Related to: Optimal Employment, Best career models for doing research?, (Virtual) Employment Open Thread

In Optimal Employment Louie discussed some biases that lead people away from optimal employment, and gave working in Australia as an option for such employment. What are some other options?

Your optimal employment will depend on how much you care about a variety of things (free time, money, etc.) so when discussing options it might be helpful to say what you're trying to optimize for

In addition to proposing options we could list resources that might be helpful for generating or implementing options.

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Everyone who reads this site and isn't already a programmer should seriously consider becoming one. This may be the obvious choice, but it's worth making the case for it anyway. Briefly:

  • Demand for this skill has stayed strong even throughout the recession; it seems unlikely to be sated any time soon.
  • Good programmers can demand high salaries as well as great working conditions
  • You're likely to get on with the people you work with.
  • It can be fascinating, brain-expanding work.
  • It's a great skill to learn by yourself with no expenditure except the computer you learn from (start here).
  • As well as being a great job it's a wonderful and rewarding hobby, which greatly expands your reach and general thing-doing power (edited to add).
  • Being able to program will improve your ability to think about mathematics, philosophy and much of what we talk about here.
  • You get slapped upside the head by reality over and over again, with relatively little room to rationalize it away (edited to add).

I'm 22, relatively good at math,and have absolutely zero experience in programming. In the moment I'm studying psychology. At first I wanted to do research in cognitive biases, neuroscience, Evo-psych, etc. , but now I prefer the make-money-and-donate-it-to-existential-risk-reducing-organizations-scheme. How much can you earn with a master in psychology? ( Can you work at companies, in something like human ressources? Or is this degree completely worthless?) Should I really start to study computer science and programming?

Hopefully someone who knows can give careers advice for master in psychology. But learning to program, even just the basics, will be beneficial to you whether or not you make a career of it.

Check how much you can make. Apply for jobs, interview and see what kind of offers you can get. It's not completely worthless, at worst it signals intelligence and conscientiousness even if you never apply anything you learned, ever. With a soft degree having good stories about how you're awesome/capable is more important than proving you can do something in the interview.

Study CS and programming if you find them interesting. The monetary cost isn't very high and if you enjoy it you can become good at it, and that is worth real money. Try it. Even being competent at SQL is (so I am told) quite employable though getting an entry level job without a qualification would demand a lot of perseverance. SQL zoo is apparently a good site for learning it. If you want to learn a programming language Python is often recommended as a beginner language. If you want a text that assumes no previous knowledge Learn Python the Hard Way is the source to consult.

I'm already convinced I should do this, but I need more procedural knowledge about how to break into the field.

(I actually already have a tentative assignment from an LWer I met on my NYC trip, but that was kind of a one-shot thing and doesn't easily generalize.)

The common advice I've seen is to spend a few months contributing to some open source project. See this blog post, for example. (The advice in that post is hard to follow unless you already know C++ and feel like banging your head against the enormously complex Google Chrome codebase).

I'm also trying to get a programming job, but my hangup so far has been finding an open source project that I find interesting enough to contribute code to.

Contribution to OSS is not by itself marketing. It is a fairly low ROI way to reach decision makers unless you are identified with a popular project.

Link Context

I think the point is that if you're trying to convince someone to pay you to write code for them and you have no prior experience with professional programming, a solid way to convince them that you're hireable is contributing significant amounts of code to an open source project. This demonstrates that 1) you know how to write code, 2) that you can work with others and 3) that you're comfortable working with a complicated codebase (depending on the project).

I'm not certain that its the most effective way to achieve this objective, but I can't think of a better alternative. Suggestions are welcome.


In my case, I found a local startup that employed students to test their code (we'd get a new build every couple of days and run it through a set of tests) on a part-time temp basis, paid by the hour. As the only non-student doing it, I worked more-than-full-time hours for a few months, and got noticed for having a work ethic.


You need something that you want to use. For instance, you want help calibrating your own judgements, but are disappointed by what predictionbook can do, and think that InTrade is too inflexible for you, and much to expensive/risky. Now, start. (That for instance would be a task for me, but after work I'm really not too much interested into programming anymore, and I know that I actually don't really care.)

