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Ask HN: how do you avoid burnout and getting taken advantage of?
92 points by jquery 2536 days ago | hide | past | web | 78 comments | favorite
I'm 3 years out of college. The first year my product made the CEO a million dollars while I made less than $50k in salary and 0.01% equity. Ugh. I moved to another company which paid double that, and worked like a dog (80 hours weeks) for nearly two years, and was one of the most productive engineers. One of my products helped bring in over 6 million in VC investment money. After two years I asked for a raise, and didn't receive one, being told "we can't give raises during layoffs."

When I told them I was quitting, they offered me a giant (>25%) raise, but I couldn't stomach the thought of staying after accepting another offer, so I moved to another startup. I took my first project from $50 to $700+ daily revenue in 2 months by working 100 hours weeks. Yet because I take a modest salary, and have significant but non-founder equity (1-2%) to be vested over 4 years, I feel like I'm just making other people rich. I'm starting to become depressed. My sex life with my girlfriend has become non-existent. I dream about the rewards of hard work--I want to travel, to live the good life--but then I look at my life and see my twenties beginning to slip away, with a high likelihood of nothing but memories of hard work and my morning coffee to replace them. My company would have to be acquired for $10 million, at the very least, to make a very modest improvement to my lifestyle, and over $50 million to make any significant difference.

Am I being too impatient, or am I simply having my twenties milked by charismatic CEOs who know how to exploit eager young workers, and how can I even tell the difference? What is the best thing I can do, right now, to take control of my professional life? Is it okay to ask for more salary just two months into a position? I feel exhausted and exploited.

Take more risks.

There's this idea that's beaten into us as children: our success depends upon how hard we work. That's only true insofar as zero effort probably equals zero reward. In reality, your reward is much more proportional to the risks you take (and of course, you have to be lucky and skillful enough to see that risk pan out).

You have to understand the bargain that you are making when you accept an employment offer. You are pledging your effort in exchange for a mostly-fixed amount of cash. In return, the company bears the (not insignificant) risk that your project will be a failure in the marketplace.

My last project made more money for the company than I will ever earn in wages during my lifetime. However, there's a good chance that my current project will lose more money for the company than my last project made. And then future projects that it enables will hopefully make all that back. At my previous employer, I completed two projects that were big successes inside the company and big failures in the marketplace. The point is that my employer is bearing the risk, not I. I knew that was the tradeoff that I made when I accepted their offer.

If I were in your position (and I have been, several times), I'd ask myself: given the startup ideas I have, what are my chances of success? And what can possible employment opportunities give me that will increase those chances of success for future startup ideas? Part of playing your hand well is knowing when to fold, and part is knowing when you're right and everyone else is wrong and you ought to double-down.

In other words, you should think more like a hedge fund manager and less like a programmer.

Well said. I was trying to figure out how to work that in to my above reply and couldn't quite get it.

I've heard hundreds of people in my career talk about how much money the project they worked on made for the company and how they felt shortchanged, but I've never once heard someone ask how much of their salary they should give back when a project tanks...

It´s not so easy to take "risks" as it might look. Of course, if you cross a street without checking around, you can get some easy and fast risk.But in business and investments we look for another kind of risk. Risk = opportunity and it´s not easy to find for most people. In my opinion, you should think more like an enterprenuer, and not like a hedge fund manager (yes i´m a trader and cool comparison after all) because this kind of people have tons of money (and opportunits, and risk!) already avaliable, but we, mortals, need to start from nothing and that´s the risk you need to learn how to BUILD before jump from your current job.

In reality, your reward is much more proportional to the risks you take (and of course, you have to be lucky and skillful enough to see that risk pan out).

Sure. Look at Goldman Sachs.

Wow! You have had what seems like an ideal first three years after college and all you see are negatives. Have you learned anything in that time? From what you've described, I would think plenty.

The last 3 years was a process you had to go through to get to where you eventually want to be. A very efficient process that not too many others ever get a chance for.

Every time I had a tough gig, instead of focusing of the jerk I worked for, all I thought about was what I was learning and how I could leverage that into my own future. That kind of thinking has always worked well for me.

You now have the background, experience, and skill of an accomplished 35 year old in a 25 year old body. Congratulations!

Now stop worrying about the past, take a short break, and put those hard earned assets between your ears to work for what you really want. This time next year, I hope to see a "Tell HN" post from you, "How I turned 3 years of sweat into a lifetime of fulfillment."

"The last 3 years was a process you had to go through to get to where you eventually want to be. A very efficient process that not too many others ever get a chance for."

Why not actually try to be what you 'eventually want to be', now . . . choose you're own adventure, now. You don't need to put up with feeling like you're being taken advantage now, so that later you can feel you're getting what you're worth. I don't believe there are any standard, efficient processes that you 'have to do' to get where you want to be. You figure out, thats part of the learning process.

I'm baffled by all the 'do a startup' advice.

Your complaints seem to be:

- you feel you're working too hard and too long

- you don't have a work/life balance, hence the girlfriend problem

- you want to lead the good life

- you are peeved that your hard work is making money for others

And who are you?

- by the sounds of it you're a good engineer

- in your twenties you can command a salary in the $100k range

- you're a workaholic, or you allow yourself to be sucked into being a workaholic

From all the talk on here about what startups are like, you'll end up working long hours, you won't improve your work/life situation and all for the questionable payoff at the end. Of all the YC funded startups, all the posting on here of 'feedback on my startup please', how many of those people are walking away after say two years with anything comparable to the $200k you'd make in those two years?

