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I am having some major existential issues in regards to my career. I don't know if there is a true answer to this question, but I'd be grateful to receive any thoughts, experiences, or questions to think about to help determine how to move forward with my life. Thank you.

I work as a software developer at a mid-size (~100 people) company that does custom software projects for large clients. I have been working here since I graduated from university (about 5 years now), and I feel hopelessly unmotivated. After work though, I fill my life with a huge passion for the arts. I study and practice music every day, I immerse myself in art film, I read and write poetry. I am constantly feeling inspired by nature and reality and other artists.

The problem is that, my work is so unmotivating and boring for me that it drains my mental energy for the things that do matter to me. My passion for the arts and life-meaning struggles because of work. I do like coding itself, and I even used to code small projects for myself for fun in the past. But the work I do feels so pointless to me. All these projects are just some iteration of "we need to process and display documents on a screen". I respect that it brings some people great meaning but it doesn't for me. Even though my performance reviews always turn out great, I spend every day procrastinating on the internet until the last hour of the day where I cram everything in as quickly as I can.

I look at other job listings all the time and they all seem like they'd be the same or worse. They all seem to want a "passionate developer" that "thrives in a fast-paced environment". None of the work that is being done feels interesting to me. I can't manufacture passion for these things out of sheer will. I have worked with top contractors that our company hired so I have met some of these 'passionate developers' and that is just simply not who I am. My passions lie elsewhere.

I am not sure what to do because the rent is extremely high where I live (Toronto area) so it seems too risky to try to start my own business in something that I care about. I wouldn't even know where to begin anyway. There is no other field that I feel like I could switch to. I need to stay within driving distance to the few people I have in my life to keep myself from feeling totally depressed so I don't think moving away is a problem. This current job pays well and it's reviewed quite well on those workplace review sites. I feel trapped here.

If anyone has any thoughts to share, I would really appreciate it. Especially some validation if there is anyone else that has felt similarly and figured something out through it. Thank you.

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    Not everyone (especially in software) is passionate at all about their day job. Many people work the drudging higher-paying jobs for the comfort and security they provide outside of work hours, and/or to fund their real passions. That being said... would it be possible for you to find a software job that is closer in domain to the arts?
    – GB1553
    Mar 29, 2021 at 19:37
  • @GB1553 It is, but those kinds of jobs seem extremely rare. And given the music/arts industry is so undervalued, I'd imagine the jobs would be extra difficult... but maybe that's okay as long as it's meaningful enough to motivate me. I'll continue to keep an eye out for them.
    – user125074
    Mar 29, 2021 at 19:59
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    @user125074: it's not as undervalued as you think. Apple/Amazon etc. pay top dollar for audio SW engineers
    – Hilmar
    Mar 29, 2021 at 20:12
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    What is your specific financial position? Family? Debt? Do you have enough emergency funds saved up to last 6 months to a year? Can you freelance your art projects on the side (keep in mind in COVID times, the art business died on impact)? Could you make it a hobby (YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.)? Could you start financially planning to switch careers in 2 ~ 3 years? Have you thought this through? Is the grass really greener on the other side (artistic industries are a "create on demand"/crank work out factory style industries)? Do you take vacations/breaks? Do you turn work off after hours?
    – David
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:12
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    I know this site is a bit less strict than others, but this has got far into "opinion based". Mar 30, 2021 at 13:10

5 Answers 5

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Personal story to share.

I've been an audio guy my entire career which involved a fair bit of SW development (but also HW & acoustics engineering as well people, project & product management)

Audio companies require a lots and lots of SW developers. My most recent employer currently has 23 openings with the keyword "software" in it and that's just a relatively small company. Apple currently has 159 openings with "audio" in it.

So there is a way to combine your daytime job with something that you are really passionate about it. You just need to figure out a way how to "get in". You can start with researching companies. There are probably some products that you use that you really like. Great! Look at the companies that make them and check them out. At the same time, you can fuzz around with home recording, look at a bunch of APIs, start writing your own plug ins, read relevant web sites and blogs. Use your technical skills to advance your hobby and get better at it! Figure out where the best overlap and "bang for the buck" is.

Once you are in, you can stretch your muscles in whatever direction you are interested in. Listen and learn, figure out what other people do and how they do it, pick the path that's most interesting to you. Doesn't need to be a straight one either.

It's maybe just a data point of one, but I was lucky enough to combine my passion for music with a very rewarding and successful professional career. Sure, sometimes there is grunt work (there always is) but I also had some absolutely amazing experiences being there when musical history was being made.

EDIT

Concern from the other answers and comments: If you make a job of your hobby your work, does it become work? Does it kill your passion? In my case it didn't. Quite the contrary: I learned immensely and gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation through my professional exposure.

