What nobody will talk about when they say “do what you love”

By Jamie Varon

By the time I graduated college, I was certain that I needed to do what I loved at any cost. To be unhappy in a job was akin to failure, and I believed with absolute conviction that I both deserved and could not be happy unless the work I did was something I was passionate about. This sentiment has been confirmed every time I open Instagram or Pinterest or Facebook or Medium—that there is no fulfillment unless you are making money in a job that you love. This is especially reinforced in the creative careers where money is a fraught topic. I scroll through Instagram and ask myself, “How does she afford her life doing the same type of work I do?” The holy grail of a creative career is to somehow find a way to monetize that which you would do as a hobby. Yet, the moment you monetize a hobby it shifts from a no-pressure activity you do with joy into a commodity that now needs to feed you both emotionally and financially.

The shadow side of doing what you love is that suddenly the thing you love now has to make money for you. And money plus love is not always a symbiotic relationship. For example, to turn a creative hobby into a capitalistic venture is to take away—at least in part—a purity of the experience of that hobby. There is a shift that happens when your passion no longer is a thing you do in your free time, but is a thing you do in order to allow yourself free time.

Frankly, I find the “do what you love at all costs” advice to be, at best, a set-up for disappointment and, at worst, an idea that could lead to emotional and financial ruin. I always wonder about the people who are trying to convince others to follow their passion—where does their money come from? Nobody seems to talk about money when it comes to passions, dreams, and the monetization of hobbies. It’s as if the reality of life and its mechanisms are deemed too dirty to discuss.

To pursue a passion until you’ve run yourself into a financial apocalypse is not smart. Then again, to pursue money until you’ve run yourself devoid of passion is equally not smart. That “do what you love” advice comes with a caveat, an asterisk. If what you love to do does not make money, then either the very necessary and real money you need to live on has to come from some other means (a job?) or the love of that passion will dwindle. I’ve experienced the fire of a passion burn out due to lack of money, and I don’t know what’s more soulless: that experience or one where I worked simply for the paycheck.

To pursue money without thought of how it’s earned or what is needed in order to earn it is not fulfilling. Yet, to pursue a love or passion without regard to the financial stakes or consequences is also—equally and in its own specific way—not fulfilling either.

I used to believe in positive thinking to the detriment of my emotional well-being. I repressed feelings or experiences that were not positive. I ignored very real concerns about money and emotional and physical health. I was afraid of negativity, which to me, was not just negative, sour thoughts, but was thinking in terms of what was realistic or practical or thought-through. I was impulsive instead of consistent. I said “yes” based on my current feelings entirely, without regard to the consequences of my decisions—and when those consequences wanted their pay, I ignored those, too, shuffling them around enough that I was able to stave off my reckoning. I pride myself on being intuitive, but this was too much—and when in the course of over three years I made decisions that took way too much of me to untangle and undo, I decided that I needed to marry the practical, stable side of me with the dreaming, spontaneous side of me. There’s a difference between being rash out of fear versus being impulsive out of growth.

Over those three-plus years, I felt the anxiety of having not built a foundation of practical, thoughtful systems. Yes, I want the creative career, but I also can’t create to my fullest potential if I’m worried about making rent every month. Yes, I want to write books one day, but if I’m writing in part to secure an advance, then that will color the way I’m working on a proposal. The money needs to come from somewhere and I’d rather work with that fact than be against it—all in the name of following my passion. Plus, passion is a state of being, not a one-off hobby. I decided I wanted passion to infuse even the simplest facets of my life, including learning how to cook, exercising, meditating. I had spent so much time trying to find all my fulfillment, joy, and financial freedom from one hobby-turned-passion—and it put too much pressure on that one thing to be everything to me.

In this modern age, most creative work is expected for free. You expect to listen to a podcast without paying for it. Sure, you have to sit through an advertisement, but that’s nothing. You expect every kind of writing for free. Books for free. Music for free. Creative labor, which at its peak didn’t pay very well, is now both expected for free and overly saturated due to the internet. More so than ever, it’s important to stay practical and vigilant about where you’re devoting your time.

You can’t pay rent with Facebook likes or Instagram followers and, while that may seem an obvious thing to point out, it gets lost when attention for your creative labor is so readily available. Attention will also not pay your rent. Nor will social approval. Do what you love, by all means, but be thoughtful about where the money comes from. It’s not a failure to take a job that affords you the freedom to create.

It’s not a failure to think about industries in realistic and practical ideas—you can still be inventive and innovative while understanding the reality of what you’re facing.

Do what you love, by all means. Keep getting better at it. But perhaps don’t put the chaotic pressure on it to make you money. A balance of both practicality and passion is what creates a rewarding career, as well as eliminates the stress and anxiety of financial concerns. But, admittedly, that’s not the kind of advice that reads well on a coffee mug.

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