If I were you, I'd restrict my working to 9-10 hours a day Monday-Friday, don't work in the evenings and don't work at weekends. Sort your personal life out. If you're as good as you think you are, which I have no reason to believe you aren't, then in 5 years time you could be earning a salary + bonus of $250k+, all for working a sane schedule. What life style do you want to lead that that wouldn't be enough to live on? And don't worry about the fact that your CEO is earning more than you, someone's always going to be earning more than you, the only thing that matters is whether you have what you need to allow you to live the way you want to.

Very true. I'd only add that if the OP really wants to work 100 hour weeks, he can use some of his time on his own projects.

Also, if the OP worked the hours he worked, chances are he didn't have any occasion to get a solid business experience. And a startup's success depends on many more factors then good engineering - for example sales.

This is very good advice. I think they only reason to do a startup is because you've realized you don't really have any other choice. If you can be happy working a regular job, then when all the risk/reward is weighed, you're probably better off just doing that. Manage your money well and you'll end up with a much better quality of life than 99% of entrepreneurs.

That being said, it may not be possible for you. Just like many of the people here on HN, you may be cursed with the knowledge that only by working for yourself will you be happy.

Wow, this is amazing advice. But can you please plot the career path of someone who will be making $250k+ at age 28? It seems like an incredible claim.

I'd assume, although I'd have to admit I don't know for sure, that opportunities for pay are similar in New York/Chicago/San Francisco as they are here in London, UK. By which I mean that if I could find a job here in London paying me £150k then there'd be some equivalent job paying $250k (i.e. simply FX'd) in the USA. From what I've seen on the internet and of friends in the last five years, salaries for similar work at similar levels do seem roughly equivalent (maybe slightly better in the US).

If you wanted to earn £150k in the UK at age 29/30 (leaving university at 21/22 with 3 + 5 years of work as I suggested) one way would be to work in financial IT. A salary of £70-100k wouldn't be unreasonable if you were very good and a bonus of 50-100% would be possible, again if you're very good. I'm not in this situation myself so don't speak form direct experience but I know people in the industry who almost certainly are (it'd be rude to ask...).

If this all sounds far fetched, I work at a fund which is on track to make a profit per employee of around $500k this year (and as everyone knows, this is a bad year). Even given that bonuses are skewed towards the researchers that means they can still afford to reward the best IT people handsomely. And they're sensible enough with money to know that there are people in IT who they really couldn't afford to lose so they will pay accordingly.

I've seen and hired alot of $100-$125 an hour Flash Engineers in NYC who were in their mid to late 20's (Advertising) and I've also seen and know quite a few J2EE (Especially Tibco?) Engineers earning similar hourly amounts in Finance.

Most of these are permalance arrangements, those numbers will get you up in >200k range.


Get into computers/UNIX/Linux when you're 13. Start working at startups when you're 15 as a junior sysadmin/scripter. Continue doing contract work through college. Become an expert UNIX developer by the time you are 21.

After college, work a few years for a company doing a high-end specialty product such as enterprise search or ERP system. Work on big client accounts. You want to beef up your resume at this point.

After 4 years start your own consulting firm in this space. Earn $150/hr+ for 30 or so hours/week doing consulting work and charge $5k/month/server for managed hardware running aforementioned enterprise platforms.

At this point you'll easily be making $250k, probably closer to $350k.

Or you could learn how to program in college and spend years 21-30 writing shitty web apps for startups, hoping to strike it rich when you're not a founder (stupid). This is what most people do.

Moral of the story: either do high end enterprise work, or be a startup founder. You will surely get screwed otherwise. This is a brutal industry and those who don't choose their paths wisely become wage slaves who make significantly less than blue collar tradesman.

This advice is going to have a little bit sharper edge than what I usually dispense:

If some one pays you $50k to work for them, give them $50k worth of work. The rest of the time is your time. You can donate it to your employer if you'd like because the work interests you (I'm sure they won't object), but it probably would be better to use that time to find balance in your personal life.

If you and your employer have different ideas about what $50k worth of work looks like, you'll part ways. Its a market. They don't have to buy what you're selling, and you don't have to sell. If you don't want to be the seller, start your own company and be the buyer. If nothing else, it will radically change your perspective on these experiences.

The people you worked for were not evil, they just got above the expected return on their investment in you. I'm sure they're thrilled, but good references are about all you should expect from that.

It's not always possible to quantify what $50k of work is though. In the original post jquery states that his work made the company $1m. What does that figure mean though? How much of that $1m does the infrastructure team deserve credit for? How much was down to the marketing team? How much to the fact that the company already had the contacts to sell the product to? How much to your boss and co-workers for guiding/helping you?

Put another way, if he'd done the work, whatever it was, as an independent worker, how much profit would he have walked away with after a year? I imagine it probably wouldn't have been $1m. If it ended up being $50k then maybe the $50k he was paid was actually fair.

This is very true.

If you try to start a company on your own, you will see behind the curtain. That $1m is probably not all yours, and probably not 10% yours.

I really recommend you start some business on your own, even be a freelancer. That would makes things clearer. If I'm wrong and you really contributed all the $1m, then you'll get rich.

Sorry, but I don't think this is good advice in and of itself.

At least, not unless the only thing that you are receiving (and the only thing that your employer is offering) is $50k of salary.

However usually in jobs the total compensation consists of other, non-monetary emoluments, only some of which would ever even be mentioned in an employment contact.

Firstly, there are usually psychological, cultural and social benefits to employment whose value to the employee will depend on all sorts of contextual factors.

Secondly, there is the possibility of future income increases -- whether in case of future bonus payments, future income rises, or other as yet unrealized monetary reward. In some professional services and finance careers, these can vastly exceed the annual pay received at junior levels. (cf http://ingrimayne.com/econ/resouceProblems/Tournament.html)

Thirdly, there is the future value of experience gained today.

