Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ellis. Sort of. “Ellis” wasn’t her real name, but let’s overlook that for now. Ellis was encouraged to do well in school so she could get a degree and a high-paying job, so she tore through 7th to 12th grade earning As in every class. This was good, because it earned her a full ride to a nice university. This was bad, because amid all that memorizing and studying, Ellis never figured out what kind of adult she wanted to be.
The elders in her life nudged her toward Computer Science, a field that was sure to be in huge demand. It took a whole semester to figure out what the hell she was doing, but after that, she liked programming. It just wasn’t something that excited her. She never lost herself in loops and case statements for hours on end, the way she lost herself in stories or sketches. Her programs behaved properly, but weren’t elegant. Her brain shut down in protest any time she even peeked at advanced problems in algorithms.
Four years later, Ellis earned a Computer Science degree… and the knowledge that she didn’t want to be a full-time developer.
An office job seemed the only way to go, though- something to do for eight hours, then off to peace and freedom and a big paycheck. It seemed even better than school, because there’d be no homework or studying. The ample nights and weekends would be Ellis’ “real life” full of fun stuff, like the hobbies she hadn’t fully abandoned in college- story-writing, drawing, etc.
That theory worked, for a little while. Ellis progressed through a string of jobs, occasionally switching up locations as well. Most of the time, the next new job came from a positive recommendation, for which Ellis was always grateful. Truthfully, though, she accepted each position more for the fact that it was there and paid more money than for the prospect of something fulfilling and enriching. Her real life happened on nights and weekends, right? If she actually enjoyed herself at work, that was just a happy accident.
As the years flew by, Ellis’ resume filled up with things she understood but wasn’t passionate about. She also came to realize her theory was bullshit. More American employers were expecting 40 hours in the office and 24×7 attachment outside of it. She had to be on-call during off hours, and could get in trouble if she didn’t answer her phone. Plans to go out, vacation, even sleep became less a given and more an allowance to be yanked away at the company’s discretion. After a frustrating day, and the long hikes through the elements that formed her commute, she faced her evenings with the vigor of a frozen snail. Weekends vanished with increasing speed, and a dwindling sense of recovery from Friday to Monday.
Most of Ellis’ hobbies atrophied or became occasional pursuits- except for writing. For whatever reason, she refused to let that one go. It was her escape, a secret identity of sorts. Whenever possible, she loaded up on coffee and ground out prose. After a few years, she summoned the courage to find a writer’s group to trade feedback. She started writing for an IT humor site, and editing for a Purchasing blog. She even managed to sell her first hard sci-fi short story to a national magazine, in one try.
While it occasionally felt good to finish projects at work, these literary successes were more exciting. The only problem was, they had to remain secondary pursuits.
Did they, though? Why?
Oh, lots of reasons. I have a secure job and make a good living. Other people would kill to be where I am now. I have a chronic condition that requires medication- I need good health insurance. There are already a zillion writers. It has to stay a hobby, or I’ll start to hate it. Besides, I’d never support myself that way. I’ll lose everything and be broke. Suck it up!
For a while, this was enough to scare her back into line. Over time, though, it felt more and more like excuse-making designed to make her feel good about sitting back and coasting, not having to make any hard decisions.
What if I “suck it up” and stay put? It seemed reasonable she’d end up like the older people at work, who’d been coasting for twenty or thirty years. She had trouble relating to those people. On some level, they scared her. They had no identity outside of meetings, emails, more meetings, and make-work projects. They put in unpaid hours without complaint- even during vacation, even when there was no emergency. Despite unlimited sick days at their disposal, they soldiered into the office hacking and sniffling. Having nothing else to be proud about, they were proud of their suffering. They said skin-crawling things like, “If I retired, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
Programmers are warned all the time about leaving variables undefined. Ten years after graduating college, Ellis finally understood the danger of leaving herself undefined. If she didn’t seize control of who she was, someone else would- again.
To her great fortune, she has some money saved up, and a supportive spouse and family behind her. She’s not jumping right now, but preparing for it- urging herself to focus on the beauty of the view and not the terror of the fall.