Chatty DM, Freelancer, Part 2: Lessons from Day Jobs

Hey, I’m holding on to my promise and I’m posting a new post this week! Yay! Yes, its still autobiographic but I’ve got gaming stuff coming on the horizon and I’ll return to good old gaming posting soon.

In part one, I mentioned how cathartic it could be to write without boundaries (although I often write better when I have creative constraints). Just to prove the point, what was supposed to be a post about freelance writing advice more or less morphed into an autobiographical piece about what led me to acknowledge I was a  writer.

So why not take things where we left off?

Of Water, Sludge and Paperwork

Armed with two diplomas and all the aspirations of a young wolf pup, I took a part-time job as a water samples analyst for a company that manufactured and sold pumps. Working 20 hours a week allowed me to bring back together the old RPG group I had left behind when I moved to the Great (mostly) White North. I called back Math (with whom I’d played RPGs since we were 13), Yan (from Pre-college) and Baboune (from my college years, he since moved to Sweden).

We played a bitchin’ Gurps campaign about sick dragon monarchs, scheming scaled siblings and daring heroes rising from the ranks of indentured humanoids (and a wight named Barry). I’m getting sidetracked again, and I’m sure I mentioned that in my “Gaming DNA” series a few months ago.

My stint as a water tester didn’t last very long, I made a few newbie mistakes and the signs of 6-months-itis started to show, a condition my new wife would soon learn to dread.

I left the company for a job as “research agent” for an environmental consulting firm. I was following the footsteps of 2 of my former Graduate student colleagues who’d held the position before. In fact that’s how I heard about the job in the first place…

Phil (on phone): So I hear you’re going back to do a Ph.D, how was the job?  I’m interested.

Ex-Employe: It sucks rotten balls, don’t take it!

But I had set my mind and I took the job. I worked as a research microbiologist, writing academic-sounding material on the results we got on this huge bio-reactor contraption supposedly able to treat contaminated soil with bacteria.

I mostly remember getting up at 11 PM every other night to go and check on the reactor, which often spilled and lost all its content on the floor (that’s 400 liters of hydrocarbon-contaminated sludge as I recall) which I had to vacuum back into oil drums so we could restart the “monster” the next day.

For those keeping tabs on my players, that’s where I met Franky, then an environmental tech and Steph, the lab tech in charge of hydrocarbon analyses.

I did that for about 6 months, (yeah, that’s a pattern all right), before I started growing bored with it… Fortunately, the company’s ISO 9000 coordinator left the company and I applied for the position and got it.

Quality, Assured.

And thus started a decade-long history with Quality Assurance and the wonderful world of auditing processes and writing reports. Most importantly I started writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), lots and lots of them. Ask anyone in an ISO environment, they’ll tell you SOPs are boring as hell to read, and people usually HATE writing them…

But I don’t, I actually like writing them a lot. However, writing things no one ever really wants to read only gives you so much job satisfaction.

About a year after joining the company, I felt the urge to leave it… badly. Oh look, another 6 months gone by!

I joined a Montreal-based generic pharmaceutical company as a Compliance Auditor. I was the guy in charge of inspecting pharmaceutical plants and paperwork against regulations and document non-compliances in reports. Oh boy did I go to town with reports, emails, quality agreements and, again, SOPs. I developed a lot experience in the next years as an SOP writer and reviewer. Trying to make them interesting, complete and, later, simpler and less verbose.

(That’s what pays my bills as a freelance writer and consultant now ).

I’ve learned many lessons during my tenure in that company, the main one was, again, linked to editing one’s words…

One day I was working at my desk when the director of purchasing, this big german guy, came into my office and asked me if he could “borrow my computer”.

Phil: Well sure…

Herr Director (Fiddling with my Outlook): I know English is not your first language, and you are a good writer, but have you ever heard about spell-checking?

And he turned mine on and left my office.

Humiliating? Yes. Did I start hating the guy? No. He was right. And he had approached me face to face, not in front of my bosses, nor, as many assholes do, during a meeting. I appreciated that. He would later give me many more lessons about life in a large company… and an unplanned one about how NOT to talk to Parisian waiters… but that’s a story for another day.

I eventually became supervisor of the compliance group. One of my teammates, Eric, even joined our D&D 3.5 crew!

One of our team’s responsibilities was to oversee the writing, approval and publishing of all of the company’s 700+ SOPs. That’s where I learned another peripheral lesson:

Not everyone’s a writer…Nor is everyone a reader.

I didn’t stumble on long form blogging by accident, I started my short management career by writing emails that went on FOREVER. When an issue would creep up at work and I wanted to address it, I would often turn to writing ponderous emails first and go in excruciating details about the things I wanted fixed and how to go at it. Most of the time, people replied in (shorter) kind and we fixed things.

