Our friend Clarissa worked in finance throughout college, tasted the start-up life post-college, and took a few months off from her career in 2019 to explore her purpose in life. After a few months of talking to friends, journaling, and traveling, she recently completed a coding boot camp and now looks to switch careers a third-time to become a developer. She talks to us about money and her career, but perhaps has more to say about life in general! We appreciate her candid thoughts on career and happiness.
*Name is altered to protect identity.
INTERVIEW WITH CLARISSA:
What did you during college? Did you have any debt after?
I received a scholarship, which basically paid for college (so I had no debt) and also provided me opportunities to intern in financial services throughout undergrad.
Out of college, you chose to work at a start-up incubator instead of finance. What motivated you to make that move? How did the salary difference influence your decision?
I started as a general analyst and they offered me $65k, which was a massive pay cut from my offer at my previous investment bank ($85k + double-digit bonus). Salary was the lowest factor I considered. At the time, I was trying to figure out how to make the world a better place. Kind of like my quarter life crisis before my quarter life crisis. As you can imagine, I didn’t think an investment bank would help fulfill my goals.
My secondary goal was to develop technical skills that I could build upon decades into my career. Maybe down the bucket list, like item number 10, was salary. Sure, it was a substantial salary cut but I didn’t spend a lot of money on things to begin with. I don’t want to generalize but I have an Asian mindset towards how I use my money. I don’t really spend money on commercial items and sort of just throw it mostly towards savings. The majority of my money went towards paying my sister’s college tuition, books, and occasional splurges on clothing. I was also only paying $300 in rent. I mostly ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at my start-up so I didn’t have many expenses. The primary change was contributing to my sister’s college tuition, but frankly, the pay cut didn’t impact the way I wanted to live my life.
What’s the most absurd piece of clothing you bought at the time?
I went to Theory, which is well-known for having clothing for bankers and lawyers. Working at a start-up, you kind of show up in a t-shirt, but I missed those days of dressing-up really nicely. Despite not having the need for it, I spent $1,000 on a whole suit.
You quit after only few years at your full-time job. What motivated you to do that and how did you think about personal finances throughout?
For the longest time I always valued my professional life over my personal life. I felt like I had been the same 15 year old for the past 10 years. I hit a point where I realized I was turning 25 and it was really about time I prioritize my personal life above everything else. I felt more confident in my own skills at the start-up and thought it was now or never. I was really scared because I didn’t know anyone else doing it, but I knew if I don’t prioritize my personal life now, I was never going to be able to do it.
I had hit 6-figures at the time and going from 100 to 0 was in the opposite direction I wanted to take but I honestly didn’t worry about it too much. I saved most of my money after taxes, rent/utilities, and contributions to my sister’s college education. Despite not having any income, I knew I always had a place like home to go back to. As long as I had a roof over my head, some food on the table, some money in my wallet to buy a few things, I’d be pretty happy.
I was pretty thoughtful about spending during my break. I quit by mid-September and gave myself three months to just have fun and knew that in January 2020, I would be back home and barely spending anything. I allocated $1,500 per month to spend on things. I traveled a lot but since I went to Southeast Asia, I didn’t spend a lot of money. I used travel points as well. Most of my money was spent while living in LA on food, transportation, and going to concerts. I had my fair share of fun and I knew I would cap it at around $5k which wasn’t a ton.
What did you do after you quit?
I spent a lot of time talking to friends. I journaled a lot. Read a lot. I traveled. My main goal was to answer the question: what is my purpose in life? This led to more and more questions. As soon as I answered that question, it gave me new questions to follow, so I would spend at least 2-3 hours journaling every day. I would also spend a lot of time hiking or laying in my bed doing nothing. It was the most exhilarating feeling waking up without an alarm clock and then just sitting there thinking: no one can tell me what to do today.
So what is the purpose of your life? What makes you happy right now?