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    +1 for "If you make a job of your hobby your work, does it become work". Many people don't consider that work is all about making money and less about the passion side. If you think having bosses, clients, marketing/feedback, and deadlines will make the hobby a dread then it's probably best to keep it a hobby.
    – David
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:17
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    Excellent answer
    – Kilisi
    Mar 30, 2021 at 0:37
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    Another thing to remember is that, you know, The Beatles for goodness sake got in a rut and found it incredibly tedious, annoying, and just a case of "workin' for the man". First they got sick and tired of touring, fame and mega concerts (WTH ?!) so they stopped doing concerts. Ultimately they got sick and bored with - you know - having one after another world-famous legendary cultural-changing world-historical hit. I mean yeah - what a drag, same old faces at the record company every day, same old zillion dollar sales, same old artistic breakthroughs, etc. Humans get bored.
    – Fattie
    Mar 30, 2021 at 12:56
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    @David: I would partially disagree with "work is all about making money". You spent so much of your totally life time at work, that making this a good experience can be way more valuable than squeezing out another 20% of cash. Money is just a means to an end. Chances are, if you have fun at work, you feel less of a need to spend cash on after work fun since you don't need to compensate for a shxtty work day.
    – Hilmar
    Mar 30, 2021 at 14:12
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    @Hilmar Yeah. By making money I mean that the business deadline, client, boss, etc. come first (i.e. just get the project done) versus artistic deadlines / "Yeah, that's the one" kind of things that can take priority in hobby projects (there's no rush or criticality around the completion). Essentially, a job becomes more about getting things done and less about the artistic passion or feeling behind it (it's not one of the most important parts). Think about how many bands/artists crank albums out yearly or every other year ... they need to produce regardless of inspiration/muse.
    – David
    Apr 1, 2021 at 0:45
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Nobody can give you an answer to this as motivation has to come from inside.

However, as someone who has fought through this in the past, allow me to share. My passion has been wood. (See DavidRandolphSculptor.com) However, this is something that does not generate good income.

I have relatives who are professional artists. They survive because they cut their costs to almost nothing and they are good enough to get good prices for their work. (See Jaime Zane Smith and his uncle at andreafisherpottery.com)

If you want to transition to being an artist, be aware that it takes about 10,000 hours of work to become professional at anything, including being an artist. Most of that time is unpaid or paid minimum wages. So, you will need to move to a low cost area while going through that transition. There are ways in Toronto to live very cheaply, but it will mean a different type of life. Consider even when a professional artist, most pieces don't sell. A typical gallery sells 1% of an artist's output.

I chose not to move for other reasons. That meant that I needed to deal with the causes of such depression. There can be many different causes of depression. We can't diagnose that for you. You need professional help there. There are support groups, therapy groups, and one on one therapists who can help you find the reasons and move through them. And, medication can help in some cases.

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    Great work mentioning the 10,000 hours ...
    – Fattie
    Mar 29, 2021 at 21:20
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    Also, I would add that the music industry, from the business side for the artistic POV, has a lot to do with marketing and image of the artist so yeah ... know what that means. I wouldn't bank on hitting it big without being in a very desirable image category. It's going to be a struggle and probably means lots of sacrifices.
    – David
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:25
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    @David That is true for all the artist industries. That is why a successful artist spends 50-75% of their effort on sales and marketing - not becoming good at their art.
    – David R
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:40
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    @DavidR Yep, I just wanted to note Music specifically since the OP explicitly mentioned it and because the answer didn't (it did mention galleries though so I just wanted people to know the same, more or less, corresponds to other artistic fields like Music).
    – David
    Mar 30, 2021 at 2:19
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After work though, I fill my life with a huge passion for the arts. I study and practice music every day, I immerse myself in art film, I read and write poetry. I am constantly feeling inspired by nature and reality and other artists.

How do you pay for the films, poetry books, cool place to read, watch, listen to art? Software development!

The problem is that, my work is so unmotivating and boring for me that it drains my mental energy for the things that do matter to me.

and

This current job pays well and it's reviewed quite well on those workplace review sites. I feel trapped here.

Being bored an unmotivated by your career usually means you need to make some changes. A therapist might be able to help you zero in on exactly why you are drained at work. You're still in your early career, so doing some soul searching now about exactly what you want in your job will help you guide your career for years.

Remember you can be happy with less - it's called Hedonic Adaptation. Don't be afraid to switch jobs or careers because you won't be able to afford all the things you can now. You will still be happy.

I look at other job listings all the time and they all seem like they'd be the same or worse. They all seem to want a "passionate developer" that "thrives in a fast-paced environment"

I avoid jobs with phrases like this too - because it usually means they have crazy hours and didn't think at all about the right type of developer to hire for their company.

I am not sure what to do because the rent is extremely high where I live (Toronto area) so it seems too risky to try to start my own business in something that I care about.

Lots of people start Businesses in Toronto every year. There will never be a perfect time or a perfect place to start a business. I know plenty of people who own their own software companies. They aren't venture backed startups - just people who were able to make a comfortable living off their work.