But every so often, I discovered that some individuals just.didn’ They’d fly off the handle completely misinterpreting some of the things I wrote, ignore most of it or just get everything wrong. At first I became really frustrated and had dark thoughts about those colleagues; I put in doubt their intellectual prowess and willingness to do actual teamwork in the enterprise.

Then, one day, I set a face to face meeting with that one person that gave me the most trouble… and everything got cleared within minutes. That’s when I realized that the written media is not the best communication tool out there… it just was the one I had the most affinities with and that many struggle with it mightily, from both sides of the keyboard.

Chaos sets in

This brings us to the mid ’00s and where signs of my first severe depression started to show. During that period, I changed jobs three time. Fleeing stress and unresolved work issues became a sure sign of psychological distress.  I kept telling my wife that the next job would be the correct one, that ‘this last company sucked” and “the next one will be perfect”.

I even left the generic pharma company and came back…

Herr Director (Sent by the company’s owner): You understand that by taking you back, the company is clearly saying they value your work and potential, but you leave again and you don’t get to come back.

Phil (gulp): Understood…

I left for a second (and last) time 15 months after my return. In that time I learned more about project management that I ever want to learn, but at least I now have many  tools to plan and execute complex, multi-part projects, something that’s VERY useful when dealing with overlapping freelance assignments.

After having left Quality Assurance to try my hand at corporate training  and Project Management , I returned in its loving arms and joined a human genetics research lab in late 2006 as a Quality Manager… shaking off my last depression symptoms.

Opportunity Knocks

I stuck around there for 4 years… the longest I ever held onto a job. During that time I built a whole quality system from scratch as I saw one should be built.  It was also one of those academic places where things moved so slowly and expectations were set very low. So much so that I initially bristled at it all.

That’s when I realized something fundamental: Having an insufficiently challenged set of talents was not so much hindrance as an opportunity. While I found the job decreasingly satisfying (while still achieving great success), I could not, yet again, switch jobs without putting my credibility as a worthwhile employee at serious risk.

Or my marriage.

That’s where I started shifting my “untapped” potential into a blog……and the light finally lit up.

What about you, what lessons from work and day jobs has given you good lessons for later careers changes?

Up next: Lessons from blogging about RPGs and bipolar disorder.


  1. You’ve probably held like 15 more jobs than I’ll ever get in my life. It’s pretty fascinating to read this stuff! (I’ve never actually had a real job yet. Been a student all my life, and constantly under threat of losing my financial aid if I ever take a job, no matter how shitty).

  2. @wyatt: By the time I was your age, I was either finishing up my B.Sc. or about to start my M.Sc. so it stands to reason that you haven’t “been there yet”. But you can also see that I have gone a long way around the block to end off at doing something you already know you want to do and have proven (in spite of your protest) to already do pretty damn well.

    So imagine how good you’ll be in 5-10 or like our age difference, 15 years.

  3. Rook103 says:

    Hi Phil!
    It is so funny as I read your post, I find myself in a similar situation. Rapidly approaching 35 this fall, I joke that I have had 48 (12 real full time) jobs to date with many of the same complaints you cited as well. I always find myself back at writing or designing. I am putting together a plan to transition over to freelance work myself. I hope I am half as successful as you were.

    Keep up the great work!

  4. It’s interesting reading these entries, since I can see the similarities in our situations.

    To start off, we’re both Canadian, and both roughly the same age, with roughly the same RPG experience. I have a BSc, in physical science rather than biological science, with a certificate in meteorology (kind of a pseudo-MSc in meteorology). I’ve worked at a few jobs in the industry, none of which have been very satisfying (even the one I’m in now). I did the work, kept my head down (mostly), butted heads with uncooperative coworkers, but there was always, and is now, a sense of dissatisfaction, like I could be doing something much better with my time. Meteorology is a tough field, and it really keeps you on your toes (since weather is CONSTANTLY changing), but a forecasting job still boils down to the same thing day-in and day-out. I don’t believe that I’ve suffered from depression, but I have been suffering from ADHD all my life. I was officially diagnosed in 2009, and I’d only had a very slight suspicion of it around 10 years earlier (which was squashed by a friend who thought he knew better).

    ADHD has caused such disorganization and disarray in my life that I have never been operating at my full potential. I’ve been told that I have a tremendous amount of creativity, and that I’m very smart, but sub-optimal performance in school and at my jobs has always kept me down, and a general lack of focus has always held back any creative projects I might want to start. The one thing that has always been with me, though, is that I could be doing something far more… far more enjoyable… far more satisfying… far more… important(?).

