it’s hard for friends/family to keep track. From philosophy major to web developer and technical writer to medical student.

    Many people are surprised to see others making radical career changes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of folks doing it. While doing my post-bacc basic sciences at SFSU a few years back, I met many other high tech refugees who had been burned out by the whole dotcom boom (or bust) and were looking for something more meaningful to do with their lives. You don’t have to look to hard to find others to support you if you decide to make a leap.

    Incidentally, along the way I also several years as a (relatively small) fish in that Perl pond. I have sympathy for the JAPH you mention. It’s amazing how easily you get pigeon-holed by hiring managers… it’s not enough to learn another language well if they’re looking for years of prior on-the-job experience with it, and it can be hard to turn down an expert-level Perl hourly to take an entry-level Java job just for the sake of investing in your CV.

  13. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Hey Scott – I was probably there at SFSU with you :) Class of 2005 Music BA.

  14. Scott Guelich Says:

    Hey Daniel, we were there the same time! I did my courses 2003-2004.

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