You Don't Have to (and Probably Shouldn't) Make Your Passion Your Profession

There's a lot of value in keeping your money separate from your art.

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Allow me to type the most hypocritical statement of my life:

Telling folks to make their passion their career is terrible advice, especially for those who are talented enough to actually make a living from their passion.

And yes, I am saying this as a dude who 1) enjoys writing and 2) happens to make a living from, you guessed it, writing.

Stay with me while I explain.

While most of what I do is “write,” or at least activities adjacent to writing, it’s certainly not all passion projects.

I edit Exec Sum, a role that you could consider to be my “day job.” Every two weeks I get paid for the sometimes tedious work of preparing a daily financial newsletter that covers everything from VC deal flow, to mergers and acquisitions, to major earnings summaries. Editing a newsletter isn’t glamorous, and it can be pretty boring at times. But I’m paid well for my work.

Each quarter, I teach a live, cohort-based course on growing and monetizing one’s newsletter. Teaching a course, especially a live course, is tough. I want to deliver a valuable product to anyone who pays for the course, which means I need to stay up-to-date on best practices and be willing and able to answer all sorts of questions about the newsletter space. Beyond that, I have to market the course, handle countless administrative duties, and maintain timely communication with dozens of prospective students in the weeks leading up to the launch. Teaching a course isn’t easy, and it can be stressful at times. But I’m paid well for my work.

Even with Young Money, it’s not like money magically appears in my bank account every time I hit publish. I monetize this blog through ads. Anyone who has worked in ad sales knows that more often than not, the process sucks. You have to reach out to and negotiate with sponsors, help craft ad copy, and send performance summaries at the conclusion of campaigns. Sometimes sponsors flake at the last minute or pay invoices late. Sometimes you fail to agree on a price or number of placements. Sometimes you fall behind on ad sales and have to hustle to fill the next few weeks’ slots. Selling ads isn’t fun, but I’m paid well for my work.

On the opposite side of the equation, my travel blog, Backpackin’, is a pure passion project. Over the last two years, I have written 200,000+ words across 55 blog posts detailing what I’ve been up to while traveling abroad, and I haven’t made a dime from any of it.

Here’s the thing: travel blogging can be a lucrative business. Affiliate deals with hotels, hostels, and travel agencies pay quite well. You can create paid communities for digital nomads. You can sell travel guides for different parts of the world. And I know that I’m leaving some money on the table by not monetizing my travel blog.

But I don’t want my travel blog to be a business. I don’t want to optimize it for web traffic or affiliate conversion or anything else. I want to write about drinking sake at a Kyoto sumo wrestling tournament with my friends, so we can laugh about it five years from now.

While I sell ads on Young Money, I’m fortunate to have the freedom to write about whatever the hell I want, from existential musings about the role that entropy plays in our lives to my thoughts on the hierarchy of “wealth.”

Out of the ~240 articles on Young Money and Backpackin’, I have never published something that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to publish. I’ve never had an editor mellow out the tone of a piece, I’ve never had a sponsor influence the content of an article, and I’ve never once optimized for “clicks” or “monetization” when thinking of a topic for an article.

The reason that I’ve had so much creative freedom in my writing is that my career, or at least the means by which I earn a living, is unrelated to my writing process itself.

I hate the oft-mentioned idea that you should “pursue your passion” to make a living because it just isn’t realistic advice, especially early in one’s career. More often than not, instead of increasing one’s probability of career satisfaction, pursuing “passion as a career” actually forces you to compromise that passion for the sake of money.

Success, especially as a creative, comes down to some combination of talent, luck, and time. Yes, you have to possess (or develop) a certain base skill level to make a living through a creative pursuit. But unlike working in finance, there aren’t healthy entry-level salaries for independent artists, and you may not make a dime from your work for years, if ever.

And that’s why an income stream unrelated to your passion is so valuable, it allows time and luck to work in your favor.

The longer that you can practice, improve, and experiment with your craft without needing it to generate a financial return, the better your product will be, and the more opportunities you’ll have to showcase your work.

On the contrary, if you need an immediate financial return from your art, you will be more inclined to jeopardize your style and/or freedom in order to monetize earlier.

There isn’t some prerequisite stating that you can’t hone your craft while working a regular job. J.K. Rowling, arguably the most successful author ever, started writing Harry Potter while working as a teacher in Portugal. Ernest Hemingway was a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star Weekly when his first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was published.

You don’t have to (and you probably shouldn’t) go all-in on your art from day one, and there aren’t any bonus points for artists who struggle early in their careers. Keep your art and your career separated for a while. Your creativity and your checking account will thank you.

- Jack

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