Reflections on 500 Unpaid Hours

Today marks the end of the first quarter of 2018. It also marks roughly 9 months since quitting engineering to pursue a data science career. The first six months of this journey, July through December, 2017, were spent completing my MBA by (recklessly) taking 5 courses simultaneously. With that degree completed, my time has been totally liberated since the beginning of 2018.

Since then, I have focused my energy very single-mindedly on breaking into analytics. Specifically, that has entailed Udacity, this website, learning Python and SQL, gaining admission to Georgia Tech’s OMSCS, and reading various technical books.

Lessons from 500 hours

My toggl time report for the past 3 months indicates I’ve worked nearly 600 pomodoro-style, focused hours. 500 hours of those hours are directly applicable to my career transition. These couple months have been simultaneously liberating and stressful, or, stressful because of the degree to which they’ve been liberating. Let me elaborate:

Life with a job, or life pursuing a full-time degree, is like bowling with bumpers. You can screw up, but the environment informs you of this almost immediately. This may come in the form of a negative performance review, an angry customer, a bad grade, or by some other means. You are then given the opportunity to course correct. As a result, continuing with the bowling metaphor, you rarely miss the pins entirely. Networked and intertwined with various others, as you are when you are gainfully employed, the environment tends to catch you if you fall.

The past nine months, this scaffolding and guidance was slowly removed as I changed my job title from “engineer” to “student,” and then from “student” to “unemployed.” Some aspects of the past several weeks of no externally-imposed bumpers (and therefore greater degrees of self-reliance) have been difficult.

Fortunately, at least these first 3 months, I’ve maintained pretty solid motivation and focus. As a result, my plans remain on track. Much of it has still been a learning process, however, which I intend to partially document with this post.

Here’s a few lessons from Q1, 2018.

1 - When you exit the work force, you do not die.

Most men are conditioned to always have a job or otherwise constantly be economically productive. During the past several months, I have definitely not been productive according to that standard. Coping with that has required something of a shift in my identity/self-concept. This was hardest in the couple weeks immediately following quitting. Depending on your specific personality, this may rock your world more than it rocked mine, or less. For me, it was a bit rough.

It taught me that life does not end when you quit your job, however, and therefore that I that am something different than my job/function. If that sounds trite to you, I suggest contemplating changing your job. You might be surprised to the degree to which your job has become your identity.

2 - But, you will face stigma, even if unemployed voluntarily.

If you work 6+ hours at the same Starbucks too many days in a row, people will begin to ask The Question: “So, what do you do?”

Thus presented with The Question, you can choose your own adventure. As an example: “Well, I come here each morning and learn from YouTube videos.”

I only actually responded this facetiously once. If you’re wondering, the reaction was an interesting blend of disgust and apparent confusion. Generally, when people ask, I respond honestly that I’m earning a certification so I can enter a new field. They’ll raise their eyebrows, but, as with lesson 1, even faced with scorn, you do not die.

Society has carved out a protective niche for students in their twenties. That niche is not for you if you are a guy coming up on 30 years old. There is a time in your life for exploring and finding yourself. Society considers that time to be your college years, during which a certain amount of soul-searching and apparent aimlessness is tolerated. Once you begin closing in on 30, especially as a guy, you are supposed to have figured out a few things. You are supposed to be out in the world making a way for yourself.

It doesn’t matter how iron-clad your plans for the future are: it is not socially acceptable for a man to pursue an online certification at home, with no income. But, even if you don’t, you will not die.

(Protip: The key is to alternate Starbucks every so often, if that is your “office” of choice)

3 - There is liberation in facing stigma with eyes wide open.

Imagine that, for three months, your daily driver is an early 2000s Civic with spray-painted polka dots all over. Think about what that would feel like. Multiple-month unemployment is a similar sensation. You will feel “out of sync” and, frankly, like an outcast. But, again, you will not die.

If you choose to be temporary joblessness, the fundamental lesson you will learn is that what people think of you, and who you are existentially, are not the same. Reading about this sensation and experiencing it are, also, not the same… It is, frankly, more difficult than you expect. It does test your resolve. If you’re considering taking this path, I urge you to weigh things carefully.