Fourthly, there is the often significant social capital accrued through consistently excellent performance. If one of your colleagues starts a new business, or finds herself in a favourable position in another company a few years hence, your stamina, diligence, tenacity and good humor will be remembered. The vast majority of jobs are unadvertised, so this kind of social capital is often increasingly important as your career unfolds.

Far better to think of the paid salary component as the 'tip of the iceberg'. At the start of any career, it is very rare for an employee to capture much more than a small fraction of the value she creates. As time goes on, that changes. At any point construing too narrowly the notion of 'compensation' as 'cash received this year' is extremely risky, and may lead you to underinvest your time in a career.

You will likely be working for many decades. Salaries tend to rise through one's 20s and 30s and only peak (for men) in their early 40s. And remember, the time you'll actually need the money is not now: it's when you'll have a mortgage, kids or other structural outgoings.

So: take a long view. Be patient. Find a balance today that is acceptable, but consider the hours you commit as an investment in the social capital you will cash-in later. Take a holistic view.

Case in point: I've recently gone into business with the former founder of a company I worked at many years ago (where, at the time, I worked like a dog, and for very little cash). Turns out I wasn't really working for her then at all: I was really just auditioning for the opportunity to go into business with her 10 years later. What goes around, comes around.

"there is the possibility of future income increases"

Oh, come on, empty promises much? How likely is it these days to stay long enough with one company to reap the benefits of that? My stance is: if something is included in the pay, it should also be in the contract. Empty words tend to not manifest.

As for the other stuff: how likely is it that the OP will be able to continue pulling 100 hour weeks in his 30ies and 40ies? I don't think it is very likely. Besides, it would be better to pull 100 hour weeks if you get 100$/hour than as a junior (that is, take it easy now, pull 100 hours as a senior).

Sorry if I am cynical, but so far I have never seen a company honor excellent performance. Maybe it happens, then you are lucky. But usually developers are considered to be tools. Companies don't go around looking for an excellent developer. They are looking for somebody who can do X. Therefore they only care that you do X. If you don't want to do X anymore (bored, not enough salary, whatever), they will look for somebody else to do X. It doesn't matter squat how many hours you have poured in. They also won't go "hm, we have this excellent guy, lets see what useful thing we could make him do". It is the other way round. They need something done and hire a guy for it. The guy's personal development is not interesting.

Some companies might "see the light" and offer personal development schemes to the employee. These however are also just meant to tie you to the company and get more work out of you.

Again, sorry if I am cynical - but some people end up with millions, and others just with empty words and "experience" of questionable value. What is wrong with simply getting your money's worth???

I think the main reason why young people tend to work for cheap is that they don't know how much money they will really need eventually. Just having been a student, 1000$ seems like a LOT of money. It takes a couple of years to realize that you have to save for retirement and feed a family. By that point you are old and your job will be taken over by new young developers who are underpaid.

Another reason to ask for good money: perhaps then the employer will think twice about putting you on boring tasks.

In my experience, companies never honor excellent performance, but it looks really good when asking for a higher salary with the next company.

This is all true, yet I feel the above advice is a bit shortsighted.

It comes down to how you really feel about the job. If you really believe you are being taken advantage of, and management is unresponsive to requests for raises or additional equity then you have a choice. You can passive-aggressively coast along being mediocre to milk a paycheck or you can find something better. I refer to the former choice disparagingly because once you adopt this attitude then you have stopped training yourself for a startup environment. Instead you are preparing yourself for the ass-covering world of corporate employment. Maybe you can use this tactic to build a nice little nest egg to start your own business, but you will effectively have stopped learning about how to make a startup succeed.

The bottom line is that when you go to work for an entrepreneur, if they are any good they are going to milk you for all you're worth and its up to you to negotiate for what you think you deserve. You wouldn't want to work for a startup where the entrepreneur gave away cash and equity like candy because those companies are orders of magnitude more likely to fail.

Ultimately if you want double-digit equity you need to become a founder yourself. Whether to do this now, or continue working in other people's startups to gain experience is a strategic question that everyone needs to answer for themselves. However whatever choice you make you shouldn't be bitter with the outcome unless promises were actually broken, and even then you just need to shake it off and chalk it up to experience. A lot of people go the cynical route and I believe that is a huge mistake.

BTW I say this as a two-year 80-hour-a-week family-having 31-year-old working for someone else on less then 2% equity. If we achieve some kind of exit I'll probably do my own thing next, otherwise I'll probably join another startup.

Given the audience of this site, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the top answers so far are variants of "do a startup". That's all well and good, but it doesn't really get at the heart of your question. Assuming that you're even in a position to start a company of your own, in all likelihood, a startup will only mean that you spend the next years of your life working like a dog, with little to no financial upside. It's not a panacea, and it's not an answer to your question.

If you're truly working 80 hour weeks, sacrificing your personal life and youth for a tiny stake in another man's dream, then yes, you're being exploited. You're an employee, not a martyr for a cause. The salary and stock options are compensation for a slice of your (extremely limited) time on this planet. So you need to get your head straight, and take responsibility for what you are: you're a mercenary. You're trading money for labor.

Stock options are like lottery tickets; they're probably worthless. Value them as such. So do the math, decide if the total expected compensation is worth the time you're giving. If you're not being paid enough, cut back on your hours. Eighty hour weeks are exceptional situations, not the norm. Adjust your schedule appropriately, and remember that it's perfectly acceptable to demand more compensation for your time. It's also acceptable to refuse to work longer hours at any price.

But that's all strategic advice. Tactically, I think it's pretty easy: take a sabbatical. Get some space. If you don't have enough money to do that, start saving, then take a sabbatical when you do. Perhaps even work an hourly job doing mindless labor to make ends meet. Fix your problems in your relationship by focusing on your relationship, and make a regular habit of sitting on a rock somewhere, staring at the ocean, and thinking really hard about what you want out of life, what you're willing to sacrifice to get it, and how (or if) those two things can meet.

