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Ask HN: Washed up at 40 when you're crazy?
81 points by burnoutsysadmin on Sept 11, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments
Experience and connections don't seem to matter when you're old and crazy. I'm 40 years old, and I've been working in tech in some fashion since I was 12.

I've managed a dozen datacenters, implemented CFEngine, Chef, Puppet, Salt. I've started 2 failed web apps, a boutique bicycle company, a successful "devops" consulting company that I sold, and a dns company that I sold.

I'm also crazy, bi-polar 2, and have burned many, many bridges. I'm unable to learn to code at this point, I'm unable to focus on anything for more than 10 minutes at a time, and that's a good day. I've tried most attention drugs, meditation, every other armchair psychology technique you might suggest. I'm just incapable of becoming more than just another old sysadmin who writes shell script and a cut and paste coder.

I was fired from my last job for daring to ask my boss to narrow the $50k gap between me and everybody else in my team who had the same title as me. I was desperate to find a job and had to accept an insultingly low salary.

Now I've applied to about 500 positions with exactly 5 responses. 2 lead to embarassing coding interviews with 22 year old children. The other 3 were polite "go away, old men".

What do you do when you're too old to learn like a 20 year old kid, you're too worn down to pimp yourself out, and you can't deep throat a shotgun because you have a kid to support?

> you can't deep throat a shotgun because you have a kid to support?

That last part really got to me. What country are you in? USA?

Regardless of whether or not you have a child to support your situation is serious and you should contact a mental healthcare professional, these sort of things do not typically go away because of pressure of having children to support, they get worse because of them.

I would caution against going with any HN advice over and beyond: find a professional.

Best of luck.

I did therapy / group therapy for about 9 years, but decided that it would be healthiest to leave San Francisco / America, and where I live now they don't really have therapists (and I've yet to grasp the language).

I reached out on HN mostly because I'm hoping to find some other crazy old men, as I've known quite a few people in my direct career field who I could be describing in this way (washed up young, formerly successful, diagnosed bi-polar or schizophrenic (I'm thankful I'm not schizophrenic. I've been to a few funerals for them. Most people my age from the bay would remember a sysadmin named SLF when I say this). )

My kid I don't interact with much, I decided a long time ago it was better to keep them shielded from my craziness. Now it's just text messages & international adventures once a year.

If you are still interested in therapy, online therapy is an option. Haven't used it myself but I have seen others vouch for it, ex. https://www.betterhelp.com/

I second the online therapy route. My wife is a psychiatrist and she did this with a few of her clients when we relocated and still wanted to keep seeing her. Some continue to see her well over a year later.

"I decided a long time ago it was better to keep them shielded from my craziness."

Did your kid had a say in that decision? I know you're trying to protect him, but he might want to be with you regardless.

You need to fix yourself. Big time. I'm 38 and in a similar situation. Like me you're probably a very intelligent person but interacting with the real world is frustrating to the point where you'd rather lock yourself in a room all day.

I had to fix myself, it's not easy. But I'd also like to really push a point: see a mental health professional. Seriously. Plenty of us self diagnosed "crazies" pretend we understand our problems; we're prideful, fragile, ego maniacs so we tend to think were smarter than we actually are in some cases. So we tell ourselves: " I don't need no stinking shrink. I'll figure this out myself." But the reality is you need someone who is trained to observe and learn our bubble world we live in and tell us what they see, how to mitigate and how to improve. Instead, here we are, frustrated, pissed off and desperate for relief.

Have I seen a shrink? Nope. Why? Like you I'm stubborn. I also can't get my shit together enough to schedule something with someone. It's my fault for not going. Instead I self medicate with marijuana and try to live a life simple even though it's a massively complex mess. I also lost a lot of weight over the last year and a half going from 215 lbs to 160. I look better and feel better so that's a good first step. My mattress is also shot so sleep has been poor so i use the weed to help myself sleep ont hat slab of crap but that's because I'm too disorganized to buy a mattress and clean my room to prepare for delivery.

It's a vicious cycle if not properly addressed which we have to admit to ourselves is almost impossible without professional help.

I have bipolar 2 and the difference between losing an hour of sleep and not is tremendous and consistent. I will be deeply sad and demotivated the next day, no energy to do anything without a extreme amount of willpower.