You have to find something that motivates yourself, of course. Some people like math-puzzles, I despise them. If one shoot problems don't work for you, try something more day-to-day usable for yourself. Find something you want to do but don't because it is too much manual work, for instance.

But, as I wrote as a comment to your comment's parent, you should really reassess if learning on how to program pays back that much.

I meant finding someone to pay me for programming.


Ouch. 100% misread.


All that ciphergoth says is correct if you are among the top 5%. Top 10% ain't enough.

But I have to admit, the first and the last point apply to a much wider variety of programmers. For instance, when you follow this advice and try to become a programmer, you will soon be hit by reality.


Agreed with nazgulnarsil. I'm a competent-at-best coder, and only work as a test engineer, I've got no formal qualifications in the field, and I've only been working as a software engineer two years. Yet I earn more on my own than the average household's income in the UK, my work is often interesting, I have more flexibility about things like dress codes and working hours than in any other job I've worked, and I get on with my co-workers.

I disagree, middling programmers make great livings compared to middling or even above average people in many many fields.

What probability would you put on me being able to make a living programming, given all of the following:

  • I'm 29, majored in Art & Design, and have 3 years of mediocre experience in and a current job in game testing.
  • To the extent that they matter nowadays, I was identified as Learning Disabled in both math and reading comprehension, but was placed in Academically Gifted classes, consistently made B+ to A, and the only course I ever failed was a college math course (calculus?)
  • I haven't touched math in 6 years and have avoided it to the extent that I don't even feel like I have an ugh field around it, and have always told people I wouldn't be able to code because I wouldn't pass the math courses necessary (practical arithmetic on the other hand I occasionally find fun).
  • Am easily discouraged and sometimes form an ugh field when I hit roadblocks in my own personal projects (usually 3d modeling or very light game design /programming using the drag and drop system in Game Maker, though I haven't touched that for about 4 years)
  • Have too many interests to focus on one for longer than a week, which would probably apply to any self-motivated education

Math is not necessary for many kinds of programming. Yeah, some algorithms make occasional use of graph theory, and there certainly are areas of programming that are math-heavy (3d graphics, perhaps? Also, stuff like Google's PageRank algorithm uses linear algebra), but there are huge swaths of software development for which no (or little) math is needed. In fact, just to hammer on this point, I distinctly remember sitting in a senior-level math course and overhearing some math majors discuss how they once took an introductory programming course and found the experience confusing and unenjoyable. So yes, math and programming are quite distinct.

The probability I would place on you being able to make a living doing programming is dependent on only one factor: your willingness to spend your free time writing code. There's plenty of people with CS degrees who don't know how to program (and, amazingly, don't even know how to FizzBuzz), and it's almost certainly because they've never spent significant amounts of time actually building software. Programming is "how-to" knowledge, so if you can find a project that motivates you enough to gain significant experience, you should be set.

I'd guess most people fitting that description won't make a living as programmers, but the good news is, you don't have to guess in advance. Just try it and see if you get in to it. You're very unlikely to regret it whether it turns into a living or not.

I know experienced programmers who've had a hard time finding jobs. What do you mean by the demand being strong?

No direct experience here -- I got my current job a year or so before the recession hit -- but secondhand accounts suggest that the demand for programming jobs right now is highly regional. Here in the SF Bay Area the job market seems weak but basically stable, but I have friends on the East Coast that claim their respective companies have been forced to hire substandard applicants just to put enough bodies in chairs.

Here in London my programmer friends don't seem to be having trouble staying in work, while my employers are pretty much always recruiting.

Being able to program will improve your ability to think about mathematics, philosophy and much of what we talk about here.

Definitely. Trying to talk to people who can't program about abstract concepts is eye opening sometimes.

Speaking as an undergraduate student in a computer science department, I can confirm your observation. I have also observed that while coding, the philosophical pumps start working and good -- or at least interesting -- ideas about other subjects are often produced. The most interesting off-topic conversations I have had with other students in any class have been had in computer science classes.