Finally, remember that it's not wrong to change your goals to accommodate your life, even if everyone else around you is doing the opposite.

You're making other people rich because you're not taking risks. The people at the top are there because at some point, they quit their job and risked everything they own for some crazy idea. Everyone told them they were stupid and that they should get a "real" job and to stop dreaming, the idea didn't go as expected at first, they persevered without earning and eventually they managed to talk someone into believing in them, or they managed to make enough from their product to start hiring, and that's when you came along.

If you want to be the one that makes the money you've got to be the one that takes all the risks. Normal people don't do this, they work for others where its "safe" and so they get their mortgage, spend their life paying it, and live in apparently ignorant bliss.

Start your own company or try just getting in earlier where there's still more risk involved and you get more reward for it. Otherwise just be aware that your employer is paying for your time, give them that time and nothing more.

I agree with the "start your own company" suggestion but strongly disagree with the "get in earlier" advice.

Joining a company as one of the first employees means taking almost all the risk as the founders, but almost none of the benefits -- unless the company is bought or goes public.

Another option to getting better benefits/higher salary (sometimes significantly higher) is climbing the corporate ladder. This means joining management, working with customers, etc. This usually entails minimum risk and much higher value. [It does not address the issue of burning out, though]

Are you sure you're being milked? Are you sure you're not merely "adequate"? Don't answer, it's a rhetorical question. You're 3 years out of college, and whatever you're doing now, whatever you're good at, it is just something that requires < 5 years of training and experience. That's barely the number of years one needs just to be an OK programmer, much less acquire specialized domain knowledge in business, arts and sciences to actually apply those programming skills for real-world use.

Chill out: you're not the only recent grad who is not a multi-millionaire. Look at the people you work with as mentors; even if they're lousy, they can serve as an example of what NOT to be.

Even if you think you're being exploited now, you will remember your time with them fondly in the future; one gets screwed harder as one's responsibilities increase.

I've been in the same shoes several times and I had to realize that it is a personality issue. I was raised to be respectful, helpful and a "good guy" and nobody taught me how to negotiate for a salary or how to draw the line for helpfulness. Those who are different will take advantage of you without noticing, and I can't even claim that they are the bad guys. Once I realized this - and that it's not that easy to change - I established my own startup/consultancy and I work harder than ever, but certainly don't feel exploited, only exhausted :) A good alternative may be to learn to stand up for yourself, easier said than done. You could also consider working for a different kind of company where you can have some slack sometimes, usually the bigger ones are like that. Or come to Europe, we invented "work-life balance" ;)

this book has a cheesy title, but it's wildly helpful for learning how to deal with people (e.g., bosses) and get what you want without being a jerk: Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people"

It's weird that you have such concern for your "twenties slipping away". Every year you learn more and put yourself in a better position. Why the existential angst? Your 30s will probably rock, too.

Then again, I might just be rationalizing away the horrors of aging as I near 27 years of age.

Every year you learn more and put yourself in a better position

... to die, eventually.

If his 20s suck, something crazy has to happen at some point for his 30s to start to rock all of a sudden.

If his 20s had rocked, all he'd have to do is keep on rockin'

30s are different from twenties. Suddenly you'll have family to worry about.

Do you respect the people for whom you work? Working for and with smart people is far more rewarding than a 25% boost in salary. Surround yourself with people you respect and really want to work with, and I think that money concerns will be less important to you. You'll feel more motivated to go to work and help the people you respect (and they'll likely help and teach back).

How is the increased salary going to help exactly? If you haven't already I suggest you quantify your dreams and where possible take them for a trial. The former will let you know if they are as far out of reach as you think they are. The later will let you know whether they live up to what you imagine. Money isn't the goal, what you can do with it is.

I realise the above sounds a bit elementary but it's my experience that when I've been flailing, it's because I don't have clear a goal in mind which leads to moving goal-posts and poor decision making.

I would agree that you direly need to found your own startup, but right now you need to find balance. You need to reduce your working hours. You need to work less during those hours. And you sure as hell need to forget that your stock options even exist, because in the end they aren't going to be worth horseshit.

Once you've made that change, what should you do? Get away from programming and the tech industry! Call in sick for two days and shag your girlfriend stupid. Go to the beach and relax in the sunshine. Enjoy life. Being successful requires sacrifice, but it should not require the sacrifice of the small things in life which make it worth living.

Once you've done readjusted to living life a day at a time, you'll at some point want to dig into a new project. At that point, start hacking, but not too much. With any luck, you'll find yourself founding a startup in no time.

It is unbelievable how things can change in a few days. I did the same and now I'm going to be a father (wanted) but the thing is I found balance, got a new contract with a different company which will start next week for double the money and normal hours and above everything got a new perspective and more time to think/work on my stuff.

Take them gradually and you'll see how things are chained together.

My advice is if you're working for someone else, work as much as you're paid. In your spare time start a project to make money for yourself. And always remember, there is more to life than work and you'll never get time back so no regrets (just learning experiences).

You just dont know how to LIVE. Dont panic, You are not alone. Most people (and i´m like you) only exists and dont know how to live.

3 years is a short time. 2 months is almost nothing.

You're already making close to 100k, by that account -- that's your hard work paying off after only one year.

The time to get a bump in salary is when you switch to a new job -- it probably isn't in your best interests to ask after only two months. After a year, or if you get a promotion, then ask for a raise. In fact, be sure to get a raise with any promotion -- most companies give better raises for promotions than they do during the annual raise.

As far as making time for yourself, and for your health, friends, and relationships, you have to take control of that for yourself. If you're a valued employee, you should have no trouble arranging things for the level of work/life balance you want, but your workplace is going to do it for you, you have to do it for yourself.