I have a nice mattress but I stopped sitting on it or laying on it unless I'm going to sleep. I make sure for the hour before bed I turn off overhead lights and just use a lamp, and in the last hour I also refrain from screen use, except for brief moments. No matter how tired I am, I wait until the end of the hour to crawl into bed (build sleep pressure if it's there). Finally, and I just discovered this several weeks ago, I play white noise off my Google home (rain noise actually). That last step has added atleast an hour to my sleep every night, and I suddenly started having dreams again. And give yourself lots of time so that you never need to use an alarm.

A week of that routine and you will be falling asleep and waking up in extremely consistent ranges night to night. My target sleep is 10-630 and I estimate that I'm falling asleep 2 minutes after getting in bed and I wake up between 610-630 everyday.

Results: consistent mood, lower appetite, probably better learning and memory.

Come on, order a memory foam mattress. The deliver guy dont even need to come in your house. Good sleep is a huge benefit.

Are your issues with bi-polar and focus self-diagnosed or have you tried some professional help?

You need to focus a bit on yourself and apply some fixes. You say experience and connections but also talk about too many burned bridges and interviews that seem to suggest that your experience may not be good enough.

If you are talking about being burned out it suggests not only some physiological problems but also not feeling like doing it (psychological). If you get low pay and you despise what you're doing maybe try looking for something that you would enjoy? 40 is not end of the world. You can dive into a new thing at 60 and 70 if you keep trying to make some use of your brain.

I know that it's all very difficult when you need to keep providing for your family and focusing on them too instead of just being able to take a few months off to try to sort yourself out, but difficult position is where you already are, so what's left is trying to figure out how to get out of it.

Only you know your situation well enough, so get an hour of peace, take a piece of paper, think about what you don't like about the place where you are currently and think about solutions that you can implement to help yourself. If you think you can be useful at any job then you need some problem solving skills - start with this problem.

Hack around, if you get 1% response to your CV then look at how other CVs look like. Make it more like them. Heck, post a job offer and see what candidates look like.

And remember that sleep is super important.

Sysadmins job changed a lot. If you are somewhat decent, you already know how to code. So you could try applying as full stack coder instead.

And try to look past the age barrier. If they invited you, then the age is not the problem. But if you psychologically despise the fact that some kids interview you, your body will send signals to them about that. Regardless of your competence there will be lack of rapport, poor communication and unwillingness to cooperate.

Shit could be worse. Good luck.


I'm 41. Always in tech. Currently back in school for an Economics degree. I had 4 or so years where I was considered schizo-affective by my PCP and a Psychiatrist. I got better and it has been about 15 years since I have taken medication. My PCP eventually told me it was probably just an "episode" versus a "diagnosis". However, it caused my divorce and I too burned bridges.

My advice:

1. Seek help, immediately. Your situation wont change if you don't. It will get worse. Professional help is very important and starts to give you a support system.

2. Can you get back to the United States? I assume you are a citizen and there should be a way for you to get into a facility to start getting help.

3. Start seeing your kid. It is clear you want to but are afraid/nervous since you want to "shield from the crazy". Perhaps seeing your kid will help you get some renewed energy.

4. Take a job that you can do. Even if it is working at Starbucks. Starbucks is accepting of all walks of life, provide benefits, usually starting pay is more than minimum wage and they embrace being an individual. Have fun with the job as you start to polish a resume, etc.

5. Start to learn slowly. You wont become an expert overnight. Practice, practice, practice. There are so many free resources.

6. Lastly. Believe in your self. Look in a mirror and realize the good. If you dont see any good. "Get a better mirror, look a little longer, stare a little harder." [0]

Hang in there.

[0] "To This Day" ... for the bullied and beautiful | Shane Koyczan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa1iS1MqUy4)

Super sad to read how your story turned out. I would like to point out as others have that you still are in a good spot experience-wise with multiple successful exits and prior jobs.

To me it sounds like your main issue is understanding your diagnosis of bipolar and keeping its symptoms under control. You are not crazy! Bipolar is an eminently treatable disease I asked my friend who is a physician with 25 years in the field and she recommended going back to see a doctor to look at some alternative medications. At this point lamotrigine, valproate and lithium have validated efficacy and can help with the symptoms you describe. I'd suggest a second medical opinion!