    I’ve always had an interest in being a writer, especially for the gaming industry. My father once told me, when I was 13 or 14, that I read those “Dragons and Dungeons” books so much, that I should write for them. I could never focus long enough to actually pursue it, though. I’d have some good ideas, but I’d never get around to doing anything with them. I had an opportunity a few years ago to join a project that Gary Gygax was spearheading… The Yggsburgh Project, for Troll Lord Games. He accepted me onto the team, as an untried, inexperienced writer, and he gave me a lot of good advice. I was very excited about the project, but my ADHD, which was probably at its worse during that time period, made it very difficult to get started on the project, and even harder to finish. I had already missed three deadlines when Gary passed away, and finally completed my part of the project a few months later. It was really upsetting to realize a couple of years later how it was my undiagnosed ADHD that caused me all the problems with that project. At the time, Gary was very forgiving and gracious about the entire issue of the deadlines, but I still felt very bad about it, like I was letting him down.

    I discovered shortly thereafter, while my work was in the editing process (before the project was canceled), that I actually was not supposed to be doing any of that kind of work. My work-status here in the United States only authorizes me to work in my current meteorology job, and nothing else. So, even though I had this excellent opportunity with Gary, if I had completed the work in a more timely manner, it wouldn’t have mattered, since I would have had to remove my name from the project and they would have had to give that part of it to someone else (possibly to write it from scratch). That limitation still affects me, as I’m still working at the same job with the same work permit. What’s worse is that I could (possibly) be working as a freelance writer now, since my local friend and DM is a freelance writer, and told me that if I was able to do the work, he would definitely recommend me to his contact. Unfortunately, I’m still on the same work permit, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. My wife and I are on a path now that may change our situation, and give both of us greater opportunities to do more creative work… work that will ultimately be much more satisfying for the both of us… but it is slow-going to start.

    For now, though, I have my two gaming blogs. One of them, the one that is more about my current creative projects, is getting more attention than the other, which is all about my past gaming, but that’s a reflection of where my focus is these days. Since I’m receiving treatment for my ADHD, I have better focus on these projects, and more drive to complete the projects so that I can move on to new ones.

  5. I do have the great luck to have a job that I happen to love. Sure it’ quite time consuming but all in all it’s a very fair trade in exchange for the great opportunities it gives me. The only issue I have with it is that at the end of my days, I often lack the energy for writing all my ideas down for my roleplaying sessions which too often end as simple notes waiting for another writing frenzy night too arrive and allow me to put all this in a clear state, compiling my ideas or writing down extended informations for my players.

    But mostly I do have a great job which allows me to pursue both my personal interests and discover new wonderful things (which are sometimes great inspirations for my rpg sessions) ! (I do even have the chance to interview RPG designers :)).

    Yet I’m afraid this time spent on writing leaves too few time to write about my experiences (as a long time roleplayer or about my life and passions). I call that a minor drawback and hope that you’ve reach a more peaceful state in the balance between your job and your personal life(s).
    As always your blogging words are as inspiring as they are full of an interesting experience be it personal or as a gamer.

  6. @Rook103: The plan, while deceptively simple is what clinched it for me. It was my “roadmap” to get where I wanted. Thanks for the kind words and best of luck on your own path.

    @Scott: Thanks for sharing your story, it was very touching. I’m surprised about the working thing and would look at loopholes in it as you could easily arrange to take payment for freelance work on a once a year basis when in Canada or something 🙂 But then again, if you are under a work permit with very stringent requirements, I can’t challenge that.

    I would check this though. Can you start a Canadian company and bill as a freelancer? That’s what I do with my latest client (some Wizards living on the Western Coast). Not sure this would be considered “work in the US”

    Anyway, chase that dream like that cloud. Now that you are aware of your condition (like I am aware of mine) and taking care of it, sky’s the limit.

    And I apologize for the lame climate metaphors and similes. 🙂

    @Mask: I’m really happy that you like your job man! It’s been elusive for more than 10 years for me… but I’m there! May I ask what it is that you do? Thanks for the kind words!

  7. Chatty, it’s strange: Your background looks so much like mine that it’s eerie. You’re a few years older than me, but I’m also a microbiologist-turned-QA guy. And like you, I went from academic research, then to hands-on microbiology (in my case, as a Medical Microbiologist), and then to Quality Assurance, writing SOPs and dealing with all those sort of issues.

    I laughed aloud when I read your comment about “6-month-itis.” I have an similar habit of “24-month-itis.” I’ve been in my current position for nearly 3 years – it’s the longest I’ve ever stayed with a single company.