My answer is that there is no purpose. I had that epiphany while brushing my teeth or something. I think the question after that was okay, if there is no purpose in life, then do I even want a purpose? Frankly, I wanted to continue living my life to see what would come out of it and I realized that if no one was going to give me purpose, I have to give myself one. And so the next question was: what do I want my purpose to be? This turned into: I want to be happy in life.
My goal right now is waking up day-to-day and being excited for what’s to come. And when I go to bed at night, I want to be really excited for tomorrow. The hardest part is being happy in the moment, which I think I get really distracted by, and often can’t achieve. That’s where I am now and the question is: how do I achieve that happiness?
Why did you do a coding boot camp after your break?
I had spent a few months doing self-exploration, aka a lot of time thinking, so I felt ready for more DOING. I had given myself a deadline of the end of the year to go with the thing I liked the most.
During my break, I tried a lot of things related to policy, research, and coding. I tried to find the cheapest and fastest way to experience each one so I did free work for people, including friends with PhDs and professors. I volunteered for political jobs and started to learn coding on my own. Out of those three, I liked coding the most and gave myself a deadline of three months to try it out. It was sort of a new year’s resolution and I decided to go with it. Worst case scenario, if I didn’t like it, I could go back to what I was doing before, which quite frankly, I still like.
YM : We like Clarissa’s test and learn approach to her career. Not everyone has this flexibility, but for those who do, it may be worth experimenting early in your career. You can check out this section of the 80,000 Hours Career Guide to learn more about how to find the right career for you.
You didn’t try to put too much pressure on yourself to figure out your next career move. Tell us more about that.
I think the best way is to see things for yourself. You can only believe it when you see it. No matter how much people tell you money doesn’t matter and do what makes you happy, it’s not really going to convince anyone. What really convinced me was seeing people five years above me doing things they didn’t like doing and being absolutely, horribly miserable in their lives. There is nothing like seeing some thirty-something-year-old just kind of roll up to work and seeing in their eyes that they hate themselves. And they go back home to hate themselves some more. So seeing that made the decision really easy for me.
I often apply my dating philosophy to my career. I don’t believe in love at first sight. You don’t meet the one thing that’s shoved in front of your face and stick with it. You date around and try different things. Maybe the first thing was what you should have ended up with but you don’t know that and need to try different things before you go back to it. So try it out. It doesn’t hurt.
My approach to trying out these different things was straight-up one night stands. You stake them out at a club and you may be attracted to them. You give them a shot and within the first few hours, you probably have a good idea whether you like them or not. For research, I did some law/environment stuff and in like an hour, I was asleep. One night stand is totally the way to go.
What are some obvious turns off within the first 30 seconds of meeting a career?
I go heavily by instinct. If I don’t feel like I want to spend the next few minutes or even hours doing this, I am not interested. For example, if someone told me to research a particular topic and there are lots of blobs of information, I would fall asleep. But if someone told me to build an application, then I’d be like, that’s so cool. Let me try it out. Cool new technology or same old technology. Either way, it’s really fun. I just go by instinct.
Why aren’t more people experimenting? What advice do you have for those might want to?
Culture is probably the biggest thing. You’re instinctively taught to stick to one thing. When you want to break away, by the time you realize it, it’s often too late and you’re too entrenched to break away from the status-quo of being a specialist. My hunch is capitalism encourages us to focus on one thing and I am not sure we’re biologically wired to do one thing. I don’t think cavemen did just one thing and we’re naturally meant to be jacks of all trades, masters of none. We also change a lot through the decades and for you to do the same thing means you’re really stunting your own personal growth.
On Advice: The real answer is I don’t know. What I would like to tell them is seeing is believing. Go look for someone you think you want to be at least in terms of your career. See what the person is like 5 years into their career and see if they actually like their job. But even if people do that, people are too scared to pull the trigger. A lot of people know they want to change and find it hard to do it. I wish it was more culturally acceptable for someone to take even a week or two break from their career, try a new one, and if they like it, be encouraged to switch to it immediately. I know a lot of countries outside the US are better at this. So it’s not so much about what someone can do themselves but rather what people who’ve switched careers or what institutions can do for them to make it easier.