Regarding your coding interviews, I would suggest leaving them until after you start feeling in control. Practice, targeting your resume (500 applications is a lot!) and staying calm will get you a comfortable position with your experience IMO.

Aye, I've been on Lamotrigine for a decade now. It's the only thing I've had which didn't come with devastating negatives. Anti-depressants hospitalized me several times when I first started down this route. I think we went through a dozen different drugs over a 3 year period before lamotrigine + provigil created a modicum of stability.

You may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) if your bipolar disorder is preventing you from getting and holding a job: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/getting-social-secur...

You were fired for simply asking for a raise?

I was once in a position where a new director came in and brought in a bunch of his own people, as he starting letting go existing staff. I quickly found out that they were all making a lot more than I was, although not quite a $50k difference. I was on thin ice just for being an existing employee. I liked my job and my company, so I took the strategy of not letting them get rid of me by means of performance. I didn't concern myself with salary differences.

Within some 3 years, my salary had almost doubled. When you're the lowest paid, and you're outperforming those at the top, the money can start to shift on its own.

I feel quite similar... for me it's depression/anxiety/adhd-inattentive. I have the hardest time focusing on tasks, I think I may have some social media addiction as when I'm unfocused I'm usually reading from some other input source...

I just started getting therapy though at 38, and I started a workout program (Crossfit 6 Week Challenge -- I'm 500 lbs, so hoping this works out).

I'm a self-taught coder, and I do freelance, it takes every ounce of effort I can muster somedays to get 30 hours of coding in per week. I code by the hour though and my 'activity' is monitored via Hubstaff, so breaks/etc are on my own time that's pure coding time... I'm also way under-charging at $40/hour, but I only have one client now, so maybe someday when I get my focus reigned in I can start adding some more or build an agency and just manage things.

Find some help. You really can't do it by yourself. Really, find someone who can guide you through.

Drop me a message, I'll be happy to just listen.

I'm diagnosed BP2 (kind of BP-NOS really but that's what it sas on my chart) and have been taking medication for... I think it's 12 years now.

Meds take time to work. Weeks to even make you feel different, months to stabilize, years to "fix" you.

I have something of a cyclic regularity to my episodes (although what I have hasn't been clear cut episodes for a few years now) and I can see it getting better year after year.

So if you're not in a consistent regime of daily medications right now, you need to find one. The way out is through.

(Finally: maybe you can get disability welfsre where you live.)

> I have something of a cyclic regularity to my episodes (although what I have hasn't been clear cut episodes for a few years now) and I can see it getting better year after year.

I'm jealous of regularity. I'm ultradian cycling, they can last months, or days. As I get older, I don't get the joy of the manic highs anymore. I miss that quite a bit.

I'm from America, but don't live there, there's really not much of a social fabric. I couldn't even pay child support off of what I'd get, and I'd have to physically be in-country to qualify for any of that.

Do you still want to be in tech and start coding? What made you take interest in that?

If money didn't matter, what would you want to do most days for the next few months, or what about years?

I'd do anything to leave tech, but I didn't even go to high school, I don't have any real options. None that pay a six figure salary, or even 1/2 that.

Every time I sell a company, or get fired, I tend to take 2-4 months off to backpack around the world, or find a new hobby / learn a new interest.. Then the reality that living in hostels doesn't pay the bills sets in and I have to go back to the real world.

"How I got paid to travel the world while learning to code".

^ The above is a pretty compelling story and the audience is there because a lot of people want to become digital nomads. Plus you have a pretty big amount of uniqueness. Most people might try that move when they are 20, but you can say "look, I was 40, I hit rock bottom and said fuck it, 3 weeks later I took my life savings and booked a 1 way ticket to Thailand".

Now you just need to figure out how to monetize it, and suddenly your backpacking trips aren't just what you want to do, it is the real world.

I think if you documented everything in the open (blogging, youtube, etc.) and then rolled it into a course once you had enough content / feedback, you'd have a pretty good shot to make some money out of it. Just based on your reply, you have the ability to write.

There's a huge community of digital nomads so I'm sure you'd be able to find some type of mentor who could help you out with the coding aspect while you do the majority of the learning on your own.