I have also noticed that my ability to deal with mathematical problems that are generally algorithmic mentally has been improving rapidly. I suspect the regular practice of holding a process in one's mind while encoding it is related to this.

I have been thinking about this a lot. I know what I care about. I just don't know how to do it and support a family at the same time. Perhaps you have ideas. Let's start with what I want.

I want to write.

I was doing my thesis when I got sucked into a game called Neverwinter Nights. I played a character in a persistent world for over a year. The bio was ten pages long. When I turned it in, the DM said,

"You could write a book."

And yeah, I know. Perhaps it was his way of saying the bio was too long, but perhaps he was being sincere. Maybe I could write a book. Maybe . . .

Later I found myself in a bad spot while writing the dissertation. There was a chapter I didn't know how to do. So I stuck the whole thing in a drawer and began to write The Novel.

I bought a copy of No Plot, No Problem and held my own private NaNoWriMo.

50,000 words. 30 days. 1666 words per day.

Sounds easy. It isn't. Getting that many damn words on the page day after day after day--words you actually like--words you wouldn't mind other people reading--it's hard.

When you're trying to write a novel, the Internet is Death. I camped out at Barnes & Noble. On those rare days where I made my word count (or the many other times when I didn't), I would go down to the writing section and find something to read. I found Writing Down the Bones this way. On the Amazon scale, I give it 10 stars.

At the end of the month, I wanted to keep going so I added two more weeks. When I was done, I didn't have a novel. I didn't even have 50,000 words. I had 22,000. Part of a novel. But I also came away with something else. I knew this was something that I could do, and I loved every minute of it.

Fast forward to now. I've got log lines for three novels. The first is a stand-alone (sci-fi). The others could work either as stand-alones or parts of a series (one fantasy, one sci-fi). The main reason I hang around here is research. (If a little rationality rubs off, so be it.)

From what I've read, it takes about 10 years (or 5 books) before you are self-sufficient as a writer, and that's if everything goes well. I would like to know how to support a family doing something that doesn't sap my creative energies that leaves at least four hours a day to write. (Preferably the first four because I have found these to be the most productive.)


Alexandra Erin solved this probably by writing serial webfiction in her spare time, building an audience, until her regular income from it was sufficient that she could quit her day job. Her primary storyline is still updated and available for free, supported by advertisements and donations. She's recently begun experimenting with additional e-books for sale.

Her definition of "sufficient" is probably different than yours (I think it was something like $1000/month). If you're raising a family you probably won't be able to quit your day job anytime soon, but you can work on projects that that at least get some supplemental income while you're honing your craft. Bearing in mind that serial webfiction has a different form to it than a novel does and you'd need to plan accordingly.

A few other people have done the same thing but with webcomics. However, most webcomics never become popular enough to earn any reasonable kind of income.

She actually originally describe her website as "like a webcomic! Without pictures!"

I think webcomics and webfiction alike are going to come down to the quality, and uniqueness. Most webcomics don't make much money but most webcomics are also crap and/or identical to a hundred other webcomics. I read a sizeable number of webcomics but almost every one of them is a unique genre.

In any case, the main point is that if you've already decided you'd like to hone a craft, serial webcontent provides a way to do so that will get you feedback and provide you with some level of compensation for your work, even if it's not enough to live on by itself.

I plan to get published and quit when royalties are enough. But that wasn't my question. I want to know what to do for the day job.

Read J.A. Konrath's blog, or pm me your email and I'll send you the ebook of his collected, organised advice on making money writing, with a strong emphasis on ebooks/the Kindle. It seems likely that ebooks are a disruptive innovation and at least the early adopters can take advantage of this.

Charlie Strosss' Common Misconceptions About Publishing may also be useful, as well as various stuff on John Scalzi's blog.

If you can write publishable fiction, you can write advertising copy. This is a relatively difficult field to break into, and at least at first the pay is abombinable, but if you can write it quickly and at reliable quality there is never ending work, and you can do as much as you want.

Good point about advertising. I'll look into that.

We should hold a LW careers fair; people explaining the pros (and cons) of their career. With average salaries, etc.


This sounds like a potentially brilliant idea. I assume it would take the form of a discussion-level post at first. But I have mixed feelings.

