J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Career Sucker Bets

You've earned it!

You’ve earned it!

I’ve had a few hair-tearing ultra-frustrating moments recently in regards to some of my programming work. At times like that I sometimes wonder if I’ve made a “career sucker bet” and gone into the wrong line of work entirely.

After a glass of wine, a good night’s sleep, and successfully delivering the latest iteration of the project, things don’t look so dark. Freelance programming, while it has its challenges, also has massive upsides.

But there are plenty of career sucker bets out there, and if you’re a young person evaluating your career options, here are some things to watch out for:

1. A career that promises low compensation, no equity (ownership), no pension, and no benefits. Shoot for at least two out of four. Equity is only valuable in a business or property that produces income, or has a very good chance of producing income in the future. If you have high compensation then you can pay your own health insurance and save aggressively, even with no potential pension and no benefits.

2. Severe risks to your health, for a long time. If you want to go catch crab in Alaska for a season, you’ll probably survive. Do this year after year and you’re tempting fate. Same with night shifts (which will mess with your circadian rhythm and increase your risk of cancer), working in dangerous neighborhoods, high stress work (especially if you don’t deal well with stress), and so on.

3. Any career that doesn’t demand honing and expanding your skill set. Work should be challenging enough to keep you engaged and on your toes at least part of the time. If you can do your job while half asleep, your brain is rotting a little every day.

4. No good stories. Does your line of work produce at least a few good stories? This is worth a lot. If it doesn’t, your life is boring, and people will avoid you at parties.

5. No real value for society. Wall Street quants who use high-speed automated trading to extract money from market slow-pokes and trading n00bs, I call B.S. on your “creating market liquidity” rationalization. You are a parasite, plain and simple. Go teach math (or programming) at a public school instead.

6. Socially isolating. A huge part of life is who you know, not just for success and upward mobility, but for life possibilities and having a good time. Your line of work should expand, not limit, your social life (even if you prefer working alone most of time, as I do). People underestimate how much social time they need to feel happy. Even introverts need at least five hours a day.

7. Low demand. If people don’t want what you have to offer, then you’re gonna have a bad time. Students who were considering applying to law school have recently figured this out.

Did I miss anything? Did you end up in a sucker career and get out? Tell me your story.

Afterthought 1: It’s rough out there for young people trying to find work … sometimes you gotta take what you can get. But keep the big picture and long-term in mind.

Afterthought 2: If you would do the work even if nobody was paying you to do it, it’s never a sucker bet (except maybe for the person paying you).

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15 Comments

  1. Do you feel like a person in music should focus on the business side of the music industry or be a business man before being a musician to get more money. Especially all the horror stories you’ve heard like there’s not much money and you could be broke and not sell enough albums or you may not get signed. What do you think JD. Does music come first, second, last. Because to bands like Papa Roach and Slipknot they hate the music business and think music is more important than image, girls, and money.

  2. Also to some people they think electronic music and technology is killing music, that people should play instruments if not more and stop using autotune on vocal which I hate. What do think? I know you like industrial music such as Skinny Puppy and Velvet Acid Christ.

  3. FG

    As someone formerly on the business side of the music business, I have to disagree that bands Slipknot “hate the music business”… Here’s a loveletter from Slipknot to their record label, for example… http://www.theprp.com/2012/04/27/news/slipknots-m-shawn-crahan-speaks-on-roadrunner-records-shakeup/. It’s a story told time and time again (“evil record company”), the reality is, some artists do get a bad deal, but many artists have careers thanks to the dedicated men and women (many are legit music fans just like you!) that work at labels, booking agencies, radio stations etc. Does a label want to get paid for the time and money they invested in you? You bet… is it worth it? Depends on the artist… for a lot, definitely. (try getting a loan to finance your music career from any other source…kickstarter ain’t it).

  4. I don’t think investing in your own music is a career sucker bet, as long as you enjoy it, keep learning and expanding your skills, and maintain a large ownership share in your own work. At the very least you’ll get good stories and meet interesting people. Best case scenario, after five to ten years of work you might realize some passive income streams or even be making a living. Here’s a post going into some more details on this topic:
    http://jdmoyer.com/2010/08/02/business-advice-for-young-artists/

    In terms of starting off, you’ll probably need to develop a non-music career in order to support yourself (and this has always been true, even when there was more revenue from record sales).

    • Well I want to start/join a really good industrial metal band with tons of influences and pushes the envelop of metal and then start a progressive break project (my so-called alias would be The Uneveloped Scorpio; let me know if you think the name is stupid or good) by myself with other electronic influences but I don’t know how because I’m such an isolated person who has been diagnosis with major depression, and Asperger syndrome. What do you think I should?

  5. I’d like to throw one in:
    Starting a business to “be your own boss” (or because you don’t think you can work for anyone else).

    It’s one of the first things people say, “it must be nice to be your own boss” and I always reply with “well, I have LOTS of bosses: employees, customers, business partners, investors.”

    I love what I do and wouldn’t change it for the world, but the dream I had while working a job of being my own boss left the building a long time ago. In the end, I think it all comes down to accountability. Can I do whatever I want? Yes, theoretically. But so can anyone who works at a job, provided they deal with the consequences of their actions.

