Crisis

Staying in one city for an extended period is not something I’ve done when travelling before. Typically, I will divide a long trip between stops at several different cities, allowing myself only a minimum amount of time to see each. For my latest gallivant however, I decided to spend two weeks in Berlin. Not only did this give me time to explore more of the city, but also space to question the direction of my career and address a growing sense of disillusionment with my profession.

“Arm, aber sexy”

Berlin confounds all preconceptions of a German city. Described by its former mayor as “arm, aber sexy” (poor, but sexy), beyond the drab glass and steel of its commercial centre, lies a series of messier, ragtag districts. Nondescript residential apartment blocks, often defaced with graffiti, line up along leafy and cobbled streets interspersed by canals and churches. A visit to Potsdam provided a more conventional scene, although only because many of its historic buildings have been rebuilt over the last decade.

It’s hard to escape the notion that Berlin is still rebuilding too. Areas of land remain barren, some with the remnants of pre-war buildings standing to one side. Someone described the city to me as “post-apocalyptic”, which isn’t far off. The past is ever-present, sometimes as a necessary reminder, occasionally as eye-candy for tourists. That so much of this has been sign-posted over the last thirty years means history feels very contemporary here.

While other parts of Germany were able to restore their industries after the war, Berlin had to wait for reunification before it could find its purpose. Today, Berlin sees itself as a home for new ideas and experimentation, and so found itself a role as the capital of Europe’s burgeoning start-up scene. Various German corporations have small innovation hubs in the city, each hoping to benefit from the energy and ideas of the local community. It also attracts people like me, digital nomads looking for adventure. I heard from plenty of people who had relocated and were looking for work, and luckily for them, plenty of companies are looking to hire, too. But I found little to interest me.

Out of step

This trip was an attempt to find answers, perhaps with a vague notion of stumbling upon the perfect job opportunity that would rescue me from the cataclysm of Brexit. Instead, it confirmed what I already suspected: I’m in the midst of a full-blown career crisis!

At this point I’m doubtful any job could meet my exacting requirements. 15 years in the profession has allowed me to develop a highly specific set of criteria, while freelancing has lavished me the freedom and flexibility I crave.

My career has survived me saying no to a lot of things, but I’m starting to wonder if a lack of curiosity and willingness to experiment with new technologies is starting to catch up with me. Technology, as currently conceived, just doesn’t appeal to me. I couldn’t care less about AR, AI, VR, voice-driven interfaces or bloody blockchains. Topics that do excite me — sustainability, transport, urban development, infrastructure, travel, history, architecture — tend to involve more tangible things, not bytes stored on a server somewhere in Virginia.

I can’t shake the feeling that the better I understand what drives me, the more out of step I am with everyone else.

Companies want to disrupt and disentangle, whereas I want to repair and galvanise. Organisations want to move fast and break things, whereas I want to move slowly and fix things. The industry has adopted Atwood’s Law — anything that can be written in JavaScript, will be written in Javascript — but I want to work with teams building robust systems founded upon accessible, semantic markup.

If I wished to spend my time writing single-page React apps for morally ambiguous companies, I’d have no shortage of options. Ever the contrarian, I want the opposite.

This might be a somewhat reductionist and over-simplified perspective, and it doesn’t paint the full picture, but I imagine aspects will ring true for others. Not a day passes when I don’t speak to a friend or colleague who isn’t equally as confused or unhappy about the trajectory of their career. Perhaps it’s a symptom of age?

One crisis at a time.