On the downside: I personally am not quite sure I'm ready to expose myself as the cautionary tale that is my work life by revealing the full sordid details of my current, quite suboptimal employment. It goes against the grain of my conditioned impulse to always project success. If I were using my real name as my username, I'd be damned if I'd be open and honest about my job. Employers and hiring managers know how to use Google.

On the upside: LW is all about confronting and correcting the errors in one's thinking isn't it? Plus, it would be networking! Somebody on this forum might know somebody who is looking for somebody just like me!

That's just my take. I can only imagine what other people here would make of a LW careers fair.

That's what fake IDs are for! They will provide us with interesting data point without your handle being tarnished.


I'm optimizing for free time and mobility. Using this expense calculator I found that my monthly budget runs between $1065 and $1845. Some options I'm considering:

  • Start ecommerce reseller stores and get better at SEO and marketing than competitors.
  • Start a physical retail store. Michael Vassar thinks this is a great option in the Bay area.
  • Create and sell informational e-books.
  • Run a blog or informational website with advertising.
  • Buy domain names. Sell them later and/or earn money via automated parking advertising.
  • Make money with ads on YouTube videos.

Has anyone tried any of these? Can you offer advice if you have?

  • Start a physical retail store. Michael Vassar thinks this is a great option in the Bay area.

Living in the Bay Area now, I was also mightily intrigued by that comment. I've taken some entrepreneurship courses and have some experience running organizations of relatable (I imagine) complexity, but no real idea where to begin, nor the resources to start a venture on my own. I'd love to talk more about this and possibly decide on a plan to do some intensive research though.

As an aside, if you're optimizing for free time and mobility I'm not sure starting any sort of business is the right way to go about that.

I know the owner of She said it took 15 years before she made enough to support herself on income from the site. I have no idea what her budget runs.

My goals in searching for employment were 1) near zero commitment, 2) something that gets me out of the house, 3) the ability to have weekdays off when I want them. Joining a temp agency has worked out well for me. I work three weeks out of four, bring home enough to pay my startlingly low rent and expenses, and put about $600 a month into the bank (if I don't decide I need another wardrobe update).

Where in the world are you?


This sounds like you want to be a "bicycle dispatch rider" (I hope, I found some meaningful translation). I had two friends working in that area, and their job description matched 100% to what you describe you want.

However, you must be able to handle the street-stress. Sometimes I think they are suicidal in how they drive through the city.

The term you're looking for is "bike messenger", I believe.

I actually did consider that, but I believe you have to provide your own bicycle.

Note that to a very great extent these "muse" ideas are like tricks to make money on the stock market: the people who know about them have no incentive to share them. If everyone and his brother start selling nutritional supplements, that scheme is very quickly going to become unprofitable.

Conclusion: probably to find a muse or optimal employment, you have to get out there and search.

Partially true; but some markets are so deeply suboptimal that a guy can come to the country with 10 bucks and take over the small hotel industry, one hotel at a time,9171,644169-2,00.html


The amorphous field of lifestyle design seems like it should offer tools and principles for both generating and implementing options.

This list of lifestyle design resources seems like a good place to start. Timothy Ferriss's blog also contains a category for case studies that might be helpful.

I like the term 'lifestyle design'.

Check out the post and comments on teaching English in Shanghai, China.

How about becoming a teacher? I don't know what the situation is like in the USA, but here in Germany you get around 40000 Euro ( about 60000 Dollars) after 5 years and can't lose your job. You have really long holidays and with more experience your workload should also decrease. I guess 30-35 hours per week will suffice. IMO there are a lot of bad teachers out there, although this profession is important and meaningful. As a teacher you can transform and influence the life of many children. If only I had had good teachers... Or am I seriously mistaken and naive? Anyone out there with some experience?


it might be helpful to say what you're trying to optimize for

How about: Optimize the security of your income.

If you have an illness which precludes you to work effectively and/or efficiently or at all for about 30-40% of the year (but you still get paid), and you have found a boss who does not fire you despite that miserable performance, you would be well advised to keep that job, and not go off into Startup- or Outback-Land.