The Long Road Back to Work

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?” – Charles Bukowski

It’s been three months since I was let go by my last employer. To me, it was a grim situation – it’s all too easy to define ourselves by our work, and what we bring to the table. Feeling a breakdown in understanding, a dismissive reception towards the things I was struggling through, and a massive amount of burnout, I felt a bitter sense of acceptance in taking the severance check and signing a corporate agreement to sever ties.

I had tried everything to make it work. I sat in on difficult meetings and broached uncomfortable subjects in the hopes of improving my situation. I signed papers, followed Performance Improvement Plans, and simultaneously trained and interviewed my replacements while also developing an on-boarding program for corporate clients. I held meetings, booked business expansions, shared systems of elaborate knowledge, and sat in on early-morning security review calls with prospective buyers. I answered every beck and call, and somehow the pressure only ever increased in intensity.

None of it was enough. I felt like a failure.

I’ve been taking a slow pace for the sake of recovery because I’m burned out. It’s a frustrating process: I’m not used to resting for extended periods, and sitting around doing nothing feels unpleasant after a while. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that I need to get back out there. Day by day, a little more money slips between my fingers, and I grow increasingly concerned about how I’m going to make ends meet.

I’m left to reflect on what I actually want to do professionally, and I begrudgingly accept that the only way out, in the short term, is to get back on that proverbial treadmill. Only…it can feel all too tempting sometimes to only search for that elusive, magical job that’s going to fulfill you.

“Fulfillment?!” my dad asked incredulously during a birthday phone call, “it’s a job, for Christ’s sake. I worked at a factory and a slaughterhouse to put food on the table for you kids. What is it with millennials whining about work?”

He sort of has a point. While I’d love to find something precious and incredible, like a Mozilla or Wikipedia job, the truth is that the Ciscos and the Salesforces and the financial startups of the world are the ones who are interested right now.

I just need to get back on that horse.

The Story So Far

For some time now, I’ve wanted to publish something, but have felt at a great loss to express the things I want to say. Often I would feel ambivalent about the subject, what voice to use, or the scope of the addressee(s).

After a long period of dragging my feet, I’ve decided that I will try to write, every day,  in a format more like a diary than a thinkpiece platform. The goal is to ultimately provide something honest, open, and intimate, where I can express a myriad of interests at length and let it clutter the pages in a minimally-edited form.

Who am I? What do I love? What are my successes and my struggles?

Who is this guy?

I’m a space cadet, 29 years old, living in San Francisco. I have a life-long obsession with computers, and have been using one since I was three years old. By the time I was six, I was assembling my own tower.

Me, enamored with Command and Conquer: Red Alert

In my early adolescence, I fell in love with the idea that something other than Windows or macOS existed, and began researching alternative operating systems. Discovering Linux felt like a revelation to me at the time, and I proceeded to use it as a daily driver for nearly 15 years afterwards. It was a lot of fun to experiment with, and I dove into many different kinds of OSes, ranging from traditional Unix to funky microkernel systems.

The field of Computer Science in general is something that I could talk about for hours. I hope to publish an abridged history of it some day.

My exposure to Free Software (and later, Free Culture) opened me up to the idea of making things and giving them away for free, and this is a value I hold for all of my creative output, whether it’s art, code, or media. This applies to music just as much as it applies to videos or games. If I make something, I want to give it to the world.

Professional Experience

I’ve been living in San Francisco for nearly three years, and hail from the Midwest. Five years prior to moving, I worked full-time over the Internet from my home in Peoria, Illinois.

The majority of my professional experience could be described as problem-solving for grumpy customers. This particular role is more than it seems at first glance – it involves developing an intimate technical understanding of a given system’s capabilities, and developing emotional opinions on how certain parts of it work (or in many cases, don’t). In this job, I took video calls, answered technical questions, interacted with product designers and engineers, and project managed technical fixes.

Also, this.

The tech industry generally refers to what I do as “Customer Success”, although the vision for what that means is highly tied to financial outcomes, leading to lots of customer metric-tracking, quarterly business reviews, and endless digging through online filing cabinets such as Salesforce.

After years of enduring this, I’m less than enthusiastic about the business side of the role. The part of the role I like – helping customers, building knowledge, training people, solving technical problems, and working cross-functionally – are all things that I can take to any job, because they’re part of who I am. Letting those get dwarfed by paywalls, upsells, and transactions feels pretty soul-crushing.