  8. @Phil: There’s always room for lame climate metaphors and similes. 🙂

    I think I could start a company in Canada and bill as a freelancer, but I think I would lose my “resident for tax purposes” status in the US by doing so. If I’m a “non-resident for tax purposes” in the US, I need to report my earnings to both the US and Canada, and from our experience of the first few years we lived here, that would end with me owing Revenue Canada money (simply because Canadian income tax rates are higher than in the US). I have no idea if the income from freelancing would offset or exceed those extra taxes (I have my doubts), but it would definitely make our situation a lot more complicated. It’s worth looking into, for sure, but the next year or so should see some developments that will help… I hope.

  9. Thank you, Chatty. I read your post and was going to leave a comment, but since what I started to write is longer than a simple comment, I posted it here:

    It ended up being kind of personal for me, and everyone is welcome to read.

  10. Dixon Trimline says:

    Once again, I am impressed and amazed and intimidated (and inspired) by your honesty and transparency. What a series! There’s an awful lot of nodding on my part–the job jumping, the depression, the kangaroo boxing–but man, I’m not sure I’m smart enough to have walked this path.

    I read through and think, “He walked his way up through the system, taking management positions, redesigning the old way, and seeing opportunities everywhere.” Oh, and I shouldn’t forget finding gamers everywhere.

    You’ve carved your own way, overcoming colossal challenges and finding (for now) the place you’ve always wanted to be. Lead the charge, and let us follow.

  11. @Paul: Hey, a fellow microbe! It’s been very comforting to see so people like you come forward and tell me they went (are going) through the same things. Good luck on fighting your 24-months-itis!

    @Scott: Yeah yours is a more complex issue that I initially expected. I hope that whatever it is you are hinting at turns out as you want it! Best of luck!

    @Tourq: I read your poignant piece and even left a comment (that got eaten). I shall forever be exceedingly polite with parking attendants.

    @Dixon: Oh man, stop it! People will think I’m paying you for the praise! 🙂 Seriously thanks, I am mostly very pig headed and very set in my course when I want to achieve something… at least for a given 6 month period. 🙂

    Looking forward to write the next part!

  12. I really know how do you feel about staying in the same job after 6 months. Since I have a serious case of ADHD, I must struggle to keep interest in somethong more than 2 weeks. Happly, I can stay interested in D&D forever.

    About your post, I wish to thank you for it. I never asked myself why people don’t understand my emails, letters, and so on. I just love to read and to write too. When I finished my Bacharels degree in History, the professor in charge of reviwing my worg complained that my text was too long and complex for the scope he had in mind. He made me cut off 32 pages of my work, and that was a pain in my heart. But only now I considered that he was reviewing 6 or 7 other works, and that my text will be submited to other University Staff for review.

    In work, I tend to write long emails (300 ou more lines of it) to tell important things in detail. For my surprise, all response I have of them is: “lets schedule a meeting”, and I have to tell all of it again in plain speach. Now I will try to stay as short as possible (not too short, damn, I know).

    To finish this (it is starting to get too long), I am happy to see that the post is not just about gamming meterial. Sometimes, we need a change. And this change will be important not just to write game material, but to write real life material too.

  13. I found your comment in spam. Any future comments of yours should now go right through.

    Thanks again for your article. It made me take a good look at myself, and I enjoyed writing my own version. Thanks for reading it.


  14. Like I said in a past tweet, this post and the previous one really got me thinking.

    I have also job-hopped a lot, having had 8 jobs in my working career (11 years, in 4 different cities, across two countries). About the only thing that has stayed with me throughout my life is my love of gaming, in all its forms.

    At the moment I am a software developer in a company writing import control and excise software, but I also feel like I need to move onto something different, where my talents + creativity can actually contribute. I have tried various side projects, including online marketing and app development (I am the author of the top (well, only) dicerolling app for the PlayBook).

    I am not sure if I will ever move into becoming a full gaming freelancer, but I do know that I need to do some more writing in that direction, even if I get nothing out of it financially.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post, I might even expand some of my thoughts on my own blog.

  15. @ChattyDM I work as a journalist in a newspaper talking about art, exhibition, dance, music, movies and modern theater which gave me plenty of opportunities of meeting great interesting people, reading fascinating books and watching fascinating shows. And writing about all this is just awesome.


  1. […] Chatty just wrote an article, ending with the question, “What lessons from work and day jobs have given you good lessons for later career changes?” I was all set to answer as a comment on CH, but quickly realized I needed more room.  I normally don’t write long posts, but would appreciate it if you stayed until the end.  This ended up being kind of personal for me. […]

  2. […] of a continuing series on how I became a freelancer and game designer. You’ll find part 1, part 2 and part […]

  3. […] describes my becoming a writer and a freelancer. You can follow the series by clicking: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part […]