Quit giving your periods of hypomania to other people and spend it in service of the side of yourself you hate most.

Focus on MRR in the company of you. Budget so your low's can live off the worst case scenario of your highs and make it happen, knowing yourself wholly. Seems like you stopped living for the hypomania and accepted 'crazy' without the smooth descent to that point that allows you to love all sides of yourself.

Not a doctor.

Please seek professional help.

Besides that i think you have been very successful at life. All the things you mentioned are positive achievements.

Stop saying you're crazy. You need to take a break and then you need a routine. Regarding routine:

1. Create a WEEKLY schedule, like a school schedule, that you repeat every week. (Search 'mangaka schedule' for an extreme example.) Keep it visible (e.g. computer/phone wallpaper). The more routines the better. Remove unpredictability. Eat and sleep at the same times. Put them on the schedule. Establish a healthy, simple go-to meal to make or buy for each meal of the day. Put them on the schedule. Put "free time" blocks on the schedule. Check your email and messages at the same times each day and put them on the schedule. This will help structure your thinking.

2. Establish a goal, such as learning to code a language. Find a recommended means to accomplish it that you're comfortable with and stick to it. Set a low-bar of entry. 30-min of coding study/work a day. Do not let yourself do more even if you want to until you have a couple of weeks under your belt and no longer hesitate to do it each day. (This point will come.) To aid this, create a tally. For every 30-min block you do, mark it off. This is a visual reminder of your progress. (http://calnewport.com/blog/2014/03/23/deep-habits-should-you...)

3. I'm going to assume you drink coffee. If you can't concentrate, you have to reduce your caffeine to black or green tea. Make it tasty enough that you'll actually drink it. Do not try drinking coffee again until you have an established routine. If you smoke, this is obviously also causing your thoughts to ping-pong.

4. Most important is fitness. People think fitness is for your body, but it's primarily for your mind. Fitness will help you learn how to structure your life by rewarding you with dopamine hits, less stress, more energy, calmer thinking, reduced insomnia, and a better body. This usually starts kicking in after three visits. Don't think too hard. Find a recommended routine online, join a gym, and stick to it. And, put it on the schedule. Also, walk everyday, such as to the gym. Have a destination. Use music/podcasts/audiobooks if it helps.


For what it's worth, I'm 36 and am more productive and creative and in better shape than any other point in my life.

I don’t know, but if you figure it out let me know!

I think you’re burnt out for sure. Ideally, you need some downtime to recover. The problem, I’d guess, is that it’s financially not feasible for you to get any.

I just want to say you’re doing really well to keep it together. You don’t need to be doing more right now.

Another commenter recommending making sure your sleep and health are in order. This has helped me for sure. If you can find something that helps give you a sense of achievement (which I’d guess you can’t get from work) that also could help. For me it was blogging, and the interactions that come with that.

I’m still figuring this stuff out too, and it’s not easy. You’re not alone, and don’t be too hard on yourself.

If possible, change your location. Move to a place which is less demanding on your life. From Metro to a small City which is less demanding.

Secondly, create one more company.

Third read 4 hour workweek by Tim Ferris. He has some practical not so evident shortcuts.

There's hope for you. I know a lot of people older than you are, they've shown me that 40 is a young age for a job change.

Maybe concentrate on minimizing the 'crazy' symptoms first. Once those are manageable your chances are greatest. Then think hard about what kind of work you really want to be in. You seem well-suited to self-employment (given the history of management, startups, etc.) so maybe that's the best road. If not, look to corporate ownership for stability while you build a better plan.

Good luck. Your letter has convinced me that you've got enough stuff on the ball to find a good spot.

First, be safe and take good care of yourself. I'm quite concerned about the last question you asked, but I'm proud of you for coming here and having the courage to say that. That courage will serve you well.

Second, have you expanded your search outside of typical technology companies? Lots of organizations need your exact skill set. They aren't the typical technology companies, but the conditions are amazing and you would fit in well with your background.

Third, be safe. I know it's hard to consider professional help, but seriously, please be safe.

Congrats to your successful exists.

Your story sounds rough though - applying to 500 positions and only getting 5 responses - sorry to hear. With your track record you should have gotten more responses. Maybe it's worth getting your resume reviewed or google yourself and see what comes up and 'clean up' if anything comes up that you think is not a true representation of yourself.