I’m not going to lie. I’m actually severely burned out. At some point, it becomes very easy to feel cynical about where things are going,and how things are run. For a while, you can stave off those feelings with blind optimism and hard work, but eventually, you’ll be crushed under the wheel.

It can feel as though your entire consciousness is dedicated to nothing but work, and there’s often a misalignment between the things you think are important, and what the company tells you is important instead. Things slip through the cracks, and it’s all too easy to become encumbered by performance reviews and awful conversations with inexperienced managers who are just trying to climb the ladder and look good.

I was let go about two months ago, and I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. I’m living off what I could afford to save, which will be gone by the time I get back on my feet. For now, I’m healing.

Turning the page

In about a week, I will be stepping onto a plane to begin a new chapter in my life. It’s pretty surreal to think about – to be frank, I never thought that I would get to this point.

I’m finally in the process of moving to San Francisco. This is five years after I started working for a little startup company in the SF Bay Area, a Mission Street company of people trying to hack together a social network on their own terms. That I even became employed there is an utter fluke, and is the fulfillment of a juvenile dream of mine.

Things have changed. Their focus has shifted, and over the last three years, we have worked together to help nearly 2,000 crowdfunding campaigns from Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. I was their first hire at this new venture, and have grown into a role where I get to solve hard problems every day. I have acted as a remote worker in all that time, from my dining table in Peoria.

Part of me is beyond excited. Part of me is terrified. Part of me is very, very sad. I wish that I could take the people involved in my life and take them all with me. Life doesn’t work like that, though.

In taking this next big step, I am leaving behind everything I’ve ever known and loved. I am saying goodbye to my closest friends, who have had a massive impact on how I live my life. I am saying goodbye to my family, who I already only see every once in a while. I am saying goodbye to a town that I am comfortable in, and I am saying goodbye to someone who I am madly, passionately in love with (and always will be).

I’ve cried a lot about this, because it’s painful. In fact, I’m still crying right now. But this move is something that I have to do for myself. You can’t finish a good book if you never proceed beyond a comfortable chapter. Otherwise, there’s not much of a story.

To everyone who has been present and close in my life – thank you for being here for me. Thank you for opening up and sharing so many beautiful things about who you are and what you care about. You have given me so much drive to keep living, even at the points where I felt like I didn’t want to anymore.

Closing the last chapter

Today, my roommate is moving out, and I am considering a new chapter in my life. 2014 was a hard year for me because I had two roommates in a row that almost never paid rent. One saved his money and skipped town to Denver, the other wasn’t malicious but struggled to find work for 8 months. I had developed close friendships with both of these people, and in both instances, I ended up feeling conflicted about kicking them out, and endured a financial burden that made living month-to-month somewhat difficult.

Living with someone 24/7 can be challenging at times. It can be even more difficult when you harbor negative feelings towards them about a number of things, and it can be most difficult when your anger is punctuated with sadness, despair, and false hope. The worst part was the constant drama and tension at home. Sometimes every word and action can come under scrutiny, and you can feel yourself being measured by them as they’re coming out of your mouth.

This begs a difficult question about how honest you’re supposed to be about things, and how forward. If you’re too blunt all the time, you come across as having performed outright character assassination. If you’re not confrontational at all, you both experience the social cold of withdrawing into your rooms so heavily that your paths never cross. He’ll start coming and going through his bedroom window, and you’ll be in your room wondering why things seem to be getting worse rather than better. This feeling has underscored both friendships, and it makes me question whether there was something wrong with me, or at least something wrong with them.

I have drowned in an ocean of gossip, and I have been dragged into petty wars of propaganda and ego. Everybody talks about everybody else, and as such everybody just has to get their two cents in about what to do. Give him longer. Kick him out. Be more assertive. Stop being a dick and give him a chance. Quit being a pushover. At the end of the day, it all ends up becoming recommendations coming from uninvolved third parties with their own biases.

I feel numb today. If I could, I would cry over the fact that someone close to me is at this point in our friendship. I had met this person under a mutual appreciation of music, social commentary, and the exchange of personal philosophies. We had shared our happiness and our sadness, and we had jammed together in a first real attempt to start a band.

I just hope that wherever this person goes, that they have the success that they’ve always wanted. I could not provide that here.