Also, whatever salary you make, you need a budget and a financial plan. You can make huge lifestyle improvements just by making sure that you spend your money on the things you actually want.

I personally doubt that you have been taken advantage of the way you describe it. Did you really take the one product from $50 to $700+ daily revenue all by yourself or did you “only” make it easier for the salesmen to place it in the market?

If you had worked for yourself, would you have been able to actually sell the mentioned product to anyone? With 3 years out of college, I don’t think you have the necessary network and sure not a huge experience in any industry.

Even the most genius products seldom sell themselves. Marketing may seem “banal” to you, but in reality it requires good talent and experience. And even if have both, the whole thing is still highly unpredictable in comparison to the outcome of some programming task.

Therefore, I don’t think you should feel exploited. As I see it, your employers gave you the opportunity to concentrate on what you like most and can do best.

In short: yes, you are too impatient … and maybe too focused on money.

It's sometimes your own fault for being taken advantage of. If the most you can do is quit the job or post on HN about it, then you're not doing enough. You seem smart enough to know when you are being taken advantage of, it's you're fault for letting it happen.

Take risks, make demands, or else you'll never move up in life. Not just about doing your own startup, but even within an existing company. Make an impression, make demands, and if they're treating you badly just work 9-5pm and spend the rest of your time working on a startup idea. Really, there's plenty of ways around this.

It probably helps to just talk it through and see what other people say, but at some point you have to take care of yourself, nobody else will.

Sounds like you are in a great position to start your own company.

- You can make products that make money.

- You have startup experience

- You can work hard.

It's time to make yourself rich. What are you waiting for?


I think the answer to your question is quite clear to me. Be the founder or part of the founding team at your next startup. What's been holding you back, you seem to be a good enough engineer to either be part of an upcoming YC class or do it on your own? You'll work just as hard, but I think the satisfaction will be much greater, and of course a financial upside if it works out!

Good Luck

I know what you’re talking about. For my first two jobs I worked for the first company that said yes. The first experience turned out to be okay because I had a very good manager. The second job was a complete mess and the company couldn’t retain a person for more than two days. I stayed at the job for six months because everyone around me said you can’t quit before then. For my third job I finally had an uncle and friend tell me that I should take my time before picking my next employer. So the next time I went to approximately seven job interviews and received three acceptance letters. I was tempted to take the first acceptance, but people warned me this time. Now I’m very happy at the company I chose and wouldn’t trade it for many jobs out there. For some reason I know a lot of IT people with the same problem. I suppose part of the problem has to do with IT people thinking the best of people and not understanding most social ques. In my case it was definitely that I didn’t see the writing on the wall, which I now could spot. Also, I come from a blue collar background and my parents themselves had no experience of their own to share with me. People who work in IT and have white collar parents tend to not have this issue as often because parents tell them what to look for. Good luck.

I dream about the rewards of hard work--I want to travel, to live the good life--but then I look at my life and see my twenties beginning to slip away, with a high likelihood of nothing but memories of hard work and my morning coffee to replace them.

It sounds like you have two separate problems. The first is that you want to travel, and live the "good life". The second is that you're unhappy with how much work you're putting in to the startups you're working for, and how little you're getting in return.

I've been there, and I understand. I've tried to approach that problem from two different angles. The first, is that I've just had to travel a lot more. I found myself putting off things that I really wanted to do, because I figured that I'd have to be rich to do the traveling that I wanted to do. That idea turned out to be crap.

So, I've flown the American Airlines challenge the past two months to get elite status for the next 14 months. That means, I spent $2200 to fly 50,000 miles with American the past 3 months. And, that means that I'll be able to fly first class this whole next year for free. It's been a blast. I've gone to Madrid, Frankfurt, and I'll be going to Barcelona in a couple of weeks. It's amazing how much more productive I am after I have a bit more gas in the tank.

The way that I've approached the second half of the problem is to start my own company. It's really hard to get rich working for someone else.

So, may I suggest taking some time off, treat yourself to a bit of the good life, and use the time on the plane thinking about founding your own startup.

If you want to travel, I think it's more about just deciding to do it. Your salary certainly is enough to travel. You make more than most in upper management here in Finland. On a bare bones budget, you could spend a year in many SE asian countries on a budget of $12k and that includes flights. Actually you could probably travel forever there if you just do a few hours of freelancing over the net.

But I get a feeling you want to do something big, and I hope you will have success.

There's always a "risk" that a company in which you work as a salaried employee "takes off", which could cause thoughts like "the founders are rich now" (are they? have you seen their bank accounts?) "because I worked so hard and well" (as did others in your team, I presume --- pat yourself on the back, take a day off, look into the sun and enjoy your capabilities and life, that's about it).

You mutually agreed to certain salaries and jobs with fixed rates, you got your money and you did your work. Who is being taken advantage of here? If you feel abused by such a simple, mutually voluntary agreement, then clearly you need to stop working for the man. While that will be worthwhile no matter how much you make, I'd caution you to rethink your take on your current situation, and your underlying mode of thought. Employees make a certain amount of money even when the company doesn't yet, for the sole reason and on the calculatory basis that if it succeeds, they still don't make that much more money. In return, they only work a fixed number of hours and take some time off for holidays or sickness every once in a while, unless for some reason they choose to work harder and longer than they'd have to, like you did. Go to the other side of the table and be a founder, if you have or have earned the means to take on the financial risks. You certainly have the passion and work ethic to make more money for yourself, but don't take it out on your previous employers now when all they did was stick to their part of your agreement.

Other models exist in the world if you don't like that one, such as mutual co-ops, non-profit foundations etc.