And you're only 40 - that's not old!

EDIT: removed suggestion to talk to physician about certain medication for improving focus and concentration...

A 1:100 response rate sounds normal for the tech industry. I’m in my 40s and have a pretty decent education and work history, and that’s about how my last tech job search went.

Employers are picky and in the catbird seat. Turning away 99/100 is working for them so why stop?

Your disclaimer notwithstanding you are giving medical advice to someone you have not even seen IRL.

It's not meant as medical advice - as I'm not a doctor.

Just a suggestion to take to his doctor and see what s/he says?

How could I have phrased it differently, so it's not seen as medical advice?

When antibiotics were invented, thousands of schizophrenics were cured of an STD (syphilis, I believe) and released from insane asylums.

There is new research coming out all the time. Most help involves incremental improvement, not dramatic cures. But, for example, the life expectancy for cystic fibrosis, a dread disease, used to be 18 or younger. It is now upwards of age 35.

You might try looking up research on the salt-lithium connection as a place to start. I found that very helpful at a time when I was having bipolar-like mood swings.


  cured of an STD (syphilis, I believe)
I don't think syphilis affects the brain until the tertiary stage; at that point it can't be stopped by antibiotics.

When penicillin was first used to treat syphilis, thousands of cured schizophrenics were released from mental asylums.


For your own sake, follow a diet of attention-seeking material, such as hacker News, Reddit, Facebook, email, video games. Delete all apps on your phone. With the time saved, exercise. Running is a good option. Or if you can't , go on a walk in a quiet forest/park.

Professionally. Review your CV. Starting several businesses and selling them is amazing. That's unique experience you can sell on the market. For example, you could work for a tech/business incubator as one of the managers.

I have found that exercise is the missing key to happiness in my life. That and a sleep routine. When I started sleeping better and exercising more, I felt more 'human' and less like the phantom of the opera or something.

Ofc, everyone handles things differently. Exercise and sleep are struggles for me I have to 'fight' to have success with. It just doesn't come naturally to me.

Others find it easy, but trouble with other things.

I guess my takeaway is to carefully look at your triggers and/or areas you need to improve on, and break the cycle by putting attention to it finally.

Also exercise and sleep are not independent. When I run 5 times a week it is pretty easy to go to bed and fall asleep. I might even go to bed at 9 and wake up at 5:30 simply because I am so tired at night that I have no interest in Netflix or computer games

Having been surrounded by people with different levels of depression my entire life (as well as my own, and my mother's BP), I just want to suggest that your situation isn't as written in stone as it seems.

Perhaps you're already doing this, but if not, I'd highly suggest you find someone to speak to long-term, and also find someone to help you manage these feelings with medication. It does make a difference.

Get a small private class (up to 5) of kids willing to learn programming. Teaching works great during existential crisis. Sum up everything you know and extract some nontrivial ideas, then go for a conference talk. If it works write a book and continue consulting.

Therapy is a good thing but in case of a low grade chronic condition it kind of gives you prosthetic legs to walk when you have wings to fly.

Yup, you’re burnt out. Happens. First thing, take care of yourself. Take a break. Work outside tech for a bit. Work in anything that keeps you occupied and around people. You’ve built companies and learnt things. You can do it again. You just need to not think about try for a bit. And spend more time with family. Keep yourself grounded. You’ll be back.

Have you considered trying lithium, abilify (an atypical anti-psychotic, I believe), or electro shock therapy?

Maybe you aren't crazy and the world is crazy. There's lots of other good advice in the thread, but sometimes I feel like we box ourselves into roles and ways of thinking that are just incompatible with what we really might need.

Ultimately, though, I hope you find peace and stability.

What about a modest job in a completely different line of work.

Meet a new kind of people, adjust to being outside & the physical work, get rid of all the office jerks, re-find your love for a local club and kick all medical drug dependencies.

I think the real problem is that you are blowing things out of proportion...to me your situation doesn't seem that bad. You are aware of your mental condition, so try to reason your way through this mode of thinking.

Get off computers and the Internet for awhile.

I would definitely seek some help and medication. I have a few friends that are bi polar and that has worked for them.