    Start a business because you have a specific solution to a problem many people/businesses have, because you love making cupcakes (or music) and want to do it every day or because you can’t think of anything else you’d rather do, but not to be your own boss.

    • Totally! Michael Gerber’s “E-Myth” books talk about this … how most “businesses” are no such thing, they’re just low paying work-for-yourself jobs with long hours and no benefits.

      • Great book! I always recommend it to people starting businesses.

        I actually had another to add to the list, the other was “Equity with no liquidation/exit strategy.” This one is difficult for many people starting small businesses to consider and it is understandable. “How am I supposed to think about what this will provide for me when I don’t want to do it anymore, I’m just trying to get it off the ground!”, but it is so important. A garden that provides only enough food for the day you tend to it isn’t a garden you own, it’s one that owns you. Love your posts JD! 🙂

  6. I’m so stinkin’ lucky! I’ve worked in the same job for over 26 years now, and I’m still one of the new kids on the block in my office. We have one staff member who has logged almost 40 years, another at 30, one at 24 and one at 20. We have had two owners who worked their entire 40+ year careers there and several others headed that way. Why did this happen? Decent working conditions (with fully-paid health ins. and profit sharing), challenging jobs, family atmosphere, no slackers, decent vacation time (4 wks/yr after 10 yrs)…..most of all, people who are willing to just suck it up, be nice, and get the work done. Sure, everyone has their moments (sometimes even days!), but that’s life.
    Can I do my job in my sleep? Well, yeah, pretty much. Does that bore me? Not really. Remember, your job is not your whole life! It’s so important to find other productive things to do in life. If you’re just going to work every day and then heading out to party for the night, you’ll end up unhappy and dead in the water. Don’t give up a good, secure job just because it doesn’t challenge you every single day. Find other challenges in life and pursue them. Find your give back and live it. There’s lots of day left after 5 o’clock.
    Watch out for promotions that only bring more stress and responsibility and not enough money or hierarchy to compensate for that. Remember that, although you should always be looking out for ways to give someone a hand up, no one will look out for you better than you. Be true to yourself, your belief structure, your morals, your family and friends. Prostituting yourself for a few extra bucks will leave you with low self-esteem. Make choices, for to do nothing is to be nothing. Make those choices work for you, though, and always keep an eye on the future. Sit down with a piece of paper – down the left-hand side, write down years in five-year increments. Then fill in the space next to those years with your life plans. Allow more than one line per time period – don’t limit yourself, don’t be stingy with your potential joy in life, leave yourself room to grow! Be bold, not afraid or timid. Engage in activities and goals that create opportunities for you, not take it away. Have an eye to the future and plan for that, but spend at least some of your time and money going and doing while you’re young. You’ll learn something. There’s nothing sadder than seeing someone who spent all of their time working and saving for their retirement and who then becomes ill or, worse yet, dies shortly thereafter. Set your sights high, don’t let set-backs dissuade you. All of these things apply equally to work and life. Remember, instant gratification is opening up a new pint of Graeter’s Black Raspberry with Dark Chocolate. Real gratification is a body of work, the ultimate overcoming of obstacles, the patience and dedication to get it done.

    • Thanks for sharing your point of view Hollis! Such long-term employment is a rare thing these days, but my bias is also urban/tech … different regions are different.

      Good advice to look closely at promotions … if they don’t come with more compensation they may be a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing.

  7. That kind of long-term employment is a rare thing, but isn’t that really part of the problem in a way? People go into both jobs and marriages these days with a “Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just get another job (get divorced).” I think maybe when you go into an endeavor with that attitude, in many ways, you’re doomed from the start….like you’ve already programmed yourself for failure instead of triumph. The only place the word “success” comes before the word “work” is in the dictionary. I love your posts, J.D. They’re centered on issues we all face in life…..;-)

    • Could be. I’m all for loyalty, but the loyalty is misplaced with any publicly-held corporation (which is legally required to value shareholder returns over the well-being of employees, at least under current corporate charters). A privately-owned business run by decent owners in an entirely different case (more like marriage maybe) … in that case the loyalty and trust isn’t necessarily misplaced.

      For young people starting their careers, I don’t think switching companies every few years is a bad strategy, both to gain experience and meet a wide range of people. More like dating? 😉

  8. I totally agree that you have to find your “fit”. I also think, to support your point, that there’s danger in complacency and laziness. There IS a problem with “loyal to a fault”. You do need to stick with something long enough to make an honest and informed assessment, though. Kinda like the rule when I was little – you have to try each type of food three times – if you still don’t like it after three times, you don’t have to eat it any more – neutralizes the “Ewww-www!” factor over everything you encounter that’s a little different. Food is a relatively benign testing ground, not to be confused with your finely-honed instincts telling you, “This is really bad news and I need to get outta here NOW!”. I jumped jobs when I was young – I think we all do. As someone who reviews job applications, however, when I look at a resume’ and see a new job every year in the employment history, I’m less inclined to take that person seriously as a potential hire. It doesn’t mean they won’t get hired, but it does raise questions. There’s a time and money investment by employers in new hires – the training and assessment period. As a company, if you’re hiring people and they’re always jumping ship after a year or so, you have to question two things, I think. Are all these people flaky or do you, as the employer, not have enough to offer to keep good employees on board? It has to work on both sides of the desk.

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