Oh yeah, your sex life with your girl friend is certainly something you need to sort out yourself too, just like your riches --- your previous or current employers might not care that much. Sometimes they do and that's great and all, but they certainly don't have to and hence you better not count on it...

Have to agree here, employment is a contract you and the other party decide. If they held to that contract and you over delivered without discussing further compensation that was your mistake, not theirs.

to live the good life

What does "the good life" mean to you?

Is it about money? Building useful things? Improving your relationships? Having a family?

Take time to reflect on this question. Let the answers guide you. If what you are doing now doesn't fit your ideal of the good life-- change. And, if that change does not bring you closer to the life you want, change again.

Introspect. Reflect. Adapt. Persist.

> When I told them I was quitting, they offered me a giant (>25%) raise, but I couldn't stomach the thought of staying after accepting another offer

You got offended and walked instead of actually negotiating at the point it seemed they recognized your value. Why the conflict avoidance? You should have asked for what you wanted, pointed to your track record of success to justify it and helped them do the math about how it benefited them. And if you were smart push for something that aligned your incentives with the decision-makers on growth instead of salary.

So now the hard part. You use words like "my project" and "helped" which suggests you aren't the only one on the team. And complaining about getting 2% of a company founded by someone else is pretty ridiculous. What you're really saying is that you don't think the company has decent prospects which will make your stake worth anything, which may be the underlying source of this angst.

Here's a link to a blog post by Mark Suster a few weeks ago, which I think was listed on HN:


It sounds like you had some pretty negative experiences at your previous positions, but I'll bet the experience you gained puts you in a position to be a lot more successful when you do eventually start your own company. So you were "learning," where the financial payoff isn't going to be that high and the real reward was honing your skills and expertise.

I say "when you start your own company" because it seems this is your issue and it's just a matter of time before you realize it -- you've spent a lot of time "learning," and now it's time to "earn." You can approach this a few different ways. If your track record at your current company is good, ask them about what it would take for you to get more equity. If the company is destined for a multi-million dollar payout, just getting a bigger piece of that pie could put your mind at ease.

But I suspect what you really need to do is start putting yourself in a position to start your own company. Brainstorm possible projects that could become startup ideas. Start saving up money in the event you want to quit and bang out your idea over a few months or something. Reach out in your personal network and look for possible cofounders. The good news is that being an engineer, the execution is all in your hands. You're not just some scrub MBA with a business plan and no way of actually executing -- you can implement any idea you want, largely because of your experience at your previous positions.

Soon it won't be long before the tables are turned, and you'll be the charismatic cofounder with a huge financial stake in the company, while a bright young engineer cranks out code for a modest salary -- but with the skills he learns working for you, he could be destined for a payday of his own, and such the cycle continues.

If you are as great as you seem to be saying, you may want to try working on a member owned and managed corporation. It's like a co-op, or an employee owned organization, but better. You are paid in equity, which is determined by your peers. All of the profits are distributed amongst the equity holders / members every month. If the other members think you're as great as you think you are, you'll be proportionally rewarded.

We're The Fireworks Project and we are a digital corporation borne out of the Vermont Project. http://lawlab.org/digital-institutions/vermont-project/ http://www.fireworksproject.com

The slacker view:


I wrote this article after people had a go at me for teaching kids to program. The first half doesn't sound like you, so skim it, but the second half might be relevant. Start at the bit where it says "A well paid job that you don't enjoy is a curse".

You certainly need to be paid by the hour. The problem at the moment is that you're ripping yourself off.

Sometimes people ask me to work 80 hour weeks, but they only do it if it's really critical, and I never feel ripped off by it.

Mostly they're happy with about 35, since they know as well as I do that any more than that on a regular basis and I'm not going to be too productive.

Unlike most posts, I don't think you should be a founder at this point unless you're prepared to do a bit of growing up and dealing with many issues that don't involve building cool stuff.

Find a way to observe a business from the CEO spot and reconcile that POV with an employee's situation. How will you get top engineers to enjoy working for you? How do you maintain a sense of fairness among your team? Are you OK with giving talent equity at your personal expense? And about 100 other issues will need to be addressed that kinda suck if you're someone who likes to "do".

Sounds like you have the skills to build cool shit - keep rocking while developing the softer side of being a successful (and cool) person to work for/with.

Feeling like what you have is the first step in your evolution ! I felt exactly the same way. Now your at a crossroads where you decide next what you want to do. First of all do what is more important. If you have the $$$ to do it, take a break, do whatever you need to do with your GF, with family so things are back on track.

Like someone said earlier, sit on a rock and decided what you want to do next (i have a warf that i did that very thing on here in sydney).

From a career point of view you usually only ever come up with two solutions. That you want to relax now, dont care about work and all you want to do is easy street. If thats your choice then find a big company, do support work get paid for your on call overtime, melt into the crowd of people and live your days out restarting applications, writing scripts and doing things that require no brainpower. Start and 9 when your shift starts and leave at 5 when your shift ends. Hey presto, all the time in the world !

Start a business, doesnt have to be a startup that is technology based or it can be. If you have a hobby maybe it can become a business, make you good income and you will have a happy life. I knew someone that actually left australia and went to bali and started a surfing safari in bali ! pays alright but he is a very happy man. Sun everyday surfing every day, lives in a modest house, no stress.

Or you can start a technology company, something along the lines of what your familiar with , work your ass off for a couple of years with the hopes of making it big and then opening the surf safari with all the money you made by either your profits or flipping (whatever you choose).

The main point is i seen those old disgruntled people who work at the large companys complaining about their bosses and how they are just viewed as a resource, yes i empathise with them but what i dont tell them is it was their choice. They could have done it when they were younger but probably didnt cause they were having to much fun or work was very comfortable that they didnt need to look else where.