Apply to smaller companies.

if possible, change your location. Move to a place which is less demanding on your life. From Metro to a small City which is less demanding.

Contact me.


You're a cool guy, Rob.

>22 year old children

Big parts of the tech industry has an ugly ageism problem, as you have witnessed first-hand. So why do you help perpetuate it?

I founded a company when I was 19 and I was about as good a boss as you would expect. 22 year olds are mostly children especially if they went to college since highschool. Given that we have to work to 70 it is not that bad in the greater scheme of things. Young adults if that makes you feel better about it.

This is a good thing you're going through. Yes, really. It's time to trust your instincts and remove the shyte, the cruft and unnecessary burdens from your life. "This shit life, we gotta chuck some things," said Michael Caine's character in the movie "The Weather Man" [1]. (Highly recommended)

But, my friend ...

Step 1: Stop calling yourself names. Please stop. You're not impressing anyone.

Step 2: Reach out. You may have "burned many bridges" but I'm sure you have one friend who you can talk to. If you don't have this friend, pick up that phone and chat to Dad or Mom or your guardian (hope they are alive). Those are fireproof bridges. Time to use them. Say exactly what you've posted here. Including the name calling of yourself. See what they say. Time to belong again.

Step 3: Time to spend more time with your kiddo, with homework and projects and play. Time to become a kid to be with the kid that matters the most.

I pretty much burnt out at age 39 too and quit a lucrative contracting job. Everything else besides the money was crumbling around me. Poor health (packing on weight in the middle), steadily increasing my drinking habit, distancing relationship with the wife and kids and lack of perspective on what I wanted to do with my free time and career. I changed that one day after I couldn't take the drive to the office. Stopped at the roadside, thought for a bit, turned the car and headed back home. I phoned in sick and later that evening wrote an email that I wanted to take some time off. Like permanently. I spent 6 months doing absolutely nothing from an earnings point of view. I joined the gym, I spent time with wife, learnt how to reconnect with my eldest teenager and took activities with my youngest. I even flirted with the idea of a startup. Still flirting... :-)

I have hobbled, tripped, fallen, injured, suffered and then recovered after 5 years on the income side but I have emerged on the whole a bit wiser, a bit bearable (ok, debatable!), a bit forgiving (mostly of myself), a bit less volatile, a bit accepting and a bit fitter. I cherish mostly what I learned about myself: that I can tolerate some things and some things I cannot. I now know instinctively whether a movie is worth it in the first 5 min just as much as I can tell whether a gig will be mentally and emotionally nourishing for me or not before I start it. It ain't just the money. If my instincts say no, I walk away. Chuck some things. This is what you are developing now. A sense of what matters and what doesn't. Don't fight the learning process.

Take care, Little Prince!

[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384680/?ref_=nv_sr_1 (Don't go by the hopeless IMDB ranking of 6.6. That's a travesty for Gore Verbinski's work of art.)

Can’t wait to be dead, personally. Hope you stick it out, sounds like you want to build a better life for yourself. You should.

After jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, the thing they all thought was "I can fix all my life problems, besides the fact I've just jumped off the Golden Gate bridge."

This is the most depressing thing I've read today, besides OP's post. Can you elaborate why?

Thanks for reaching out. I decided a long time ago that I had no desire to be alive, so I’m just waiting it out, praying for an early exit.

As long as I do not procreate, mission accomplished.

I think youd' enjoy Hatha Yoga. The goal is eventually to leave the world through enlightenment (raising the energy at the base of the spine into the skull, and in the process leaving your body (dying!)). Think of it as a graceful dismount from life.

ALso when you stretch the shit out of yourself in full splits, you feel great afterwards and get to simulate ripping yourself apart in a 'deathlike' fashion. each time you practice the session you are performing a mini death. Starting standing up and eventually ending while sitting down in asana, (close to the ground ready to decompose and return to the earth where we all came from) you get to die each day!

if all else find a flaw in this vdeo please: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ7ZvPghdy8 i love to discuss these philosophical questions

Sounds cool. I’ve lost faith in this species and have no desire but to die. Thanks for the thoughtful advice.

Have a psychadelic experience.

It won't cure knowing people are shit. It may bring you some peace regarding it.

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