Having a goal you care about is crucial. Design a process to help you achieve that goal, write it down, and make sure executing that process actually does require your leaving the workforce. Double and triple check that achieving your goal is actually worth the risk inherent in foregoing income. Consider the psychological stressors of losing external validation and externally-imposed structure. This is absolutely not a time for an impulsive decision; this should be considered thoughtfully.

If and when you do decide its time to pull the trigger, its important to execute with urgency and intensity. Every day, you need to trust the process you designed, and grind. Working towards a goal while unemployed is a momentum game.

With those warnings said, the good news…

4 - Channel the totality of your creative energy towards a goal, and you can get a lot done.

A corollary of lesson 2 is that people derive a sense of personal value and meaning from their work, especially men. For a large majority of people, work is something dictated by other people. This means someone else has claim to a major fraction of your possible creative output as well as a major contributor to your sense of self-worth.

If you quit your job, you liberate a huge amount of energy, and you can channel that however you’d like. And, as it turns out, completing work of your own choosing can feel very good. The resulting meaning and fulfillment can be an effective antidote to society’s silent judgment, which I described in lesson 2.

As an example: a hundred or so hours and I went from knowing practically nothing about web development to having this website. Its small thing, but its mine, and it feels great.

5 - Completing coding projects through Udacity is not sufficient to learn a programming language.

You need many hours invested to understand something complex deeply; and a few tens of hours is not enough to gain a deep understanding of a programming language. If you’re trying to break into tech, look up codewars and hackerrank, then use those services consistently to get better at your chosen skillset.

6 - It is good to have savings to fall back on.

6-9 months of necessary expenses is a great target. One year of after-tax income would be even better. Fortunately, in my case, this journey was voluntarily chosen and planned out financially. I had saved for a long time before I finally quit my job.

Having gone a relatively long period of time without income, I have a new perspective on money. My new philosophy of money is to take steps to ensure it is a liberating, not a constraining, force. I want to use it to maximize the set of future actions I can take, and not be a ball and chain that limits me. Practically, this entails avoiding purchases I cannot afford but also using financing intelligently (not Dave Ramsey-style debt avoidance, but not carrying crazy, high-interest balances, either). With that in mind, I’ve learned…

High savings and cheap debt can be fantastic tools for changing your life trajectory. IE, save up money and pay off debt so in the future you can buy time, if needed. Voluntary unemployment of the sort discussed in this post is literally buying time.

As a general framework for thinking about debt: less than 3% interest is unquestionably great debt and should almost never be paid off early. Invest the cash you would have spent paying off the debt. Be not afraid: on average you will end up ahead if you operate this way.

On the other hand, paying over 7% interest requires consideration. You should run the numbers and make sure that, over the long term, you have high probability of ending up money ahead as a result of whatever investment you’re making.

7 - Writing is a good way to force yourself to think things through systematically.

And personal websites are a great medium for that writing.

8 - Family is important.

I likely could not have done what I’m doing, or else it would have been far more difficult, without the emotional support and housing my grandmother has given me. I am very, very grateful, and I won’t forget it.

9 - Routines are powerful productivity enhancers.

I never thought that after leaving my job I would consistently be in bed by 9:30, awake by 4, and working by 5, seven days per week. Yet, here I am.

There have been benefits outside the daily studying grind: my workouts and diet are more consistent now than when I had a job.

It was the last thing I expected, but I am far more disciplined than I was while employed.

10 - Shed your persona, and you learn a lot about your truer, deeper self.

And, quitting your job might be the most dramatic, practical means by which you can shed your persona. It is choosing to confront a series of unknown challenges, and presents an opportunity to reinvent yourself. A sustained period with no externally-imposed, day-to-day obligations is a great time to ask yourself who you are, underneath your work uniform and daily function.

In my case, I’ve learned I greatly value a degree of autonomy and, ironically, being productive. I’ve found I am happiest when I am creating something. This is especially true if what I am doing is hard. This leads me to the final, most important thing I’ve learned the past several months…

11 - Overcoming internal resistance in order to create something is exactly analogous to going to the gym when you don’t feel like it.

98% of the time, you’ll be happier if you just do it.

Restating this more philosophically:

Moment-to-moment feelings are fickle, but purposeful actions taken in pursuit of a challenging goal are reliable sources of meaning and fulfillment.

Its the biggest cliche in the world, but, seriously, chase your dreams. But chase them pragmatically. And make sure you don’t run out of money as you’re doing it.