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    The only issue I have with this answer (and I don't downvote) is that "If you believe you can make money [by starting your business, then do]". Belief should not be a factor in this decision and it should be acknowledged that most businesses fail/don't make enough for quite some time. Businesses are a very very risky financial move (lots of sacrifices and time will be spent on building it. Expect 50% or more to just run the business). I would recommend reading several books on the topic and then consulting professionals (CPA, attorney, and banker) to see if it is financially viable.
    – David
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:29
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    @David - removed that sentence - you're right. You should start a business expecting some tough years ahead. Mar 30, 2021 at 14:42
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A slightly more cynical viewpoint than the other answers here, all of which I think are better than this one, but it feels like it's worth mentioning nonetheless.

If you've been in a software development job for 5 years I'd say it's almost guaranteed that you're being underpaid. Of course this doesn't apply in all organisations, but it seems a nearly universal fact that the only realistic way to achieve a worthwhile pay rise is to move employers.

I realise that money isn't a significant motivator here, and that's obviously good, but it would be foolish to imagine that it's not a motivator at all. If nothing else, say you find a job that pays you 20% more, you could potentially negotiate working one day a week less, and using that time to start a business or focus on what you do enjoy, without being any worse off, and without any big risk. Potentially you later flex that to 2 days off as a business grows, or go back to full time to build up funds if it doesn't work out, until you're ready to try something different.

Even if you don't change jobs, I think Covid has shown many companies that giving employees freedom to work remotely in ways that suits them is a Good Thing, so I'd guess that right now is the best time to try and get more flexible arrangements, which can only be beneficial to doing other things. There's no shame in doing a boring job to pay for the other things you enjoy.

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The most immediate salient points...

  1. Artists who are starting out can't or don't live in Toronto! They live cheap, brother! Have to move to a cheap area to do art. Friends follow, grow, or zoom ... so that's not a problem. There is no art in expensive locales, expensive locales are for yuppies.

  2. "At company for 5 years" That is a hell of a long time! Just change jobs, it will solve 80% of the problem.

  3. "I look at other job listings all the time and they all seem like they'd be the same or worse" This can only be wrong. Software is so diverse it is insane.

  • self-driving cars
  • embedded
  • speech recognition
  • the universe of games (by far the world's biggest entertainment industry by value. major subsections include console, mp, strategy, puzzles, artistic games, 3D, 2D, puzzles, thumbcandy ... being "bored of game software" would be like saying "oh that 'printing press stuff' gutenberg invented is boring" or "film? its all the same" Heh.
  • financial
  • AI
  • The Web
  • Apps (two flavors to choose)
  • mathematical
  • robotics
  • industrial
  • gpu
  • physics
  • all of modern filmmaking (whether pixar, digital, or effects)
  • consumer products
  • image processing ..

and so on and on. I mean you could easily list, what, twenty other major completely diverse software fields. If you work in the film, tv, music, book, sports, fashion or news fields, life is very limited, there's only one paradigm in each of those.

It's just not possible to be "bored with software" - you may just be stuck at a company that does only "bank apps" or "server databases" or such. If so, change. It's a seller's market for programmers, get a new job today.

Summary!

  • surely a new job is called for here
  • go for a different field
  • if you want to Go Art, can't live in yuppiville, move somewhere bohemian! There's none of the vibe you seek in yorkdale mall you know?!

Have fun!

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  • Yea good point, I guess I haven't considered those other fields. I think maybe just the particular skillset that I have is based around all the corporate business stuff (.NET and Java), so I'll have to learn how to write code that gets used more in these other industries. And I actually live in Hamilton, just put 'Toronto-area' as an international landmark. Though the whole region is insane now too price-wise. Maybe I can figure something out though.
    – user125074
    Mar 29, 2021 at 21:55
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    cheers @JoeStrazzere - I'm not sure what you mean; if you are a filmmaker (say, a DOP), you make "feature films". I appreciate there are various genres (crime, romance, etc) but they're all exactly the same thing: a ~2 hour audio-visual presentation. Script -> art direction - > filming -> editing -> post. It's a particular product. Right? If you're "a programmer" you can be doing almost anything.
    – Fattie
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:14
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    @user125074 Hamilton! Yes damned expensive. Funny you mention it, one of the great experiences of my life was being in the front! row! (on the right!) of a commercial pop concert at 1st ontario ctr just a couple yrs back. Totally awesome!! We met the blokes involved in the (mind-boggling) lighting. {Huge software sub-field, BTW.} Yes, it is a PITA as a programmer expending to other languages/milieus - but that's how we get paid bra. Enjoy! Enjoy what you are doing now and whatever you may do next ! Beauty is everywhere.
    – Fattie
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:20
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    "Just change jobs, it will solve 80% of the problem." Er...no, the novelty and the "new shiney" of the job will wear off after a few months. The grass is not greener elsewhere necessarily and we don't make emotional decisions without having financial assets to back them up.
    – David
    Mar 29, 2021 at 22:34
  • hi @JoeStrazzere ! Hmm, you may not get what I mean. My friend who's a programmer has worked on over the years: children's toys; industrial robots; iphone apps; vehicles; feature animation; a game console company, and so on. Those are completely different "industries". In contrast my friend who writes for TV has only ever and will only ever do one thing: write scripts, for TV shows.
    – Fattie
    Mar 30, 2021 at 12:48

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