Getting pushed and shoved so that it makes you realise that work is crap sooner then later is sometimes a blessing in disguise.

"Don't start your own company because you want to be your own boss." reference http://philip.greenspun.com/business/startup-tips/

Potentially you were the means that their product did succeed thanks to your talent, but assuming they were lucky to have you on board and you play that role it doesn't mean they wouldn't have done it without someone else.

So, what you should do I think is deal with the burnout, feel better and then when everything is clearer decide what you want to do.

About the salary, I suppose the market defines the salary except if you are the founder/co-founder you will always feel being exploited.

Don't feel bad by thinking how much other people make money from your work. Think it positively, think in terms of what you learned from the experience. I believe now you gain some experience of the product developement, and gained strong confidence that you can also build some product which will give u $1m. Now, if money is an issue, then stick to the company for some more time. But at the same time start work on some side project. Spend more time on your side project and sooner than later you will find some potential on that project. If you think it is worth it go for it!!!! don't look back again. You will reach your goal.

Here's my advice, as someone fully employed who did the working like a dog thing for my own business for a while, and then for someone else for a while, got half burnt out and stopped.

1. Treat yourself as your own business. If your business is selling it's services for $50k a year, you deliver what you feel is $50k worth of services. Now that doesn't mean taking this to extremes (i.e. working 3 hour days). You fulfill your contract, but if you feel it's not worth your while to work 100 hour weeks, why bother? (100 hours is crazy btw, I do hope there's some exaggeration for effect involved there).

2. If you're slightly obsessive, find a side obsession. An organised one. For me it was sport, which meant training which meant having to be out of the office at certain times on particular days of the week. I didn't realise it then (I went back to sport after 4-5 years away from it through my college years), but that's saved my health, kept my interest in tech and stopped me from the burnout that was (for me, at least) inevitable. There is generally some social aspect to any hobby you can think of. Don't just practice the hobby, try and get involved in the social side of it. If you like chess, there's chess clubs / meetups. If it's photography, there's the same. Most people who are living the life that I've seen on this forum are at least mildly obsessive. If you're working 100 hour weeks, I'm guessing you're in that category. Find another thing to channel your obsessions into and meet people who share your obsession.

3. Find hobbies. This sounds weird coming after point 2, but I basically have my work life, my little side obsession with a sport that I train towards and I have my little side-hobbies that I enjoy and actively try to make time for. Again, move this out of your comfort zone. I went and took up surfing. I'm still a complete novice, and while at the start I absolutely hated the fact that I was crap at it I relish the feeling of not being an expert at it and having to learn stuff again all over. Most middle aged men where I'm from take up golf, this is something similar. They never become good at it, but it's relaxing, enjoyable and something to strive to get better at that's away from their personal and work lives.

4. Start living a healthy life. Seriously. You're obviously cash orientated and your outlook sounds very like where I was a few years ago. I'm a full time employee now, but I treat my employment like a mini-business.

Start eating properly, taking care of your body and getting exercise. Hey, I have chocolate cake, cookies & ice cream like everyone else, I just try to get a healthy breakfast, lunch & dinner most days.

These things sound like nothing to do with work... but guess what ... if you moved these things into your life, you simply cannot work 100 hour weeks. In fact, you cannot work 80 hours weeks, you'll be lucky to get away with 60 and you'll find after a while you won't want to even do that.

Ultimately I think I've found a slightly more fulfilling way to live life and still spend 40-50 hours a week enjoying my passion for tech. Also, don't mis-interpret me, I don't think I've found some spiritual plain. Some Zen heaven. There are days when I'm unhappy like other people, there are days when I'm happier, but I've found that ultimately, I feel like I have a balanced lifestyle and for me, keeping that balance has now become extremely important. People have noted how much my moods are better, I feel better & stronger, my mind feels more capable due to proper sleep regimes and reasonable eating.

my 2c

You're not being impatient. But what you need to learn is how to parlay opportunities.

Use your current job to build a 6 month nest egg (calculate what you need to live on if you won't earn a penny for 6 whole months). Then parlay that 6 month safety net to start your own venture, or become part of another startup as a founder with more equity options.

And in the mean time, learn all you can from your current job. Not just about your work - but about how the company is creating its strategy, how its hiring people, how it manages folks, how it handles finances and gets external funding, how it gets clients - try to pick up a bit about everything.

"I feel like I'm just making other people rich."

Then why are you working for other people? If you can create the kind of value you claim ($700k daily revenue), then your next choice seems obvious.

start your own company.

don't "do a startup" because those are mostly filled with people afraid of corporate jobs, clutching at lottery tickets ... no, start a real business. make money from day one.

you won't feel exploited anymore, but expect to be exhausted. not the "why did I just do that" kind of exhaustion you've been dealing with, but the "i just gave birth to something amazing" kind that you'll feel good about.

good luck and don't listen to the people who tell you it's too hard.

I'm surprised nobody has linked to the Gervais principle. You fit nicely into his model:

"The losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks."


As most are recommending, it seems like it might be time to get out from under your glass ceilings.

I can't answer your question until you answer one yourself: are you okay working for someone else until you retire? If that's fine then I think you just need to find a company which fits you better - one that gives you decent salary, hours, other perks etc. I do think you are being taken advantage of as an engineer in this field for such a meager work to compensation ratio. I wouldn't work that hard unless it was either for myself, or to amass enough funds to start something for myself.

Think about why it is you do this. I'm guessing you either grew up in a family where money was tight and you're determined as hell to make it, or there was something else you need to prove a point about.

There's nothing wrong with that. Once you figure out where the drive is coming from, it will clear up your goals, and the best way to achieve them.

Maybe your problem is not "how to avoid burn out" but "i'm willing to kill myself to make it - whats the best path?"

If this rings true, you are me five years ago.

The name for your feelings is 'entitlement'. You need to learn to deal with these (scary yc alert) feelings, not just to improve your job situation, but especially for your personal relationships. Mo' money won't help, nor will becoming a founder (although it can be fun). Research feelings of entitlement, this is a good start: http://www.pattishomepage.com/read/entitled.htm

Go into banking.

Seriously. You picked the wrong career. Become an investment banker. If you're smart, competitive, highly motivated by money, and want to be rewarded in some respect, at least at junior levels, in proportion to your diligence (as opposed to your commercial acumen, sales skills and depth of your network), then apply for Goldman Sachs. If you can stomach the hours and the culture, the pay is unsurpassed.

www.vault.com has more info.


Actually, I feel the same, so I've decided my learn period will be up soon. I'm saving up enough money to live off and early next year intend to work on my startup full-time. Staying where I am isn't bringing me closer to my career goals.

First of you are already burned out so make yourself two year holidays to rebuild your strength and relationships with the people you care about. Surely you must have accumulated enough wealth by now to afford such things (of course this will require cutting down on some expensive stuff).

After two years start freelancing. Eventually build a startup. Live happily ever after.

It's interesting to see the two attitudes. When an engineer says "I quit" it means "I really am done here and I have already accepted another offer", but management hears "I'm finally ready to negotiate seriously". Worth going back, if you haven't already, and reading yesterday's post on part 2 of the Gervais Principle.

You are in your twenties and you are working for others !!

Reality check : if you are really as good as you think you are, work for yourself. Work for someone else and they will take advantage of you, it doesn't matter which "employee" friendly company you work for.

Work less and learn to enjoy your social life, or do projects you find meaningful. You'll have to learn that making lots of money won't make you ANY happier than you already are, you're shooting for the wrong kind of reward here.

Do a startup, use this history as part of your pitch, and make sure you get the best term sheet. This pitch is good - it's real. Find a cofounder if you must.

Get in touch if you're interested in search and thinking about starting something. One never knows...


Just don't work 100 hours for somebody else, while only being paid for 40 hours. Why do you do that?

Classic workaholic. You probably think your utopia is to have so much money that you don't feel the need to work so hard and don't feel so guilty about spending some cash, but even if you make a million you'll find another way to challenge yourself and leave yourself wanting more. Maybe your next challenge will be to make a billion. And if you achieve it like so many have these days, then so what? You'll decide you want to become famous or make a difference in the world or write a book or help the starving or all of the above. It's what driven, competitive, workaholics do.

One of my favourite examples is Will Smith. This guy went from working class family in Phillie to an A-lister as a breakthrough "rapper". Then he got offered his own TV show and decided to try being a television actor. Once he had a hit TV show, he wanted to become a blockbuster movie star. Once he became one of the most bankable leading males in Hollywood, he decided he wanted an Oscar. So he started doing "serious" performances like Ali, I Am Legend and Pursuit of Happiness. And you can see the pain in his face when he talks about how he missed out for The Pursuit of Happiness and Ali. This despite the fame, the wife and kids and the millions and millions (and millions) of dollars. He will not stop until he gets that Oscar and it will be a major regret for him if he never does. Or if he does get it? Simple, he'll do what other actors do and become a politician or a director and start all over again.

Another favourite example of mine is Donald Trump. As a billionaire in the 80s who pretty much had it all, Donald decided he wanted his own NFL team. The problem was that the people who run the NFL decided this tabloid star wasn't the guy they wanted associated with their league. Did that stop Donald? No. He wanted his NFL team so badly that he created a franchise in a league which made a point of not competing head to head with the NFL - the USFL. Once he was in the door he then moved the USFL schedule to go head to head with the NFL and then tried to slap an antitrust suit on them when that move failed big time. His goal was to get the NFL to agree to merge with the USFL and thus he would finally have his own team. This of course failed and the USFL ceased to exist and now he will NEVER own an NFL franchise and he's still bitter about the whole thing to this day, as evidenced by the recent ESPN documentary about the whole thing.

The point I'm trying to make is, you are not alone. It's not a programmer thing. It's not something restricted to people at the bottom of the ladder or only a few rungs up. It's something every ultra-competitive person has and you need to recognise it and channel it in the right ways. You seem to have realised that you're reaching the point to which hard work alone can take you. Your depression probably stems with the likelihood that any attempts to progress come with big risk. As others have mentioned, now you need to take those risks and be willing to fail. This is probably the hardest part for aggressive competitors to accept. But the real successful guys like Donald Trump don't dwell on repeated bankruptcy or lack of NFL teams or other failures. They go out and start the next challenge, like creating a successful TV show and dating a former Miss World or whatever the hell Trump's doing these days.

Long term, embrace your ambition and drive and try to achieve all that you can - maybe try and learn how to be patient. Short term, get your act together! No offense, but right now you sound like one of those guys who gets to 21 and starts reminiscing about high school, or gets to 25 and starts getting nostalgic about college. Channel your competitiveness in healthier ways so that your career is not the only outlet. Join a gym or play some sports or something, anything that you can get some wins in and feel satisfied again. Your mojo will be back in no time.

Join a YC company

come work for me.

The charismatic people who know how to exploit eager young workers can be your teachers. Learn from them and keep practicing. Practice is the best teacher.

I also like this sentence - "The more I practiced, the luckier I got".

You should ask Tim Feriss.

You may be clinically depressed. If the personal problems you've described persist do not hesitate to seek help from a physician.

I'm disappointed this was downvoted. Some people have a genetic predisposition towards depression. It's no joke.

While the submitter's work situation certainly could use improvement, the loss of sex drive, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness may be symptoms of a disease. Left unchecked this could lead to a number of maladies, including suicide.

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